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Part One (First Course): On Selfhood

Lecture VIII: Self-Activity and Its Modes

1. Today and for the remainder of the lectures in the present course we shall be concerned with the fundamental manifestations of the self as a practical rather than as a theoretical being. Here the key concept is that of activity; and I propose to devote today's lecture to the elucidation and defence of this concept and to the discrimination of its species.

‘Activity’ and its synonyms—agency initiation striving and the like—along with its correlative ‘passivity’ and its synonyms are expressions that we use every day of our lives. How first of all do we get the idea to which these expressions correspond?

On at least the general provenance of the idea we are fortunately able to count upon a very large measure of agreement. It is almost a philosophical common-place that we do not get the idea from observation of anything in the external world. There we may observe changes of various sorts but nothing that could of itself even suggest the notion of an agency or activity that brings about the changes. We do come indeed rightly or wrongly to ascribe agency to certain external things. But this ascription it is agreed is not based on direct observation of the things. What happens is that we read into these things a character derived from experience of our selves. It is from perception of the inner world of the mind not from perception of the outer world of matter that the notion of activity arises for us.

So much is more or less common ground. Immediately however we have to take notice of the fact that many philosophers declare that this idea is a ‘fiction’.

Now this is on the face of it a somewhat puzzling pronouncement. Evidently it cannot be meant in calling it a fiction that there just is no idea for which the term ‘activity’ stands. That there is such an idea is a datum of the whole discussion. What then is meant when people tell us that the idea of activity is a fiction?

Roughly the first half of the present lecture will be devoted to an examination of this question. If as I believe the outcome is to vindicate the objective validity of the idea in general the way will be cleared for an attempt in the second half to reach a more precise understanding of activity by the discrimination of some of the main species within it.


2. It seems to me that there are in principle only two things that can with any plausibility be meant in calling the idea of activity a fiction. I shall deal with each in turn.

The first and less important is as follows. It may be urged that when we analyse the idea of activity with care observing what precisely it is that we actually experience in those experiences which we are accustomed to speak of as experiences of ‘activity’ the constituents that are then disclosed turn out to be of such a character that we are no longer prepared on reflection to label the experience one of ‘activity’ at all. Our analysis reveals perhaps a certain complex of ideas and images and body-feelings—of cephalic tension muscular innervation and the like. But when we reflect upon this product of our analysis we realise that if as seems to us to be the case there is nothing else present in our experiences of ‘activity’ so-called we have been deluded in supposing that such experiences have anything in them which entitles us to call them experiences of ‘activity’.

I think that this is at least sometimes what is meant by calling ‘activity’ a fictitious idea. But if so surely the critic's logic is curiously perverse? For how can he judge that the constituents disclosed by his analysis of the experience are such that he is not really entitled to call the experience an experience of ‘activity’ except in the light of some different idea of activity already in his possession which he takes to be a genuine idea of activity an idea of ‘activity proper’? Otherwise he is using words without meaning when he says that the experience of these constituents (in conjunction) is not really an experience of ‘activity’. And he will be in no better case if belatedly discovering this implication of his procedure he should now try to show that his ‘different’ idea of activity which he had been using as criterion is itself analysable into constituents which we can see not to warrant us in regarding it as ‘really’ activity. For he will only be able to condemn this second idea of activity in the light of a further idea of it in his possession which he takes to be genuine. And so on ad infinitum. The attempt to explain away the idea of activity as fictitious always presupposes some other idea of activity which is assumed not to be fictitious. The idea of activity it would seem cannot be shown to be a fiction along these lines at any rate.

Nevertheless we can I think cordially agree with the critic of activity at least to this extent that none of the sets of constituents into which analysts have so far resolved the experience of it does in fact give us anything that we feel satisfied on reflection to call ‘activity’. Why should this be? Is it just that the analyses are bad analyses? In a sense yes and in another sense no. They are (or may be) excellent analyses of what we objectively experience when we experience activity. But they are all of them very bad analyses or rather they are not analyses at all of what we subjectively experience when we experience activity. Herein I suggest lies the real root of the trouble. The critic cannot find anything deserving of the name of ‘activity’ because he seeks for it where it cannot possibly be found. For activity if it is anything is a function of the subject qua subject. It cannot be ‘objectified’. To attempt to analyse the experience of activity from the standpoint of the external observer ignoring the standpoint of the subject qua subject the subject in its subjective functioning is—if I may borrow Stout's apt adaptation of Berkeley's phrase—to blindfold ourselves and then complain that we cannot see. If the critic pursued what I suggest is the proper course of re-enacting re-living the subjective experience to which the name of ‘activity’ is commonly ascribed he would I think find what he is looking for: and by the same token he would find that which he is himself unwittingly using as a criterion when he condemns as inadequate to anything one can properly mean by ‘activity’ the constituents he has analysed out from the standpoint of the external observer.

There are not perhaps many errors that bring in their train so extensive a series of philosophical disasters as that of supposing that ‘experience’ is reducible without remainder to consciousness of something before the mind something presented to the subject. The error is in part explicable no doubt by the fact that it is not his subjective activity but the objects to which it is directed that commonly interests the experiencing subject and that thus lies in the focus of his attention. The subject's consciousness of his own subjective functioning is as a rule very faint and inexplicit by comparison with his consciousness of his object. Yet it is a little surprising that the strenuous efforts of notable thinkers like Maine de Biran in the nineteenth century and Alexander Pringle-Pattison and Bowman in our own day who have laboured to show that awareness of the subjective side is in some degree present in all experience should have borne so very little fruit. Even if we are a little hesitant about endorsing their thesis in its full universality still there do seem to be at least some experiences for example that of effortful willing in which the direct awareness of subjective functioning can hardly be missed save by those who are determined on a priori grounds not to find it. When we have collated with meticulous care all the items ‘objectively’ apprehended in an experience of effortful volition it remains perfectly clear that these items in their totality do not add up to what we in fact experience in making the volition. There is missing what one might call in Bradley's phrase ‘the felt out-going of the self from the self’ the inner experience of the subject in its subjective functioning. To this experience we can at least attach a meaning; for we can reproduce it whenever we set ourselves to re-live a volition although in the nature of the case it cannot be presented to us as an ‘object’. It is thus and thus alone that activity in general is to be known: and I ought perhaps to give warning that a good deal of what I have to say in this lecture will be incomprehensible to anyone unable to discover in his experience anything more than the presentation of ‘objects’ to a ‘subject’.

