International Society for Philosophers

International Society for Philosophers

Wisdom begins with wonder

PHILOSOPHY PATHWAYS                   ISSN 2043-0728


Issue number 151 7th April 2010


I. 'Pleasure in Plato's Phaedo' by Kristian Urstad

II. 'Lou Salome and Rilke' by Matthew Del Nevo

III. 'Desire and the Future' by Tim Taylor

IV. 'Dilemmas in Social Philosophy: a Resource for use in Schools' by Matthew Del Nevo



For over two and a half thousand years, philosophers have pondered the nature of human pleasure and desire. What is it that motivates, or ought to motivate, human action? What exactly is the nature of the satisfaction we seek in pursuing 'the good life'? Are all human beings ultimately alike, in what they want? Exactly what kind of mental state is desire, or its satisfaction?

In his great dialogue Phaedo, Plato recounts the very last day of Socrates with his friends before he drank the hemlock. Through the mouthpiece of Socrates, Plato presents a the case against a life dedicated to the pursuit of pleasure. Yet, as Kristian Urstad shows, Plato also had some very positive things to say about the pleasures of the pursuit of philosophy and the intellectual life.

Are men and women fundamentally the same? Lou Salome, friend to Nietzsche and Freud, in her book Die Erotik explored a form of feminism which insists on a deep-rooted -- one can almost say metaphysical -- difference between the sexes, and its bearing on the nature of art and religion. Matthew Del Nevo traces the influence that Salome's association with the poet Rilke had on her view of how for the artist, life and art are inextricably bound together, and the essential connection between art and the feminine.

In recent years, philosophers investigating the nature of human well-being have been drawn towards the notion of satisfaction of desires, as a seemingly objective and neutral measure of human 'happiness'. However, as Tim Taylor explains, there remains a difficulty with this view because human beings are evidently not always happy when they get what they thought they wanted, and indeed can be made happy by things they didn't have an antecedent desire for. This leads him to pose the question, Is it always true that desire is aimed at the future?

Finally, I am pleased (!) to announce that a new resource has been added to the Pathways Downloads page at https:---, 'Dilemmas in Social Philosophy' by Phil Washburn and Matthew Del Nevo. In his second article for this issue, Matthew Del Nevo explains the thinking behind this study resource, which has so far been used very successfully with Australian school students.

Geoffrey Klempner



What is Plato's view of pleasure in his dialogue the Phaedo? He clearly (and famously) rails against bodily pleasures, seeing them as shackles of sorts which prevent the soul from attaining its proper perfection apart from the body, but does he leave room in the carnate life for some other forms of pleasure? These are some of the questions I would like to try to address in this paper. As it turns out, I argue that Plato does indeed recognize other types of pleasure, of the sort which figure as important items of value in the good life.


It is important, to start off with, to say something about who exactly the views expressed in the Phaedo belong to. The scholarly consensus is that this dialogue does not provide an accurate view of the historical Socrates' (or Socratic) doctrines. While in Plato's earlier work, the Apology, Socrates remains agnostic and undogmatic with respect to life after death, in the Phaedo, he spends significant time devoting himself to arguments intended to prove that there is an afterlife, arguments which involve both appeal to a theory of reincarnation and to what has become known as the 'theory of Forms'. Since none of these theories can be found in Plato's early, so-called Socratic dialogues, I follow scholarly consensus in assuming that Plato in his Phaedo to a large extent uses Socrates as a mouthpiece for his own views.


Kicking off the dramatic introduction to the discussion (60b), Socrates, having just had his fetters taken off, rubs his legs and makes the following remark:

     What a strange thing that which men call pleasure seems to
     be, and how astonishing the relation it has with what is
     thought to be its opposite, namely pain! A man cannot have
     both at the same time. Yet if he pursues and catches the
     one, he is almost always bound to catch the other also,
     like two creatures with one head... This seems to be
     happening to me. My bonds caused pain in my leg, and now
     pleasure seems to be following.
Plato's point here seems to be that bodily pleasure is always linked to pain or distress. Although they do not coincide (see Gorgias 495e-497d), bodily pleasure will either be followed by pain, or perhaps alternatively, will involve antecedent pain. In either case, the presence of one entails the presence of the other. Part of Plato's message in this passage may be that anyone who decides to spend a life pursuing bodily pleasures will have to contend with an equal or proportional amount of counter-balancing pain. The more bodily pleasures one pursues, the more one has to endure distress. Such an existence would presumably be a difficult and distracting one, seemingly not an optimal candidate for the good life.

Yet, Socrates is made to say something in this passage which suggests he has in mind a much stronger and articulated position. Note the 'that which men call pleasure'. The insinuation here seems to be that bodily pleasures are somehow not really or truly pleasant. This can be seen to anticipate and given sense by two much larger, overarching discussions, one at 64c-69e and the other at 80c-84b, both concerned with the contrast between the proper life of the soul or the philosophical life and the life of attachment to the body and, among other things, its pleasures.

In the first discussion, Socrates describes the philosopher's (his own) preparation, while still corporeally alive, for the true life which he will live after he is separated from his body by death. The philosopher, in training for death, will, Socrates says, pay no attention to 'so-called pleasures' of the body and only, as far as possible, with the things of the soul. The reason for this is because the proper activity of the philosopher, thought, is best employed when it is free from the distractions of the senses, bodily pleasure included. The body, Socrates goes on to describe, fills us with all sorts of nonsense and confusions, making it impossible for us to think straight.

