Re: Motives and goals

From: Jay Lemke (
Date: Sun Feb 01 2004 - 19:05:11 PST

Combining Eugene's and Phil's comments about the smaller-scale,
shorter-term aspect of activity (action, goal) and the larger-scale,
longer-term (activity, motive) -- with perhaps various levels in between --
I continue to worry about letting too much sense of "intentionality" guide
our thinking about these issues.

Sociologically, we know that people from certain social-economic
backgrounds are more likely to undertake some kinds of activities
(beginning from Durkheim's studies of suicide, and perhaps the kinds of
people who study foreign languages has a similar analysis). Each of these
individuals might be said to have, and would certainly think him/herself to
have a rather specific motive and goal in particular actions. But the
social fact of the demographic distributions, with their constancy over
decades and across individuals, their long term trends, their changes with
large-scale social-economic conditions (e.g. the crime rate in relation to
the rise and fall of economic conditions), etc. remains.

Do we want to say that individual motives and goals are "rationalizations"
of the effect of large-scale social forces? perhaps not. That these social
conditions dispose us to find ourselves involved in activities, or with
certain kinds of needs that can be met by certain activities (needs leading
to motives, etc.)? That's not really too helpful (pace Bourdieu).

I would say that we are taught, culturally, to think and speak of our lives
in terms of choice, will, intention, goals, motives, etc. Our law system,
as Eugene notes, epitomizes this ideology of accountable individual
responsibility, worked out to delicate degrees of nuance. (To me this is
further evidence of its cultural specificity.)

Certainly whatever we find ourselves doing, it can be fit, by us or by
others, into many larger patterns of action and activity, on many scales.
Whatever we do, or think we are doing, and whatever we say we are trying to
do (intentionality), we are always also doing many, many other things, in
whole and/or in part.

I agree with Phil that it's a mistake to look only at social-demographic or
economic "motivations" for engaging in an activity. And this is not just a
matter of scale downwards towards ANL's "action" level, where as Mike
notes, we expect many local goals to all cohere as part of the larger
"activity". We can have multiple motives that overdetermine our
participation in an activity. It may indeed in some sense be a different
activity in terms of its meaning for us with respect to each motive, even
if it is the "same" activity when described as a sequence of limited
actions. This happens again at the level of actions/goals; we can satisfy
two or several goals with the same action. And it may not be quite "the
same" for us in terms of its meaning, of its functions in other larger
patterns of action. The same action can belong at the same time to two

What matters, I think, is to see as much of what is going on as we can. To
cross-analyze actions against goals, actions against activities, goals
against motives, motives against activities, across these scales (with or
without scientific credence in our own and others' habits of intentionalist
sense-making) and also across still smaller (operations) and still larger
(demographic, sociological) scales of analysis and interpretation.

The ideology of instrumental rationality, that we choose our goals and act
to further them, pushes us toward a too linear view of one-to-one
relationships (as with cause-effect models in the quantitative social
sciences), when the real complexity of lived experience is many-to-many,
many times over. And in that many-to-many world, what closed loops may
confound our linear causal intuitions? What heterarchical connections
across non-adjacent levels may produce surprises?



PS. I also think Eugene raises a separate and interesting question about
whether we can have a motive without a goal, which seems to mean in his
examples that we have chosen an activity, but taken no action to further
it. Are we still engaged in an activity (ala Leontiev), when we pause and
for a time take no action? Can we have begun an activity by the act of
deciding to someday take an action in furtherance of it, but not as yet
having done so? Perhaps this extreme case puts the cart before the horse.
Leontiev, I think, would argue that you don't have an activity without an
integrating motive, you just have assorted actions. But to have a motive
without an activity, without even the actions that move that activity ...
that seems just a bit ... mentalistic? non-materialist? On the other hand,
one day, a man could look back at the history of his efforts to stop
smoking and try to say when it all began ... perhaps with that initial
resolve to do it someday. And perhaps not. Perhaps we cannot know whether a
wish was a resolve until later. Perhaps a motive is not something we just
have a some moment, it is only something that can be said to have existed
across some extended period of time, a period during which there was, at
least off and on, a material base of actions which it organized into an

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