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VOLITION and Allied Causal Concepts

© Avi Sion, 2004. All rights reserved.

 

Chapter 9.   WILL, VELLEITY AND WHIM

1.   Cognition, volition and valuation

2.   Velleity

3.   Whim

4.   Inner divisions

 

1.    Cognition, volition and valuation

Our ‘soul’ is the core of our selfhood and of all our personal ‘life’. From an ontological perspective, the soul has a variety of abilities of activity, or functions, which may be classified into three broad groups: cognition, volition and valuation.

Epistemologically, it may be that we become aware of soul as a distinct ‘entity’ by imagining it at the apparent common center of all cognitive, volitional and evaluative experiences (a process that might be called ‘intrapolation’)[1], and by conceptual suppositions. But we must also admit that our soul has direct self-awareness, as well as direct awareness of these most intimate experiences (viz. cognitions, volitions and valuations). For only the admission of such direct evidence of the self and its functions, which we have labeled ‘intuition’, can explain our ability to discern particular acts of cognition, volition or valuation, even when such acts have no manifest phenomenal outcomes.

The soul, in this view, is a distinctive entity, having per se no phenomenal aspects, unlike mental and material entities; whence we may suppose it to consist of a special substance (say, ‘spirit’). This intuited inner self is, as we have seen, to be distinguished from its surrounds, namely: the mental phenomena it perceives, the physical phenomena it perceives in its own body and beyond it (the latter including, as well as the apparent physical world, some supposed perceivable effects of other souls).

Thus, we have four theaters of experience to consider: the innermost (in the sense of ‘in the soul itself’), the mental (for that soul), the bodily (for that soul) and the external (beyond one’s own body)[2]. The different ‘distances’ implied by these terms are of course relative to the soul, and are based on the varying powers of cognition, volition and valuation the soul has in them.

The basic functions of cognition, volition and valuation are operative in each of these four regions (the inner, mental, bodily and external). Their primary theater is, however, the soul.

Cognition refers primarily to an event in the soul, the event of being conscious of some specific thing, whether that object be within the soul itself, or a mental or physical phenomenon beyond it. Cognition is what happens on the soul’s side of the consciousness relation between subject and object. It is the ‘business end’ of all cognitive processes – where things ‘click’. Sensation, imagination and reasoning are not per se acts of cognition, but processes that present some concrete or abstract data to the soul for cognition. The physical organs and signals of sensation do not in themselves constitute perception, but at best make it possible. When memories or inventions are displayed in the mind, it is not the mind that perceives them, but the soul. When a concept is built, or a relation is proposed or an inference is drawn, it is the soul alone that understands.

In like manner, volition refers primarily to an event in the soul, when it directly wills something specific within itself, for all apparent volitions beyond the soul are only direct or indirect consequences of such inner action. Similarly, valuation is something spiritual (i.e. in the soul) before anything else. Only within the soul can the three functions be sometimes clearly distinguished, because in most cases they are very tightly intertwined. This is evident when we consider in some detail their interrelations in the four theaters of experience.[3]

a.        Cognition (in a large sense, including all cognitive pursuits) uses volition as a tool in various ways.

·        This is true often even within the soul. For instances: the intentions of words and other symbols are acts of will; it takes will to direct and intensify attention, whether directed inward or outward.

·        At the mental level, the projection of mental images is often volitional. Cognition uses such projection for the fundamental acts of intelligence and reason, namely: mentally pointing at something, delimiting and segregating percepts, negating experience, as well as in abstraction and classification, formulation of hypotheses and alternative scenarios, making logical inferences, and of course use of language.

·        At the bodily physical level, we use volition to prepare for and pursue cognitive objects. For instances: opening one’s eyes and looking out, or turning one’s head to face something, or pointing with one’s finger, or reaching out with our hand to touch something, or moving one’s whole body in space to change perspective.