This contrast between the soul and the body, and, in particular, the life of the soul in communion with reality, is picked up again later. Philosophy, Socrates says, persuades the soul to withdraw from the senses and to trust only itself and whatever reality, existing by itself, the soul by itself understands. What is examined by the senses should not be considered true, and the reason for this appears to be something like the following. What the senses examine is different in different in circumstances, whereas the objects the soul grasps are fully real in that they are what they are without qualification. However, what the pursuit of bodily pleasures do, Socrates claims, is rivet the soul to the body, welding them together, making the soul corporeal so that it believes that truth is what the body says it is (83c-d).

The idea here, though somewhat obscure, seems to be that pleasures of the body make us take as real or true things that are not real at all. Because the objects of bodily pleasures are both fleeting and (as previously mentioned) always accompanied by pain and so less than fully real, so also the pleasures themselves must be seen as illusory and less than fully satisfactory. Whatever the exact details, the upshot here is that Plato almost certainly views bodily pleasures as not belonging to any conception of the good life.


Given this sustained and emphatic attack on, and excising of, bodily pleasures, we might wonder if Plato thinks that there are any other sorts of pleasures which have any significant role to play in the good life. Or are we to understand Plato, in this work, as suggesting that no pleasure of any kind has value for human life? It is my contention that he does indeed leave room for other types of pleasure. I would like to suggest that he has at least two types in mind, namely, intellectual pleasure and what we might loosely understand as an adverbial form of pleasure. In what follows, I attempt to extrapolate these from the text and provide an elucidation of their nature.

Though it is not often noticed, there are at least two brief mentions of intellectual pleasure in the dialogue. First, in the opening scene, the narrator Phaedo, remarks that 'it's always the greatest of pleasures for me to recall Socrates', followed by mention of the pleasure he used to take in their past philosophical discussions (59a). The second reference to intellectual pleasure occurs much later at 114e. There Socrates claims a man will be of good cheer if, during his life, he has ignored the pleasures of the body, and 'seriously concerned himself with the pleasures of learning'.

There are several things to take notice of here. To begin with, both Phaedo and Socrates are clearly saying that these pleasures belong to the carnate life, not to the life hereafter. Second, there is no indication that they are to be disparaged or excised, like bodily pleasures are. Presumably this is because the objects of these pleasures, philosophy and higher learning respectively, are to be understood as less evanescent and less mixed with pain than those belonging to bodily pleasures. As we recall, intelligible entities such as goodness or certain geometrical proportions to which the soul is akin are fully real in that they are what they are without exception. Though the soul is not entirely free from the distortive effects of the body while in a carnate state, the implication here seems to be that for Plato intellectual pleasures still figure as important items of value in this life. This is both because of the truer conception of reality to which those pleasures give rise -- an intrinsically valuable experience, and because cultivation of such pleasures helps to prepare us now for our eventual journey to the next world (114e).

I turn now to what I believe is another type of pleasure Plato recognizes, one which can be seen to be permitted by a variety of Greek idioms concerning pleasure, but which, though embodied, is nevertheless not clearly articulated in the dialogue. What I am referring to here is, as mentioned, something I will call, for better or for worse, adverbial pleasure. It is, I think, revealing and significant just how joyful Socrates is made to appear throughout his ordeal and the good cheer or contentment he is made to show in the face of his death. This is something Phaedo clearly noticed, as his remark to Echecrates at the outset of the dialogue reveals:

     'for the man appeared happy both in manner and words as he
     died nobly' (58e).
And later, during Socrates' last moments, Phaedo narrates:

     'And he offered the cup (hemlock) to Socrates who took it
     quite cheerfully... and then drained it calmly and easily'
Indeed, Socrates himself even speaks about the good cheer of his own soul as he awaits his journey to the underworld (114e).

What exactly is going on here? It is clear that this joy has little to do with bodily pleasure -- not only do the obvious physical circumstances (prison, shackles, hemlock poisoning , etc.) speak against it, but, as we have seen, Socrates, throughout, is made to explicitly repudiate this type of pleasure. But neither, interestingly, does it seem to have much to do with intellectual pleasure, as previously construed. That is, his joy or pleasure does not appear to be derived from a connection to, or contemplation of, an intelligible entity or object. Rather, Socrates' joy, it might be suggested, seems to be born of someone who realizes that his state of mind is entirely within his own power and is the sort of thing that no one can take away from him, whatever else they make take away. People can impose physical pain on Socrates, and even deprive him of certain types of pleasure, but they cannot, it seems, prevent him from adopting a certain pro-attitude to things or approaching things in a certain joyful way. If this is on the right track, then what we might take Plato to be doing, through his description of Socrates' approach to his impending death, is introducing a third type of pleasure.

Pleasure or enjoyment here amounts to something like the way in which a certain activity is approached, the manner of approach to the activity enjoyed. To say, for example, that Apelles enjoyed painting is to say that he approached this activity with something like vigour and attention. Similarly, Socrates' joy, it is suggested, might be understood as his particular mental set, frame or disposition of mind, towards his state of affairs. To say that Socrates is experiencing joy is to say that he approaches his death with something like deep calm, stability and psychological independence of mind.

