Philosophical aside: motivations, reasons and causes

It is well known that Merleau-Ponty’s term, for the world’s prompting is motivation[1]; in other words, ‘thoughts – ‘mental’ states and events –  and ‘physical’ objects themselves, actually bear on the body in ways that are meaningful but not rational’.

Goose bumps, triggered by the cold, fear, euphoria or nostalgia!

Goose bumps, triggered by the cold, fear, euphoria or nostalgia!

Worldly objects ‘speak to our body in myriad ways, drawing us into actions, while often remaining only tacitly present in our experience of things’[2]. Consider the example of acts of patriotism, mild or extreme, engendered by a national flag or a national anthem. One’s response to the flag or anthem is not towards an empirical potency nor is it necessarily rationalised.  If one watches the ‘All Black’ New Zealand rugby team and their rendition of the Māori Haka, one experiences a phenomenological motivation which is neither empirical causality nor conceptually rationalistic. Indeed if one were to have witnessed the original ancient posture dance of the New Zealand Māori by which the tribe prepared a war party for battle, one would not be materially caused to suffer harm nor could one rationally suppose this dance could achieve it. Nevertheless the characteristically ferocious Haka created a united frenzy among the warring party, focusing them mentally and physically for imminent conflict and struck their opponents with fearful dismay.

All Blacks Haka

All Blacks Haka

The world moves us in ways beyond empirical force or rational persuasion. Not everybody is terrorised by the things that have the power to crush them even though they cannot resist that empirical force. Anybody catapulted to the brink of apparent disaster on a roller-coaster’s summit can reflect however on the conflict between reason and the body’s sensitivity to motivations; we want to be safe whilst experiencing the provocation to terror; we feel the terror and at the same time tell ourselves we’re safe. The rationale for safety depends on us knowing, and enacting, belief in the world of customer-care, risk-assessments, lawsuits and commercial liability.

Choosing to be petrified?

Choosing to be petrified?

Thus, for any intentional act we institute  we cannot completely account for all the reasons, ‘they are merely motives’, instead ‘we find as yet implicit experiences, major influences from past and present, a whole ‘sedimentary history’ which is ‘not only relevant to the genesis of my thought, but which determines its significance’[3].

Merleau-Ponty also assures us that motivations are not causes as such either. Comportment in the world is recursive. It feeds on motivations; ‘one phenomenon releases another’,  not as a result of an objective efficient cause, like those linking natural events, ‘but by the meaning which it holds out’ this ‘guides the flow of phenomena without being explicitly laid down in any one of them’[4]. That meaning which prompts evokes a meaning making in return, a meaning making which is purposive, signifying or both.

Let us close this section prompted by one of Merleau-Ponty’s explanatory examples. ‘What do we understand by a motive, and what do we mean’ he asks, ‘when we say that a journey is motivated?[5]’ Significance is resident in an antecedent motive and the decision made upon it confirms ‘the validity of this significance and gives it its force and efficacy’[6]. Thus a death may motivate a journey because my presence is required to console a bereaved loved-one or ‘pay my respects’. So, when my sister phoned on that fateful Saturday morning and said ‘Peter, its dad, he’s died’, the consequent journey to be with my mother the following day, the rearranging of all my other commitments and my decision not to go to work on the Monday were motivated by my Father’s death.

The call was a motivation.

The call was a motivation.

Motives bring about, or motivate, behaviour or states of mind. ‘The more I resolve to obey the summons a motivation makes the more I give the summons a central place in my life’[7]. In the sense that the behaviour is brought about by the motive, the two are internally related, nevertheless ‘the motive acquires some of its motivating force from what it motivates’[8]. ‘The relation between the motivating and the motivated is thus reciprocal.[9]

The point I wish to emphasise is this. Human identity is singularly expressed in a desire for significance which is reciprocally or recursively influenced by the world’s motivations[10]. Subject to the particularity of its place of dwelling in the Landscape of Being identity is sensitive also to motivating experiences in which purposiveness is either implicitly manifest or explicitly disclosed.



[1] Mark A. Wrathall notes that Merleau-Ponty has emulated the Husserlian tradition of an enhanced usage of the term ‘motivation’. MP shows himself particularly influenced by the usage of Edith Stein, a student of Husserl, adopting the definition of motivation as a connection between experiences and their antecedents wherein one arises from the other, there is an effecting or being effected of one on the basis of the other for the sake of the other. Wrathall, ibid, 116 As Edith Stein explained in her doctoral thesis, motives have two defining characteristics; firstly the motive has force only through its significance; secondly the motive and what it motivates are internally related. Komarine Romdenh-Romluc, Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Merleau-Ponty and Phenomenology of Perception, New York, Routledge, 2011, 60

[2] Wrathall, ibid, 115

[3] Ibid, 459

[4] MP, PP, ibid, 57

[5] MP, PP, ibid, 301

[6] MP. PP, ibid

[7] Komarine Romdenh-Romluc, ibid, 113

[8] Ibid, 114

[9] MP, PP, 302

[10] There is a resonance here we suggest with Paul Tillich’s notion of Ultimate Concern.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s