·        At the external physical level, we use volition to set up experiments, manipulating objects and moving them about, placing them in certain relations to each other, controlling their precise relative conditions.

b.       Volition (in a large sense, including all outer consequences of volition) involves and requires cognition in various ways.

  • Within the soul, although some volitions may be goal-less, volition is usually preceded by cognitions that identify ends and means for some larger volition, and so set the intention of the punctual volition concerned. Even in the case of whims, some exploratory cognition of inner and outer conditions may be involved.
  • At the mental and physical levels, volition uses cognition not only to identify general goals and means, but also to reconnoiter the current environment and thus obtain the feedback from it that allows particular volitions to be tested and if need be corrected or more precisely pinpointed, which increases chances of ultimate success.

c.        Valuation involves and is involved in cognition and volition in various ways.

·        Valuation within the soul is itself, as a particular event, both a cognitive act and an act of volition. To evaluate something is to purport to identify its value in relation some norm, i.e. within a comparative scale – this is a cognitive act. Valuation then assigns a corresponding positive or negative intention to subsequent volition – this is a volitional act.

·        Clearly, valuation does not occur in a vacuum, but in relation to a particular subject and environment – which have to be cognized, whether they are so rightly or wrongly. The subject may be the soul proper (e.g. in religious pursuits), or an erroneous identification of mental and bodily phenomena as the self (an ego), or the mind or body (e.g. in secular pursuit of psychological or physiological health), or supposed external souls or egos, or their supposed minds and bodies. The environment concerned in valuation is the apparent or assumed sphere of action and reaction of that particular subject.

·        Valuation also occurs relative to cognitive acts – considering whether such act leads to truth or falsehood. In its primitive form, such evaluation of cognitions as such occurs ad hoc, with varying degrees of clarity and validity (or ‘truth-value’). In more advanced form, this is what the sciences of logic and methodology purport to do: to find out exactly under what conditions in general, items of knowledge and processes of inferences may be judged valid or invalid.

·        Valuation is involved in all, or most, volitional acts, since the latter are generally (except apparently for whims) oriented towards things seemingly of value and away from things judged non-valuable.

Note that all three functions of soul may involve verbal commentary, but do not have to. Words obtain their meanings by the soul’s intention; they are also produced by volition, as mental projections of sights or sounds, or as physically spoken or written symbols. Words are sometimes useful; but sometimes they can be confusing.

  • In cognitive contexts, words help us to record, order and communicate a lot of information, to an extent impossible without words. But words become counter-productive when they stop us from referring to fresh experience, and when we become locked into their symbolic patterns.
  • In volitional contexts, words may be useful as learning or teaching tools, to transmit information or instructions from one person to the next. But they can also preoccupy our attention and hinder concentration on the job at hand[4].
  • In valuation, one may occasionally use adjectives like good or bad to express one’s intentions, but these words can become misleading if one forgets the essentially intuitive nature of valuation.

In particular, we should analyze the processes of reading and writing, consisting of complex series of both physical and mental acts of cognition and volition.

  • Reading a text[5], one observes[6] letter after letter and then mentally compares these to shapes and sounds (which, incidentally, one may express mentally or orally) one has learned, and groups them into words one has previously encountered, whose meanings one has memorized (if such correspondences are lacking in one, one must of course research them).
  • Writing implies first drawing from one’s memory banks the shapes of the letters that form the words one wants put down (which one may, again, simultaneously utter mentally or orally), then moving one’s arms, hands and fingers in the appropriate ways to draw (or simply type out) those shapes.

We can observe the intertwining of cognition, volition and valuation even in meditation, which may from the outside seem much more static than it is to the practitioner.