3. I pass on to the second thing that might I think be meant by calling ‘activity’ a fictitious idea. Even if it be granted that there is an unique kind of experience which is called experience of ‘activity’ an experience not amenable to any internal analysis which might incline us on reflection to wish to withhold from it the name of ‘activity’ after all; still it may be urged there are certain external facts which ought to persuade us that we are mistaken in calling it an experience of ‘activity’. For a man cannot in strictness be said to be experiencing activity if he is not really active. If there are facts which show that in the given situation he is not really active then his ‘experience’ or ‘feeling’ of activity must be a delusion. And there are facts (it is alleged) which very strongly suggest that a man may feel active and yet not really be active. The man who wills to move his arm feels active in so doing even if in fact (as might occur through sudden paralysis) his arm remains stationary. Is it not evident that here at any rate his feeling of activity is illusory? His willing does not in fact bring about anything. But if the feeling of activity is illusory here it is possible in principle that it is illusory everywhere. Perhaps even in normal cases where the bodily movement does follow on the willing the man is deceived in supposing that it is his activity in willing that brings this about. And has not David Hume produced a formidable battery of arguments to show that he is so deceived and that there is no intrinsic connection whatsoever discoverable between the act of willing on the one hand and on the other hand the bodily movement which does in the ordinary run of things ensue?

Hume's arguments do not in fact seem to me so very formidable; but as it is far from evident where one is to find better ones to the same purport and as they have certainly exerted a great deal of influence upon subsequent philosophy we shall be obliged to consider them at some length. There is however one thing that can be said about them quite briefly and at once. In so far as they are directed to showing that activity of any kind is unreal they are invalid. The fact that the paralysed man's arm does not move when he wills it to move does not in the least entail that he was wrong in his conviction that he was really active. All that it entails is that he was wrong in his expectation that his ‘spiritual’ activity in willing would produce a certain bodily result—an entirely different thing. The failure to achieve the end to which his activity was directed has no tendency to disprove that he was active—spiritually active—in trying to achieve that end. That the activity will achieve its objective (though only—if we may anticipate a little—in co-operation with other factors not under our control) is in the case of certain bodily movements our normal expectation. But even if this expectation were never fulfilled the correct implication would be not that our activity is unreal but at most that it is futile.

In other words on the question whether one is really active in the sense of ‘spiritually’ active the evidence of the subject's own direct experience is conclusive. Another man may suggest to me that I am not ‘trying’—say to move my palsied leg. But I the subject know whether or not I am trying. And if I do directly experience myself as trying there can be no more point in asking whether I am really active in the sense of ‘spiritually’ active than there would be in asking whether when I directly experience myself as in pain I really am in pain.

4. It must be frankly admitted however that what we have gained so far (if we have gained it) against Hume is of only limited importance. Spiritual activity—‘trying’ ‘willing’—is always directed to some objective. If there should be good reason to believe that this spiritual activity has no intrinsic connection with the coming to be of its objective then even though its reality as such is established it can hardly be regarded as a very valuable human possession. It is obviously something a great deal poorer than what we commonly mean when we think of ourselves as ‘active’ beings. We commonly think of our activity as an active power capable of producing effects beyond itself. If in fact this supposed power is a myth those who insist that ‘activity’ is a myth will not be so very far wrong after all.

And it is of course against activity in this sense of active power that Hume in his famous chapter in the Enquiry1 chiefly directs his attack. His discussion is conducted within the ambit of his search for the original of our idea of necessary connection. The suggestion naturally arises that perhaps the original is to be found in our experience of volition where we seem to be directly aware of ourselves as actively producing that which we will; e.g. the movement of a limb. Is there in fact this intrinsic connection between the act of willing and the movement of the limb or are we deceived in supposing that we directly discern it? Hume takes the latter view. ‘We learn the influence of our will from experience alone.’2 We have no ‘internal impression’ of our will producing the bodily movement to which it is directed. And Hume thinks he can explain how the illusion that we do have such an impression comes about. What happens is that after observing repeated instances of acts of will being followed by the bodily movements to which they are directed ‘the mind is caused by habit upon appearance of the one event to expect its usual attendant’. Hence ‘a new sentiment or impression’ a custom-bred expectation that when we will a bodily movement that bodily movement will take place. This felt compulsion in our minds to pass from the one idea to the other is misinterpreted by us as a necessary connection between the things to which the ideas relate—here the act of will and the bodily movement. Hence on the occasion of willing a bodily movement we mistakenly suppose that we directly apprehend our volition bringing the bodily movement about.

That (very summarily stated) is how Hume thinks that the illusion comes about. But why is he so sure in the first place that it is an illusion?—so sure that we do not in volition discern an active power in ourselves? Hume advances a number of arguments. But it will suffice for reasons that will appear shortly if we concentrate upon one of them. I shall select the argument which is perhaps generally regarded as the most powerful.3 The specific proposition which Hume is here out to disprove is that in willing a bodily movement we are directly conscious of our will actively producing the bodily movement. His disproof is based upon certain admitted physiological facts. It has been firmly established that when we will to move our leg (and succeed in doing so) the movement of the leg does not follow immediately upon our willing. What immediately follow are certain physiological changes. Intervening between our act of will and the bodily movement to which it is directed lies a whole series of cerebral neural and muscular movements. Now in the act of volition we have normally no consciousness whatsoever of these intermediary processes. We cannot therefore as we commonly suppose directly discern the power of our will to move our leg since this power if it exists at all is exercised only through intermediaries of which we are totally unaware. The causal relation if any between the act of willing and the movement of the leg is a mediate relation; and as we are unaware of the mediation we clearly cannot be directly discerning that mediate relation. The causal relation as we suppose it to be on the other hand just isn't there; so we must be deluded in thinking that we directly discern it.

