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Chapter III: The Object of Interest

Since, according to the present definition, value is the character which a thing acquires by being an object of interest, it is necessary to decide precisely what is to be meant by a thing's being an object of interest. It is cognition that gives the interest its object, and the character of the object of interest is essentially the same as that of the object of cognition. Hence it is necessary to examine the role of cognition in interest, and then to examine cognition itself so far as may be necessary to discover the character of its object.

Much of what goes by the name of ‘theory of value’ is devoted to a discussion of “judgments of value.” The discussion abounds in confusion and ambiguity. The unfortunate verb ‘to value’ serves only to obscure the difference between judgment and interest. Further confusion arises from the different uses of the word ‘subject.’ A judgment of value, in the sense of a judgment which attributes value to an entity, embraces three elements, all of which are sometimes called the “subject.” There is the person who makes the judgment — the judge, or the judging subject. There is the interested subject who imparts or gives the value. And there is the grammatical or logical subject to which the value is attributed. Thus if I judge that bread is good to or for a starving man, I am the judging subject, the starving man is the interested subject, and the bread is the logical subject. The judging subject and the interested subject are different persons, while the logical subject is not a person at all.

It is important to recognize that the judging subject may not be interested at all, except cognitively. Otherwise he may be as indifferent in his judgment of value as in his judgment concerning pi, or the craters on the moon; caring only that his judgment shall be true. When one judges that bread is good for the starving millions in India, one does not need to judge hungrily or even sympathetically; statisticians can so judge without indignation or regret. Once the character ‘valuable’ is defined, then a judgment of value is a judgment in which this character is itself further characterized, as in judgments of kinds and degrees of value; or is attributed to any logical subject, whether an act, or a person, whether oneself or another, whether a physical thing or a social institution. In short, judgments of value are formally like any other judgments. Their difference lies in what they are judgments about, or in what they judge about it. Like judgments of color or number, judgments of value are distinguished by their matter.

Unhappily, however, there is an expression ‘value judgment’ which confuses judgments of value in this plain sense with judgments which are internal to interest itself, and which condition value. Thus to rejoice in the victory of the Allies in 1945 it was necessary to judge that the Allies were victorious. The rejoicing was founded on this judgment, but it was not itself a judgment of or about value, since it simply ascribed victory to the Allies, and did not ascribe value to anything or anything to value. If such conditioning judgment is to be called a ‘value judgment’ to because it plays a necessary role in value, then one must be perpetually on one's guard to avoid confusion. It is safer to find another name, and to refer to judgments which condition value as ‘mediating judgments.’

Judgments of value, in the sense of judgments about value, may serve also as mediating judgments; as when the sending of wheat abroad is favored on the ground that it is desired by hungry Indians, or the export of Hollywood films is condemned because they are aesthetically repugnant. Most mediating judgments are judgments of cause and effect, as when I desire a drug, deeming it a cure for insomnia. But there are as many varieties of mediating judgments as there are characteristics which when ascribed to an object qualify it for favor or disfavor. The mediating judgment will be any judgment whatsoever which represents the object to the interest; as when a man's love of his mother is mediated by the judgment that ‘this is my mother.’ The judgment is internal to his interest, since he would not love his mother unless he judged somebody to be his mother.

It would be a serious mistake, however, to restrict the role of mediation to judgment. This role may be assumed, and usually is assumed, by the less formal varieties of cognition. It is sufficient that the man who loves his mother shall recognize, perceive, or take, her as his mother. The essential thing is that the mediation in all these varieties shall possess the character of cognition, namely expectation, and, by implication, the alternatives of truth and error. The simplest kind of taking may always be a mistaking.


Mediating cognition provides interest with an object. What, then, is meant by this word ‘object’? Common usage, unhappily followed by many philosophers and psychologists, fails to distinguish between the more general ‘entity’ and the less general ‘object.’ But the word ‘object’ is the Latin objectus, which is derived from the passive participle of the verb objicio; and while this word was sometimes used by Latin authors inter-changeably with res, its distinctive meaning was something cast, thrown, placed, or lying, before. It conveyed the idea of opposite, or over-against; and clearly implied the other term of a relationship.1

This correlative term is ordinarily taken as an act of mind, of which the object is denoted by the passive participle. So construed in terms of object to or for a mental subject, ‘object’ becomes a general concept under which to subsume the more specific meanings of the passive participles of verbs such as ‘to sense,’ ‘to perceive,’ ‘to think,’ ‘to judge,’ ‘to believe’; that is, it embraces ‘sensed,’ ‘perceived,’ ‘thought,’ ‘judged,’ ‘believed.’ The grammatically passive meaning of these concepts is obscured through the use of abstract nouns such as ‘sensation,’ ‘perception,’ ‘thought,’ ‘judgment,’ ‘belief,’ which may denote either the acts of sensing, perceiving, hoping, thinking, judging, the passive correlative of these acts, or the total transaction.