  • The cognitive aspects are of course central to meditation: looking at some external object, or watching one’s body breathing, or an emotional charge, or mental images and conversations, or inner reactions and attitudes – and ultimately, experiencing effects such as inner silence and stillness, and hopefully ultimately ‘enlightenment’.
  • The volitional aspects are numerous, too: physically sitting down and adopting an appropriate posture, keeping the pose and correcting it as and when necessary; attempting to suppress or reduce mental sights, sounds and thoughts, or at least to observe them with some inner distance; making an effort to have the right attitudes; focusing one’s attention on some object, whether it be external (e.g. a candle), or bodily (e.g. one’s spine or breathing), or mental (e.g. when reciting a mantra or visualizing a mandala, although these objects may appear automatically after a while), or non-phenomenal (i.e. intuited self or some function thereof).
  • Valuation is also involved. Although it is ultimately incorrect to have a goal in meditation, people get into meditation with goals in mind, whether the grand goal of enlightenment-liberation or fusion with God, or more prosaic goals like reducing stress or finding inner peace and such. Moreover, as meditation proceeds, many valuations occur, helping to prepare, direct, generate and regulate one’s cognitive and volitional faculties.

Evidently, then, cognition, volition and valuation are tightly knit together in most situations, although we can distinguish them in very simple situations within the soul. In view of that, it is worth noting that influences may impinge on all three. Although the concept of influence primarily relates to volition, it also concerns cognition and valuation.

  • As regards cognition, although it per se is free of influence, we may well be influenced as to what we look out for, what we allow ourselves to see or not see, the directions of our research, and so forth. This affects the scope, though not the content, of our experience. We may also be recipients of conceptual information and methodology (which may be right or wrong), from our teachers or other sources. Naturally, all that will tailor our database in some respects, i.e. the knowledge context we refer to in our judgments will be affected; additionally, our manner of interpreting such data may be affected.
  • As for valuation, being essentially an act of will, it can be directly influenced. Our valuations do noticeably vary across time, and according to our situation. If we are attentive, we can spot the influences that cause their variations. Consider for instance a new car model: at first sight one may find it ugly, and then in time – possibly because of the ‘lifestyle’ advertising one is subjected to – one may find it on the contrary very attractive!

The innermost ‘thoughts’ and ‘actions’ of the soul are primarily wordless intentions, beyond all mental images or sounds. The latter are mere accessories of the thoughts of the soul, and all the more so are the physical productions that accompany mental events (speech, writing, symbolic gestures, facial and bodily expressions). Our study of causality appears finally as one of phenomenology, when we consider where it is thought and action originate, and distinguish that from their more superficial displays.

For this reason, in meditation we try to look into ourselves, more and more inwardly, contemplating the roots of our thoughts and actions. By sitting immobile and quiet, we gradually still all mental and physical noise, and can thus hope to apperceive the more subtle aspects of our inner life. That is, when the environment becomes less loud and the body becomes less manifest, and the mental matrix becomes sufficiently blank and calm, the arising of wordless intentions in our non-phenomenal soul may begin to be discerned. The ‘still, small voice’ inside us might be heard.

 

2.   Velleity

A ‘velleity’ is an incipient act of volition. In a larger sense, velleity refers to a small but insufficient act of volition – i.e. one that was not brought to completion. Thus, velleity may suggest hesitation, to which we would contrast determination (‘getting the job done’, or resolve, resoluteness). But sometimes, velleity is intentional, in the sense that the volition is intentionally incomplete; we intend our will to be no more than inchoate, tentative. We may thereafter further develop it or interrupt it, or slightly shift its direction.

Thus, postures like willingness (a general openness) or readiness (a more immediate preparedness) to do something, are velleities that for the moment we do not necessarily wish to develop into full-blown volitions. However, note, such velleity is more than mere ability; it does imply a minimal movement of the will.[7]

Velleity can be detected by the agent through introspection (intuitive self-knowledge). If the act of volition concerned has already progressed beyond the confines of the soul, into the physical and/or mental domains, it may be detected by perception of some its phenomenal outcomes. In such case, the agent, or occasionally other observers, may then infer a velleity from outer events.

