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 ac
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.