Conative Phenomenology

There’s a long philosophical history, dating back to Plato’s Republic, of distinguishing between a cognitive “department” of the mind (the intellect, or the “understanding”) and a conative department (the will). This is preserved in mainstream philosophy of mind within the framework of belief-desire psychology. Belief is taken to be the fundamental cognitive state, desire the fundamental conative state. Other mental states are accounted for in terms of these two: being glad that p is analyzed in terms of believing that p plus desiring that p; being disappointed that p in terms of believing that p and desiring that ~p; doubting that p in terms of believing that conceivably, ~p; and so on.

In this picture, then, desire is the fundamental conative state. The background project is an explanatory one, with behavior being the relevant explanandum and belief-desire pairs the explanans. Why did the agent µ? Because she desired that p and believed that µ-ing would make it more likely that p. Indeed, desire is often construed as essentially the kind of state which, in conspiracy with the right beliefs, normally causes the right behavior. This functionalist account of desire ultimately falls out of the theorist’s theoretical interests: if you start out with an explanatory project, you’re probably going to end up with a functional individuation of the explanantia (I think that’s a word).

That’s all cool with me. But as I mentioned in my Monday post, I also like me a descriptive project, wherein the subjective dimension of conative mental life is described in its own terms, regardless of what it explains and what explains it. Consider the following vignette:

Jimmy travels to Bolivia, where someone offers him an amazing-looking piece of cake. He wants to eat it. Then he remembers it’s May and he’s got at most three weeks to get his belly beach-ready, which he very much intends to do. This is not the right time to have a decadent cake, he reflects. On the other hand, who knows when he’ll have another opportunity to try Bolivian cake. He deliberates for a while, but eventually decides he’s got to give this Bolivian cake a try. He reaches for it, grabs it, brings it to his mouth, and eats it.

This vignette features many conative elements of our mental life: desires, intention, desire conflict, deliberation, decision, trying, action. Now here’s a pretty impressionistic question: from a purely descriptive point of view, which elements here embody most deeply the exercise of the will?

My first reaction – still impressionistic – is to say: deciding! It’s that instantaneous act of deciding which, on the one hand, cannot be decomposed into any other elements in Jimmy’s stream of consciousness, and on the other, captures the exact moment when Jimmy’s will kicks into gear and does its thing. Desire is from this perspective is a bit far from the action. I don’t know if you’re with me up to here, but let me to try to say all this less impressionistically.

What makes desire, intention, decision, etc. so fundamentally different from belief, judgment, thought, etc.? I want to say: the latter (cognitive) states are directed at the true, the former (conative) are directed at the good. When you want ice cream, there’s a sense in which your desire presents the ice cream as good to you – or perhaps presents the getting of the ice cream as a good idea. Importantly, however, the goodness of the ice cream (or of the getting of it) is not part of the content of the desire. In the first instance, you don’t desire that the ice cream be good; no, you just desire the ice cream. Rather, the commitment to the ice cream’s goodness is built into the very attitude of desiring. So compare these two reports:

  • Jane’s desire presents the ice cream as good
  • Jane’s desire presents-as-good the ice cream

My claim is that 2 is the better report, capturing better the locus of goodness-commitment in desire. In my book, I argue that this presenting-as-good is the essential property of conative mental states: intending to eat ice cream and deciding to eat ice cream, for example, both present-as-good eating ice cream.

At the same time, there are also some differences between all these conative attitudes. In particular, desire and decision both present-as-good their objects, but there is some difference between them too. Moreover, since we can desire and decide on the same thing, the difference between desire and decision cannot be a difference at the level of content or object, the level of what is being desired/decided. It must be an attitudinal difference. So everything points to there being a difference between two kinds of presenting-as-true: one characteristic of desire and one of decision.

In my book, I argue for the following account of that difference. Consider that when Jimmy wants to eat the cake, the commitment to the goodness of eating the cake that’s built into his desire is a conditional, hypothetical, controvertible commitment: he’s committed to it provided there are no overriding factors. If his life depended on not eating it, he wouldn’t eat the cake after all. In contrast, when Jimmy decides to eat the cake; the commitment to the goodness of eating the cake that’s built into his decision is a complete, categorical, incontrovertible commitment: as far as this token act of deciding is concerned, there is a finality to the matter – we’re just gonna go ahead and eat the cake now. If there’s a shred of hesitation, then the decision has not truly been made yet. One way to capture this contrast is as follows: desire presents-as-prima-facie-good its object, whereas decision presents-as-ultima-facie-good its object. That’s the thesis I defend in my chapter on conative phenomenology, as underlying the more basic idea that decision, and not desire, is (from a descriptive point of view) the fundamental conative state.



  1. Hi again Uriah. I have a question about ‘decision.’ The criterion for ‘decision’ you mention in the end here seems a bit strict (“If there’s a shred of hesitation, then the decision has not truly been made yet”).

    I imagine someone could challenge this notion by pointing out that this makes decisions rare or downright unrealistic — at least, neurally and psychologically so. The idea would be that the (neural/psychochological) processes involved in decision are not as all-or-nothing as your notion of ‘decision’ implies.

    The neural story: the brain is in constant flux and while certain brain events might cause —in a no-turning-back sort of way — cascades of other processes that lead to action, there were liekly processes inhibiting the cause and/or the cascading effects. If these inhibitory processes amount to “hesitation,” then it seems that your criterion will not be fulfilled in many (most? all?) of the cases that we normally call “decisions.”