Yet we still might wonder how it is such a conception of pleasure enables us to understand its role and importance in life. Would Plato consider this type of pleasure to play an important role in the good life? Surely he would. Plato highly prizes the value of self-sufficiency, and thinks it a mark of the good person and an important criterion for happiness. Consider this bit of text from Plato's Lysis:

     'Isn't a good person, insofar as he is good, sufficient to
     'And a self-sufficient person has no need of anything, just
     because of his self-sufficiency?'
And Socrates' rhetorical or ironical statement in the Gorgias:

     'So then those who have no need of anything are wrongly
     said to be happy?'

It is important to see that there is an intimate relationship between Socrates' joy, as described, and the self-sufficiency Plato values. His joy is born of an internal state of mind, a self-created way of approaching things; it is not dependent on external factors or tied to outer circumstances and contingencies. His enjoyment is completely within his own power and is not the sort of thing that others can take away from him. In effect, Socrates' happiness is invulnerable.


Gill, C. 1973. 'The Death of Socrates' The Classical Quarterly. Vol. 23 No. 1. 25-28.

Gosling, J. C. B. 1969. Pleasure and Desire: The Case for Hedonism Reviewed, Oxford University Press.

Gosling and Taylor. 1982. The Greeks on Pleasure, Oxford University Press.

Seneca. Epistles. Loeb Classical Library. Trans. by Gummere. Vol. IV-VI.

(c) Kristian Urstad 2010


University of the Fraser Valley British Columbia Canada



Lou Salome was born in St. Petersburg in 1861. When she was 19, she began study of theology at the university of Zurich, the only university at that time that accepted women. In 1882, for health reasons her mother (who had accompanied Lou to Zurich, as to travel unaccompanied as a young woman of class in her day was inconceivable) took her off to Italy, where in Rome she met Paul Ree and through him, his friend, Nietzsche. Both men fell for her. Right away, of Nietzsche, she could intuitively tell that while he was fascinating and creative, suffering and loneliness were written all over his destiny, hence his awkwardness and his masquerading; a masquerading which she believed came through in his work, to the advantage of its subtlety. But it is interesting that Lou should extol Nietzsche's masks, because, perhaps like many people of her class, in her time and place, she had her own.

Lou married neither suitor -- neither Ree nor Nietzsche -- but instead, quite suddenly and surprisingly, she married the academic Orientalist, Karl Andreas. This was a few years later in 1887. She was then 26. And they remained married until his death in 1930, at the age of 84.

In 1892, she published Hendrik Ibsen's Frauengestalten (Ibsen's Heroines), and two years later in 1894, her book on Nietzsche, Friedrich Nietzsche in seinen Werken. By this time Nietzsche was in an asylum for the mentally insane. In the next ten years Lou wrote another six books and fifty articles. With the Ibsen and the Nietzsche books alone she achieved literary fame. We ought to note, in passing, as we shall be talking about Lou's feminism, that in the Ibsen book she analysed six of his plays in terms of the social and cultural captivity of women and their sometimes tragic and self-destructive attempts at freedom. Ibsen's plays dramatically pitted a woman's conjugal duty against her freedom. His plays were seen as fanning a revolutionary spirit and were banned from theatres across Europe; however, private theatre companies like Bruno Wille's in Berlin, where Lou was living at the time, had begun to appear all over the place, and staged them instead.

Ibsen's theatre was realistic and in describing his female characters and their feminine predicaments in her book, Lou took him at his word, reading the characterisations as real and analysing them. Lou wrote:

     I can neither base my life on models nor make of my life a
     model for anyone; instead, I will most certainly fashion my
     life in my own way, whatever may come of it. With that, I
     need not represent any principle but something even more
     wonderful -- something that resides within oneself and is
     warm and resounding life, something that is jubilant and
     wants out...[1]
Lou never sexually consummated her marriage with Andreas. They only had extra-marital relations. Being married prevented them getting in too deep with their lovers; but this kind of marital arrangement encouraged them to have lovers -- which suited Lou more than Andreas, who actually didn't like the arrangement, given what a femme fatale his wife was, but he didn't have a choice. In April 1897 Lou went from Berlin to Munich with her friend Frieda von Bulow, who was going to give a public lecture on her explorations in Africa. In Munich Lou was introduced to a lot of people, a lot of men she hadn't met before, but who had heard of her, among them, a 22 year old Austrian man who had just moved to Munich from Prague, who was introduced to her as a poet. His name was Rene Maria Rilke.

He was a slight rather short and effeminate man with huge bulging eyes brushed back hair and a fuzzy little goatee beard. Until this time, Lou had been celibate. Her extra-marital affairs had not been sexually consummated. But this meeting would change her life. Not only would this unlikely looking fellow break her sexual fast, but this young man -- whom she would re-baptise Rainer rather than the girly Rene Maria -- would become the greatest lyric poet in Europe and one of the greatest poets ever to write in German, and moreover she would be right alongside him through his ascent, in fact, keeping him on the straight and narrow; she would be his soul-mate, his therapist, and most of all, his muse, until his death twenty-nine years later in 1926.

Lou's affair with Rilke lasted two and a half years, until she called a stop to it. After that they corresponded and met from time to time. The break worked for both of them.