Assuming ‘object’ to refer to the passive correlates of cognitive acts, we may appropriately look to psychology for further light on the topic. Unfortunately the light is dim, owing, no doubt, to the psychologist's hesitation to enter the alien field of “epistemology.” The psychology of the matter2 suggests that cognition is not a specific state of mind on which introspection, however delicate its touch, can place its finger. It is a going-on, a pursuit, which is complex, fugitive, and often totally blank on its introspective face; and which reveals its nature only when other dimensions are included, and the total process is seen as having a determinate direction amidst variable detail. Nor can cognition be identified with any cross section or region of the physical organism, or with a physical stimulus, or with a causal relation between the two. The inadequacy of these methods of approach lies in their failure to provide for precisely what is here in question, namely, the object.

There was, it is true, a school of psychologists with whom this topic was the primary concern. According to Brentano and his followers, cognition is an “act” which refers to an “object” which is said to be “intentionally inexistent,” or “immanent.” Thus there can be no perceiving that is not a perceiving something; to speak of the perceiving without the “something” is an incomplete statement.

But the object of cognition is not necessarily inexistent, nor does the intention of the act forbid its existence; the act itself does not imply either its existence or its inexistence. As part of the act (the immanent object-of-the-act) it is existentially indeterminate. Furthermore it must not be supposed that the psychologist can learn this by simply looking into the act. It is not contained in the act as a private state or content. What is intended is not a simple datum, to the intender or to anyone else. It is not an accident that answers to such questions as, “To what do you refer?” or “What are you thinking about?” take time and pains, and frequently fail. The object is identified by the convergence of a complex of events (word, gestures, consistency of behavior). The immanent object is not revealed, displayed, or exhibited unless such performance is elaborated; and the performance by which it is revealed is essentially the same as that by which it is constituted.

The psychology of the laboratory, even when it abandons the static approach of introspection and construes cognition in terms of intelligent behavior, it is tempted to confuse the object with the stimulus. It is easy to understand why this should be. The experimenter hopes to conduct “controlled” experiments, after the manner of the reputable sciences. He confronts his subject (animal or human) with situations which he can precisely determine as regards their physical and chemical characteristics. He can create light, heat, sound, shapes, and colors in accurately measurable amounts, and to these he can expose his subject so that they impinge on his sense organs; whereupon he can observe the subject's bodily changes.

But there is something that he cannot control by such comparatively simple methods. This relatively uncontrollable factor is the most important factor of all, so far as it concerns human life; and, indeed, animal life as well, except on the lowest levels where it shades imperceptibly into the life of the plant. This factor is the stimulus as it is to the subject or what the stimulus means.

Even sensation is a meaningful act and not a passive effect. That sensation implies reception of light or sound waves, or of chemical changes, or of pressures, is not to be questioned; but sensation is reaction, and begins with the second phase in which the action reverses its direction, and proceeds outward. That toward which it proceeds is the sensory object. “Pure” sensation would be the case in which the reaction returns to its source, and the stimulus and the object differ only in time, as when contact stimulates a sense of hardness. Pure sensation, even in this qualified sense, rarely, if ever, occurs. Impure sensation rises to perception, in which the “from” and the “toward” differ to an unlimited extent.

