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Thanks for the Memories

Trevor Emmott explains why ‘acts of will’ may exist after all.

At home on a warm afternoon, you suddenly feel thirsty. So you rise from your chair, walk to the kitchen and prepare a drink.

How does that series of physical actions get started? Do you will it to begin? In other words, is the physical activity preceded and somehow brought about by an act of will?

That was certainly the traditional view. John Locke, for example, writing in 1690, claimed that we begin movements of our bodies by thoughts which ‘order’ the doing of the physical action.

Modern philosophers, though, have tended to be sceptical about acts of will, or ‘volitions’, as Locke called them. The most celebrated attack is by Gilbert Ryle, in The Concept of Mind (1949).

Ryle targets two assumptions which seem basic to the traditional theory:

(1) Every action arises from an earlier volition.

(2) The volition is itself an action.

Separately, they look innocent. Together, Ryle argues, they have a ridiculous consequence. First, they lead to the conclusion that:

The volition arises from a second, earlier volition.

But, from assumption (2), it follows that:

This second volition is also an action.

And this, with assumption (1), means that:

The second volition arises from a third volition.

The same argument can be repeated indefinitely. It generates an infinite chain of volitions, with the absurd result that physical actions could never begin at all.

The traditionalist might try to reply as follows: “ When I say that all actions depend upon volitions, I am not, of course, talking about volitions themselves. Volitions are the sole exception to the normal rule, the one kind of action which does not need an earlier volition.”

That defence, however, permits a new line of attack. The traditionalist has now conceded that it makes perfect sense to talk of an action (i.e. the volition) occurring without a prior volition. But why not just say instead that ordinary physical actions occur without volitions? A sound rule in philosophy is to keep your theories simple. Why not accept, then, that when you feel thirsty, you just go and make yourself a drink? There seems no need for this extra action of willing, which you supposedly undertake after feeling the thirst and before performing the physical action of getting a drink.

Such a view may be plausible enough in the case of straightforward actions. Life, however, is not always that simple. Desired actions are often frustrated, for example by fear. Yet sometimes, somehow, we manage to resolve that conflict of emotions and perform the desired action after all.

Those are surely the circumstances in which ordinary people talk about the will. It is when someone succeeds in acting dutifully or wisely, despite strong contrary pressures, that reference is made to ‘will-power’, ‘strength of will’ and perhaps even ‘acts of will’. If anything like an act of will ever occurs, the most obvious place to seek the evidence is in such cases of conflict.

Consider this example. A poorly-paid clerk has decided to ask for a pay increase. But he is terrified of his miserly and illtempered manager. Twice that morning the clerk has crept to the manager’s office door. On both occasions, his nerve has failed and he has found it impossible to enter.

The clerk is desperate to overcome his diffidence. His first inclination is to talk to a friend in the hope of boosting his confidence. But no-one is available at that moment. So he does the next best thing. He uses his memory.

He recalls an impressive colleague from years ago. One particular incident comes immediately to mind, when he witnessed the colleague successfully tackling a formidable manager over some grievance. This recollection profoundly affects the clerk, in several ways.

The colleague’s confrontation had occurred when employers were more ruthless and jobs less secure. His manager had been even tougher than the clerk’s. Remembering this helps the clerk to put his present situation into perspective. He now sees that his own task is less daunting than comparable challenges which others have successfully faced.

Recalling also the clever blend of tact and persuasiveness used by the colleague, the clerk forms a much clearer idea of how to approach his own manager. Moreover, any accomplished performance tends to inspire and encourage imitation and that is what happens here. The task which the clerk formerly perceived as an ordeal he now sees as a challenge, an opportunity to practise valuable negotiating skills.

In addition, the clerk knows that his weakness would have disappointed and angered his colleague. Irrational though it may be, we are certainly moved by the imagined feelings of past acquaintances (even those no longer living). In this way, the clerk’s sense of shame is heightened and his determination to act is strengthened.

