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On being motivated


Merleau-Ponty’s notion of being motivated or solicited to act has recently been the focus of extensive investigation, yet work on this topic has tended to take the general notion of being motivated for granted. In this paper, I shall outline an account of what it is to be motivated. In particular, I shall focus on the relation between the affective character of states of being motivated and their intentional content, i.e. how things appear to the agent. Drawing on Husserl’s discussion of perceptual awareness, I suggest that the intentional content of states of being motivated has a horizonal structure, in which both affective and perceptual features are implied. In states of being motivated, the agent becomes aware of certain possibilities for action, towards which they feel drawn. This structure is what Merleau-Ponty refers to as the “intentional arc” (1962, 136).

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  1. Recent work focusing on this concept includes Dreyfus (2000, 2005a, 2007a); Kelly (2002) and Wrathall (2005). Work that in part deal with this concept includes Kelly (2005); Dreyfus and Kelly (2007); Jensen (2009); Berendzen (2010); Romdenh-Romluc (2011) and Smith (2012). The concept of being motivated which I consider in this paper is not the commonplace notion; nor does it correlate with the concept of motive found in philosophical discussions of action (e.g. Peters (1958) and Kenny (1963)), or with the concept of a motivating reason, a reason for which the agent acts. Rather, it is a philosophical term of art, denoting a certain kind of state in which the agent feel inclined to act because of how things appear to them.

  2. In particular his discussion of Schneider (e.g. 1962, 103–117; 155–157) and of habitual actions (142–146).

  3. My conception of ‘intentional content’ includes what Merleau-Ponty refers to as ‘meaning’ or ‘significance’. Very generally, I take the intentional content of an experience to be how the object of that experience appears to the subject or agent (contrast with Wrathall 2005, 117).

  4. In this paper I shall be working with a relatively abstract notion of being motivated. I shall not discuss the differences between Husserl and Merleau-Ponty’s conceptions (Carman 1999, 212–213). I shall assume that these differences are not crucial at the level of abstraction with which I am concerned.

  5. I am using the term ‘relation’ in a rather loose way, since an agent can be motivated to act without acting in that way. But as it is useful to describe being motivated in relational terms, I shall continue to use this terminology.

  6. For a very similar distinction, see Lowe 2008, 206–207.

  7. The fact that an agent is motivated by particular objects does not imply that what they are motivated to do is to perform particular actions, as opposed to take up courses of action. The course of action one is motivated to take up will be defined partly by reference to the particular object which motivates one, but it will still be a course of action (such as grasping a mug) rather than one particular action (one particular event of grasping as opposed to any other).

  8. See for example 1962, 261; see also Morriston (1979, 562) and Jensen (2009, 376). This understanding of internal relations is rooted in Hume’s ‘relations of ideas’, which “depend entirely on the ideas [of the relata]” (1978, 1.3.1). Hume’s relations of ideas are discussed with regard to more recent thinking on internal relations in Armstrong 1997, 87–89.

  9. Morriston also points out that the journey one makes (the particular sequence of events involved in one’s travelling from one location to another) is one of only a number of possible journeys which would have met the requirement (1979, 566). But this point can be accommodated by noting that one is motivated not to perform a specific action, but to take up a certain course of action, which any one of a number of specific actions could execute. It is the course of action rather than any specific action which helps to define the state of being motivated.

  10. This point is analogous to one made by Melden about motives. He points out that it is impossible to understand the concept of a motive independently of the concept of an action (1961, 83), even though the presence of a motive is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for the occurrence of an action (80). A similar point is made by Lennon, in describing an internal relation or constitutive tie between a certain type of experiential content and the type of response that is appropriate to experiences with content of that type: “Whether or not we do respond to the pain of another, in grasping that pain is what is being expressed, we grasp that certain kinds of responses are appropriate” (2011, 287). What is particularly interesting in the present context is that this kind of internal relation is normative. An appropriate response is in some way built into experiential content of that type. I shall return to this point presently.

  11. It might be argued that this is not a reciprocal relation, but two different relations. I do not wish to take a stand on this issue—what matters is that the state of being motivated is related to what is motivated in the way described.

  12. The demand is to engage in a certain course of action, but when one successfully takes up that course of action (that is, when one performs an action of the appropriate type) then one feels that the demand is thereby satisfied. Note that this demand is felt; I shall return to this point presently.

  13. By ‘presents’ I simply mean that something is given in experience; that the agent is aware of it, though they may not focus on it. It does not follow that it is represented in the sense to which Merleau-Ponty (1962, 139) or Dreyfus (2000, 293–294) would object.

  14. This may be what Dreyfus and Kelly are getting at when they argue that the experience of being motivated cannot be a belief, since a belief involves a claim about the way the world is, whereas the experience involves a sense of what one ought to do (2007, 53–54). I agree that the experience of being motivated is not a belief, but not for this reason (after all, one can have beliefs about what one ought to do).

  15. Note also that Slaby and Döring do not mean by ‘motivating’ precisely what is under discussion in this paper.

  16. Again, while there are cases where the agent is not motivated by what they perceive, I am focusing on perceptual states of being motivated.

  17. To connect Husserl’s descriptions of perceptual experience and Merleau-Ponty’s notion of motivation is by no means novel (see n.20 below—but see also Dreyfus 2002, 372–373 for an opposing interpretation to the one I offer). I hope to use this connection to understand the relation between the agent’s perceiving something and their being drawn to act in a certain way.