All studies of perception recognize the fact that the stimulus is a small and even accidental factor in the perceptual object. Thus when one perceives a ball, the ball is constituted in part by its flat shape seen against a background, but also, in larger part, by its solidity, its hardness, its weight, its path of impending motion, and other visual and non-visual characters which are not sensed. One is then said to “see” the ball only because it is customary to name the perception by its sensory component. Indeed, the stimulus may serve only to touch off the reaction, and then disappear from the object; and it may finally become unnecessary altogether. Perception is then superseded by thought, which is now action, but no longer reaction: having an object, but no stimulus.3

That the stimulus and the object are not identical is now explicitly recognized even by experimental psychologists who, for reasons of method, would find it convenient if they were identical. The following statement is instructive:

While the nature of a reaction is determined by the drive, the reaction is elicited by an object. A complete definition of reaction tendency requires a statement of exactly what is meant by an object. The object is not the physical stimulus, but what the stimulus means.4

The difference between the stimulus, and the object or the meaning of the stimulus, is implicitly recognized in both parties to the controversy over animal intelligence. If it be claimed, according to the more orthodox view, that animal intelligence is reducible to learning by trial and error, conditioning, associative memory, or the “law of effect,” then each successive stimulus is assumed to be invested with a meaning derived from the experience of the past. If, on the other hand, it is contended, as by the Gestalt psychologists, that the animal can solve problems “all at once” by “insight,” then it is assumed that each stimulus is invested with a meaning derived from its relations within a survey of the total situation.5


Psychology thus supports the contention that the object of cognition is what it means, that is, what is expected of it; or, to eliminate the “it,” a system of expectations, where ‘expectation’ is to be construed as the expected, the what is expected.

When the object of cognition is conceived in terms of the expected, the analysis of expectancy becomes the key to its understanding. Here the psychologists have again been handicapped by their self-imposed limitations of method even when the role of expectancy has been properly emphasized.6 Expectancy cannot be described by any set of concepts which omits its future reference. Expectancy looks forward, and does not disclose itself except through a train of subsequent events. The description of expectancy in static introspective terms, or in static physiological terms, violates the temporality of what is essentially temporal. It attempts to confine the process to the moment — to a momentary inner state, or to a momentary arrangement of nerves and muscles. It substitutes the beginning for the end, the first step for the course; as though one were to describe a journey not in terms of its destination but in terms of its point of departure.

It is also to be noted that expectancy is not a mere movement, or set of movements. It is movement selected and organized with reference to a destination. It is going somewhere, and to discover where it is going it is necessary to let it go long enough to mark its path and define its destination. To discover the object of expectation one must follow and project its pointing. To construe what is expected in terms of a present state or act of expecting is as though one were to look for New York City in the timetable, or Chatham Center in the signpost.

But it is to be noted that in all its phases the cognition has its object. It has it here and now if the cognition exists here and now. That to which the signpost points is a part of the present pointing of the signpost. Every directed operation has its ad quem from its incipient beginnings. Similarly, what is perceived, thought, intended, meant, or otherwise expected, qualifies the expecting whenever this occurs; even though what is expected has not yet occurred. There is no escaping this fact; the seeming paradox can be escaped only by distinguishing between the object which is “internal” to the act of cognition, and its “external” referent.

The difference between the mind's object and its external referent lies in the role which they play in truth and error. It is characteristic of expecting that things may or may not “turn out as expected.” The expecting may be confirmed or it may be “taken by surprise.” That which turns out, and confirms or surprises, is different from that which is expected in that the latter necessarily possesses precisely this ambiguity or dual possibility. While this is essential to the expected object, it is only accidental to the confirming or surprising event. The clap of thunder which confirms or surprises the expected clap of thunder, need not do either, since its occurrence does not depend on its being expected.

Here is the crux of the matter, ordinarily stated as the fact that cognition may be either true or erroneous. It is always questionable. Thus peace believed or judged must be so defined as to admit of both possibilities. It must have a kind of being that is independent of either alternative but provides for both. It is that which can be true or can be erroneous; its possibility of error is the price which has to be paid for its possibility of truth. The object of cognition, so characterized, may properly designated as the problematic object.

It remains only to be said that this problematic character attaches to all to all cognitive objects — to cognition all along the line from sense perception to meaning and the most articulate forms of thought. It is the defining characteristic of cognition, which marks the place in the ascending complexity of life and mind where cognition begins.


The problematic character of the object of cognition is reflected in the problematic character of the interest which it mediates.