This argument of Hume's has often been attacked; and along very divergent lines. It seems to me however that none of the criticisms go quite to the heart of the matter. For in my opinion Hume and his critics alike assume a basic premise which while it looks self-evident is in fact false. This premise is that when as we say we ‘will to move our leg’ the immediate object of our will is the moving of our leg.

What I want to suggest is that the expression ‘willing to move our leg’ is in fact elliptical. If we attend carefully to what is actually in our minds when we ‘will to move our leg’ we find it seems to me that the immediate object of our willing is not the movement of our leg but certain kinaesthetic and other sensations upon which we have learned from experience the movement of our leg normally supervenes. No doubt this will appear at first sight a highly paradoxical suggestion; but I am inclined to think that anyone who makes the required introspective experiment with care will discover that it is none the less true. The ulterior object of my willing is the movement of my leg but the proximate or immediate object is the producing of the appropriate sensations.

Perhaps the easiest way to satisfy one's self that this is the case is as follows. Everyone would agree I take it that there are certain sensations associated with the moving of one's leg and also that normally we can produce an image of them at will. But now let us suppose that we have somehow forgotten what these specific sensations are—how far this is factually possible is beside the point. Can we in such a predicament will to move our leg? It seems clear to me that we can not—we just don't know how to set about it. We may of course wish to move our leg. But this is no more the willing to move our leg than the wish to move say our appendix is the willing to move our appendix. ‘Willing’ is always directed to something we conceive to be in our power. If we have forgotten the appropriate sensations the wish to move our leg must remain a mere wish totally impotent incapable of passing into a ‘willing’ of the movement.

It might be objected indeed that our inability to will the bodily movement in the absence from our mind of the appropriate sensations does not formally establish the priority of the sensations to the bodily movement as object of our willing. Abstractly considered it might be the case that the bodily movement and the kinaesthetic sensations are inseparable for us so that we cannot will the one without the other. But a very little reflection shows that this will not do. It seems perfectly possible to think of and to will the occurrence of the kinaesthetic sensations by themselves. In fact one can easily enough imagine a case in which if a man wills the occurrence of the kinaesthetic sensations at all he must will them by themselves. If a man has a foot amputated but still retains the sensations associated with its movement then provided he knows his foot is missing he cannot will (though he may of course visualise and want) the movement of it; yet he surely may (possibly from sheer curiosity about an interesting psycho-physiological phenomenon) will to produce the appropriate sensations.

I submit then that when we will a bodily movement the proximate or immediate object of our willing is the producing of the appropriate sensations in the conviction—based ultimately on experience—that the ulterior object we have in view the bodily movement will thereby come to pass. But since it is only in abnormal situations where the customary connection of sensations with bodily movement fails us that the intermediary condition of the achievement of the latter tends to force itself upon our notice we readily lose sight of this intermediary and both speak and think as though the bodily movement were the immediate and indeed the only object of our willing.

5. Now when the basic premise of Hume and his critics is re-stated in this way it puts a very different complexion on the whole matter.

We may readily admit first of all that between the movement of the limb and the appropriate sensations we discern no necessary connection. The connection is something that we learn solely from experience. We learn in infancy or in very early childhood through what are at first instinctive or merely random movements of our body that as a matter of brute fact certain sensations are usually associated with certain bodily movements. This purely factual information is the pre-condition of the stage at which we can will a body-movement. Hume is thus perfectly correct in so far as all that he wants to maintain is that we do not in willing directly discern a necessary connection between our willing and the bodily movement willed. The contingent relationship between the (intermediate) kinaesthetic sensations and the bodily movement rules that out conclusively.

But what Hume requires to show in order to prove that we do not directly discern real agency active power in our willing of a bodily movement is if our re-statement of the basic premise is sound something very different. He has to show not just that there is no necessary connection discernible between our willing and the bodily movement but that there is none discernible between our willing and the appropriate kinaesthetic sensations. He has to show that the latter connection is one that we also learn from experience. Hume naturally enough makes no attempt to show this. Nor so far as I can see is it possible to adapt any of the arguments he advances against the necessary connection of the volition with the bodily movement willed to support the different thesis that there is no necessary connection between the volition and the kinaesthetic sensations willed. Thus we could not e.g. adapt the particular Humean argument with which we have been dealing by pointing to unperceived intermediaries between the act of will and the occurrence of the kinaesthetic sensations willed. There is no psychological evidence of psychical intermediaries corresponding to the anatomical and physiological evidence of physical intermediaries that seems so decisive in the other case.

We have agreed that it is only by experience that we learn that specific kinaesthetic sensations are associated with specific movements of our body. The question at the moment is whether a plausible case can be made for the view that it is also from experience that we learn that there is a connection between willing these kinaesthetic sensations and their occurrence. I do not think that it can. Any such view presupposes that there is a stage at which we will these sensations without any expectations whatsoever that they will ensue. What then could possibly induce us to will them in the first instance? Do we as it were say to ourselves ‘I should like to move my leg and I have reason to believe from experience that if certain sensations occurred my leg would move. I should very much like therefore that these sensations would occur. What am I to do about it? Let's see whether “willing” them is any use—good gracious! Here they come!’ This seems to me implausible in the last degree. I do not see how the ‘experiment’ of willing a thing with a view to its coming into being could ever suggest itself to a mind which did not already regard willing as an act which tends to bring about that to which it is directed. Or do we perhaps discover the connection by sheer accident—happening to will these sensations and then finding to our surprise that the sensations occur? But surely ‘happening to will’ or ‘accidental willing’ contradicts the very notion of willing. Willing is not the sort of thing we can do by accident; for the very essence of it is its aim to bring about a definite something. The earlier question therefore recurs ‘What makes us suppose that the act of willing will tend to bring the thing about if we do not already believe in the connection?’ The notion that we could conceivably be surprised to find that willing produces what it aims to produce—a notion implied in the suggestion that we learn the connection from experience—seems really absurd. When we will X we will it because and only because we believe that willing X tends to bring X about.