After the affair with Lou, Rilke married but then quickly separated. During this period, Rilke had written to Lou in 1903 about working with the sculptor Rodin and how it was affecting his notion of work. It was on this subject, of the relation of artist to work that in a letter of August 10th 1903 Lou pointed out to Rilke that a poet's relation to his material is quite different to Rodin's, and necessarily so. The sculptor sculpts physical matter; the poet's material is inward, Lou pointed out, at 'the point that art and life become one'. Her words helped to steer the poet in a mentoring kind of way. But she makes a powerful observation which is reflective, in a broad sense, I think, of her philosophy. She says this:

     We must all seek our own combination, our own personal
     balance point between art's life and life's art.[2]
To do this, she says, we need to stand apart from ourself, in a sense, and we need solitude. She continues:

     ... and indeed I could say of myself that I (although no
     artist) have denied myself motherhood in response to the
     demands of both.
What Lou Salome is talking about here, I think, is life-style. On grounds of life-style, she eschewed motherhood, and also a conventional marriage -- conventional relationships of any sort in fact. This is her philosophy in a nutshell.

Lou's important work Die Erotik, (Eroticism), published in 1910, the year before she met Freud, sums up her thought of the previous decade or more, that is, the Rilke years, when they were collaborators on one another's ideas. They would remain intimate, but after Lou started training in psychoanalysis, her language would change. They would still be in love, but she would be less and less dependent upon him. She had found herself as a psychoanalyst. Martin Buber first published Die Erotik in his serial journal Die Gesellschaft, which published monographs in social psychology.

Lou's feminism is very much tied to her understanding of the erotic, given in her book. But reading her on the erotic and narcissistic, one must remember what we have said, that behind her notion of womanhood is the sense of the integral nature of art and life. In Die Erotik, sexual love, artistic creativity and religious fervour are three aspects of one life force, which Freud would call libido. The erotic, the artistic and the religious are three ways we are possessed, and this possession we call 'passion'. To be passionate about religion, is to be possessed by the religious spirit, which religious persons, if they are Christian, might refer to as the holy spirit, or their religious vocation and so on. Sometimes two aspects overlap, for instance the artist who chooses erotic themes and gets mixed up with his subject matter erotically, as in the case of the poet Baudelaire, or a painter like Toulouse Lautrec. The passion for religion often expresses itself erotically, as in some of the veneration of the Virgin Mary, or pagan goddesses, or in tribal religion, in the sacrifice of virgins, or sacred prostitution, or totems and taboos of sexual nature. In these ways the erotic, artistic and religious overlap or co-inhere with one another.

Lou's philosophy was that underlying the libido, is a desire for union. In other words, behind sexual attraction and the sexual urge, is a deeper unconscious longing for oneness. Art, religion and sex are really about oneness. Sexual passion is really about union with one's lover. The religious passion is about oneness with God; achieving nirvana is about achieving unity with all that is or with nothing; religious union may be conceived in terms of a unity of being (God) or non-being (nirvana). In art, the oneness is with the work. The work stands in relation to the soul of the artist more intimately than the artist's everyday self. The authenticity of the artist is in his or her work, not in the incidental matters of day-to-day living.

These are conclusions that Lou had come to mainly through her own work, especially her fiction, because her fiction is very much like a mode of self-analysis, containing strongly biographical or autobiographical elements. Her first novel, A Struggle for God, is like this, and a number of her other novels as well. But alongside her thought of desire for union as the unconscious of religious, sexual and artistic passion, is a masochistic theme: a woman who while seeking freedom from constraints, like Ibsen's heroines, also desires to be subjugated by a strong, even brutal, masculine will.

The tension between the man of iron will who can have his way with her and strict celibacy which allowed no man to have her, runs through her fictions. In terms of the three-fold desire for union -- the erotic passion, the artistic passion and the religious passion -- her fantasies might have echoed the tension and connection between the debauched woman of erotic passion and the holy maiden of religious passion, who we will call madonna, the holy woman, the woman set apart.[3] We can see in Lou, in her fiction, and perhaps her fantasy, mistress and madonna are held together in the unconscious life; and madonna is both the holy woman and the young maiden.[4]

Psychologically, madonna and mistress form what Freud would later call a complex. A woman can be torn by her passion in either direction, mistress or madonna. To the eyes of society a woman may be a young maiden, or an old maid, while in her secret fantasy, being the mistress, or vice versa, being known as someone's mistress while harbouring secret desire for the purity of spiritual holiness. These tensions according to Lou Salome can be found in real women, she found them in herself, and they indicate a friction between reality and fantasy in femaleness. In the description just given, a woman is both madonna and mistress -- and of course this is the stuff of the psychoanalytical couch.

Another example of the tension between modes of femaleness may be taken from Lou's biography. This is given by Lou's switch from being Rilke's lover to being his mentor. Going by hints from Lou, Rilke was very physically forceful in sexual matters, belying his rather puny looks, so the switch would not have been easy. Being Rilke's mentor was more of a mothering role. This was a switch Rilke was able to make, because in fact his work needed a mother more than it needed a monogamous quasi-marriage. But the inner experience here is the tension between mother and lover.

Alongside the mistress, the mother and the madonna as modes of femininity tied to a life of art and an art of life, is a fourth mode. This is the mode that 'stands apart', the scientific mode, which can look back at and describe the others. In her own art, Lou would switch, after she met Freud, from semi-biographical and loosely autobiographical fictions, which are interior to the phenomenon they investigate and show it forth, like an art work, to the exterior mode of the scientific paper. Scientific or psychoanalytical discourse enabled her to stand apart from herself in her modes of femaleness. Perhaps her true self, then, was the analyst.