The term ‘interest,’ in the sense in which the term is here used, is awkward because it has no verb form having a passive participle. The object of interest is that in which interest is taken. ‘Object of interest’ in other words, is a general name for the passive participles ‘liked,’ ‘desired,’ ‘enjoyed,’‘sought,’ ‘willed,’ ‘avoided,’ ‘hoped,’ ‘feared,’ etc., throughout the whole gamut of mental acts embraced within the general concept of interest. It may be objected that there are interests which have no objects; such as the diffused states of joy or misery. But these states are more correctly described as having a multiplicity rather than an absence of objects. Joy is a condition of enjoying everything; misery is a condition of finding everything distressing.

The object of interest is furnished to that subject by cognition. The object of interest, whether presented or represented, is something expected; and possesses the questionable or problematic character of the expected. It may be confirmed or surprised. But interest, while it embraces expectation, is something more than expectation: it is for or against the expected. The object of interest is the moving or prepotent expectation; the inciting prospect; the expectation which attracts or repels. The object of interest both preserves and supplements the problematic character of the object of expectation. As expecting may be surprised or confirmed, so interest may be disappointed or fulfilled. This ambiguous destiny, this exposure to vicissitude, is common to both. In both cases the outcome hangs in the balance, and the object must be so defined as to leave both alternatives open. As an hypothesis has a determinate being of its own whether it is verified or disproved, so an interest may never reach the crucial point of success or failure; and yet it is indescribable without introducing its object of endeavor — its ambiguous prospect.

In cognition and interest there is the same risk; in both cases the reach exceeds the grasp. And in both cases there are degrees of risk. In the case of cognition, intuition incurs the least risk; in the case of interest the least risk is incurred by enjoyment. As in sensory intuition the expectancy is so promptly verified as to leave little room for disproof, so in sensory enjoyment there is little room for failure or disappointment. But even so, the enjoyment may be interrupted: the end of the world may catch it suspended in mid-air about to take its next step. At the other end of the scale lies the interest in a remote object requiring a long chain of causal relations and mediated by a system of interdependent judgments each of which is vulnerable to error. But whether the prospect be short and narrow or long and wide, whether the confirmation or fulfillment comes promptly or tardily or not at all, there is still some degree of futurity and fallibility.

The close interweaving of interest and cognition must not be allowed to obliterate their difference. To expect something and be prepared to cope with it is one thing; to view it with favor or disfavor is another thing. An expected event may be hoped for, or dreaded, or viewed with indifference. Surprise may be attended with rejoicing, or with dismay, or with neither. Whatever the bias or absence of bias with which expectation is attended, the expectation remains the same, as to its truth and erroneousness. The same rumor of impending events may hearten or dishearten those who hear it; some may seek to hasten, others to prevent, the occurrence of the rumored events; still others, impelled by mere curiosity, may await them without taking sides. Whether the rumor is true or erroneous has nothing to do with these divergent attitudes, but only with the expectation's confirmation. Expectancy purged of all motor-affective attitudes save the cognitive interest itself is the last refinement of “pure” cognition.

There are two contemporary views to which the present view is opposed: the view which would identify the object of interest with its satisfaction or fulfillment, and the view which would identify the object of interest with the conditions by which it is satisfied or fulfilled. These views agree in placing the object at the terminal, rather than the initial, phase of the activity. Neither, however, is tenable.

The first is untenable because it cannot be stated without a circularity or endless regress. Hunger is an interest in food, and not an interest in the appeasing of hunger; love of peace is an interest in peace, and not an interest in the satisfaction of the love. Fulfillment in each case implies a prior object of interest without which the fulfillment itself cannot be explained. If the interest is in its own fulfillment, then it would be necessary to introduce an interest in the fulfillment of the interest in fulfillment and so ad infinitum.

The most plausible form of the second view is that which identifies the object of interest with “quiescence” or “achievement.”7 The drive of hunger, for example, is initiated by a lack of food: the “quiescence” is then the supplying of food in which the drive comes to rest. The deficiency causes uneasiness and random movements until it is removed; its removal then causes the cessation of the uneasiness and random movements. But so construed the “until” of quiescence is not prospective, but a fait accompli; it designates cause and effect, and not object of endeavor. There is no excuse for applying such terms as ‘goal’ or ‘purpose’ except to states of disquiet. The same argument applies to ‘achievement.’ Taken as the condition of things in which the achieving is complete, it is like any other state of affairs. A house, once built, has weight, shape, magnitude, and divers physico-chemical properties; but it is the object of the constructive interest, and derives value therefrom, only so long as it is as yet a project unachieved.