6. There is one further point that must be dealt with however if our answer to Hume is to be reasonably complete.

It is clear enough that if the active power of which we are directly conscious in willing to move a limb relates to the production of certain sensations not to the movement of the limb the mere fact that the limb may not be there does not raise any difficulty about accepting the reality of this active power. But suppose now a case in which though the limb may be there there is total anaesthesia with respect to it. If we are still able to image the kinaesthetic sensations we can seek by willing to produce them; but they will fail in fact to ensue. Now there can be no doubt that in such a case just as much as in ‘successful’ volition we would seem to ourselves in the volition to be exerting an active power. But is it not evident that here at any rate we should be deceived since nothing whatever is produced—not even the kinaesthetic sensations? And if we are deceived in supposing that we directly discern an active power in these unsuccessful volitions must that not reflect back a doubt upon our supposed discernment of an active power in successful volitions?

The difficulty is an instructive one; for the solution of it serves to bring out an important point about the nature of activity which we have not yet had occasion to notice.

It is undeniable I think that in the case cited we are deceived on one matter. We are deceived in our expectation that certain kinaesthetic sensations will ensue. But the fact that these sensations do not ensue does not imply that we are deceived in our belief that we are exerting an active power in relation to their production. For it is enough in order for the volition to be an active power that the exercise of it intrinsically tends to bring about the sensations willed; even though the co-operation of other factors which may or may not be present is required to ensure a successful issue. The lack of a successful issue is thus perfectly compatible with our being correct in supposing that we directly discern in the volition an active power in relation to the issue. The significance of these unsuccessful cases of volition is to bring home to us that the co-operation of other factors is required if the end to which the active power of volition is directed is to be in fact achieved. Our being deceived in our expectation in the case cited is due simply to our being unaware that certain of the necessary co-operating factors are absent. Strictly speaking the active power of volition seems best described in the terms used by Stout—‘a tendency towards its own fulfilment.’4 But no more than this is needed to enable us to maintain as against Hume that there is an intrinsic or necessary connection between volition and its ‘object’.

But if volitional activity is no more than a tendency to its own fulfilment is it really justifiable (it may be asked) to speak of a ‘necessary’ connection between volition and its object? When we speak of a ‘necessary’ connection between A and B we usually mean that given A we must have B. Yet in the case before us it is admitted that given the volition we may not get its object.

It seems to me however that the point at issue here is at bottom verbal. The expression ‘necessary connection’ is no doubt most commonly used in the sense just mentioned. But it is also used on occasion merely to mark the contrast with de facto connection. It is in that wider sense of the term that we are claiming that the connection of volition with its immediate object is necessary. And this is the sense specially relevant within the Humean context. For Hume seeking to undermine the credentials of the idea of necessary connection has been arguing that we do not really discern in volition an active power exerting influence upon the coming to be of the object; that the connection is purely de facto not necessary. This is the position we were concerned to refute. Nevertheless I should agree that the common associations of the expression ‘necessary connection’ make it somewhat misleading in the present case and that it would be preferable to speak of the connection between volition and its (immediate) object as ‘intrinsic’ only. There can I think be no objection on linguistic grounds to describing this connection as ‘intrinsic’ if it be true that the volition even ‘tends’ to bring about its object.

7. It is not possible here to say more than a supplementary word or two about Hume's criticism of the power of volition over ideas which follows immediately upon his criticism of its power over bodily movements. But in truth there seems little need to say much. What Hume's arguments on this head boil down to is that we do not understand how our willing is connected with the coming to be of what is willed. We are not ‘acquainted with the nature of the human soul and the nature of an idea or the aptitude of the one to produce the other.’5 The power of the will is ‘unknown and incomprehensible’. But is there really anyone who holds the contrary? What is supposed to follow from this ignorance of the ‘how’? To affirm that in volition we are directly conscious of an intrinsic connection between the act of willing and the coming to be of what we will does not in the least require us to affirm that in volition we understand how willing brings about or tends to bring about what it wills. For finite knowledge at any rate there must be some things that just are; and the basic facts of our own nature may reasonably be supposed to fall into this category. We do not know how we are what we are. If it be conceded that we cannot will at all save in the conviction that our willing tends to bring about what we will the intrinsic connection between willing and what we will may fairly be accepted as just an ultimate fact about our natures. After all we do not understand how it is that we even have a will. But no one I take it supposes that we must wait until we know how it is that we have a will before we can justifiably believe that we do have a will.


8. It has seemed to me obligatory the more so in the present state of philosophical opinion to preface any attempt at a constructive account of activity by a rather extensive consideration of the prior question of whether there really is any fact to which the name ‘activity’ corresponds. I hope it may now be agreed even if only provisionally that activity is some kind of a fact. On that assumption let us go on to enquire as systematically as space will permit into its diverse modes.

For its modes are I think highly diversified. There would appear to be several distinct species of activity in each of which we recognise ourselves to be in a real sense active and yet on reflection active in irreducibly different ways. A fully systematic treatment would require to distinguish and relate to one another all of these several species. But to undertake so much within the confines of this lecture would be palpably absurd and we shall try to make our task manageable by narrowing our problem to that of placing in its proper perspective the specific mode of self-activity which is (or appears to be) involved in ‘free will’. We shall ignore here even so important a mode of activity as aesthetic imagining since this would appear to have no special relevance for our present limited objective.

9. We may take our start from a seeming inconsistency in common ways of talking about activity. It is often said that the self is active in some degree throughout the whole course of its waking life. On the other hand the self's activity in certain experiences—e.g. volition—is often sharply contrasted with its passivity in others—e.g. in suffering the onset of a sudden pain. Prima facie one of these two views must be mistaken. For how can the self be at times passive if it is always in some degree active?

The answer lies I think in recognising a somewhat important if obvious distinction between activity of the self which is self-activity proper and activities within the self which can and frequently do go on even where the self regards itself as not active but passive in respect of them.