Many psychological concepts can only be defined and explained with reference to velleity. For example, the presentation of an ordinarily desirable object can only properly be called ‘interesting’ or ‘tempting’ to that agent at that time, if he manifests some velleity (if not a full volition) to go for it; otherwise, neither he nor we would know he desires it. A distinction is worth making in this context between a velleity to do something and one not to do something. For example, ‘laziness’ sometimes refers to a mere velleity not to work (thusly, if it is overridden by a more determinate act of will to work – else, it becomes a volition).

The concept of velleity is also important because it helps us to understand the co-existence of conflicting values. Although one cannot simultaneously fully will one value and will its negation, one can indeed have a double velleity – i.e. velleities for contradictory items. One may also have a mix of velleity for something and volition for its opposite: the latter dominates, of course, but that does not erase the fact of velleity. All this is also true for not-willing, of course. Thus, if one wants to introspect with great precision, one should remain aware of velleities as well as of outright volitions.

Velleities are an important tool for inner communications with oneself. It is mostly through velleity rather than volition that we register our intentions, the directions of our attention. We speak to ourselves through velleities, before we ever do so through words. Thus, I may verbally ask myself “shall I do so and so?” – and the term ‘doing so and so’ has meaning for me, not because I actually will so and so now, but because I just slightly lean in the direction of such a will (velleity). To intend “not-doing so and so”, I would generate a velleity of so and so, followed by a willful arrest of further such volition. Thus, velleities provide the soul with a wordless language concerning inner volitions. This is occasionally extended out by symbolic artifices.

An important case in point, which is fundamental epistemologically, is the so-called “mental” act of negation. That act is only partly mental, in the sense of referring to projection of a mental image. It is in large part a spiritual (i.e. in-the-soul) act, an act of intention – an act of velleity. When we speak of having observed the “absence” of some phenomenal object (say, a visual detail in the physical or mental domain), we are only partly referring to perception. We of course never in perception see absences; we only see presences. We can report that something is absent only by comparing the visual field tested to an imagination (wherein the object sought for is visualized). Only if we find nothing resembling the object imagined in the tested visual field, do we say: “it is absent”. To “negate” something thus involves mental projection, but also a velleity of “putting” that mentally projected object in the visual field under scrutiny and then a velleity of “removing” it to signal the failure of the test. Only thus do we get an inner understanding of what negation means.

Another important case in point is the act of abstraction, through which concepts are formed. This consists in focusing on some common aspect(s) of two or more experiences or concepts, while disregarding their differences. A selective ‘blanking out’ of contents of consciousness is involved, a negative intention achieved by velleity; we pretend some of what we observe is not there, so as to emphasize the observed similarities.

Another interesting example, also requiring careful awareness to observe, of such use of velleity is the following. When we think of other people or animals, we usually imagine them in action to some extent, often in relation to ourselves. The imagination of their physical actions is simply done by mental projection of their image going through certain motions, as in a movie. To imagine them imagining, we need only ourselves imagine what we would them to imagine, and intend or say “ditto in their case”. But how do we ‘imagine’ their subjective dispositions or actions? Since these are not phenomenal, they cannot be mentally projected. Thus, we must enact them to some extent within our own soul. However, we usually would not want to enact them fully: for example, we would not ourselves actually hate Mr. Y just so as to imagine Mr. X hating Mr. Y. Instead, we would generate a velleity, just enough to point our cognition in the intended direction. And then we would of course add (verbally or tacitly): “ditto for Mr. X towards Mr. Y”.

 

3.    Whim

We have analyzed volition as generally involving cognition of surrounding terms and conditions, and possible alternative courses of action, followed by evaluation, through which one selects one’s preferred goals and means. But it may be argued that such a description of volition is circular, since the cognition and valuation involved seem to imply prior acts of volition. Moreover, the imagination of goals and means implies the projection of mental images, which is itself often an act of will. Thus, the concept of volition may seem logically incoherent, unless we preempt such objections.

