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Will Versus Desire - An Important Distinction

Updated: Mar 7

A portion of "Doctrine of the Will" By Asa Mahan (1799 - 1889) - President of the Oberlin Collegiate Institute


EVERY individual who has reflected with any degree of interest upon the operations of his own mind, cannot have failed to notice three classes of mental phenomena, each of which is entirely distinct from either of the others. These phenomena, which comprehend the entire operations of the mind, and which may be expressed by the terms thinking, feeling, and willing, clearly indicate in the mind three faculties equally distinct from one another. These faculties are denominated the Intellect, the Sensibility or Sensitivity, and the Will. To the first, all intellectual operations, such as perceiving, thinking, judging, knowing, &c., are referred. To the second, we refer all sensitive states, all feelings, such as sensations, emotions, desires, &c. To the Will, or the active voluntary faculty, are referred all mental determinations, such as purposes, intentions, resolutions, choices and volitions.

1. The classes of phenomena, by which this tri-unity of the mental powers is indicated, differ from one another, not in degree, but in kind. Thought, whether clear or obscure, in all degrees, remains equally distinct, in its nature, from feelings and determinations of every class. So of feelings. Sensations, emotions, desires, all the phenomena of the Sensibility, in all degrees and modifications, remain, in their nature and essential characteristics, equally distinct from thought on the one hand, and the action of the Will on the other. The same holds true of the phenomena of the Will. A resolution, for example, in one degree, is not a thought in another, a sensation, emotion, or desire and in another a choice, purpose, intention, or volition. In all degrees and modifications, the phenomena of the Will, in their nature and essential characteristics, remain equally distinct from the operations of the Intelligence on the one hand, and of the Sensibility on the other.

2. This distinction is recognized by universal consciousness. When, for example, one speaks of thinking of any particular object, then of desiring it, and subsequently of determining to obtain the object, for the purpose of gratifying that desire, all mankind most clearly recognize his meaning in each of the above named affirmations, and understand him as speaking of three entirely distinct classes of mental operations. No person, under such circumstances, ever confounds one of these states with either of the others. So clearly marked and distinguished is the three-fold classification of mental phenomena under consideration, in the spontaneous affirmations of universal consciousness.

3. In all languages, also, there are distinct terms appropriated to the expression of these three classes of phenomena, and of the mental power indicated by the same. In the English language, for example, we have the terms thinking, feeling, and willing, each of which is applied to one particular class of these mental phenomena, and never to either of the others. We have also the terms Intellect, Sensibility, and Will, appropriated, in a similar manner, to designate the mental powers indicated by these phenomena. In all other languages, especially among nations of any considerable advancement in mental culture, we find terms of precisely similar designation. What do such facts indicate? They clearly show, that in the development of the universal Intelligence, the different classes of phenomena under consideration have been distinctly marked, and distinguished from one another, together with the three fold division of the mental powers indicated by the same phenomena.

4. The clearness and particularity with which the universal intelligence has marked the distinction under consideration, is strikingly indicated by the fact, that there are qualifying terms in common use which are applied to each of these classes of phenomena, and never to either of the others. It is true that there are such terms which are promiscuously applied to all classes of mental phenomena. There are terms, however, which are never applied to but one class. Thus we speak of clear thoughts, but never of clear feelings or determinations. We speak of irrepressible feelings and desires, but never of irrepressible thoughts or resolutions. We also speak of inflexible determinations, but never of inflexible feelings or conceptions. With what perfect distinctness, then, must universal consciousness have marked thoughts, feelings, and determinations of the Will, as phenomena entirely distinct from one another—phenomena differing not in degree, but in kind, and as most clearly indicating the three-fold division of the mental powers under consideration. 5. So familiar are mankind with this distinction, so distinctly marked is it in their minds, that in familiar intercourse, when no particular theory of the mental powers is in contemplation, they are accustomed to speak of the Intellect, Sensibility, and Will, and of their respective phenomena, as entirely distinct from one another. Take a single example from Scripture. “What I shall choose, I wot not—having a desire to depart.” Here the Apostle evidently speaks of desire and choice as phenomena differing in kind, and not in degree. “If you engage his heart” [his feelings], says Lord Chesterfield, speaking of a foreign minister, “you have a fair chance of imposing upon his understanding, and determining his Will.” “His Will,” says another writer, speaking of the insane, “is no longer restrained by his Judgment, but driven madly on by his passions.”

“When wit is overruled by Will,

And Will is led by fond Desire,

Then Reason may as well be still,

As speaking, kindle greater fire.”

In all the above extracts the tri-unity of the mental powers, as consisting of the Intellect, Sensibility, and Will, is distinctly recognized. Yet the writers had, at the time, no particular theory of mental philosophy in contemplation. They speak of a distinction of the mental faculties which all understand and recognize as real, as soon as suggested to their minds. The above considerations are abundantly sufficient to verify the three-fold distinction above made, of mental phenomena and powers. Two suggestions arise here which demand special attention.

1. To confound either of these distinct powers of the mind with either of the others, as has been done by several philosophers of eminence, in respect to theWill and Sensibility, is a capital error in mental science. If one faculty is confounded with another, the fundamental characteristics of the former will of course be confounded with the same characteristics of the latter. Thus the worst forms of error will be introduced not only into philosophy, but theology, too, as far as the latter science is influenced by the former. What would be thought of a treatise on mental science, in which the Will should be confounded with the Intelligence, and in which thinking and willing would be consequently represented as phenomena identical in kind? This would be an error no more capital, no more glaring, no more distinctly contradicted by fundamental phenomena, than the confounding of the Will with the Sensibility.


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