The object of interest belongs neither at the beginning of the activity, as when it is identified with a stimulus or state of deficiency, nor at the end, when it is identified with the quiescence or achievement. It is neither, and it is both. It is essential to the object of interest that it should pervade the entire activity from its incipient to its culminating phase. Its advent marks the beginning and its disappearance marks the end of the interest, and hence of value. The only way of meeting this requirement is to conceive the object as the ideal or problematic object which like a law is immanent in the process and determines its movement and its direction.


Every interest involves a specific form of consummatory activity, or class of activities. Thus hunger disposes to the eating of food, thirst to the drinking of water, aesthetic interest to the contemplation of the landscape, curiosity to discovery of the answer. This specific mode of activity, which is an inferent part of every interest, requires a name, and will hereinafter be referred to as the ‘dealing.’ A more familiar synonym of ‘dealing’ is ‘using’ (‘utilizing,’ ‘making use of’). At the same time it is necessary to give a name to that on which the dealing impinges, or which the dealing engages, and the object, when it plays this role, may be called the ‘occasion.’ All interested activity, in other words, comprises a dealing which requires a correlative occasion; and an occasion which conditions a correlative dealing. The economic equivalent of the distinction is that between the consuming and the commodity to be consumed.

The distinction between occasion and dealing provides for the fact that qualitatively different interests may be taken in the same object. Thus food, for example, is ordinarily desired to eat. But it may be desired for any one of a number of other uses — to paint, to look at, to hoard, or to sell. Or, an object may be desired for all of its uses. Thus, home-loving involves a consolidation of the many home-occasioned dealings — any dealing of which home is the correlative occasion. Similarly, the love of peace comprises all the diverse dealings whose common occasion is the absence of violence. In weariness any occasion which requires effort is repugnant. The pugilistically inclined, who is “spoiling for a fight,” will create enemies in order to combat them — anybody will do, provided he will put up his fists.

The distinction between dealing and occasion makes it possible to classify values in terms of the one or the other. Thus there are the domestic or local values distinguished by the proximity of their occasions; and the values of nature distinguished by the physical externality of their occasion. On the other hand the aesthetic and intellectual values are distinguished by their different modes of dealing with the same occasions whether local or distant, physical or mental.

Interest being so conceived as a commerce or transaction, involving both a mode of dealing and an appropriate occasion, one may describe the shifting of the focus from the one to the other. A mountain climber, let us say, is interested in a specific mountain-to-be-ascended. But he becomes progressively interested in climbing “for its own sake.” He will spend his holidays seeking out mountains, any mountains which provide an occasion for the climber's mode of dealing. The focus of the climber's interest may oscillate between the mountain and the climbing, or the two may be commingled. There is a similar oscillation between the desire to defeat a specific enemy, and the general liking to win victories — “more worlds to conquer”; or between the desire to solve a problem and the zest for investigation — “the more problems the better.”

The difference between positive and negative interest is a difference of dealing. The same distinction between dealing and occasion throws light on the difference between the two major types of negative interest, escape-fear and combativeness-anger. The former is focused on the dealing, and seeks to prevent or terminate it by withdrawal; the latter is focused on, and seeks to destroy, the occasion.

Since the dealing characterizes the interest rather than its object, it is to be assigned to the predicate, rather than the subject, of the judgment of value. Thus it is not the contemplation of the work of art which is beautiful; the work of art is beautiful — beautiful to contemplate. Similarly, it is the food which is good: good to eat — good because edible.

In the case in which the dealing is said to be exercised for its own sake, it is still usually the occasion, and not the dealing, which is the object. Thus if one walks to a destination for the purpose of walking rather than for the purpose of reaching the destination, the object is a class of destinations defined by the fact that walking is their correlative dealing. Any destination will do, provided, and only provided, that it entails walking.

There is, however, a type of interest in which the dealing itself becomes the object. A bodily dealing with a suitable occasion may itself become the occasion for another, and superimposed dealing. The climber's mountain may become accidental, or drop out altogether; he becomes aware, let us say, of the expansion of his lungs and a tingling of his muscles, and seeks to prolong this awareness. This attentive sensibility is now the dealing, and the bodily activity the occasion. In the interplay of these motivations, the striving for the goal and the enjoyment of the striving, the latter acts as a sort of supercharge to the former, and enriches the totality of value.