Lou detested what in her day was known as 'the blue stocking', this was a type of woman determined to do and be everything a man can do and be. For Lou, this was to deny the essential difference. Such stridency in a woman was a problem Lou argued about with her friend Frieda von Bulow, the explorer, who had helped found an African state and also founded hospitals in Zanzibar and Dar el Salaam. They got on well, but had opposed views on feminism. For Lou, a woman had a softness which bound sex to gender, and this natural softness and ability to be passive was not just so in the physical sense, although it may well be physical too, but it indicated a receptivity and inwardness that a man doesn't naturally have, at least not the same extent. For Lou, if a woman lost her essential psychological softness, then she lost her femininity, and this was a problem that she saw with a lot of what passed for feminist liberation. A woman's ambitions, Lou thought, should be subordinate to her sex.

Lou would argue about all this vociferously with Frieda von Bulow. In von Bulow's mind, a woman who forfeits her ambitions for some notion of sex, has, roughly speaking, forfeited herself. We might note that this difference between Lou Salome and Frieda von Bulow is a difference within the structure of historical feminism.

Lou saw being a mistress as positive and creative. She saw the tension between being a mistress and a mother. She eschewed motherhood at the same time as she pursued dangerous liaisons with various brilliant and well-to-do men. She was a symbolic mother, to Rilke, and more actually to her husband's illegitimate daughter, who she spoilt as if she were her own. At the same time Lou was a madonna in the sense of a hieratic figure, celibate until her late 30s, regarded with awe and honour in Freud's circle, where her old connection with Nietzsche was legend. Lou held the three parts of womanhood (as she saw it) together: the mistress, the mother and the madonna; just as she held together the three passions that rule a life, erotic, artistic, and religious. In this she remained true to her advice to Rilke about keeping our own personal balance point between art's life and life's art.

Lou learnt more about this 'personal balance point' years later, when she had begun her studies with Freud.

Her study of the myth of Narcissus, which she began with Rilke, led Lou to realise that behind the mistress, the mother and the madonna, was a psychological truth, captured in the myth. Lou thought the myth of Narcissus principally through Rilke's poem of that title, which he sent her, handwritten, in July 1913. In the myth of Narcissus Lou discerned the double direction of the soul: self-love and self-surrender.

According to Lou, in the myth, Narcissus sees his reflection in the water, but he also sees it in two aspects. First, he experiences that he is not an integral part of this world, for he can see the stones beneath the water, indifferent to him, and in an altogether different element, which he is outside of and to which his image is surrendered. His image floats in another world. Second, simultaneously, he sees his image and experiences love of it, self-love, which instantly enchants him, backlit as he is by the blue of heaven.

It became evident to Lou that every person has this double-direction in the soul: self-love and self-surrender and these form an unconscious tension deep within a man or a woman. But the deep unconscious tension is not the same for a man as it is for a woman. Lou's starting point here, as always, is sexual difference. The tension between self-love and self-surrender has a meaning for a woman whether mistress, mother or madonna, that the tension cannot have for a man.

The mother is where the tension is best resolved.[5] The mistress and madonna both surrender themselves, the mistress to her master or lover, the madonna to God or her religious ideal. But their self-surrender outweighs their self-love, therefore such a woman is carried away by her womanliness. This is not the case for the mother. The mother surrenders totally to her child, but this child is also a continuation of the mother and embodies, or re-embodies the self-love of the mother. For the mother self-love and self-surrender intersect in a way that they don't for the mistress or the madonna; for the mistress is not mirrored in her lover or the madonna in her God as perfectly as the mother is mirrored in her child. Her position on this question of femaleness with regard to motherhood is another reason that Lou is rejected, or suppressed, by ideological feminism.[6]

Femaleness, in her view, has a biological dimension, it has social construction mounted on it, but essentially, it is psychological. The famous photo taken in 1911 of the founding members of what would become the International Psychoanalytical Society, at the Weimar Congress, which has Freud and Jung standing side by side, and Lou seated in front of Freud, in furs, is symbolic of the softness which Lou thought was an essential female quality. No woman in her right mind, but only a man, would make weapons, hunt, kill and skin the animal; but when the dirty work was done, then the man would give the beautiful fur to a woman and she would receive it with pleasure and its enveloping softness would lend itself to her own.


1. Unsourced quotation taken from cover of Ibsen's Heroines published by Black Swan Books (1985).

2. See Rilke and Andreas-Salome, A Love Story in Letters, Transl. Edward Snow and Michael Winkler (New York: Norton, 2006) 75.

3. The madonna is young maiden (virgin), old maid (celibate) and holy woman (saint) in three aspects of purity within this erotic aspect of the soul.

4. In the example of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the holy woman and the virgin coalesce, as two kinds of purity, within the one passion.

5. Mistress, mother and madonna then are not just 'roles' which downplays their psychological reality and psychological truth along with it. Behaviourism is not really psychological at all, but a form of philosophical pragmatism.

6. Hedwig Dohm and Rose Mayreder, two feminist contemporaries, argued against essential sex difference on ideological grounds that it was supposedly self-limiting and apologetic.See Peter Davies, Myth, Matriarchy and Modernity: Jacob Bachofen in German Culture 1860-1945 (Berlin, New York: De Gruyter, 2010) esp. Ch.5.