As a result of recalling his colleague, the clerk’s state of mind is transformed. Only moments earlier he had been completely unable to carry out the desired action. Now he finds himself striding to the manager’s office, throwing open the door, and arguing vigorously for his pay rise.

The dramatic change came about through what I propose to call a ‘motivating memory’. Just as we can turn for support to other people, especially family and friends, so we can draw strength from mere memories of individuals important to us.

It is not a matter of searching the memory for extra reasons for an action. The clerk was not short of reasons for seeking higher pay - he both needed the money and felt he deserved it. His mind was firmly and finally made up. All he lacked was courage. He eventually overcame his fear, not by reasoning, but by arousing memories which tipped the balance of emotions in favour of the desired action.

The technique is not guaranteed to work perfectly every time. It is unrealistic to suppose that we can always make ourselves do what we really want. Sometimes fear does get the better of us. But often enough the memory unleashes overwhelming positive emotions, which seconds earlier were not even in the offing. Those emotions can outweigh the inhibitions and clear the way for action. It is this dynamism of the memory which lies at the heart of the strategy.

Of course, no matter how strong this dynamic quality, it is of no use unless the memory is readily available on demand. The memory only works once it is retrieved. If it is difficult to gain access to such a memory, its purpose is defeated.

Memory is notoriously unreliable, as all examination candidates know well. However, motivating memories by their very nature are largely immune to mechanical failures. They concern people, close relations and friends, whose strong emotional impact ensures that they come to mind immediately. We are unlikely to find ourselves thinking “ I am sure I knew someone who greatly inspired me, but I just can’t remember who it was.”

Perhaps the more serious risk is that, having briefly turned the mind towards a person, we might find it painful or embarrassing to dwell further on our dealings with them. It might prove difficult to explore the memory in the depth necessary for its full dynamic effect to be released.

Could the desire to use a motivating memory conflict with other emotions? If so, we would start looking for a way of resolving that second level of conflict, so that the memory could be aroused to resolve the original conflict. That looks uncomfortably like the beginning of the kind of absurd infinite series highlighted by Ryle.

Certainly, a memory may bring with it unpleasant emotions. The clerk experienced shame when he thought of his former colleague. However, the prospect of that discomfort did not conflict with the desire to arouse the memory. On the contrary, it reinforced the desire. The motivating power of the memory arises from a range of associations, both pleasant and painful. One reason for recalling the colleague was to achieve a more acute degree of shame. It was all part of the strategy to counteract the fear.

Desires to arouse these special memories, are, of all desires, surely the least likely to encounter conflict. The memories are instantly accessible.

This combination of dynamism and accessibility enables motivating memories to act as mental ‘levers’. In the physical sense, a lever is a tool which enables us, with negligible effort, to overturn massive objects which we could never have shifted unaided. Similarly, the almost effortless arousal of a memory may enable us to overcome formidable obstacles to desired actions.

Motivating memories may not often be needed. Getting a drink will not require one; demanding more pay may well do so. In that respect, a motivating memory is not exactly like the traditional act of will. The latter was assumed to be involved in all actions, trivial or significant. But only on important occasions will the memory have to be used.

When, however, it is brought into play, the motivating memory can be seen to possess the most essential features of the act of will as traditionally conceived. It is a mental action performed solely to initiate a desired physical action; and because of that mental action the physical action occurs.

Motivating memories are highly relevant to philosophical discussions of the will. From a practical point of view, they are equally important. Their significance lies in this simple fact. They enhance our freedom to act in accordance with our deepest desires.

© Trevor Emmott 1997

John Locke An Essay Concerning Human Understanding 1690; 5th edition 1706 (Book II, Chapter 21)
Gilbert Ryle The Concept of Mind London 1949 (Chapter III)

Trevor Emmott philosophizes during his daily train journey to London, where his work in finance comes as light relief


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