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Conation

So much for cognitionalism. What of conation or striving? Is it more fitted than cognition to be an actual description of mental processes? It seems clear that, on the contrary, striving is also a relation, implying a striver and a striven for. Of course, if we regard conation as simply meaning activity, then it is just another word for process, and is not a means of distinguishing minds from any other existing things. Taking conation as striving, however, we find in the first instance that the conational theory of mind — exemplified in Alexander's “Foundations and Sketch-Plan of a Conational Psychology”note and again in Freud's recognition of the characteristic mental process as a wish; suggested, also, in the general position of the pragmatists — certainly marks an advance on the cognitional theory. This is particularly so in respect of the theory of knowledge itself (including the theory of error).

Cognitionalism upholds the doctrine of “ideas”, i.e., things characterised by being known, and thus involves us either in the coherence


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theory of truth or (when certain realist assumptions are implicitly made; when it is assumed that we somehow know, beyond “ideas”, what they represent) in the correspondence theory. The former theory fails because it, like any other, cannot be consistently unrealistic. If we rightly or wrongly regard a certain idea as cohering with other ideas, we are recognising the existence of actual relations among ideas and are therefore treating them as independently existing things. On the other hand, if to have an idea is to know all about it, if there is nothing more in it than we know, since, as Berkeley and Hume make out, “our idea” is just what we know, then we cannot be wrong about it; and the supposed relations, of coherence and incoherence, are either just ideas among others, or else are outside the region of ideas altogether, and in neither case do we have the adjustment or maladjustment which the theory requires.

The main error of this view — an error which appears also in the correspondence theory and in many other philosophical doctrines — lies in the assumption that there is a kind of knowledge which cannot be mistaken as contrasted with that which can; that, e.g., minds can receive “data” about which there is no dubiety, and can then “interpret” them in various ways which may possibly be mistaken. A sufficient objection to such theories is that they imply a kind of knowledge which both can and cannot be mistaken. Thus the recognition of the fact that “A is an interpretation of the datum B” must be at once the work of the fallible and of the infallible faculty. To avoid this difficulty we have to say that the fallible faculty can also be acquainted with “data”, which must therefore be matters of as much dubiety as “interpretations”. In short, the indubitable cannot be brought into relation with the “doubtful”, i.e., with any real issue, and the solution is that there is no infallible kind of knowledge.

This appears again in connection with the correspondence theory. Merely to have an idea which is like an outside thing is not on the face of it any better than having an idea which is unlike an outside thing; and the latter is not on the face of it error. Error arises only if we think the unlike is like, i.e., if we make a direct comparison between “ideas” and outside things; and this comparison is on exactly the same footing as a comparison between one outside thing and another. Thus the question of “ideas” does not arise at all in the general treatment of error, and it can arise in particular cases only if an “idea” is a certain sort of thing, existing perhaps in a special location (e.g., in a mind), but having the same type of independent existence, being on the same logical footing, as a thing existing in some other location (e.g., in a tree). The correspondence and coherence theories alike fail, then, because they cannot avoid admitting, at some point, the realist contention that we are dealing all the time with independent things — with what exists, whatever its location and character may be.

The doctrine of striving, on the other hand, permits us to distinguish cases where we are mistaken from cases where we are not. We are right,


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it may be said, when we get what we strive for and wrong when we do not. Error, at least, is comparable to missing one's mark (mis-taking); and here the Freudian theory of errors as satisfactions of (unacknowledged) wishes is important. We are in error when we treat A, which is not B, as if it were B; when we mistakenly use it as a B — e.g., when we treat a red danger signal as if it were a green safety signal, or treat as a friend a man who will actually deceive us. This clearly implies a certain knowledge of both A and B, i.e., error is impossible without knowledge; knowledge is primary, error secondary — but, of course, that is actually the case. It is to be noted that we are sometimes undeceived and sometimes not. The fact that we do not always find out afterwards what mistakes we have made, and the fact that we do not always know what we are doing or what our actions will lead to, are among the obstacles to a thorough discussion of error.

Error, then, is exemplified in misuse of things (using a pruning-knife to cut down a gum-tree or a sledge-hammer to crush a wasp), and arises in our striving, with the means at our disposal, to satisfy our wishes; or, as I should put it, in our motives themselves, our tendencies or mental tensions, striving to find an object, to find outlet or release. We believe what eases our minds,note whether it is true or false. Freud's theory of the wish and Alexander's identification of the theoretical and the practical (treating judging, e.g., as Descartes also does, as a form of willing) have prepared the way for this development of psychological theory, in spite of incidental cognitionalist confusions. The theory of the mental tension appears also in James's account of the “active gap” in our “consciousness” when we are striving to recall a forgotten name. And if we take all knowledge as discovery,note then we have a general recognition of tension; and that is known or found, we may say, which releases the tension and sets our minds at rest — or, at least, a part of our minds; we have, of course, many quests, not only successively but at any given time.

This conational view is also in accordance with the whole modern doctrine of interests, as guiding our lives and constituting our mental character (though acceptance of that doctrine has to be distinguished from the adoption of any special theory of “instinct”). Even those who speak of “intellect” have still to recognise “intellectual interests”, a “passion for truth” and the like. But when all has been said that can be said on the conational side, we find that we have still not learned what are the qualities of mental processes themselves, what it is that may be in tension or relaxed. Striving, like knowing, is a relation, and the mental quality (mentality) is still to seek.

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