For evidence of this distinction there is no need to appeal to the shadowy realm of the sub-conscious; e.g. to the now fairly well-attested phenomenon of sub-conscious intellectual processes which in some happily endowed individuals seem able to function effectively while the conscious intellect is otherwise engaged or even in complete abeyance and to produce results at times which the conscious intellect would be proud to acknowledge as its own. To my regret this enviable state of affairs though I have no doubt of its enjoyment by many is not one with which I have myself first-hand acquaintance. But in truth the conscious functioning of the intellect within the self while the self itself remains inactive with respect to it is a situation of which we have all had experience. For example. Often when we are trying to settle ourselves for sleep after a hard evening's brain work ideas connected with the task we are struggling to lay aside keep surging up and ‘milling about’ in our minds. It is not to be denied that we have here activity in some sense and activity of a faculty which we recognise as in some sense belonging to the ‘self’. But though we think of the activity as going on in the self we do not regard our self as active in their regard. What our self is doing is trying to go to sleep and it is with this endeavour that we naturally identify whatever self-activity proper there is in the situation. The intrusive activity of our intellectual consciousness so far from being a phase of or a secondary consequence of the self's endeavour to settle for sleep is experienced as offering resistance to that endeavour. Evidently then there can be activity of the intellectual consciousness within the self which we decisively distinguish from ‘self-activity’.

That bodily activity also—even where it involves somewhat intricate physical manoeuvres—can be a merely functional activity within the self is apparent at once. The practised pianist can play a familiar piece and the expert juggler can accomplish at least the less dazzling feats in his repertoire as it were ‘automatically’ with little or no ‘engagement’ of the self in their performance. Bodily activity is here undeniable but self-activity in respect of it is near to vanishing point. In the sufferer from St. Vitus’ Dance the vanishing-point of self-activity has been actually reached. The unfortunate victim certainly supposes his body to be undergoing a variety of lively muscular contractions but he does not regard himself as active. On the contrary he feels himself passive; patient rather than agent in respect of the movements of his body. Evidently then bodily activity need not be an expression of self-activity; even though it is true that self-activity does exceedingly often find expression in bodily activity just as it exceedingly often finds expression in intellectual activity.

Very obviously also the activities of our appetitive consciousness can be merely functional. It is not necessary to elaborate the truism that desires are often felt as ‘irruptions’ within the self which impede the self in its active pursuit of its chosen end.

But in most obvious contrast of all with self-activity proper are the functional activities of our feeling-consciousness—pleasure and pain. Indeed pleasure and pain are so patently not manifestations of self-activity that they are sometimes taken as prime exemplars of pure passivity. Yet they should I think be placed in the category of ‘functional activity’. We certainly do speak of pain e.g. as present in different degrees of ‘activity’ (or ‘quiescence’). If pain is present at all we find it natural to speak of it as being in some measure ‘active’. The inclination to regard these feelings as belonging to a merely passive side of our nature is not however surprising. For while the (functional) activities of our intellectual and appetitive consciousness resemble self-activity in having ‘objectives’ the ‘activities’ of pleasure and pain have no ‘objectives’. Pleasure and pain may of course and normally do excite self-activity towards objectives; usually the objectives of prolonging the pleasure or removing the pain. But in themselves they are directionless; and accordingly in much sharper contrast than intellectual and appetitive processes are with self-activity proper.

In the light of the above we may say I think that while it is difficult to suppose any experience of waking life in which activity in the sense of functional activity is not present this is compatible with the complete absence on occasion of self-activity.

But although it is theoretically possible for activity of the self to be absent while functional activity within the self is present this is in practice a somewhat rare phenomenon. Even in the type of case already alluded to where intellectual or appetitive processes go on ‘in despite of one's self’ the self is almost always actively directing itself to some end; one may be active e.g. in seeking to get to sleep at the same time as one is passive in respect of the ideas which one's intellect may be ‘churning out’. Nevertheless there are a few experiences in which it would be difficult to maintain that any trace of self-activity proper is discoverable. Upon the onset of a sudden unexpected and violent pain there seems to be an appreciable moment when the self is wholly absorbed by its feeling-consciousness; though almost at once self-activity is resumed in the conscious seeking for relief. Again it is probably the case that a man can be so completely in the grip of some powerful emotion—‘paralysed by fear’ perhaps—that for a brief space his self is ‘without aim or object’; self-activity is in absolute suspension. And ‘action upon impulse’ about which I shall be saying something shortly is I think still another example.

Apart from these very occasional interruptions however it seems true that the self in its waking life is always active in pursuit of some end or other. Not of course that we are always explicitly conscious of pursuing an end. We may seem to ourselves as we sit in the sunshine enjoying the sights and the sounds and the perfumed air of a summer's day to be in a state of sheer quiescence with no ‘aim’ in mind whatsoever. But we would not be enjoying these sensations if we were not consciously experiencing them; and we would not be consciously experiencing them if we were not attending to them; and we would not be attending to them if we were not wanting to attend to them. Our attention to them is the expression of our self-direction to the end of securing these enjoyable experiences. Explicit consciousness that we are directing ourselves to this end will probably only ensue if our agreeable state happens to suffer disturbance. Then we feel vexed because as we have come to realise it was our will our aim to go on enjoying the delights that nature was so bountifully providing. So far as sense perception in general is concerned it is safe to say that where there is in the self no active interest in what the senses may reveal the senses will reveal nothing. There will be a physical affection of the sense organs but there will be no sense perception.

There would seem then to be a genuine form of self-activity which if not absolutely all-pervasive of normal waking life is next door to being so. It is essentially conative in character a seeking to achieve ends more or less clearly conceived. Although this self-activity is conative however not everything which custom includes under the general heading of ‘conation’ is a mode of self-activity. Thus ‘desire’ is usually so included; but (as we have already noted) desire is often felt to be in actual opposition to the end to which self-activity is directed. And even when it is not desire is never strictly speaking a mode of self-activity. There is a significant felt difference between desiring something and actively setting one's self to obtain it. Only in the latter case do we feel ourself to be ‘active’. It is true of course that if we are in a state of desire towards X we normally go on to busy ourself to obtain X. But the two states are manifestly distinct. Desire normally engenders self-activity but it is not itself a mode of it.

