Philosophy Weekend: Will and Desire

Cal Godot asked a good question in response to last weekend’s post. When I use the terms “will” and “desire” in the context of ethical philosophy, am I using the terms interchangeably?

Yes, in a strict logical sense, I am using the terms interchangeably. Both “will” and “desire” point to the same thing, the same mysterious and omnipresent phenomenon of human (and animal) life. Yet there is a world of difference between will and desire.

The difference is not in the thing the words points to, but in the connotations captured along the way. The term “will” calls to mind three provocative philosophical texts that have become classics of the modern Western tradition: Arthur Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Presentation, Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Will to Power and William James’s essay collection The Will to Believe. Thus, “will” connotes European romanticism, existentialism and American Pragmatism. It carries a muscular, vigorous, dramatic and conflict-ridden sense. It feels Napoleonic and Apollonian.

“Desire”, on the other hand, is the term that appears most often in Buddhist texts, including the great Four Noble Truths:

1. Life is full of suffering.
2. Suffering is caused by desire.
3. To end suffering, let go of desire.
4. Follow the eight-fold path.

Unlike “will”, the word “desire” seems to carry a sense of aesthetic, sensual or even sinful indulgence, as well as an element of passive Dionysian beauty that is completely absent in “will”. But even though “desire” and “will” feel so different, I do not think there is an actual difference in the psychological impulses they describe. Or is there? The etymologies shed a small amount of light:

will (v.)
O.E. *willan, wyllan “to wish, desire, want” (past tense wolde), from P.Gmc. *welljan (cf. O.S. willian, O.N. vilja, O.Fris. willa, Du. willen, O.H.G. wellan, Ger. wollen, Goth. wiljan”to will, wish, desire,” Goth. waljan “to choose”), from PIE *wel-/*wol- “be pleasing” (cf. Skt. vrnoti “chooses, prefers,” varyah “to be chosen, eligible, excellent,” varanam”choosing;” Avestan verenav- “to wish, will, choose;” Gk. elpis “hope;” L. volo, velle “to wish, will, desire;” O.C.S. voljo, voliti “to will,” veljo, veleti “to command;” Lith. velyti “to wish, favor,” pa-vel-mi “I will,” viliuos “I hope;” Welsh gwell “better”). Cf. also O.E. wel “well,” lit. “according to one’s wish;” wela “well-being, riches.” The use as a future auxiliary was already developing in O.E. The implication of intention or volition distinguishes it from shall, which expresses or implies obligation or necessity. Contracted forms, especially after pronouns, began to appear 16c., as in sheele for “she will.” The form with an apostrophe is from 17c.

desire (v.)
early 13c., from O.Fr. desirrer (12c.) “wish, desire, long for,” from L. desiderare “long for, wish for; demand, expect,” original sense perhaps “await what the stars will bring,” from the phrase de sidere “from the stars,” from sidus (gen. sideris) “heavenly body, star, constellation” (but see consider). Related: Desired; desiring. The noun is attested from c.1300, from O.Fr. desir, from desirer; sense of “lust” is first recorded mid-14c.

As a writer, I like to mix both words freely for maximum effect, but I do tend to favor “desire” over “will”. I’m sure there are many reasons for this even beyond the connotations mentioned above. “Will” calls to mind the tiresome and never-ending (I wish it would end) argument over whether or not human beings have free will. (Strangely, nobody ever asks whether or not we have free desire).

“Desire”, meanwhile, calls to mind the moving American advice poem Desiderata (“You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and stars”), not to mention one of Bob Dylan’s richest and most musically satisfying albums. I listened to this record a lot as a kid, and it seems to be lodged deeply in my brain; if I had to pick a sound to match the meaning of the word “desire”, maybe I’d pick the gorgeous swirling violin and harmonica jam (Scarlet Rivera on violin, Dylan on harmonica) that opens the song “Black Diamond Bay”. The musical equivalent of “will”, meanwhile, might be the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. I’ll take the Dylan, thanks.

There are endless differences between the effect of the word “will” and the word “desire”, even though they seem to refer to the same thing, and a good writer will always choose carefully based on the connotations he or she wishes to express. If a writer wishes to emphasize neither the European/American tradition nor the Buddhist tradition, “intention” is also available for use, and this word is favored by the likes of Daniel Dennett. And still, the thing these words point to remains mysterious and essentially unknown to us all.

19 Responses

  1. All this chatter about
    All this chatter about ‘desire’ and ‘will’ tells me that your own desire to solve the “mysterious and essentially unknown to us all” is uppermost in your thoughts, amigo.