We have just to acknowledge that some volitional acts are primary, so that they do not themselves require prior cognitive research, mental projection of goals and means, evaluation or deliberate choice. Such volitions may be classified as whims or caprices (without pejorative connotation); for theoretical coherence, we have to admit such ‘causeless acts’ or ‘initial impulses’. They bubble forth from within us, ex nihilo[8]. What is spontaneous about them is that they are uninfluenced, they are not explicable with reference to any motive; but they still have a ‘cause’ in a larger sense: it is the acting soul. When we say “act of will” or speak about “freedom of the will”, we should always remember that we mean more precisely: “soul’s act of will”, “freedom of the soul to will”.

Whim is, in particular, required take action when one is in a quandary – when one values (or disvalues) a thing and its negation equally, or one is indifferent or uncertain either way. If whim did not exist, we would be paralyzed in such situations of even influence or non-influence in both directions. This specific case may be regarded as an additional argument in favor of the existence of whim, granting volition: if volition could not exist without some purpose in mind, it would often be blocked from proceeding. A fortiori, if freewill can go against the current of prevailing influences, one can will even more freely when influences are balanced, absent or unclear; the same power is involved in any case.

Some degree of consciousness is a sine qua non of volition. If no consciousness is involved in an act, it is not truly voluntary. So, whim should not be considered a blind, unconscious act. It suffices to define it as an irreducible primary. The first impulse to look into oneself or out at the world may thus be described as a dawning cognitive volition; it does not refer to prior research, though cognition accompanies it. The call-up of existing memories (information obtained in the past) may be similarly classed. Some imagination is involuntary, contributed by the brain without voluntary creativity: this can serve volition, without being volition. The act of valuation per se does not necessarily need to be influenced, although it may be.

Valuations must here clearly be distinguished from emotions; the former are voluntary positions or postures of the soul, the latter are reactions in the mind or body. Emotions do not necessarily or fully determine valuations. Emotions may cause later valuations to some extent, in the sense of influencing them. Indeed, they often do, insofar as most people consider their emotions as powerful arguments; they identify with them and are guided by them. But such emotions are themselves effects of earlier valuations; they are mental and/or bodily consequences of volitions influenced by such valuations[9]. Valuations are not necessarily rational, either. They may indeed be influenced by rational considerations; but however strong, such influence is never determining.

Thus, ultimately, all valuation is purely voluntary. Valuation gives or grants value. Things have value because the agent concerned has assigned value to them, period. Even when such act has objectives or objective justifications, claiming to be impartial evaluation, it is essentially arbitrary. This does not prove such valuations “false” – it just means they are intimate expressions of the self. Although one ought not identify with one’s emotions, one can well identify with one’s inmost valuations. So much for the issue of circularity in the concept of volition.

 

4.    Inner divisions

How is it our right hand may not know what our left hand is doing, as the saying goes? What does it mean to say that we are often in conflict with our own self?

The self or soul is essentially one, but may partition itself in various ways. As we have seen, the soul is not an object of perception, but an object of apperception or self-intuition. Since it has none of the phenomenal qualities we associate with space (shape, size, location, etc.), but is a non-phenomenal appearance, it cannot strictly speaking, from an epistemological point of view, be regarded as spatially extended or as having an exact place. From an ontological point of view, however, we may either adhere to the same restriction (out of positivism) – or we may hypothetically project a spatial extension and position, if only as a convenient image (by convention).

It may be more accurate to regard the partitions of soul as occurring in time rather than in space. For the soul seems extended in time, which is an abstract concept even in relation to matter and mind, anyway. We presume that, although the soul is renewed every moment, it retains some unity and continuity across time throughout its life[10] – on the basis of which, we may acknowledge our personal responsibility for our past, present and future thoughts and actions. This thesis may be upheld, without going so far as to deny our ability to morally break with the past and change course in the present and future.

Although some instances of partitioning of self can be explained by pointing out that the conflicting volitions involved actually occurred successively in time, it remains true that some conflicting volitions seem to be simultaneous[11]. It is the latter that we commonly map out as separate in space; although, strictly speaking, there is no reason to do so, i.e. we could equally well assume them as emerging from the same point of self.