The problematic character of the object of interest attaches to the dealing and its occasion. During the life of the interest the dealing is not executed, but is prepared in advance, or anticipated. There is nothing mysterious about anticipation. There is present a “set” which is appropriate to a possible future occasion. In the case of bodily dealings, anticipation is a coördination of nerves and muscles together with whatever inhibitions are required to clear the way for a specific dealing. I am eagerly looking forward, let us say, to greeting my friend. I cannot greet him, and my interest cannot be fulfilled, until he is present. But I may here and now rehearse my words of greeting, have my hand half-extended, wear a smile on my face, and expel all incompatible attitudes and postures — so that only a short step is necessary for the consummation of friendliness.


The examination of the meaning of ‘object of interest’ serves to clarify the question of “motivation” — which is, in fact, only the same question expressed in other terms. This question is divisible into two questions, on neither of which is contemporary psychology prepared to deliver an altogether satisfactory answer: what is the meaning of ‘motive,’ and what are the motives?

The first step toward clarification of its meaning is to distinguish between ‘motive’ in the specific sense applicable to human conduct, and ‘motive’ in the generalized sense applicable to whatever generates motion. This distinction clearly excludes the automotive internal combustion engine as irrelevant to the present context; but the distinction has become blurred owing to the subservience of psychology to physiology, and the subservience of physiology to chemistry and physics. Thus Lashley speaks of three variables which “contribute to the dominance of a pattern of behavior,” namely: “chemical activation, adequacy of the stimulus situation, and amount of available nervous tissue.” These are “actual processes involved in motivation at least at a primitive level.” In the same context we are told that “the sexual interest and activity of the castrated male animal is restored by injection of testerone,” and that waning maternal interest may be strengthened by an extract from the hypophysis.8

Are we, then, to suppose that testerone and extract of hypophysis are specific motives because they are causes of specific activities? Are we to suppose that a vitamin is a universal motive because it “contributes” to all activities of the organism? Surely there is something radically wrong or confusing in an analysis which even raises such questions. The motives of human conduct are not coextensive with the forces or energies which determine human conduct, but constitute a specific form of determination, ordinarily referred to as “ends” or “purposes.” If, owing to basic mechanistic convictions, one denies that ends or purposes do determine human conduct, then one should reject the concept of motives altogether: which is a step that no psychologist is prepared to take.

It would be unprofitable to pursue the confusions which obscure this subject in contemporary psychology.9 The only escape from this jungle of words and ideas is straightway to identify motive with the problematic object of interest; that is, with the not-as-yet-realized occasion for a consummatory dealing.

When ‘motive’ is so construed, what are the human motives? There is no answer to this question, because the number is unlimited. This conclusion disposes, once and for all, of the venerable and widely accepted doctrine of teleological monism, to the effect, namely, that there is one and only one motive.

Teleological monism is divisible into two types, supernaturalistic or metaphysical monism, and naturalistic or psychological monism. To the first type belongs, for example, the doctrine that there is an entity called ‘God,’ which is endowed with all the perfections; and that all interest is “love of God.” Whether there is or is not such a being is a question of theology which does not here concern us; but whether all interest is love of such a being is a question of fact to be answered by an observation of human interests. And here it is plain that even those who praise the love of God above all loves are compelled regretfully to admit that human affections are unfaithful, and need perpetually to be redirected to their “true” object.

Teleological monisms of the naturalistic or psychological type form a familiar chapter in the history of human thought. The commonest of these is the doctrine that pleasure and pain constitute the only motives of conduct — the only objects pursued and avoided for themselves. A second such monism is the egoistic doctrine that the only motive of any agent's conduct is himself, or his own preservation. These two monisms are commonly combined in the view that the sole motive of any interested subject in his own pleasure or pain.

These doctrines are so palpably contrary to fact, and so perpetually contradicted even by those who profess them, that their plausibility can be explained only by carelessness or confusion. The fact that interest is in some vague sense intimately associated with pleasure and pain, and that every interest which occurs is somebody's interest, does not in the least prove that either pleasure-pain or self is the sole motive. My interest, attended with pleasures and pains, may be an interest in some other person, in food, wealth, sex, power, beauty, truth, or anything whatsoever — including pleasure and pain. The widespread acceptance of the pleasurepain theory of motivation is largely due to the confusion, noted above, between the somatic sensations of pleasure and pain, and the feelings of positive and negative interest. Pleasure and pain in the first sense may be objects of interest, but are by no means the only objects of interest. Feelings of pleasantness and unpleasantness, on the other hand, construed as the inner awareness of positive and negative interests, commonly attend them, but not as their objects.