Nor can it be said that self-activity is invariably present even when our appetitions excite to definite ‘action’. We have to take account here of the distinction between ‘impulsive’ action and ‘willed’ action. Purely impulsive action is no doubt rare in self-conscious beings with ‘the power to look before and after’ but it can hardly be said never to occur. What distinguishes it from willed action is that in it action follows upon the impulse ‘automatically’ as it were with no moment of intervention in which the self considers and endorses the end of the impulse. The self is not conscious of ‘taking charge of’ the situation. Its felt rôle is that of spectator rather than of agent. Hence we must say I think that self-activity is absent from the merely impulsive action. Willed action on the other hand differs from impulsive action precisely in the fact that in it the self does adopt the end of the impulse as its own end and directs itself to its achievement. Here self-activity is always present.

Indeed this self-activity of willing or volition is identical with the self-activity we have just been discussing; that self-activity which we claimed is an ail-but universal feature of our normal waking life. And if it seems a little odd at first glance to speak thus of volition as an ail-but universal feature of normal waking life that is doubtless because we are so apt to think of volition in terms of the deliberate choice between alternatives which is of course not an activity that is pervasive of normal waking experience. But deliberate choice between alternatives is only one particular species of volition. The genus is the self's identification of itself with a conceived end; and this though present in very varying degrees of explicitness it is not paradoxical to regard as ‘pervasive of normal waking experience’.

10. We have next to see however that this self-activity ingredient in volition and characteristic of our normal waking life is by no means the only kind even of self-activity. I want to draw attention now to a quite distinct and (I think) uniquely important kind. This is the self-activity which is exercised in what we can best call ‘moral decision’. But as the term ‘moral decision’ has more than one usage even in philosophical contexts I must begin by explaining how I am using it here.

The two commonest usages are I think these. We may mean (1) the decision as to which of two or more courses each of which has prima facie qualifications to be regarded as our duty really is our duty. Moral decision here is primarily an intellectual matter. Or we may mean (2) not the decision as to what is our duty but as to whether we shall do our duty. This is a decision which has to be taken in every situation in which there is for the agent a felt conflict between what he conceives to be his duty and what he most strongly desires; i.e. in the situation of ‘moral temptation’. Moral decision here is wholly a moral matter and may fairly be said to constitute the very core of the moral life. It is this sense of moral decision that is relevant to our present purpose. There is a distinctive kind of self-activity involved in moral decision so understood and our business is to try to elucidate its nature.

A word first of all however about an alleged difficulty in the ‘setting’ of the situation of moral temptation as we have just described it—the conflict of strongest desire with duty.

It has sometimes been maintained that we can attach an intelligible meaning to the expression ‘strongest desire’ only after the event when we know which course has actually been chosen; that there is no way of telling which of two or more competing desires is the strongest except by observing which of them finds expression in action. But this view is surely mistaken. We frequently know very well in advance of our actual choice that provided we allow our desiring nature and nothing else to dictate our choice it is desire X and not desire Y or desire Z that will prevail. All we need do to measure the relative strength of competing desires is to ask ourselves in the given situation which of them would in fact issue in action if we allowed our desiring nature alone to determine our choice. Sometimes of course we shall find it difficult to return a confident answer. But the difficulty arises not because we have no valid principle of relative measurement to apply to the desires but because when we do apply our principle to them we find that two or more of them are approximately equal.

Assuming then that the situation has been properly enough described let us now directly examine it. The procedure must be (basically—or so it seems to me—there is no other way of proceeding for we are trying to grasp what the mental act of moral decision is for the subject performing it) to imagine an experience of moral temptation and the taking of the moral decision between the rival ends that it presents and thereupon to consider whether one does not find that the following characteristics are unmistakably present in one's moral decision as thus imaginatively experienced.

In the first place (I suggest) the agent experiences the decision as something which he makes. That is to say it is for him a manifestation of self-activity. No demurral to this deliverance of our practical consciousness is easily conceivable and I pass on at once to the far more important indeed crucial characteristic which marks off this specific kind of self-activity from that which occurs in the ordinary choices where there is no felt conflict between duty and desire.

The decision whether or not to rise to duty (I suggest) is experienced as something which though (as we have seen) issuing from the self does not issue from the self's character as so far formed. There is in every man at every stage of his life a developing but relatively stable and relatively systematic complex of emotive and conative dispositions which we call his ‘character’. It is this inner system this character which determines what desires will emerge in response to a given situation what will be the relative strengths of these desires (if more than one emerge) and what in consequence will be his strongest desire. A man's strongest desire at any moment may in fact be regarded as a function of his character in relation to the given situation. But if that is so moral decision cannot be experienced by the agent as flowing from his character. For it is of the very essence of the moral decision as experienced that it is a decision whether or not to combat his strongest desire and hence to oppose his formed character; and presumably strongest desire or formed character cannot find expression in the decision whether or not to fight against itself. The self-activity of moral decision then as experienced differs very significantly from the self-activity of ordinary choices in virtue of the fact that while in both cases it is the self that is active in the former case it is not the self merely qua formed character that acts but the self as somehow transcending its own formed character.

Now I admit at once that this is a somewhat paradoxical deliverance of our practical consciousness. But the important thing is not whether it is paradoxical but whether as a reading of what we find ourselves believing and unable not to believe in the situation of moral temptation it answers to our experience. To myself it seems clear that it does. And I am not wholly without hope that self-interrogation by others will lead them to the same result. Philosophers it seems to me have been somewhat too prone to reject as self-evidently absurd any view which implies that there is a distinction between the self and its ‘character’ without pausing to ask themselves whether in fact they do not themselves implicitly accept this distinction every time they make a moral decision between duty and strongest desire.