The self or soul may be divided in a positive or negative manner. Such self-division is sometimes useful for purposes of self-regulation or self-control – as when we set up a ‘moral conscience’ to oversee our own compliance with certain higher standards, to ensure we are not swept away by the passions of the moment. Sometimes, the division is involuntary and unhealthy, causing self-damaging conflicts, reducing our ability to cope with life. Thus, division of the self is an issue of management – the manager in us must decide how much is needed and how much is too much.

We must distinguish in-soul conflicts (which occur in the self proper) and soul/mind-matter conflicts (which pit the self against its mental and material environment). One may pressure oneself to think or act in a certain way; this may be either in the sense of a will within the soul, or in the sense of a will pushing the mind and body in the direction concerned. Thoughts and deeds may be willfully suppressed for a variety of reasons: because they are sterile or foolish or painful or sickening, and so on.

Repression refers to an unhealthy situation, where segments of current or memorized apperception, perception, and conceptual thought are blocked from awareness, to a degree sufficient to ensure their (rightly or wrongly supposed) implications from being considered. Oppression refers to an uncomfortable situation, where the self at some level rejects an ideology – self-imposed under the influence of parents, society, religion, state, or other authorities – that is currently operative at another level. In the latter case, one’s autonomy is at stake – an issue of self-rule or self-determination – because one does not (or no longer does) identify with the ideology, yet one is (or continues to be) guided by it in thought and action.

More will be said on such psychological conflicts in the coming pages.



[1]           For examples, we seem to look out and see from behind our eyes or to enjoy touch sensations from within our body.

[2]           Although the latter three regions are all ‘outer’ relative to the soul, the mental and bodily domains may be considered relatively internal with reference to matter beyond the body, with the mental being regarded as closer to the soul than the bodily.

[3]           One of the relations between volition and consciousness is well brought out by José Ortega y Gasset in an essay entitled ‘Aspects and the Entirety’. Volition is needed by a limited consciousness to focus on different aspects of the object. Every appearance of the object is its response to the subject’s questioning regard: the eyes move about the object (as we approach or distance ourselves from or circle past it), ‘viewing’ different ‘aspects’ of it. An ‘integral’ consciousness would have no need of volition, but a limited one cannot do without it.

[4]           This is for instance evident in Tai Chi practice. As a novice, one uses verbal instructions as guides to movement (“turn left, advance foot, throw punch, etc.”). But eventually, the movements become automatic, and any verbal remark becomes a hindrance to their performance.

[5]           Preliminaries to reading a text may include movements of one’s body (bringing it to the bookcase or desk), movements of one’s arms and hands (opening the book, turning pages), movements of one’s head and eyes (opening, orientating and focusing them).

[6]           This visual act if for a blind person replaced by an act of touch.

[7]           ‘Eagerness’ is another velleity. This brings to mind a dog pulling on its leash. The will is more than just willing or ready; it is held back from springing forth, till an appropriate opportunity appears.

[8]           A whim or random act of will is in practice difficult to conjure. One may lack a useful end, but one’s end may be said to be the implicit will to whim. In some cases, one’s secret end may be the desire to seem whimsical to other people; i.e. one role-plays a whim. Still, supposing one clears our mind of such motives, the way a whim would work would be by attaching one’s will to some passing event, e.g. opting right (or left) without regard for consequences. But then, has one not told oneself “I will opt to the right”? It could be therefore be objected that such decision of principle sets an end, becoming the motive. But we may reply that the decision itself is the sought after whim. So real whim is conceivable – at least with reference to the decision as to which way to whim!

[9]           For this reason, incidentally, the attempts by some philosophers to build moral systems on hedonistic or aesthetic standards have little credibility. Such doctrines cannot guide valuation, because they refer to a consequence of it as the guide!

[10]          See discussion of this in chapter 16.2.

[11]          See discussion of ‘double velleities’, higher up.

 

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