  18. That perceptual experiences present aspects of objects other than those which are directly given is widely accepted. See Strawson (1974) and Church (2010).

  19. It is worth noting that both Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, in discussing the horizonal nature of perception, use the terminology of ‘motivation’ (Husserl 1982, 106–107; 1989, 236–237; Merleau-Ponty1962, 30–31). In the present paper I am reserving the term ‘motivation’ for felt inclinations to act in certain ways.

  20. Again, this point itself is not new. Berendzen describes Merleau-Ponty as generalising the holism which characterises perceptual experience: “Something like the figure–background relationship, wherein things are made determinate only by standing out through relations with other things, is taken to hold for all aspects of human thought and action” (2010, 631; see also 637, and Wrathall 2005, 114).

  21. This is not to say that one is temporally situated only insofar as one has a sense of one’s actions as temporally extended. One’s experiences are structured by temporal horizons even when they are passive and involve no agency. The point is that one’s experience of acting, and specifically one’s experience of motivated actions, is temporally structured in the way I am describing.

  22. There is also a difference between feeling inclined towards a course of action, and merely being inclined towards it. White, in drawing this distinction, mentions temptation as an example of the former (1968, 15).

  23. It may be possible to develop this argument by arguing that being motivated involves a bodily rather than a mental mode of awareness (e.g. Smith 2012; Hudin 2006, 578). However, this line of thought raises issues regarding the relation between bodily and mental states which I cannot consider in this paper.

  24. To be more precise, he argues that feelings cannot be reduced to feelingless desires. Since functionally characterised desires are not in and of themselves feeling-laden, any adequate explanation of feelings must appeal to more than desires characterised in this way.

  25. To say that these desires are not had for reasons is to say that the subject of the desire has no motivating reason for having that desire. There will often be explanatory reasons, reasons why the subject has that desire (e.g. facts about the state of the subject’s body); but these are not motivating reasons, reasons for desiring. For more on the distinction between motivating and explanatory reasons, see Alvarez 2010, 35–39.

  26. I offer this only as a necessary condition for being motivated, as it is possible that the right-hand side of the conditional could be satisfied in cases where the agent is not motivated. It could be changed to a biconditional by changing ‘on perceiving x’ to ‘in virtue of perceiving x’, but I do not need to make this stronger claim. I should add that this characterisation of the stimulation is limited in two further ways, which I shall consider presently.

  27. This is suggested by Rietveld (2008, 977). For a similar account of control over habitual action, see Pollard 2005, 74–75.

  28. Strictly speaking, (b) should also contain the further condition that A does not decide to not y’. For example, if I am simultaneously motivated to both drink some water and to leave the room, and if the motivation to drink the water is stronger than the motivation to leave the room, then I will not leave the room even though I am motivated to do so—unless I decide, for whatever reason, to refrain from drinking the water. In that eventuality, given that I am motivated to leave the room I would do so (unless I decided to not do that either).

  29. Such non-rational agents would lack what Fischer and Ravizza term “regulative control”, the power freely to do something other than the act they are motivated to perform (1998, 31). However, they might still have a certain kind of control over their actions, similar to what Fischer and Ravizza term “guidance control”: they can freely execute certain actions even if they could not do otherwise (1998, 31–33). (I say ‘similar to’ guidance control since Fischer and Ravizza define the latter partly in terms of responsiveness to reasons, which does not apply in the case of non-rational agents.)

  30. By ‘activity afforded’, Kelly means the activity one is motivated to perform. Kelly does not consider the possibility of being simultaneously motivated to take up different courses of action.

  31. Leaving aside cases where the agent does not do what they are motivated to because they consciously refrain from doing it.

  32. By disengaging from one’s activity, Kelly means paying attention to the fact that one is performing this activity (to adapt his definition of skilful absorbed coping—2005, 17). Any deliberation by the agent on what they are doing would count as disengaging from their activity in this sense.

  33. Dreyfus has written extensively on how novices, skilled performers and experts respond differently to situations, but as far as I am aware he does not suggest that an expert is incapable of failing to execute an action they are expert in.

  34. Kelly does acknowledge that things can go wrong, and he arguably has in mind cases like the ones I have just outlined: “Of course it is true that my grip can fail to match the shape of the doorknob. Of course it is true that I can bump into obstacles” (2005, 19). He denies that in these cases one has done something which does not match the activity one was motivated to do, but I suggest this is a natural description of cases like the ones outlined above. Note that this kind of misfire is different to cases where one, for example, mistakes a patch of sunlight for a rock, and is thereby motivated to act in an inappropriate or indeed impossible manner (2005, 20–21; Dreyfus 2007a, 362–363).

  35. It may be that, as Dreyfus suggests, one responds best to affordances when one does not notice them (2005a, 56). All I am saying is that they can continue to motivate one even when one is paying attention to them.


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Thanks to Ben Smith, Amanda Taylor, Anke Maatz, Joel Smith, Martin Capstick and two readers for this journal for their comments and suggestions on earlier drafts. Thanks also to audiences at the Durham postgraduate research group (Eidos) and the philosophy research seminar at Hull for their very helpful responses.

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Correspondence to Donnchadh O’Conaill.

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O’Conaill, D. On being motivated. Phenom Cogn Sci 12, 579–595 (2013).

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  • Motivation
  • Action
  • Merleau-Ponty
  • Intentional arc
  • Affect
  • Horizon