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Consciousness and Volition

Nature volume 6, page 492 | Download Citation



THE question raised by Mr. Bennett in last week's NATURE is of great importance, and of no small difficulty. During a visit to the late Sir William Hamilton in 1855, this subject came up for discussion. Sir William was then engaged on his edition of the works of Dugald Stewart. I called his special attention to Stewart's doctrine regarding the operation of Will in acts which are usually ascribed to Habit. Stewart asserts that all habitual actions are really voluntary. As he had no acquaintance with the modern doctrine of “latent mental modifications,” he would naturally take for granted that there can be neither a volition nor any other act of mind without accompanying consciousness. He accounted for the non-remembrance of that consciousness by the extreme rapidity of the volitional, action. (Collected Works, vol. ii. chap, ii.) To this Sir William objected. He went on to show that in many cases an act, or even a long series of acts, originally voluntary, have ceased to be so. The habit or habitude, which is a mental tendency, though not a power, generated by custom, supplies the place of volition. In illustration, he referred particularly to the well-known fact that in India soldiers will march long distances when they are asleep. Now, it seems to me that this decides Mr. Bennett's question. Here we have regulated action, determined, not by volition, but by habit. Sir William, however, failed to meet all my difficulties, because, as I afterwards saw, of his unsatisfactory theory of causation. He so frequently confounded conditions with causes. With him a cause denoted anything without which an effect could not be; hence his doctrine of con-causes, a plurality of causes for each effect. Thus, when I will to move my hand, and the movement follows, Sir William would call the volition one cause of the movement, whereas it is merely a condition. It is remarkable that he should fall into this error since he rejected Biran's doctrine regarding the efficiency of volition. In a subsequent conversation we discussed the points of similarity and the points of difference between Habits and Instincts. It would, however, be trespassing on your space to give the details.

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  1. Stamford House, Sale, near Manchester, Oct. 14



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