Friday, August 16, 2019

Desires, Wishes ... and Weakness of Will

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Linda A.W. Brakel, who by training and profession is both a psychoanalyst and a philosopher, demonstrates how this particular combination can yield important insights that uniquely benefit psychoanalytic theory and therapy as well as philosophy. Philosophically her work is on par with such stellar exemplars in the philosophical examination of psychoanalysis as Marcia Cavell, Ilham Dilman, Sebastian Gardner, Jonathan Lear, A.O. Rorty, Richard Wollheim, Jon Mills, Tomas Pataki, and John Wisdom, among others. In what follows I highlight some aspects of one of several incisive and compelling arguments in her book, Philosophy, Psychoanalysis, and the A-Rational Mind (Oxford University Press, 2009). This has to do with her conceptual distinction between “desires” and “wishes” (a distinction Freud himself failed to make), one result of which is her contribution to making sense of, if not solving, the akratic or “weakness of will” problem (i.e., acting against one’s better judgment) in philosophy. 

As Brakel explains, “[p]sychological attitudes are standardly divided into two types—cognitive attitudes, in which the content of the attitude is regarded as having come about; and conative attitudes, in which the context is to be brought about. Beliefs are the foremost example of the former, and can be further distinguished from other cognitive attitudes: phantasizing, imagining, pretending, supposing, and hypothesizing, for example. Beliefs stand apart from these other cognitive attitudes in that

“[i]ntrinsic to being a belief is the distinctive functional and constitutive aim in attempting to represent the world truly and correctly. If evidence to the contrary of a belief’s content a is gained—if I am shown that what appeared to be a water fountain is really a birdbath—the belief that a can no long be held as a belief. The same negative evidence, however, in no way prevents me from continuing to phantasize a, imagine a true, pretend a true, or suppose a true. The content a can no longer be believed-true owing to the fact that belief functions to represent the world as it is—‘belief constitutively aims at the truth’ [David Velleman]—and that this constitutive regulation of belief constrains what contents can be believed (as opposed to imagined, supposed, etc.).” 

We’ll leave aside further analysis and discussion of cognitive attitudes to focus on an exemplary conative attitude, desire. Brakel argues that desire has a constitutive function,

“namely, that in order to be a desire, a conative attitude must contribute to action production in the real world toward the fulfillment of its own content—a readiness-to-act. Wishes … have a much different constitutive function. Wishes contribute to the fulfillment of their content, not through readiness-to-act in the real world, but via the formation of the sort of phantasies that can provide fulfillment.” 

We cannot fill in all the steps in the argument or provide the details of her treatment of possible objections, all of which make for enjoyable reading. Here we will simply share the bulk of her novel and ingenious approach to the problem akrasia, or weakness of will:

“Donald Davidson gives the modern standard version of the dilemma of the akratic person. A man has a desire for a and is able to do a. He also has a desire for b and could do b. He is free to do a or do b, and they are mutually exclusive. After taking everything possible into account, he judges that b is the better action. On this basis he desires to do b more and therefore decides to do b. Yet he performs a and does not perform b. Davidson asks, ‘what is the agent’s reason for doing a when he believes it would be better, all things considered, to do another thing[?].’ He continues ‘the answer must be: for this agent has no reason.’ In other words, although ‘[o]f course he has a reason for doing a; what he lacks is a reason for not letting his better reason for not doing a prevail.’ To the extent that the akrate performs akratic actions, he is for Davidson not rational. Further, according to Davidson, the akrate ‘cannot understand himself; he recognizes in his own internal behavior, something essentially surd. 

Let us investigate this with an example that is both specific and commonplace. H drinks sugary soft drinks, and colas are his favorite. He knows, all things considered, that it is better not to drink them. Thus with each can or bottle of cola, he both desires to drink it—let us say he desires a; and desires not to drink it—let us call this his desire for b. Not drinking colas would be better, and b is the better act. Therefore, according to Davidson, H should desire b more. Yet H continues to imbibe cola soft drinks—he does a, he does not do b. 

Davidson’s problem can be addressed fairly readily if one considers readiness-to-act as desire’s constitutive function and the psychological calculus alluded to earlier…. An agent’s judgment that an action b is better than some action a, even all things considered, is no assurance, Davidson’s claim to the contrary notwithstanding, that this agent will desire b more than a. This type of example makes it clear that desire and evaluative judgment are not intrinsically linked. To desire something does not mean, as Davidson claims, that one has an attitude toward it as worthy of that desire. Rather, on my view, desire’s constitutive function of readiness-to-act links it to intentional action such that if an agent performs desired action a intentionally and does not perform desired action b, no matter what other actions are considered, in some sense he can be said to desire a more. H judges that b, stopping cola drinking, is better. But H does a, he drinks colas. Hence, H desires a more. Note that this analysis does not preclude H having a strong wish for b, to stop imbibing colas, even as he does a, and drinks them. Moreover, H might well have a strong wish that he could desire b more than he desires a. In fact, just these sorts of conflict between wish and desire is likely present in every case of akrasia. And yet, as long as he continues to do a, his cola drinking is reflective of his stronger desire and its constitutive aim of readiness-to-act in the real world toward fulfillment of its content.”
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Further Reading (In addition to the basic literature on akrasia andweakness of will found in the bibliography to the SEP entry by Sarah Stroud below, this short, idiosyncratic list represents material that has influenced my perspective on topics broached by Brakel as well as related matters, such as addiction and ‘precommitment’ or ‘self-binding.’):
  • Elster, Jon. Strong Feelings: Emotion, Addiction, and Human Behavior (MIT Press, 1999).
  • Elster, Jon. Ulysses Unbound: Studies in Rationality, Precommitment and Constraints (Cambridge University Press, 2000): 1-87, but especially, 63-87.
  • Fingarette, Herbert. Heavy Drinking: The Myth of Alcoholism as a Disease (University of California Press, 1988).
  • Heyman, Gene M. Addiction: A Disorder of Choice (Harvard University Press, 2009).
  • Hill, Thomas E., Jr. “Kant on Weakness of Will,” from his book, Virtue, Rules and Justice: Kantian Aspirations (Oxford University Press, 2012): 107-128.
  • Radoilska, Lubomira. Addiction and Weakness of Will (Oxford University Press, 2013).
  • Rorty, Amélie Oksenberg, 12. “Where Does the Akratic Break Take Place?” and 13. “Akrasia and Conflict,” from her book, Mind in Action: Essays in the Philosophy of Mind (Beacon Press, 1988): 229-265.
  • Stroud, Sarah. “Weakness of Will,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta, ed.
Relevant Bibliographies


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