(c) Matthew Del Nevo 2010


Senior Lecturer in Philosophy Catholic Institute of Sydney 99 Albert Rd Strathfield NSW 2135 Australia



The most prevalent theories of human well-being in recent decades have been those which seek to define it in terms of the satisfaction of desires. This approach offers a number of advantages: unlike the previously dominant hedonistic theories of well-being, it accommodates our intuition that states of the world, as well as states of mind, can make a difference to how well our lives go. And desires, as revealed by choices, make well-being more tangible and measurable than it could be if defined in terms of pleasures and pains. However, the desire approach itself has attracted a number of criticisms. Some of those criticisms reflect views about the nature of desire itself, and in particular the claim that desires are essentially prospective -- focused on the future -- which is thought by some to undermine its suitability as the basis for a theory of well being. Others have challenged such claims, countering that desires can be focused upon the present and even the past. This paper will consider the arguments for and against the view that desires are essentially prospective, and the implications for desire-satisfaction theories of well-being.

1. The Prospective View of Desire, and its Implications

When a person desires something, it is usually to have some object which is not currently in his possession; to do some action or have some experience which he is not currently doing/ having; or for some state of affairs which does not currently obtain to do so. There is a school of thought which holds that desires are always directed at the future. An influential exponent of this view is Wayne Sumner, who says:

     Desires are always directed on the future, never on the
     past or present... In being future-directed in this way,
     wanting... contrasts with liking or enjoying. I can
     (occurrently) enjoy only what I already have, while I can
     want only what I have not yet got.[1]
Sumner refers to this claimed feature of desire as its 'prospectivity'. I shall refer to the view that desire is always focused on the future, borrowing Sumner's terminology, as 'the prospective view' of desire. Sumner believes that this property of desire causes two serious problems for desire-satisfaction theories of well-being. On the one hand, our well-being sometimes seems to benefit from things that were not desired beforehand, such as pleasant surprises. On the other, the satisfaction of even well-informed desires can sometimes leave us disappointed and fail to enhance our well-being.

As Sumner puts it:

     Since our desires always represent our ex ante
     expectations, there is always room for these expectations
     to be mistaken. But in that case the satisfaction of our
     desires does not guarantee that our lives will go well;
     only our ex post experience will do that.[2]
Thus, if the prospective view of desire is correct, the satisfaction of desires seems to be neither necessary nor sufficient for well being. It seems to be our attitude to an event or state of affairs at the time when we experience it, or are aware of it, that matters for well-being, not whether it was desired beforehand.

The prospective view has considerable intuitive appeal. The paradigm case of a desire is indeed of an attitude focused upon some object which is not presently in the subject's possession, or upon some future state of affairs. Common sense seems to support Sumner's claim that 'I can want only what I have not yet got'. Support is also provided by the philosophical literature on the role of desire in initiating action. A desire is a state 'with which the world must fit', which implies changing, or at least, influencing, the world to fit the propositional content of the desire.[3] It seems obvious that desire can only play this role if its object is in the future. One cannot bring about a desired state of affairs if that state of affairs already obtains.

We should also note that the traditional empiricist view of desire is that once satisfied, a desire is extinguished. Indeed, Locke thought that it was the need to escape the 'uneasiness' associated with desire that provided its motive force in explaining action.[4] If that is so, clearly this would also sit well with the view that the object of a desire must be in the future.

2. Weaknesses of the Prospective View

2.1 Feldman's Challenge

However, there is an important challenge to the prospective view in the fact that, whilst desires typically follow the future-regarding paradigm discussed at the start of this article, there appear to be some cases where we genuinely have desires regarding present, or even past states of affairs. This has been pointed out by Fred Feldman, explicitly in response to Sumner's exposition of the prospective view.[5]

Feldman argues that a person reflecting on the final days of a loved one might say 'I now want it to be the case that she was free of pain during those last days before she died.' He goes on to observe that, in some cases, it makes little sense to say that what is desired is either future, present or past. His example is of a person who is concerned about an aeroplane which is due to land at approximately the time when he is thinking about it, but might be early or late. The person wants it to be the case that either the plane did land, is landing, or will land safely, and does not care which of these is the case.

In order to clarify further the implications of Feldman's challenge let us consider a further example. Picture a palaeontologist who has just unearthed the end of what appears to be part of a large fossil bone. We can imagine her saying, overcome with excitement, 'I want that to be the thighbone of a triceratops.' Clearly, if the object is the thighbone of a triceratops, that has been the case for tens of millions of years. The state of affairs which is the propositional content of her desire is one that, if it obtains, does so in the past and present. So, like Feldman's examples, this seems to be a case where desire is not directed towards the future.

2.2 Two Possible Defences

There seem to be two ways in which a proponent of the prospective view might seek to explain away these apparent counterexamples. Firstly, he might seek to redescribe the examples in a way which places the object of the desire in the future. Thus, for example, he might describe the palaeontologist's desire as a desire to confirm that the object she has discovered is the thighbone of a triceratops. In some cases, perhaps including this one, that may be plausible. But it does not seem possible that this tactic can work in every case. It does not help with Feldman's first example: someone can want it to be the case that a loved one was free of pain before she died, even if there is no way of confirming this.

Another possible tactic for the proponent of the prospective view is to claim that these apparent examples of desires directed at the present or past are not, strictly speaking, desires at all and that we should use some other term, such as 'hope', for such cases. It does seem reasonable to describe our palaeontologist as hoping that the object she has discovered is the thighbone of a triceratops. On the other hand, it does not seem unreasonable to describe her as desiring this. In my view, this approach is overly stipulative and rules out much of our everyday use of 'desire' and 'want', without sufficient justification.

