Monday, 9 February 2015

Grief and the idea that action doesn't need prior motivation

One of the ongoing effects I have felt of my (double) bereavement last year has been marked fluctuations in the degree to which any possible ends seem at all attractive. (One might, with psychiatry, call the phenomenon a ‘flattening of affect’, a phrase that itself seems the result of a flattening of affect.) The experience tends towards the limit case that nothing matters, nothing has value. One obvious practical problem, then, is motivation. Once final ends are sucked dry of value, they can’t set up instrumental values and so there’s no reason to do anything at all. (I guess that that is one of the reasons that being asleep seems so attractive to me at the moment: a kind of null state for acting.) Another effect is that with no ends, there seems to be no pleasure either. I don’t think I had an inkling of this connection before. Happiness seems to go hand in hand with the possibility of doing something even if the doing is merely lounging. Of course, that’s just what the experience would be in the limit and I don’t think that actual grief gets very far along the scale. But far enough, I find.

Given the pressures of having a job, though, perturbations in motivational structure are a bother. Deadlines don’t go away and essays need to be marked. But one of the themes in the long-running Oliver Burkeman column (from which I have taken the picture) in the Guardian criticising most of the self-help literature is that motivation (for example, in the very idea of motivational speakers) is over played. The key idea is this:

Motivation follows action: Books on ‘getting motivated’ - and hyperenergetic ‘motivational speakers’ - ironically compound the problem by reinforcing the idea that you need to feel positive about doing something before you begin it. But that's a subtle form of pressure. What if you dropped the requirement of feeling good, accepted that you felt bad and just started anyway? Motivation usually shows up quickly thereafter. (See the work of psychologist Shoma Morita at []

But similar ideas on the same theme can be found in other entries, for example, here and here.

In the context of philosophy, however, there is a clear contradiction. For their very identity as actions, actions need motivation. Nothing can be both an action, rather than a movement or other brute event, and lack motivation. The idea that Burkeman seems to be getting at here seems similar to the idea – in some forms of therapy – that one can aim at not owning one’s own experiences and thoughts. Taken literally, this seems incoherent. But I don’t think that a literal interpretation is the right approach. So similarly in this case.

What would it be to act ‘without motivation’? There is a reminder of Anscombe’s idea that answering a ‘why?’ question concerning why one acted with ‘for no reason’ need not deny that a putative action is an action, and hence done for some reason, but rather suggests no ulterior reason, just a reason tied to the action’s identity as the action it is. If there is no further reason, then the action has intrinsic rather than instrumental value to the agent. Hence a suggestion.

Perhaps what Burkeman is suggesting is something like this. Rather than aspiring to seeing an action as motivated by a broader aim, a step towards realising that aim, one should just carry out the action for its own sake. Each action is to be carried out for its own sake. If there is a structure, it is bottom up rather than top down.

Such a suggestion has a problem, I must admit. The ethos of the Burkeman column is that this is what one should do, that this is a better approach than a broader structure of goals and aims sold to us by motivational self-help literature. (There is a very healthy critical angle on positive suggestions in the column but it does seem that this idea is endorsed.) But, now, how does the ethos stand to the individual actions if not as itself a kind of broader motivational structure? If one does not already simply act for reasons intrinsic to the actions themselves, how can anything Burkeman write impact? My hunch is that this is supposed to be a kind of abstract imperative of rationality rather than appetite. It’s a reminder of the kind of ‘oughts’ that structure the field of possible actions. There are ends and they are to be done. They don’t need binding by extra appetitive oomph.

The difficulty, though, of grief is precisely seeing in the first place that anything is a candidate to be so much as an end in itself. The bereaved, I discover, are like epistemological sceptics wanting to be reassured of the power of reasons having foolishly already stepped outside the space of reasons. Once you do that, nothing could possibly serve as a reason to underpin the power of reasons.