Years ago, in an introduction to philosophy class, our professor began a session with the question, “What is your motive?” He asked us to write about our motive, considering the text we had been assigned to read.
Several of the students were taken aback, perhaps not understanding the question. (Perhaps they hadn’t read the chapters we had been assigned.) I absorbed the ideas in that philosophy class as if I were lost at sea, surrounded by saltwater, and someone had given me fresh, pure water to drink. Eventually, I chose philosophy as one of my minors for my BA degree. I was then, and still am now, fascinated with the discipline of philosophy and its methods of exploration, examination, and discovery. It’s no small wonder to me, then, that I delve into clarifying (and sometimes over-analyzing) ideas.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about the term ‘motive’ and how it applies to my life. I didn’t want to dig out my notes from that class (and yes, I have all my undergrad class notes – LOL), so I simply searched for the term online. My favorite online dictionaries didn’t offer the definition I wanted, so, I found a dictionary of philosophical terms. The dictionary of philosophy I came across online defines motive as “an animal drive or desire which consciously or unconsciously operates as a determinant of an act of volition.” The dictionary I’m referring to was published in 1942, (in 2004, it was uploaded to the internet). If you want to look it up for yourself, here’s the link: http://www.ditext.com/runes/index.html. The definition of motive is academic speak (from 1942, mind you), and those of us who don’t readily grasp the meaning have to grapple with it for a bit. I’d like to explore the definition, starting with the “animal” aspect.
To say that motive is an animal drive or desire might make one think that motive is, like the fight-or-flight response, an inner primitive urge beyond our control. I don’t believe that’s what “animal drive or desire” means. That inner drive, or spark, within each of us may be primitive and intrinsic to all sentient beings, but we have the tools to choose NOT act on every drive or desire that presents itself in our lives. (Not that we humans always avoid impulsive acts!) I would simply have stated it as an inner drive or desire, and left the animals to the biologists. Still, whether motive is conscious or unconscious is debatable.
Naturally, a definition of unconscious should be clear and accepted as universal. Did the author of the definition actually mean subconscious? In 1942, perhaps the equivocation of the term unconscious wasn’t regarded as terribly important. I prefer the term subconscious for this simple reason: the prefix ‘un-‘means NOT, and the prefix ‘sub-‘means BELOW. The inner drives and desires that influence our choices can either be those of which we are fully aware – and conscious, or those of which we are consciously unaware – the drives and desires that hang out just below our daily awareness level. To use the term unconscious implies that they are completely outside our discoverability – to be unconscious means to be completely unaware. Even with this distinction, the definition I’d like to offer for motive is not yet complete.
Examining the final statement, “operates as a determinant of an act of volition,” the terms seem simple. To operate is to perform a function. Volition comes from a Latin word meaning ‘to wish.’ So, an act of volition is a wish that one acts on; even more simply put, it is a choice.
After examining these ideas separately, my suggestion regarding how we might define motive is, I hope, easier to grasp. Motive is an inner drive or desire, conscious or subconscious, that functions as a factor in a making a choice or performing an act of will. At least I now have a working definition for a question my teacher posed so many years ago.
In the years since that class, I’ve often asked myself the question: “What is my motive?” Unfortunately, I have many times forgotten to ask myself that simple question – the question that forces me to examine my inner drives and desires – especially the ones below my level of daily awareness – and clearly know the factors that determine my choices. Perhaps that is why I enjoy the writings of Thoreau: he implores us to live deliberately, and to me, that means to examine my own motives – and that in turn helps me to live the life I truly desire. I’d have to confess that I sometimes lose track of my own motives – mea culpa, but I find my way back eventually.
Perhaps it’s worth the time to examine our lives and see with clarity what our inner drives and desires are, and in the discovery, act on those drives and desires that promote our well-being and the well-being of others. I’m working on that, and one day, I’ll be able to say I’ve found the balance. For now, I’m a work in progress.
© 2012 lkl
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