It is worth pointing out moreover that the alleged paradox is not really so paradoxical as it seems on the surface. It entails admittedly some limitation of the function of character as a determinant of conduct. But it leaves character still an enormously important factor in the moral life. It is formed character as we saw that determines what in any given situation the relative strengths of the agent's desires will be; including of course in ‘duty’ situations the strength of his desire for the end which enjoys the further and quite different recommendation of being conceived as his duty. Now in all those practical choices—and they comprise perhaps 99 per cent of the choices in most men's lives—in which there is no felt conflict of duty with desire it seems clear that the determinant of choice can only be the agent's strongest desire. But if that is the case then since it is a man's formed character that determines what his strongest desire will be it is entirely conformable with acceptance of the distinction between self and character to hold that over by far the greater part of the practical life it is a man's character that determines his choices.

There will I fancy be some reluctance to accept our contention that save where strongest desire is in conflict with what duty ordains choice can only be in accordance with strongest desire. But I would ask what possible motive could there be for a man to choose something different from that to which his desiring nature most strongly inclines him except the fact that he deems this most strongly desired end to be somehow incompatible with his duty? No possible motive surely is conceivable. The implication may perhaps be unwelcome but I do not see how it is to be escaped that there are in an important sense no ‘real’ alternatives before the agent save in those practical situations in which considerations of duty are present. Elsewhere choice follows strongest desire. On the other hand this should not be supposed to entail that in the ordinary run of choices man is subject to a merely external determination. For a man's desires are not something external to his self. His ‘strongest desire’ at any moment is the expression in relation to the given situation of that developing but relatively stable and relatively systematic complex of conative and emotive tendencies which we call his ‘character’. Moreover willing or choosing involves on the part of the agent the formal act of self-identification with one of the competing ends. He must in choosing accept the end as his own end; and in that sense for what it is worth his choice is always ‘self-determining’.

There is indeed one practical situation which looks as though it constituted an exception to the rule that save where there is conflict of desire with duty choice follows strongest desire. Suppose I find in a given situation which raises no moral issues for me that my strongest desire is for X; and suppose that irritated by philosophical theorists telling me that I have no option but to follow my strongest desire I feel moved to vindicate my freedom to do otherwise by choosing the end of a weaker desire Y. Surely I can so choose? And surely if so this is incompatible with the thesis that (moral issues apart) choice follows strongest desire?

But a moment's reflection makes it clear that we are not really in this case choosing what we don't most strongly desire. All that has happened is that under the stimulus of the philosopher's challenge to our freedom our strongest desire is now directed to the vindication of that freedom which is to be effected (we think) by choosing Y. So that here too after all our choice follows strongest desire.

It is worth observing however that what has just been said does not imply that in believing himself to have real alternatives before him even in a non-moral practical situation the agent is subject to mere illusion. When e.g. he debates with no thought but his own pleasure whether he will read a book or watch the television programme there is no reason to suppose him deluded in believing that he can choose whichever of these courses he most strongly desires. In that sense we can agree that there are ‘real alternatives’ open to him. He is mistaken only if he believes that he can choose either course irrespective of which he most strongly desires. In this sense the alternatives are not open. If he believes that they are his belief is due as I have tried to show to a removable confusion. It is not a belief intrinsic to the non-moral practical situation as the belief that one can choose the course contrary to that to which strongest desire inclines is (I think) intrinsic to the situation of moral temptation.

Even on our view then formed character does determine conduct over by far the greater part of a man's life. But of course an element of paradox in the view inevitably remains. Unless moral decision is something quite different from what it is experienced as being the self which makes the decision (we have to say) must be something ‘beyond’ its formed character. And it would be absurd to pretend that it is easy to make clear to one's self just how one ought to understand this ‘something beyond’.

Strictly speaking it does not fall within the scope of the present lecture to attempt an answer to this last question. But I may perhaps be permitted to throw out in passing the suggestion that the difficulty we have in conceiving an act as at once the self's act and yet not flowing from the self's character is at bottom the difficulty—in one sense the impossibility—of understanding anything that is genuinely creative. If an act is creative then nothing can determine it save the agent's doing of it. Hence we ought not to expect to ‘understand’ it in the sense of seeing how it follows from determinate elements of the self's character; for then it would just not be a ‘creative’ act. We can expect to ‘understand’ it only in the sense of being able to ‘attach meaning’ to it. Now that I submit we clearly can do in the case of moral decision if we approach it in the way appropriate to the apprehension of any genuine ‘activity’; i.e. from the inside from the standpoint of the agent qua acting. Unless the analysis given above of what moral decision involves for the experient of it is totally mistaken the agent himself knows very well what it is to perform an act which is his own act and which is yet not determined by his formed character. From the standpoint of the external observer the creative act is inevitably sheer mystery or worse than mystery. But it is vital to bear in mind that only from the standpoint of living experience could anything of the nature of creative activity be grasped if it existed. And here I am afraid we must leave the matter so far as the present lecture is concerned.

11. We have not done yet however with necessary distinctions within the general concept of activity. We had occasion first it will be remembered to distinguish functional activity within the self from activity of the self—self-activity proper. We then went on to distinguish as types of self-activity proper what may be called the ‘expressive’ self-activity characteristic of ordinary willing where our act is merely the expression of our character as so far formed from the ‘creative’ self-activity involved in moral decision. We have now to draw attention to a further mode of creative self-activity. We shall call it ‘moral-effort’ activity.

This mode of self-activity is to be found in the sufficiently familiar experience which we commonly describe in some such terms as ‘making an effort to overcome our inclinations and rise to duty’. The situation in which it is or may be evoked is the same as that in which moral decision is evoked i.e. where strongest desire clashes with duty; and the procedure must be as before to envisage such a situation and observe what one experiences when imaginatively engaged in it.

In this situation the agent is aware that if he lets his purely desiring nature have its way it is not X his duty but Y the object of his strongest desire that he will choose. But since the moral decision to be taken is between rising to duty or yielding to desire it is plain that he believes that he can rise to duty despite the contrary pressure of desire. He can rise to duty however—or so it seems to him—only by exerting an effort: an effort quite distinct in kind from physical effort or intellectual effort (although either or both of these may be required consequentially since the dutiful course may obviously entail the exertion of physical effort or of intellectual effort or of both). This unique kind of effort may appropriately be named ‘moral’ effort; for its whole function is to enable us to resist the importunings of desire in obedience to duty.

