NL XI: “Desire”

Index to this series

The four parts of Collingwood’s New Leviathan (1942) are Man, Society, Civilization, and Barbarism. From the first part, we are considering Chapter XI, “Desire.”

Pablo Picasso, The Lovers (1923; National Gallery of Art, Washington)
Pablo Picasso, “The Lovers,” 1923
National Gallery of Art, Washington

The remaining chapters the first part are

  1. Happiness,
  2. Choice,
  3. Reason,
  4. Utility,
  5. Right,
  6. Duty,
  7. Theoretical Reason.

Each of utility, right, and duty will be a reason—an explanation—for why we do what we do.

  1. Utility—usefulness—will be an inadequate reason, because it is relative. Nothing is useful simply, but it may be useful for something else.

  2. Right is what conforms with law; but laws are general, and no occasion when we must act is simply an example of some kind of occasion to which some law applies.

  3. Duty alone will provide a full explanation for why we do this particular thing on this particular occasion.

Action quâ dutiful may be hard to distinguish from useful or right action; but we are going to try to make the distinction. Duty is personal and specific. How we assess our actions is related to how we assess the world; and this has gone through historical development. By Collingwood’s account in the last chapter of this part,

18. 5. The idea of obligation, or duty, as we have seen, had its practical origin in the time, let us say, of Hammurabi; ground to a finer edge, it was the work of the Roman jurists. To an impatient eye, obsessed by the slower tempo of events nearer in time to ourselves, its history since then may seem to consist mainly in confusion with the ideas of utility and right. But a process of disentanglement has been at work. To follow this process is to follow the rise of history.

18. 51. For history is to duty what modern science is to right, and what Greco-Medieval science was to utility: a picture of the outer world, painted in colours that the painter has already learned to use for his self-portrait.

That is what we are building up to, in this first part of New Leviathan.

Now we are looking at desire. A recurring theme is that reflection alone cannot tell us what we want. The sixty paragraphs of Chapter XI are numbered serially 11. 1, 11. 11, 11. 12 and so on up to 11. 69. They seem to fall into four sections. (I added the following directory and summary, December 17, 2018.)

  1. Appetite wants something, but knows not what, and cannot know by reflection. Desire has learned from passion that we can have different responses, as fear and anger, to what is not ourselves. Thus desire knows that there are different things to choose from (11. 1–19).

  2. Appetite is simply present or absent, but desire has a negative form. Lovers take heed: asking somebody what she or he wants can turn indifference into loathing (11. 2–29).

  3. Having objects, desires can be mistaken about them (11. 3–39). I consider ways of going wrong that come to mind.

    1. In an Onion article, a young man kids himself that, if only she will just watch it, his girlfriend will love his favorite violent movie.

    2. I refused many foods until I had passed adolescence. I might have fared differently in France, as seen in a Julie Delpy movie that was not distributed in the US.

    3. Some things are known by reflection: elements of simple consciousness, like having a headache or hearing (if possible) a bat.

    4. To know ourselves is not impossible, but difficult. I shall look at this problem in a 2018 post. Meanwhile, quoting Jonathan Haidt, who cites Edmund Pincoffs, I note how the science of morality has passed from the search for self-knowledge to the solving of puzzles. (Brianna Rennix and Nathan J. Robinson lambaste such puzzles.)

  4. The good is simply what is desirable (11. 4–69). Objections to this identification are due, if not to hypocrisy, then to a failure to recognize that everything is desirable in some ways, loathsome in others; thus to a lack of agapê. Maugham was good at recognizing the desirable where he found it.

1. From want to desire

Appetite, or wanting, results from the contrast between

  • a present unpleasant feeling and
  • a pleasant feeling present only as an abstract notion of pleasure (7. 43).

Passion is the recognition of something that is not ourselves. Our response to this is first fear, then anger, which includes shame over having been afraid. Anger and fear are alternatives. Thus, through passion, we learn of the possibility of wanting one thing rather than another. Such specific wanting, or wishing, is desire. Desire is thus more than mere appetite.