    The psychological story: a dual-process theorist might want to point out that, excluding cases in which system 2 is so depleted as that decisions just default to system 1 processing, top-down and bottom-up processes are often in conflict during deliberation and even during action (I am thinking here of some of the helpful points made in Bryce Huebner’s “Implicit Bias, Reinforcement, …”). So, it seems that your criterion of ‘decision’ might not be fulfilled in many of the cases that we normally call “decisions.”

    I wonder how you want to respond to this kind of pushback to your criterion of decision.

    • Uriah Kriegel

      Hi Nick –

      I admit that, in the present project, I want to bracket these “implementational” considerations and just describe the act of conscious deciding as it appears to introspection. But I should mention that some of the decisions we make can have conditional or hypothetical content, content of the form “unless X, I will do Y.” It’s just that, as far as the attitude of deciding itself, one you decide on this, your decision embodies unconditional commitment to that conditional content. So you can get some flexibility in my story on decision, it’s just that flexibility appears at the level of content only; the contrast with desire is that in desire there’s also flexibility at the level of attitude.

  2. Josh Weisberg

    I’m not sure I’m getting it. So, let’s say I want to go to Paris and I decide to do it and buy my tickets. But before I leave, you email and say, don’t come to Paris, the food is awful, there’s no good cafes, etc. And on that basis I cancel my ticket. Did I therefore not actually decide to go to Paris in the first place? Given that there were indeed things that overrode the “decision” (schmecision?), does that show that it wasn’t really a decision? Could one tell the difference between the phenomenology of real decisions andmere schmecisions?

    Perhaps you index decisions to times: At time t, there was no overriding factors, etc. Seems a lot weaker than a categorical commitment…

    Also, I do things for pretty half-assed reasons. Why did you do it, Josh? Hmm… well, it was Saturday, and I always eat cheerios on Saturday. Nonetheless, I would say I decided to eat the cheerios and not the corn flakes. At the moment of decision, was it really an ultimate good for me? Or presented as such at some level of consciousness? Or was it just, meh, let’s go with the cheerios. Whatever. And if the cornflake box were easier to grab, it would have been those flakes of gold.

    Anywho, I’m not sure I’m hitting this shit at the right level–let me know.


    • Uriah Kriegel

      Hi Josh,

      I really like the second case you present – am not immediately sure what to say about it.

      On the first case, I think what we should say is that you literally *changed your mind*. When you decided to come to Paris (good idea), your mind was unconditionally committed to going to Paris. Then you made a new decision, and your mind changed – it became unconditionally committed to another staying in Houston (also nice). Compare being 100% sure that the Patriots won the Superbowl this year, then being totally convinced by an evil (or benevolent) demon that the Redskins won it, and coming to be 100% sure that the Redskins are world champions and RG3 was Superbowl MVP. Your mind changed: it was at once time fully committed to the truth of p, but at a later time fully committed to the truth of ~p.

      I want to stress also what I mentioned above to Nick, that it’s possible in principle to make decisions with conditional content, such as the decision to go to Paris unless Uriah says it sucks. It’s just that most our decisions are not like that. They more like deciding to go to Paris. But when you decide to go to Paris unless Uriah says it sucks, your decision embodies unconditional commitment to that conditional content.

      I need to think a bit about mindless decisions. One possible reaction is to say that those are not really decisions – decisions require a more dramatic act of the will than just mindlessly acting on habit. I’m not wild about this option. Another option is to say that, yes, when you grabbed the cheerios box, there was a decision there, and the decision indeed represented the grabbing of the cheerios box as an ultima facie good, the best thing for you to do all things considered. Here the idea is that, despite how majestic the expression “ultimate facie good” sounds, mindless decisions show that pretty banal things can be represented as the best thing to do all things considered. I’m more sweet on this option. There’s a third option, which is to say that mindless decisions counterexemplify my claim about the essential attitudinal property of decision. I’m trying to avoid this option, you understand…

      • A quick thought here — Richard Holton argues that a firm commitment (what he calls a resolution) involves both (1) intending to do F and (2) intending not to reconsider whether to do F. I think it’s fair to say that if Josh’s decision to go to Paris didn’t have this character, then it wasn’t an outright decision. (I argue as much in a paper I’m writing — happy to share a copy with anyone who’d like.) That’s not to say, however, that deciding outright will make it impossible to reconsider the matter and then change your mind, so the phenomenon Josh describes can still happen.

        • Uriah Kriegel

          Hi John –

          That’s really interesting. My instinct is to integrate Holton’s point by saying that there are two kinds of decision: resolutions and “mere” decisions. Resolutions are double decisions, in a way: a decision to do X at time t plus a decision to not reconsider whether to X between now and t. Each decision presents-as-all-things-considered-good its content.

          What Josh’s reaction made me think is that my description of the phenomenology of decision makes it sound like a resolution, which is only one pretty special kind of decision. So the question for me is how to make sure that my description does not invite this reading.

          Adding at the end of the description something like “this doesn’t mean that one cannot *change one’s mind*” etc., might be a way to fend off the reading I want to fend off.

          Sorry I have a different agenda from y’all. You’re wondering what we should say about the decision/desire difference. I made up my mind what I should say and wonder only about how I should say it. So it’s a weird conversation.

          Ps. John, please do share with me your paper on this when you’re happy with it.

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