Now this moral-effort activity has for the agent I suggest—whether viewed by him in prospect or in actual performance—both of the characteristics noted in moral-decision activity. For the agent it is he himself that makes the effort; and yet this effort is not for him determined by his character as so far formed since he believes himself to be exerting it precisely in order to resist in the given situation the behaviour trend of his formed character; i.e. to enable him to act contrary to his strongest desire. Moral-effort activity therefore like moral-decision activity is essentially creative involving a causal discontinuity with formed character. But the discontinuity here is in a sense a sharper one. For while moral-decision activity may be exerted in favour of the end to which formed character inclines moral-effort activity can in the nature of the case be exerted only in favour of what duty is deemed to ordain.

A further word is desirable on the relationship between the moral decision to rise to duty the decision to make the moral effort and the actual making of the moral effort.

So far as I can see the decision to choose X our duty as against Y which we most strongly desire is the decision to put forth here and now the requisite moral effort. We cannot really decide to choose X unless we decide to make the moral effort; for we know when we decide that the choosing of X is possible only by our making the effort. Again it seems to me clear that we cannot really ‘decide’ to make the effort and then in fact not make it. For moral decision (as we have agreed to use the expression) is the decision whether or not to make the effort to rise to duty here and now in an actually present situation of moral temptation: and a supposed ‘decision’ to make a moral effort here and now without in fact making it seems to me something to which we can attach no meaning at all in terms of possible experience. Of course though we cannot ‘decide’ we can do that much weaker thing ‘resolve’ to make an effort and yet not make the effort; for mere ‘resolve’ may relate to action in the more or less distant future in which case it costs us nothing now and very possibly never will cost us anything. For example we may resolve to make the effort to give up smoking our resolve being made at a time when our craving for nicotine is temporarily sated perhaps to the point of nausea and immediate effort is not required. Tobacco is now it may be the object not of our strongest desire but of our strongest aversion. Perhaps this is the commonest kind of occasion upon which ‘good resolutions’ are made. But needless to say there is no difficulty whatever in conceiving ourselves failing to exert in fact the effort upon which we have earlier ‘resolved’.

12. Here we must bring to a close our long—but I am well aware far from exhaustive—analysis of activity. Its general relevance to the question of the ontological status of the human self will have been obvious but perhaps it will be permitted to add a few words on the special relevance of the distinction drawn between the ‘expressive’ and the ‘creative’ modes of self-activity. If self-activity did not reach beyond the expressive mode then so far as I can see man's power of self-determination would be of very limited significance indeed. His choices would no doubt still be self-determining in the sense that whatever end a self-conscious subject chooses he accepts as his own end. But such self-determination is formal rather than real and is consistent with the effective determination of his choices coming from factors external to him. This becomes clear if we ask ourselves why a man comes to choose the particular ends he does choose in those situations—the ordinary run of situations—in which the creative self-activity of moral decision is not called for. The answer can only be that these are the things he most strongly desires. And if we then ask what determines the relative strength of his desires we are in the last resort forced back it seems to me upon the man's inherited nature and environmental nurture; that is to say upon two factors outwith his own control. It is true that proximately a man's desires are the expression of his ‘character’. But his character has been built up by past acts of choice which—if we still abstract from the creative self-activity of moral decision—are themselves in accordance with strongest desire. And when we finally ask (as we must) about these original acts of choice before anything stable enough to be called a ‘character’ has emerged I cannot see to what else we can point as determinant of the man's strongest desires (and accordingly of these choices) save the particular kind and degree of his congenital impulses plus the environmental situation by which they are in varying degrees fostered or discouraged.

In other words it seems to me futile—as Sidgwick so clearly showed in his polemic against T. H. Green6—to attempt to base an effective self-determinism upon the mere fact that a self-conscious being can be moved to act only for an end which he himself accepts or approves. If what he himself accepts or approves is a function of circumstances with which he has nothing to do; if in order to understand why he makes the specific choices he does make we must look in the last resort to the ‘given’ nature of the man and the kind of influences to which he has been subjected by his physical and social environment; then the self-determination in the case is surely as I have said ‘formal rather than real’.

But when on the other hand we turn to the creative types of self-activity in moral decision and moral effort the whole situation is radically transformed. Here the self is revealed to itself as a being capable of transcending its own ‘formed character’; a being with a power so far as these aspects of its conduct are concerned of absolute self-origination. No man as actually engaged in making a moral decision between rising to duty or yielding to desire can possibly I make bold to assert regard that decision as determined by anything whatsoever save his own making of it here and now.

13. One final word. It will have been evident that throughout the greater part of this lecture the propositions advanced depend for their verification upon an appeal to introspection. I have been describing what I seem to myself to find in and before my mind in certain experiential situations; and the implied assumption has been that if I have described correctly anyone who introspects carefully and without preconceptions will find that my reports hold good for his experience likewise. To some philosophers this may seem an assumption so large and so precarious as to vitiate the whole procedure; for introspection is at the moment much out of favour as an instrument of philosophical enquiry. Clearly I cannot now undertake a formal vindication of introspective method in philosophy but I may be permitted to make one observation about its adoption in this lecture. Recourse to the evidence of introspection may be undesirable where there is any effective substitute. But what if it is a case of ‘Hobson's choice’? That as I see it is the situation so far as the investigation of activity is concerned. If it be true as it is generally admitted to be that our idea of activity is got not from outer experience but only from experience of our inner life it is just not avoidable that we should have recourse to introspection for the appreciation of its character. Either we study activity through the medium of introspection or we resign ourselves to not studying it at all I cannot think that we should rest content with the latter alternative.

  • 1. An Enquiry concerning the Human Understanding, Section VII (Selby-Bigge's edn.).
  • 2. An Enquiry concerning the Human Understanding, Section VII, p. 66.
  • 3. Ibid. pp. 66–7.
  • 4. Mind and Matter, p. 24.
  • 5. Enquiry p. 68.
  • 6. Lectures on the Ethics of T. H. Green, Mr. Herbert Spencer, and J. Martineau, pp. 15 ff.
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