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It has been normal in philosophy and science for human motivation and behaviour to be conceived and explained in terms of supra-individual forces, sometimes called drives. Drives are a kind of compulsion, often only semi-conscious or even unconscious. Compulsions for food, sex, shiny baubles, or power are common examples. Drives are impersonal and generic, even though, as in Plato’s conception of a three-part subjectivity (consisting of appetites, competitive spirit, and contemplative (passive) rationality) individuals display a distinct personal prominence of some over others. In any case, motivating drives are not creations of an individual intelligence, but instead derive from something outside and prior to the individual. In modern culture, such appetites or desires are assumed to derive from biological structures, to be ‘hard wired’ and so manifestations of a general human nature which is ultimately inseparable from the rest of what might be called the laws of nature. There are debates about a hierarchy of drives, about which is more powerful, the drive for pleasure, for power (the will to power), or for meaning (echoing Plato’s three-part structure). Drives for power or meaning are less plausibly derived from simple biological mechanisms, but they have been interpreted as expressing some physically based compulsion toward general self-interest (more or less rational), self-gratification, self-preservation, or self-advantage. In that vision, intelligence or rationality is conceived as a biological mediating mechanism translating the primordial compulsion into actions adjusted to a particular environment.

The idea that human behaviour and motivation are explainable in terms of impersonal compulsions comes from visions of determinism, usually materialist or economic determinism, which is to say, conceptual systems which ignore or reject profound individual freedom. The impulse of determinists is to complete a picture of the total world in terms of pre-determined laws of motion, and so human motivation and behaviour have to be kept as simple as possible to be fitted into that picture. However, there is a clash, a mis-match or discontinuity, between the conception of human behaviour as determined by impersonal drives, and the identification of humans as performers of certain acts of thinking, such as a kind of philosophical thinking. For example, it was a basic understanding of the nature of philosophy, as early as the Iron Age, that it was individual intelligence contemplating its own interiority. That historical observation is documented in The Shape of Ancient Thought*, by Thomas C. McEvilley, most explicitly in the chapters on Plotinus, especially starting around page 558. Ordinary knowledge comes from an outward gaze (science), but ultimate knowledge is the same as profound self-knowledge and comes from thinking inwardness. The subsection “Knowing the One for Plotinus” (p. 560) includes references to Aristotle’s idea of “thought thinking itself”. Identification of that philosophical act as characteristic of human individuals, an inclination to explore self-identification in the way required by that conception of philosophy, reveals humans as a sort of entity that can and does contemplate and question its own self-identification, from a basic curiosity.

That clash highlights the need for a paradigm shift in human self-identification: the difference between thinking of behaviour and motivation in terms of drives (instinctive, biological, or metaphysical) as conceived by Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Darwin, and Freud; as opposed to conceiving behaviour and motivation in terms of an individual’s questions that set bearings for personal orientation.

There is an educational notion of “readiness” that illustrates the difference. Roughly, any person will learn best what he or she is already wondering about from having reached a particular stage of personal development. To wonder is to approach the world with particular questions, but not questions formed in a language. Wondering is pre-linguistic, and pre-cultural, and originates in each individual outside social influences. The pre-linguistic nature of curiosity, wonder, or questioning means that it includes features that are often semi-conscious or sporadically conscious. Wonder does not need to be taught, and likely cannot be, but can be re-awakened or re-discovered. Wondering and discoveries that follow from it are progressive, each discovery contributing to a new bearing in a person’s wondering, and although there are rough stages of development in most people, there are individual peculiarities. What one person wonders about is never exactly what others are wondering about, and that is the peculiar genius of every person. Doubt is an instance of this king of wondering, and doubt is often non-linguistic and distinctly individual, definitive of subjective individuality, having the peculiar existence of intelligence rather than of objects. Each person’s wondering or questioning process could be seen as a peculiar creative force that shapes the world by a principle that is not reducible to gravity, electro-magnetism, kinetics, mechanics, thermodynamics, chemical bonding, DNA, nuclear bonding, momentum, or inertia. Questions are creations of a particular intelligence, and intelligence is the matrix of questions, of wonder, curiosity, a particularity of exploration. Having a question, an orientation that is sensed as peculiarly incomplete and so searching for something more or less indefinite but not entirely out-of-reach, is already the realization of freedom and self-direction. To have a question or a doubt is already to act autonomously.

* The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies, written by Thomas C. McEvilley, published by Allworth Press (2001), ISBN-10: 1581152035, ISBN-13: 978-1581152036.

Copyright © 2014 Sandy MacDonald.

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