11. 14. Reflection upon appetite tells a man [sic] that he wants something; but does not tell him what he wants. The experience of passion gives him the idea of alternatives, which is an idea arrived at by abstraction from the experience of fear and anger as two alternative reactions to the menace of the not-self.

11. 15. This is why the experience of passion must necessarily occur between appetite and desire. Without it, a man would not have the idea of alternatives which is originated by the experience of passion and is presupposed by the characteristic question of desire: ‘Which of two things do I want?’

Appetite, passion, and desire are mental functions. By the Law of Contingency in Chapter IX, “the earlier terms in a series of mental functions do not determine the later.” However, it now seems that a later term may determine earlier ones.

The Law of Contingency is an explanation of why, in 11. 14 above, mere reflection on our appetites does not tell us what we want. This is why growing up is difficult. It is a key point that bears repeating.

11. 18. It is important for the conduct of practical life to realize that coming to know what you want is not to be done by reflection; not because your appetites are repressed as too vile to contemplate; but because they remain preconscious until they have changed into passions and so into desires.

11. 19. Trying to force oneself or another to identify the object of an appetite by reflection (‘come, come,’—one knows the hectoring voice—‘think; tell me what you want’) can only do untold damage. Already the vulgarized Freud, Jung, and Adler which constitute our popular psychology warns us against the danger of repressing desires; but not against the far worse danger of abating appetites by never letting them grow into desires.

“One knows the hectoring voice”—I imagine it is the voice of an authority figure, a parent or a teacher, directed at a sullen, uncooperative, misbehaving, or just unhappy child. I suppose the damage lies in being expected to do what is impossible. Knowing what we want is impossible. Children need to be allowed to find out what they want, in their own way.

On the other hand, children may align their wants with those of their elders. This is why education is possible, as I tried to work out in “All You Need Is Love,” last August, 2016.

2. Desire and loathing

The question of what somebody wants has a danger for the one who asks the question:

11. 25. You loathe a person, or a dish, or a book, when you are forced by inopportune solicitation to ask yourself ‘Do I love this person (or whatever it may be) or not?’ and find yourself obliged to answer ‘no’. The question has converted indifference into loathing.

11. 26. That is why a wise man, hoping for a woman’s love, never asks her whether she loves him until he knows she does. If she does not, she may come to do so if he leaves her alone; but an untimely question will convert indifference into loathing.

I would suggest the corollary that the wise man does not even declare his own love, if it the beloved will then ask herself prematurely whether she returns it. However, declarations of love may successfully woo some women. At least, there are men who think so: such men whose spray-painted declarations of love I have seen on streets and walls in Ankara and Istanbul.

3. False desires

Desire has an object. We can be mistaken about what this is. Thus a desire can be false.

Collingwood repeats yet again the inadequacy of reflection for learning what we want.

11. 36. The importance of the distinction between true desires and false desires becomes evident as soon as one reflects on the importance for all practical life of ‘knowing what you want’. Someone completely in the grip of confusion might say: ‘Important, no doubt, but childishly easy: all you need is introspection (meaning reflection), and that gives you infallibly the right answer.’ But reflection does not give you any answer at all, let alone an infallible one.

As adults, we may have learned to give ready answers to the question of what we want; but we commonly believe such answers can be mistaken, at least when others give them. How many persons will insist that a woman cannot really want to have an abortion, or give a child up for adoption? How many importunate lovers cannot take no for an answer?

A. Just try it


To put alongside “Tell me what you want,” another annoying request is “Just try it.” The latter may be the only way to be able to do the former, but it has to be done on one’s own terms. The Onion shows this in a brilliant satire, “Area Girlfriend Still Hasn’t Seen Apocalypse Now” (March 1, 2000).

Azusa, CA—In a discovery prompting exasperated forehead-slapping and stunned expressions of incredulity, Mark Tillich learned Monday that girlfriend Brandi Jensen has never even seen Apocalypse Now.

“You gotta be kiddin’ me, Bran!” said Tillich, 21, a senior marketing major at Azusa Pacific University, upon discovering Jensen’s ignorance of the 1979 Francis Ford Coppola–directed Vietnam War epic. “It’s only, like, arguably the most ambitious anti-war statement in American movie history. Jesus!”