    As you wrote last week, i.e. “it is when we desire that we feel most alive,” that in itself should’ve been a clue for you on this journey you are on. As a wise man once said, desire is existence. Why else do we feel most alive when that energy is filling our very being?

    It’s important to note that desire shares in the duality of life like all things and theories. Desire to accumulate great wealth, loads of money, is said to ultimately not fulfill desire for desire is pure energy. Desire doesn’t require money or any objects. Least of all desire does not require questioning or dwelling on definitions as to what this word means. Desire simply has to be understood as life producing, a result of life itself. Does not the cockroach desire to live when the lights come on in a late night refrigerator raid and this roach immediately attempts to hide knowing it will be stepped on. It’s desire, it’s life giving energy is equal to all living organisms. All life share this same energy, this same desire to live, to reproduce, to survive as long as the organism can. Desire is the most potent of energies but it is nothing but energy – objectless, it requires nothing but being.

    You wrote: “It is difficult to imagine existing as conscious beings without desire, and when we do imagine existing without desire we also tend to imagine existing without a sense of self (as in the Buddhist religion, which teaches of living both without desire and without self). Desire (or will), therefore, appears to be an essential ingredient in the construction of the human sense of self.”

    Again, amigo, you seem to be understanding without knowing here. There seems to be an importance given to ‘self’ that self doesn’t deserve, hence the Buddhist mention. When Buddhism speaks of ‘no self, ‘non-self’, ‘no mind’ or ’empty mind’ it means nothing more than what it says – self and mind are unimportant in understanding desire. As a matter of fact they interfere with understanding this mystery. When we ‘kill’ self, when we empty mind we enter a state of purity that has no connection with objects. We enter into what I call a state of ‘pure consciousness’… some call it ‘the state of grace’… but any words are unable to fully describe the experience, hence Buddha’s Eight-Fold Path, a ‘map to use on one’s ‘pilgrimage’ to enlightenment, the state of full awareness that transcends all matter, objectless.

    Although there are many philosophers who have tackled the subject of ‘will’ vs ‘desire’, there a few who have found their own answers to be satisfactory. Why? Any answers are words that are insufficient in describing other words used in describing the indescribable.

    Our all too hu’man nature is to talk. Talking is what we do far more than any other thing we do. We necessarily use words to do this talking. We do so in order to find answers to our never ending questions. All this is desire at play. But we must reach a point when we conclude this talking, this level of energy, will never answer all our questions simply because there are more questions we have collectively asked than there are grains of sand of the beaches of Waikiki. We’ve been asking questions ever since we became cognizant of questions. All those questions and are we closer to finding Truth?

    It’s been said: “Jesus was once asked when the kingdom of God would come. The kingdom of God, Jesus replied, is not something people will be able to see and point to. Then came these striking words: ‘Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.’ (Luke 17:21)” – []

    As wonderful and necessary as philosophy is and will continue to be for any thinking person, there is a tool necessary for all people to learn to master: meditation. Thru this singular practice which gave Siddhartha the gift of Buddhahood, is the pathway to this Kingdom Jesus is said to have spoken.

    Imagine for a moment, if you will, suddenly finding answers to all the important questions that have given us all our Philosophies and Religions being answered in one instant of deep meditation. How free would you feel? How liberated would you be? Knowing the fullness of living and the joy of Being, fully immersed in Desire transcending objects for Pure Consciousness, at One with All.

  2. Would it be proper shorthand
    Would it be proper shorthand to say that you propose “will” as something we are born with and “desire” as something we develop? If so, such a contrast lays bare the tension between “will” and “desire” as it relates to your quest to identify the “group-self” and its attendant qualities

    As such: We are born with a “will” to individuate, to grow, to learn, to expand our consciousness. Left unchecked this develops into selfish, personal “desire” – but it is rarely left unchecked: family and social pressures immediately begin to shape the desires of the individual. This develops into a constant tension between the individual will (an innate and almost unconscious thing) and the individual desire.

    The will is thus the “life force,” the impetus to grow and progress along a linear course. “The thing that makes us human,” so to speak.

    The individual desire may be selfish or altruistic. It may focus on self, family, society, or even abstract ideals, inasmuch as it is shaped by those and other forces.

    “Will” as “soul” and “desire” as “intellect.”

  3. As always, language is just a
    As always, language is just a convention.

    If we want to stick to the “common use”, my personal opinion is that will and desire are quite different, and the word cannot be used one in place of the other.
    Desire, desiderio, de sidera: from the stars. Something almost independent from the human brain.
    Will. Connected to willpower. Something very connected to the personal intention.
    There is not “desirepower”, because desire is something you cannot control.
    I can desire to drink a Coke, but if my will to lose weight is strong enough, I don’t not drink it.

