Monday, October 25, 2010

"Want" Is Such a Tricky Word

Two magnets rush toward each other only to hit a wall that lies between; they remain pressing against the wall.  Romeo and Juliet rush toward each other only to meet a wall that lies between; they soon look for a way around the wall.  The latter pair have demonstrated the presence of minds, entities capable of holding an end in view while seeking indirect ways of reaching that end.  That vivid illustration comes up early in chapter 1 of William James's masterpiece, The Principles of Psychology, and typifies his knack for accessible analogies and examples. 

As it happens, William James and his talent for writing came up in something else I was reading the other day.  This other author in fact pointed out how much better a writer William was than his more famous brother Henry.  I couldn't agree more; while I revisit Henry only every decade or so, I enjoy a yearly meeting with William.  (My very first post, Suspense in the Hands of Henry James, says a little about obscurity in the more famous James's writing.)

Mortimer Adler, the driving force behind the Britannica Great Books set, pointed out once that the foundational books by the greatest minds tend to be accessible since they were generally addressed, by necessity, to laymen.  Lavoisier's book on chemistry comes readily to mind as an example.  The man who discovered hydrogen couldn't share his accomplishment with other experts in chemistry; there were no other experts.  His discovery changed the understanding of the elements and made every expert alchemist a novice in a totally new field.  While James's contributions weren't so revolutionary as Lavoisier's, his work speaks to the same audience: generally but not specially knowledgeable people willing to do a little work to educate themselves by means of a book.

So in chapter 26, "Will," James, making himself clear to the layman, locates human will in the familiar problem of the cold morning.  We want to get up, and we don't want to get up.  We think about getting out of bed, but our legs don't move.  Normally we think about what we want, and we do what's necessary, without any apparent effort of will.  I want food, for instance, and a fork with a piece of meat ends up in my mouth.  But waking up in bed on a cold morning presents a more complex situation--a situation with two conflicting ends in view: stay in bed and be warm, or be cold and start the day.  We have a myriad guiding principles, James tells us, some from instinct and some from acquired habit.  Some of these principles impel us toward goals (hunger, understanding the benefits of going to work, duty, etc.), and some inhibit us (ethical boundaries, knowledge of the pain touching the stove will cause, etc).  Several times a day two or more of these many principles come into conflict, and then we have to recognize, wrestle with, balance, set aside, or otherwise deal with the conflicts.  People with diseases of the will, he explains, have either impulsive desires that are unusually strong or inhibitors that are too weak and don't ever come to terms with conflict of the will.

I get excited when I read an explanation like this one of the will as a complex thing.  People sometimes ask me what I want, as if the question is simple, but I often answer, " 'Want' is such a tricky word."   At one level, I want several things.  But which option represents the lesser of two evils, or which is the greater of two goods?  The Christian has to recognize the complexity of the will.  We are told that a war is going on in our minds, that our will is being conformed to God's, that we do what we do not want, that we must control our desires and passions, and so on.  And this complexity seems obvious to me.  But apparently it's not obvious to everyone.  Plato, who was, shall we say, smarter than I, said that we always want the good, and that if we only know the right action, we will do it.  (So much of current educational theory is Platonic: just tell kids about the dangers of drugs, and they won't use them!)  He says it over and over, but I just can't see how it can be right.

One night in the '90s, I turned on a show I had never seen before: The Wonder Years.  About five minutes in, a junior-high English teacher (looking curiously a lot like my seventh-grade English teacher) asks young Kevin Arnold if he would like to be in the play.  While young Kevin twitches nervously and looks around the room, his adult self, twenty years older and remembering the story, tells the audience all the reasons he had for not being in the play.  Yet after this explanation, young Kevin looks at his teacher and says, "Sure."  I was so excited!  The show became one of my very favorites, partly because it shows an understanding of the will as a complex proposition.  The writers of The Wonder Years were smarter than Plato!

So William James also sees the complexity of the will, and again I'm excited.  After a slow start with this chapter last week (see the previous post), it has come alive to me.  I'm eager to read more tomorrow about diseases of the will.  When is the last time you talked with someone who could take that phrase seriously?  And yet we must if we understand that knowing the good doesn't mean that our will points directly to it without any competing desires or inhibitions.

I want to write more, and I want to return to my family, and I want to get ready for bed.  Which will I do?

No comments:

Post a Comment