Contemporary psychologists are likely to argue not for the reduction of human motives to one or two but to a limited number of primitive motives. They reach this result by committing the Atavistic Fallacy; by assuming, in other words, that such motives as hunger, thirst, etc., coming first in the order of individual and evolutionary development, are the only independent motives, and persist in the dependent motives which develop from them. This view has been unqualifiedly rejected by Gordon W. Allport:

The … type of dynamic psychology … here defended, regards adult motives as infinitely varied, and as self-sustaining, contemporary systems, growing out of antecedent systems, but functionally independent of them…. Each motive has a definite point of origin which may possibly lie in instincts, or, more likely, in the organic tensions of infancy. Chronologically speaking, all adult purposes can be traced back to these seed-forms in infancy, but as the individual matures the tie is broken. Whatever bond remains, is historical, not functional…. Earlier purposes lead into later purposes, and are abandoned in their favor.10

This writer may be said to make unnecessary concessions to that “geneticism” which on the whole he so stoutly repudiates; there is no decisive proof that independent motives may not arise in later life. But on the main point he is clear and persuasive: the motives of the human adult are indefinitely many. It is in fact this variety of motives that gives to human action its inscrutability; it is a part of the meaning of human freedom. As George Meredith says of one of his characters, “One can never quite guess what he will do, from never knowing the heat of the centre in him which precipitates his action.”11

The Freudian and other contemporary dynamic psychologists have renewed the earlier assault upon reason; and have reinforced the broad trend of “irrationalism” which began in the nineteenth century and is still running strongly, both in “scientific” and unscientific circles. Insofar as ‘irrationalism’ means that human conduct is generated by feeling, emotion, and desire, or that the motor is inseparably linked with the affective — no exception can be taken. Insofar as it means that human conduct is largely erroneous, incoherent, illogical, and uncalculated, it is based upon fact; and is a wholesome corrective of that self-flattering fiction of man as a being who deduces his acts in an orderly manner from a true idea of the supreme good.

But it does not follow that man is not a “rational animal,” if this is taken to mean that he has reasons (good or bad) for his actions, and acts because of such reasons. The term ‘rationalization’ betrays the confusion. Finding reasons for action is one of the conditions of its performance, and giving reasons for action is one of the conditions of its acceptance by others and by society. The modern age, in which man is held to be governed by irrational forces, has at the same time witnessed a refinement of the art of propaganda and the development of the science of semantics. It has become a commonplace that “words are weapons”; which implies that ideas are weapons, that is to say, forces, which direct and intensify conduct.

In other words, the cult of unreason has reaffirmed, amplified, and strengthened the thesis that human action is mediated throughout by cognition, and that the degree to which this factor is present is a distinguishing characteristic of action which is deemed human. This does not mean that reason is by itself a motive of action, still less the only motive, but that if ‘reason’ is taken to mean cognition in all its wide range from sense-perception and meaning to formal thought, and whether true or false, then reason is a condition of all motivation, since it provides interests with their objects.


Interest as here defined is distinguished by the pervasive factor of mediating fallible cognition. Mediated interest must be conceived, however, not as dwelling in a world apart, aloof from the physical and vital processes of nature, but rather as a superimposed and more advanced stage of complexity. There are antecedent and underlying levels, and there is a threshold which marks the advent of cognition, and hence the level of interest “proper,” that is, intelligent or expectative interest. Like the threshold of life, and all other lines of demarcation in an order of continuously developing complexity, the threshold of interest, though definable, is hard to place.12

Thus there is no interest in the sense here adopted without organization, spontaneity, and tendency, that is, directional or progressive change having a culminating phase. The level of complexity approaches more nearly to that of the interested action of men with the appearance of adjustment and adaptation. Then, within a phase of advance that cannot be sharply delimited, there begins a new and crucial form of complexity. Its distinguishing feature is cognitive mediation. The stimulus becomes a perception, or retires altogether; the acts become tinged with expectancy; the end result becomes an idea or meaning, having a forward reference, and capable, in the sequel, of being either realized or not realized.