    Just my two cents: language is just a convention.

  4. Thanks for the comments, Cal
    Thanks for the comments, Cal and Sigma.

    Cal, I have never understood these words in the way you are describing them, but that doesn’t mean that I am right and you are wrong. As Subject Sigma says, language is just a convention, and neither of us can define how others use these words. I’m intrigued to hear that you think of “will” and “desire” as different in this way, and I’m going to give your suggestion some more thought.

    For me, the words point to the same life force. To use Sigma’s example: I can desire to drink a Coke or I can will to drink a Coke. I can desire to lose weight or I can will to lose weight. I don’t see the difference.

  5. Subject Sigma — yes.

    Subject Sigma — yes.

    Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

    No one says, where there’s a desire, there a way — and not because the latter is not alliterative. No one says where there’s a want, there’s away either.

    Want and desire are more synonymous. Will implies more and it’s meaning is slightly different.

    One may desire something and then use one’s will to get it. At other times we need to use our will do accomplish things we may not desire at all, but have to do.

    Or we can even use our will to stop us from doing something we desire, as in the example Subject presented.

    We may desire things we don’t want to actually happen. But will involves the actual.

  6. I like to hear these other
    I like to hear these other takes on whether or not “will” and “desire” mean the same thing — very interesting.

    TKG, I hear what you’re saying, and I see the difference, though unlike you I don’t believe the difference is elemental. That is, I am proposing that will and desire are different in the way that ice, water and steam are different: they take different forms, but they are all H20.

    I’m not going to try to prove that this is true (is it even possible to prove anything about how words are used?). But I think it’s valuable to consider whether or not it’s true, because if will and desire refer to the same thing, this creates a common ground between western and eastern philosophy. It allows us to cross-pollinate between Buddhist and existentialist ideas, and I think there’s much to be learned by doing so. Anyway, definitely a fruitful topic for further investigation …

  7. Try this –
    Will = Fortitude,

    Try this –

    Will = Fortitude, i.e. “She has the will to accomplish the task.”

    Desire = Passion, i.e. “His desire to own a Bugatti Veyron Super Sports occupies his thinking.”

    “Desire” and “Will” are two different words that denote two differing energies derived from the same source, are they not? That being said, I fail to grasp the philosophical idea behind the discussion of meaning between two words which is best left to etymologists.

  8. Water and water vapor have
    Water and water vapor have very different physical properties beyond the molecular.

    Tell most people water and steam are “the same thing,” and they might initially object; told to “think about it,” they’ll probably pause a moment, then light up with a smile of revelation. They are indeed both composed of the same chemicals and the same molecular distribution of those chemicals. (I’m not sure whether they differ subatomically, but suspect it is something at the quantum level that determines whether H2O is vapor, liquid, or solid.)

    But water and steam are not “the same.” They are not even “similar,” except for the chemical construction. Water can exist in a variety of temperature levels; steam exists within a much narrower range of physical conditions, with ice constrained to an even more narrow set of conditions. Water is common to all, while steam and ice are rare (and only made common through technology).

    Language is indeed a conversation. But the more one side of the conversation decides to define differing terms as “the same,” the more difficult that conversation becomes. The more participants in the conversation agree to “personal definitions,” the more impossible the conversation. We have to agree on the definitions of words or we can’t communicate. This is where I perceived this conversation to be – the place where we decided what “will” and “desire” mean.

    “Will” and “desire” are clearly not “the same” in the minds of most people, though they may often be elided or even confused. (Crowley’s famous epithet, “Do what thou Wilt,” is often seen as a “command to selfishness” by those who confuse “will” and “desire.”) I’ve never heard anyone discuss his/her physical attractions as “will,” and I’ve never heard a forceful person referred to as “strong-desired.”

    In you previous posts, it seemed that you were attempting to differentiate the two terms. I see such pursuit as a positive contribution to conversation, as it is attempting to make things “more clear,” to develop “more words” the describe what appears to be an almost infinitely complex interaction between the individual and the group.

    But if you are simply eliding terms, I’m afraid I have no place in that conversation. We need more words to describe the complex world, not fewer. Eliding two terms which have historically and colloquially been very different is in my view not a furtherance to conversation. I’m far more interested in discussing the perceived differences, if not actual linguistic differences, in the two terms. (As you point out, no one talks about “free desire,” so it is obviously not the same as “will,” at least in common understanding and usage.)

    And no, I’m not offended – everything is about “offense” these days, so I feel the need to point out that I am not, and am rarely ever, “offended” by a difference in ideas or goals. I’m ecstatic that there is even one person out there trying to answer such questions, and I’m happy to be a part of that conversation, even if I am the cranky old guy in the corner still trying to make his way through Being and Time.