Indeed, one can think of examples where 'want', or 'desire', seem to tally much better than 'hope' with how we would be inclined to describe the case in everyday language. Imagine a football fan watching a recording of his team playing in a vital match. The match is already over, but he does not yet know the result. 'Hope' does not seem adequate to describe his mental state as he watches, cheering wildly at every attack by his team. It is natural -- and, I submit, entirely correct -- to say that he wants his team to have won. Indeed, to all intents and purposes his mental state as he watches the game is indistinguishable from what it would have been had he seen it live, when there would be no argument about whether what he was experiencing was desire. It is also arguable[6] that the concept of 'hope' involves, or at least, implies, desire, in which case, even if it were legitimate to reclassify these apparent counterexamples as hopes rather than desires, this would not help the proponent of the prospective view out of his difficulty.

3. What should we put in its place?

3.1 What is Right about the Prospective View?

I conclude from the above discussion that the prospective view is false insofar as it conceives of desire as necessarily or invariably focused upon the future. However, finding exceptions where desires appear not to be focused upon the future does not alter the fact that these are exceptions and that, as I noted at the start of this article, desires are typically focused upon the future. This is something which stands in need of explanation, and suggests that the prospective view reflects, albeit imperfectly, a genuine feature of desire. What the palaeontologist example, and Feldman's, seem to tell us is that it is a mistake to identify that feature directly with the location in time of the object of desire. We need, therefore, to find some other way of isolating this feature of desire.

I suggest that we need to define the relevant feature of desire in terms, not of the tense of the state of affairs which is the object of the desire, but of the epistemic relationship between that object and the subject of the desire.

3.2 Identifying a Necessary Condition for Desire

One thing that the prospective view seems to get right is that there is something wrong about asserting both 'p is the case' and 'I desire that p', at least when the latter bears no implication that the desire is that p should (continue to) be the case in the future. If I assert 'I met Stanley Kubrick on 14 July 1985', it seems odd to say 'I desire to have met Stanley Kubrick on 14 July 1985'. Putting one's finger on exactly what is odd about this is not easy, but it seems to reflect the fact that desire is essentially conative, that it is a state 'with which the world must fit'. Where the world already does fit, and there is nothing further to be striven for, such as that the world should continue to fit, there is nothing for desire to, as it were, get its teeth into. If this is indeed the core truth about desire that underlies the prospective view, what does this tell us about the epistemic relationship that the subject of a desire and its object?

It is not that desiring that p is incompatible with p's being the case. I can of course desire that p if p is the case, since I may not know that p is the case. One might therefore come to the conclusion that desiring that p is incompatible with believing that p. However, this does not quite work. One can imagine a conversation with our palaeontologist who has just declared her desire that the object she has discovered be the thighbone of a triceratops. We might ask her, 'so what do you think it is, then?', and she might say, 'well, it looks like a thighbone, the rock is of the right age, there have been other triceratops found in the area before. I believe it is the thighbone of a triceratops.' There is nothing here that is incompatible with her earlier declaration of desire.

So should we say that desiring that p is incompatible with knowing that p? This does not seem to be right either. This article is not the place to analyse and assess the various competing accounts of knowledge. However, I subscribe to the widely held view that what is required for belief to count as knowledge is at least in part something objective, something external to the mental states of the subject of the belief. It requires, if nothing else, that the belief be true, but also, on the more plausible accounts, something about the way in which the belief was formed which makes its truth non-accidental.

But what is incompatible with desire seems to me to be something subjective. In our latest example, what makes the palaeontologist's belief that p compatible with her desire that p is the fact that, though she believes the object is the thighbone of a triceratops, she is not sure. It might turn out to be something else. If we change the example to one where she is quite certain that the object is indeed the thighbone of a triceratops -- perhaps she put it there herself a few minutes ago -- it once again looks odd for her to say (sincerely) 'I want that to be the thighbone of a triceratops'. It seems to be this subjective certainty that p obtains which is incompatible with desiring that p. This suggests, conversely, a necessary condition for desiring that p:

(A) In order to desire that p, a subject must be able to entertain the possibility that not-p.

However, this condition may perhaps be too demanding for those desires that are focused upon the future. We can imagine a death row prisoner on his way to the execution chamber. He is one of those prisoners who is not merely resigned to his death but now actively wants it. As he walks towards the chamber, we can imagine that he now sees no possibility whatsoever that he will not be executed, yet we can still imagine him saying 'I want to die'. For such cases, I think, we have to shift our focus to the fact that the desired state of affairs -- the subject's being dead -- does not currently obtain. Even if the subject does not entertain the possibility that p will not be the case in the future, it remains true that p is not the case now, and this seems sufficient for it to be intelligible that the subject desires that p. Or rather, it is sufficient that the subject believes that the desired state of affairs does not currently obtain.

We can therefore reformulate the necessary condition for desire as follows:

(B) In order to desire that p, a subject must either believe, or be able to entertain the possibility, that p is not currently the case.

It is possible that there are also other necessary conditions. In particular, it is arguable that the converse of my condition also applies: that it is it also necessary that the subject be able to entertain the possibility that p might be the case, either now or in the future. In the palaeontologist case, it seems odd for the subject to say 'I want this to be the thighbone of a triceratops' if he knows very well that it is not. The palaeontologist might well wish that this were the thighbone of a triceratops, but we might regard wishing as something distinct from desiring.

