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The Nature Of The Will

There has been much discussion and not a little controversy as to the
true nature of the will. Just what is the will, and what is the
content of our mental stream when we are in the act of willing? Is there
at such times a new and distinctly different content which we do not
find in our processes of knowledge or emotion--such as perception,
memory, judgment, interest, desire? Or do we find, when we are engaged
in an act of the will, that the mental stream contains only the
familiar old elements of attention, perception, judgment, desire,
purpose, etc., all organized or set for the purpose of accomplishing or
preventing some act?

THE CONTENT OF THE WILL.--We shall not attempt here to settle the
controversy suggested by the foregoing questions, nor, for immediately
practical purposes, do we need to settle it. It is perhaps safe to say,
however, that whenever we are willing the mental content consists of
elements of cognition and feeling plus a distinct sense of effort,
with which everyone is familiar. Whether this sense of effort is a new
and different element, or only a complex of old and familiar mental
processes, we need not now decide.

THE FUNCTION OF THE WILL.--Concerning the function of the will there can
be no haziness or doubt. Volition concerns itself wholly with acts,
responses. The will always has to do with causing or inhibiting some
action, either physical or mental. We need to go to the dentist, tell
some friend we were in the wrong, hold our mind to a difficult or
uninteresting task, or do some other disagreeable thing from which we
shirk. It is at such points that we must call upon the will.

Again, we must restrain our tongue from speaking the unkind word, keep
from crying out when the dentist drills the tooth, check some unworthy
line of thought. We must here also appeal to the will. We may conclude
then that the will is needed whenever the physical or mental activity
must be controlled with effort. Some writers have called the work of
the will in compelling action its positive function, and in inhibiting
action its negative function.

HOW THE WILL EXERTS ITS COMPULSION.--How does the will bring its
compulsion to bear? It is not a kind of mental policeman who can take
us by the collar, so to speak, and say do this, or do not do that.
The secret of the will's power of control lies in attention. It is the
line of action that we hold the mind upon with an attitude of intending
to perform it that we finally follow. It is the thing we keep thinking
about that we finally do.

On the other hand, let us resolutely hold the mind away from some
attractive but unsuitable line of action, directing our thoughts to an
opposite course, or to some wholly different subject, and we have
effectually blocked the wrong response. To control our acts is therefore
to control our thoughts, and strength of will can be measured by our
ability to direct our attention.

Next: The Extent Of Voluntary Control Over Our Acts

Previous: Problems In Observation And Introspection

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