  9. I am quite on the same tune
    I am quite on the same tune of Cal, TKG and mtmynd.

    I add just a short note for Levi:

    “I’m not going to try to prove that this is true (is it even possible to prove anything about how words are used?)”

    It is possible if everyone stick strictly to the same convention – so if everyone is using the same, complete meaning of the words. It is like a mathematical model, or a simulation.

    “But I think it’s valuable to consider whether or not it’s true, because if will and desire refer to the same thing, this creates a common ground between western and eastern philosophy. It allows us to cross-pollinate between Buddhist and existentialist ideas”

    Here I am afraid you are taking a shortcut. If the Buddhist meaning of “desire” is different from the existentialist meaning of “will”, if they are not agreeing on the same convention, it is impossible. And it does not matter if will and desire have the same meaning in your personal convention, or in the “common” convention: they must have the same meaning in Buddhist and existentialist conventions.

    You can understand this only if you study what “will” and “desire” mean in Buddhist and existentialist environment, so you must do the opposite path: if you find “a common ground” between the two philosophies, only then you can say they are giving the same meaning to those words.

    This is the same mistake you did in your “Why Ayn Rand is Wrong”, with the “semantic proof”: you are trying to do a logical reasoning using a convention that is different from the original one.

    To do an example about software programming, it is like if someone wrote a calculation software assigning a value to a constant, ran the software and got a result. Then you change the value of this constant, run the software and pretend that the result is the same. If we want to be able to speak, and to compare our results, we should agree on the value of constants, we should stick to the same convention.

  10. I love these responses!
    I love these responses! Thank you all for challenging me and helping me see where I need to explain myself better.

    Yes, Cal, I have been saying all along that “will” and “desire” are different words. I am saying that we should consider the possibility, though, that they may point to the same thing. For example, think of the fact that in the USA we speak of “the Vietnam War” but in Vietnam they speak of “the American War”. Yet it is the same war. My suggestion — and it is only a suggestion, at this point — is that the word “will” as it is used in Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and James can be interchanged with the word “desire” as it appears in Buddhist texts.

    That doesn’t mean that there aren’t other connotations of “will” and “desire” (like “will power” or “secret desire”) that don’t fit this meaning. I’m really not interested in the words — I’m interested in getting a better understanding of will and desire, and of existentialist and Buddhist philosophy. I think the possibility that the words can be used interchangeably is a very intriguing possibility.

    And, Subject Sigma, I’m not intending to prove this idea at this point, and I don’t think I need to prove it to bring it up. I don’t think it’s a foul in philosophy to suggest a common origin to two different concepts. When Einstein announced that energy and mass existed on the same spectrum, he was cutting against the common understanding of both mass and energy. His theory prevailed because it turned out to be true. I don’t know yet if my theory is true — but I do think it’s a hell of a theory, and maybe others can help me prove it.

  11. Levi, me too — I don’t think
    Levi, me too — I don’t think that your idea is foul, not at all. I just made a remark about the method of research, not the content; so your last reply is important, because you took the good road, saying “the word “will” as it is used in Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and James can be interchanged with the word “desire” as it appears in Buddhist texts”: for me this premise is absolutely necessary. You started the blog post with dictionary quotes about will and desire, my reply was aimed at that; now, after your last statement, it is very different – and I hope you will find good help.

  12. “Will” is something I
    “Will” is something I associate with my ex because she “wills” things to happen through a great combination of Hispanic pride and stubbornness in order to prove a miniscule point she previously was unable to convince me was valid. “Desire” is what I had, to get her into the sack.

  13. I fundamentally agree with
    I fundamentally agree with you…unrelated, but I wonder what you would say about where duty fits between desire and will? Right in the middle?

  14. Desire is a state of mind
    Desire is a state of mind where we want something diffusely or generally but have yet to exercise our mental capacity to control our actions and transform that desire into a goal to be pursued , the Will represents our exercise of that faculty of controlling our conduct and seeking the sattisfaction of that desire as a goal to be pursued ..the difference is subtle , because desire is the spring of the Will but not one with it.

  15. Good point. This is the
    Good point. This is the explanation I will adopt. Will is controlled by our intellect and reasoning abilities while desire springs from our emotional selves.

  16. In my experience Desire is a
    In my experience Desire is a primal motivator, and Will can best be understood as the decision to adopt a stance or take actions that are designed to satisfy that Desire.

  17. Good article thank you! I think the only helpful distinction I like between the terms is that you can have multiple competing “desires”, but your “will” is simply the strongest of them and is thus the one that wins out. Not that I’m the ultimate authority on defining terms.

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