“I cannot believe you’ve never seen Apocalypse Now,” he added. “That’s insane.”

“It really doesn’t sound like something I’d enjoy, Mark,” Brandi tells him. Mark starts to see the truth, but cannot face it:

“I just don’t know if I can be seriously committed to somebody who has no interest in seeing Apocalypse Now,” Tillich continued. “She’s just really missing out. I bet she’d love it I could just get her to sit down and watch it.”

He is wrong, even though trying is the only way to find out what you want:

11. 37. The ‘Vanity of Human Wishes’ does not lie in men’s desiring what is not to be had or what, if obtainable, is unobtainable by themselves. It lies in their being mistaken as to what they want. In the first instance (afterwards the accumulation of experience enables a man to guess at what he wants with a better chance of being right) the only way of finding out what one wants is by trial and error: trying various things and seeing whether the discomfort of unsatisfied appetite yields or persists.

We never really know what we want; we can only ever make a more or less educated guess. We cannot have our cake and eat it too; but the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

B. Food aversion

What if the pudding looks and smells disgusting? What more proof can be needed? I was a pathologically picky eater until the end of high school. I do not know why. I was allowed my limited diet, while I understood that it would be better to eat what everybody else was eating.

My father tried slipping new ingredients into familiar foods. This only upset me. He also tried to reason with me. He gave me a long talk about the phrase “the bottom line.” In eating something disgusting, what is the bottom line? The worst that might happen is vomiting. This is not so bad; so why not eat? I did not accept this logic. My reluctance to eat was not from fear of the consequences.

In time I forgot whatever it was that had held me back. Then I found myself eating something as disgusting as raw oysters, for a holiday meal with my father’s sister’s family, when I was a freshman in college.

Some persons continue to be picky eaters as adults. I have known one or two of them. I am sorry for them. I wonder if their parents allowed them to eat whatever they wanted, without question. As I said, I myself was allowed my own diet, but reluctantly.


How would I have fared in France? In the article on appetite, I quoted the Guardian about an understanding common in France, but not in the United States: grown-ups and children will share their meals.

… The French are also very keen on commensality [eating together]. According the Crédoc consumer studies and research institute, 80% of meals are taken with other people. “In France meals are strongly associated with good company and sharing, which is undoubtedly less so in other countries,” says Loïc Bienassis, a researcher at the European Institute of Food History and Culture.

Americans take a radically different approach. There is nothing sacred about meals: everyone eats at their own speed, depending on their appetite, outside constraints and timetable … “There’s a secondary school in Toulouse which organises exchanges with young Americans,” says social anthropologist Jean-Pierre Poulain. “To avoid any misunderstandings teachers warn families before their children leave that the start of their stay will not be marked by an evening meal, as in France. When the young visitors arrive they are shown the fridge and told they can help themselves whenever they like.”

Julie Delpy depicts a French family holiday meal in a wonderful film named for the object that falls to earth during the meal: Skylab. Writes Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian (Thursday, 24 October 2013),

Delpy’s film suggests that France has lost big-hearted family values, and neglected the importance of going on holiday and doing nothing. Significantly, the movie unfolds in flashback from an ill-tempered modern-day trip on Eurostar, a connection with those Anglo-Saxon concepts of joyless hard work and staying late in the office that former president Sarkozy hoped to introduce.

According to Delpy’s film then, French family values do not include putting up with the fascist ideas of your idiot cousins. Unfortunately, according to Wikipedia, Skylab “failed to find distribution in the U.S.”


C. Reflection

Given the importance that Collingwood places on the notion of reflection, I review his understanding. Reflection is how “any question in any science of mind” is answered (1. 77). Knowledge requires not only consciousness, but reflection; “This reflection on simple consciousness I call second-order consciousness” (4. 31).

4. 71. Feeling is a here-and-now immediately given to consciousness; from which it follows that any characteristics that feeling may have are discoverable by simply reflecting on that consciousness, and any characteristics that a particular feeling may have are discoverable by reflection on that particular feeling as given to theoretical consciousness after being distinguished from the here-and-now by selective attention.

