§5. Polar Distinctions and Volition 1)


330. Calling any distinction between two equally decided characters to which no third seems to be coördinate (although a neutrality separates them) a polar distinction, in the external world polar distinctions are few. That of past and future, with the resulting two ways of passing over a line (and consequent right-and left-handed spirals and helices, whence probably the magnetic and possibly the electric poles — supposing the latter to be truly »polar« in our sense), with the right and left sides of our bodies, and the two sexes, seems pretty much to exhaust the list of them. Yet for the much smaller universe of psychology, polar distinctions abound, most of them referring to volition. Thus, pleasure is any kind of sensation that one immediately seeks, pain any that one immediately shuns. Right and wrong are expressly volitional. Necessity and impossibility so obviously refer to volition that the words often need qualification to show that rational modifications of them are meant. The words reasonable and perverse imply that assent is as free as choice ever is, and so proclaim their volitional strain. Roget's Thesaurus illustrates the great aptitude of the psychical to polar distinction. Any very close examination of how far this is due to volition would cause us to wander quite away from the subject of this essay. It would show that dichotomy, meaning the fact that the elements that a distinction separates are just two in number, is strikingly often — perhaps that it is presumably always — due to volition. . . .

331. Although the mode of consciousness we call volition, or willing, contrasts decidedly with the mere perception that something has been done, yet it is not perfected, and perhaps does not take place at all, until something is actually effected. Trying to shove something too heavy for the man to stir nevertheless accomplishes, in considerable measure, the only thing that he directly willed to do — namely, to contract certain muscles. In the days of table-turning we used to be commanded to sit quite away from a table, and » with all our might« to will that the table should move; and since the whole weight of our outstretched arms soon made our finger-tips unconsciously numb (for things are not apt to be consciously unconscious; and there were other concurring physiological effects that we did not suspect), while we were possessed of no other »might« over the table than through our muscles, we used to be speedily rewarded, by a direct consciousness of willing that the table move, accompanied by the vision of its wondrous obedience. Until it moved, we were only longing, not willing. So when certain psychologists write, chiefly in French — a language abounding in exquisite distinctions, but one in which any analytical method of interpretation is so sure to lead to misunderstandings, that the language is not well adapted to psychology or philosophy — about » involuntary attention,« they can only mean one of two things, either unpremeditated attention or attention influenced by conflicting desires. Though »desire« implies a tendency to volition, and though it is a natural hypothesis that a man cannot will to do that which he has no sort of desire to do, yet we all know conflicting desires but too well, and how treacherous they are apt to be; and a desire may perfectly well be discontented with volition, i.e., with what the man will do. The consciousness of that truth seems to me to be the root of our consciousness of free will. »Involuntary attention« involves in correct English a contradiction in adjecto.


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