In the heliotropism of the plant the sun stimulates growth toward the sun, and thus provides the plant with a necessary condition of its survival. The human sun worshiper, on the other hand, having the idea of the sun, responds to what means sun in a manner which he believes will procure its aid. Similarly, on the level of mere tendency and adaptation, hunger is a state of organic deficiency which stimulates movements which continue until the deficiency is made good. Add the factor of cognitive mediation and the process is differently describable. The state of deficiency is sensed as distress, and acts are performed which point to its relief. The stimulus is taken to be food; that is, it acquires the meaning of edible, and the promise of relief. The organism by now may be referred to as a “subject,” in the psychological sense. He may be said to “seek” relief, and act “for the sake” of obtaining the food; and the successive activities of food-taking can be said to be adopted “in order to” reach ulterior stages in the series.

At every point where cognition is inserted it brings with it a problematic object, having a future reference and a dual possibility of truth or error. There may be no sun, or something may be mistaken for it. Or the sun may or may not exercise the power and beneficence attributed to it. There may be no actual state of deficiency, the exciting stimulus may not in fact be edible, the acts performed for the sake of food-taking in its various stages may not have the effects which are expected of them. The whole process, in short, may be permeated with mistaking. Similarly, it is quite possible that peace-loving mankind should be deceived all along the line: doing what did not in fact promote peace or negate war; resting in an illusion of peace, or acting upon the mistaken supposition that peace had come.

There is an option as to the level where the terms ‘interest’ and ‘value’ are introduced. If one desires to call a tendency an interest, and its equilibrium or culminating phase an end, and to give the name of ‘value’ to this end, or to the reactions of the organism or machine by which it is maintained or attained, there is nothing to prevent. It is a matter of the definition of words. Wherever a more advanced type of complexity emerges from a less advanced type, the name given to the former may, if one chooses, be extended backward or downward. It is this option which has led to the use of prefixes such as ‘quasi,’ ‘sub,’ ‘near,’ or ‘proto.’ There is nothing either illogical or contrary to fact in speaking of “quasi-interests,” “sub-interests,” “near-interests,” and “proto-interests”; and values may be construed accordingly. But this is permissible only provided distinctions are not blurred. In the present case such an extension of meaning is permissible only provided it is clearly recognized that the extended meaning would not describe that which is distinctively characteristic of human nature and human history.

  • 1.

    This meaning is even more explicit in the German Gegenstand.

  • 2.

    For its earlier history, cf. E. G. Boring, History of Experimental Psychology, 1929, pp. 395–9, and consult Index, For more recent references, cf. The Harvard List of Books in Psychology, 1949, pp. 28–32; and J. S. Bruner and D. Krech, Perception and Personality, 1950.

  • 3.

    The difference between stimulus and object was instructively elaborated by E. B. Holt, who spoke of “the recession of the stimulus” and pointed out that this begins at a very early stage of evolution; The Freudian Wish, 1915, pp. 75 ff., 164.

  • 4.

    H. N. Peters, “The Judgmental Theory of Pleasantness and Unpleasantness,” Psychological Review, 42 (1935), copyright American Psychological Association, p. 361.

  • 5.

    W. Köhler, The Mentality of Apes, 1925.

  • 6.

    Cf., e.g., O. H. Mowrer, “Preparatory Set (Expectancy) — Some Methods of Measurement,” Psychological Monographs, 52 (1940), No. 2.

  • 7.

    This view is ably expounded by a philosopher-psychologist with whom the Author is largely in agreement; cf. S. C. Pepper, Digest of Purposive Values, 1947.

  • 8.

    K. S. Lashley, “Coalescence of Neurology and Psychology,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 84 (1941), p. 466.

  • 9.

    For the best general review of the literature, cf. P. T. Young, Motivation of Behavior, 1936.

  • 10.

    The Nature of Personality, 1950, Addison-Wesley, Cambridge, Mass., pp. 78–9; cf. ibid., p. 172. The chapter here quoted appeared originally in American Journal of Psychology, 50 (1937). This essay should be read entire for an impressive presentation of the doctrine of “functional autonomy,” as opposed to “geneticism.“

  • 11.

    The Egoist, ch. xxx.

  • 12.

    For a discussion by the Author of the biological level of interest, General Theory of Value, 1926, 1950, chs. vi, vii.

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