4. 72. There is nothing to argue about. Have I a headache? Do not weigh pros and cons; do not reason about it; simply consider how you feel. Can I hear the squeak of a bat? Do not reason about it; go out of doors when bats are flying, and listen.

I considered the last paragraph before. To reason about whether you feel a headache or hear a squeak would be to commit the Fallacy of Misplaced Argument. So would be to argue over whether feeling is active or passive (5. 43); one can only reflect, though when Collingwood does this he gets no answer: feeling is not really active or passive (5. 47). In considering the question of whether feelings can be unconscious, Collingwood quotes Freud as saying, “The Preconscious is ‘only unconscious in the descriptive, and not in the dynamic sense’ ” (5. 9). Collingwood responds by making clear how reflection creates a series of forms of consciousness.

5. 91. This again is fully in agreement with the view of mind I am here expounding. Forms of consciousness are the only constituents of mind (4. 18). But no man is conscious of any given form of consciousness, even though it is operating in him, until he ‘reflects’ on it or ‘calls into being in himself another form of consciousness, C2, the consciousness of C1’ (1. 73) the form of consciousness with which we started.

5. 92. Any form of consciousness, practical or theoretical, call it Cx, exists in what Freud calls a preconscious condition unless and until it has been reflected upon by the operation of a form Cx+1.

To bring a preconscious feeling to consciousness is to name it (6. 28). Collingwood does not quite say that naming is reflection. He does say that to reflect on a name would be another step:

6. 34. In general, to say that the consciousness of B is mediated through the consciousness of A is to say that A is an object of nth order and B an object of the (n+1)th order abstracted from it.

6. 35. But the feeling is not an abstraction from the name of the feeling.

6. 36. The man who names his feeling thereby becomes im­mediately conscious of it; he is not conscious of his name for it until he reflects on the act of naming it, and he proceeds to think of the name he has uttered in abstraction from this act.

Thus the railroad worker (in the story of Utah Phillips) who recognizes that what he has just put in his mouth is moose turd pie is not thinking that he has just named the food with three words of one syllable each, the latter two beginning with plosives; he is only thinking (presumably) that the food is just what he once baked, in order to get out of cooking again. (Example added, February 3, 2020. YouTube has what is probably the recording I heard on KUNM, Albuquerque, when I was at college in Santa Fe in the 1980s.)

D. Knowing ourselves

Appetite is unnamed desire. Naming it is hard, but the work should be done.

11. 38. Thomas Carlyle, posing as the sage he never was, suggested that the impossible maxim ‘know thyself’ should be ‘translated’ into the partially possible one ‘know what thou canst work at’. A wiser man would have seen that the Delphic maxim is not so much impossible as inexaustible.

11. 39. Part, indeed the first part, of knowing yourself is knowing what you want. This is not only the first thing a man can know about himself, it is the first thing he knows at all. It is not impossible, though it is very difficult. But a man who does not know what he wants will never know what he can work at …

I have gone on to write a separate post about the Delphic maxim. The Carlyle quote is from Chapter 11 of Past and Present (1843). I am inclined to suggest that knowing what we want is the fundamental moral problem. However, morality today seems conceived as the solving of puzzles, such as the trolley problem. Proposed solutions are argued on the basis of abstract principles. I once enjoyed working on such puzzles; but now I would say that the real puzzle is, “What would be done by the person we want to be?”

Concerning the specific problem, Wikipedia links to a thorough work of criticism and ridicule called “The Trolley Problem Will Tell You Nothing Useful About Morality” (Brianna Rennix and Nathan J. Robinson, Current Affairs, November 3, 2017), published after the present post was originally. Jonathan Haidt had drawn my attention to the history of morality in The Happiness Hypothesis (London: Arrow Books, 2006).

Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis (yellow cover with smiley face)

Says Haidt,

These two philosophical approaches [namely deontology and consequentialism] have made enormous contributions to legal and political theory and practice; indeed, they helped create societies that respect individual rights (Kant) while still working efficiently for the good of the people (Bentham). But these ideas have also permeated Western culture more generally, where they have had some unintended consequences. The philosopher Edmund Pincoffs has argued that consequentialists and deontologists worked together to convince Westerners in the twentieth century that morality is the study of moral quandaries and dilemmas. Where the Greeks focused on the character of a person and asked what kind of person we should each aim to become, modern ethics focuses on actions, asking when a particular action is right or wrong. Philosophers wrestle with life-and-death dilemmas: Kill one to save five? Allow aborted fetuses to be used as a source of stem cells? Remove the feeding tube from a woman who has been unconscious for fifteen years? Nonphilosophers wrestle with smaller quandaries: Pay my taxes when others are cheating? Turn in a wallet full of money that appears to belong to a drug dealer? Tell my spouse about a sexual indiscretion?

Not the book by Pincoffs that Haidt refers to, but one that I happen to possess
Not the book by Pincoffs that Haidt refers to,
but one that I happen to possess

This turn from character ethics to quandary ethics has turned moral education away from virtues and toward moral reasoning. If morality is about dilemmas, then moral education is training in problem solving. Children must be taught how to think about moral problems, especially how to overcome their natural egoism and take into their calculations the needs of others …

Haidt finds this kind of moral training inadequate for two reasons. It limits moral problems to certain circumstances, instead of the entirety of one’s life; and it relies on reason alone to influence behavior.

Haidt claims to have been rationally convinced that meat is murder, while he continues to eat meat with pleasure. I wonder then whether Haidt wants to be a murderer. If not, why does he keep eating meat?

According to an expert on addictions whom I heard speak at MacMaster University around the year 2000, a certain heavy smoker dropped his habit like a hot potato when he recognized how corporations benefited from his smoking. He was a labor unionist, and he did not want to be a stooge.

4. Goodness

The word good designates the desirable. This is what is worthy to be desired.

11. 51. With the conversion of appetite into desire, beauty is converted into goodness. The difference is that desire may be true or false (11. 3).

“Got two reasons why I cry away each lonely night,” wrote Robert Hunter (as I recall, February 3, 2020). There are also two reasons why one may object to the identification of the good with the desirable (11. 53).

  • The second reason is hypocrisy. This can be overcome when one understands
  • the first reason, which is confusion about abstraction.

The object of desire is an abstraction (11. 54). Nothing is absolutely desirable; it is desirable in some ways, loathsome in others (11. 55).

11. 56. This reflection (disconcerting except to one who has learned the lesson of Christian love, ἀγάπη, ‘overlooking the faults’ of what you love) drove Plato into a wild-goose chase after some object that should be absolutely good, ‘good in itself’; where I respectfully decline to follow him; because I do not think that the kind of thing which he was searching for is to be found.

In “Democracy and Aristocracy,” Collingwood will note the Platonic foolishness of seeking “a superman-ruler, able to solve any kind of problem and resist any sort of emotional pressure.” Meanwhile, overlooking faults in those whom we love is what Maugham does in some of his stories and in The Razor’s Edge (1944). In the novel, Larry induces Sophie to stop drinking, but then Isabel tempts her to drink again and run away. She does, and ultimately she has her throat slit. Maugham tells Isabel this. “Do you think any the worse of me for what I did?” she asks.

“My dear, I’m a very immoral person,” I [Maugham] answered. “When I’m really fond of anyone, though I deplore his [sic] wrongdoing it doesn’t make me less fond of him. You’re not a bad woman in your way and you have every grace and every charm. I don’t enjoy your beauty any the less because I know how much it owes to the happy combination of perfect taste and ruthless determination. You only lack one thing to make you completely enchanting.”

She smiled and waited.


The smile died on her lips and she gave me a glance that was totally lacking in amenity, but before she could collect herself to reply Gray lumbered into the room.

Maugham’s attitude has a certain intersection with the account of agapê by Karl Barth that is cited in Wikipedia (and which I extract here at greater length from Google Books):

In this respect too agape means self-giving: not the losing of oneself in the other, which would bring us back into the sphere of eros; but identification with his interests in utter independence of the question of his attractiveness, or what he has to offer, of the reciprocity of the relationship, or repayment in the form of a similar self-giving.

Maugham or at least Maugham’s persona expects no reciprocity from those whom he loves.

Last edited June 24, 2021

11 Trackbacks

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