My aim in this article, however, is not to produce a comprehensive list of the conditions that must be met for a mental state to count as a desire, but to evaluate in particular the prospective view of desire. For this purpose, I believe that the necessary condition B) set out above expresses the truth about desire that is imperfectly captured by the prospective view.

Whilst the prospective view, as expressed in its simple form by Sumner and others, is not quite correct, I believe that the above discussion demonstrates that it is not far from the truth. We can reasonably say that the paradigm case of a desire that meets the necessary condition I have set out above is a desire that some state of affairs which does not obtain in the present should obtain in the future. In these core cases, as we might call them, desire fulfils a distinctive role in motivating action, wherever the subject is in a position to bring about, or make more likely, the desired state of affairs. However, there are also non-core cases, where desire does not fulfil this role. This is true of some future-directed desires, where the subject has no means by which to exert influence over whether the desired state of affairs will come about. As we have seen, there are also cases where the desired state of affairs is in the present or even the past and desire gets a hold because the subject is unsure whether that state of affairs obtains or not. But we can reasonably see such cases as parasitic upon the core cases where desire is indeed focused upon the future, as the prospective view holds -- wrongly -- that it must always be.

Does the necessary condition upon desire that we have substituted for the prospective view still pose a challenge to desire-based theories of well-being? The problems that this view posed for desire-based theories were, firstly, that our well-being sometimes benefits from things that were not desired beforehand, such as pleasant surprises; and secondly that the satisfaction of even well-informed desires can sometimes leave us disappointed and fail to enhance our well-being. The present- and past-focused desires that we have admitted as genuine counterexamples to the prospective view of desire do not remove either of these problems. For these are all cases where the subject is not aware (or at least, not sure) whether the desired state of affairs obtains. We can be neither pleasantly surprised nor disappointed by a state of affairs until we are aware that it obtains, and in these exceptional cases, even though the satisfaction of the desire is not in the future, our awareness of its satisfaction is. And as we discussed earlier, it seems to be our attitude to a state of affairs when we are aware that it obtains -- not its having been the subject of a desire -- that matters for well-being.

4. Conclusion

I have concluded that the prospective view of desire -- the view that desires are always directed at the future -- is false, since we can identify some clear exceptions. However, this view does seem to true of typical or core cases of desire. I have argued that the prospective view reflects, imperfectly, a truth about desire which can be captured by the proposition that it is a necessary condition for desire that the subject must either believe, or be able to entertain the possibility, that the desired state of affairs does not currently obtain. The problems for desire-satisfaction theories identified by proponents of the prospective view still arise on this modified view of desire.


1. L. W. Sumner, Welfare, Happiness, and Ethics, New York, Oxford University Press 1996, p. 129.

2. Sumner, Welfare, Happiness, and Ethics, p. 130.

3. See for example, G. E. M Anscombe, Intention, Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1957, pp.56-57; M. de B. Platts Ways of Meaning, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul 1979, pp. 236-7.

4. J. Locke, ed. J. W. Yolton, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Everyman, London, 1976, Book II, Chapter XXI, 31-2 (pp. 134-5).

5. F. Feldman, Pleasure and the Good Life, New York, Oxford University Press 2004, pp. 62-3. See also Kryster Bykvist, 'Sumner on Desires and Well-Being', Canadian Journal of Philosophy 32(4), 2002, pp. 475-490.

6. See, for example, J. P. Day, 'The Analysis of Hope and Fear', Mind, Vol. 79, No. 315,1970, p 369: ''a hopes that p' is true if and only if 'a desires in some degree, however small, that p and a believes that it is probable in some degree, however small (e.g. 1/ 1000), that p' is true.'; L. Bovens, 'The Value of Hope', Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 59, No.3, 1999, p 674: 'Hoping just is having the proper belief and desire in conjunction with being engaged to some degree in mental imaging.'

(c) Tim Taylor 2010




The International Society for Philosophers has put up a new free resource for Philosophy in Schools, Dilemmas in Social Philosophy by Phil Washburn edited by Matthew Del Nevo.

Phil Washburn published The Vocabulary of Critical Thinking (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009) last year and it will be reviewed in the Pathways Journal in due course. However, his previous work, Philosophical Dilemmas: A Pro and Con Introduction to the Major Questions (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001, 2007) is a practical introduction especially useful to teachers working with groups of young adults or in adult education. One may browse the Contents on Amazon, but I may take the liberty here of inserting a little summary of what you will see if you do. There are five chapters each covering a major philosophical question or area. Each chapter is divided into six questions which are set before us in the form of dilemmas.

The five areas covered are:

     1. God, immortality, and faith
     2. Liberty, Equality and Justice
     3. Happiness, Obligations and Values
     4. Free Will, Mind and Human Nature
     5. Knowledge, Science and Truth

Working with Phil Washburn, I have taken the second chapter which has basically to do with social philosophy and edited it for use with secondary school students. As a result we have a separate booklet. The editing has mainly involved changing American examples into local ones, as generic as possible, for use in Australian and English schools. For instance, we don't really talk about 'race' in England or Australia, but we do talk about 'ethnicity'. The notions of race and ethnicity have very different connotations, so by changing the word 'race' for 'ethnicity' I had to adjust the language in the accompanying lines of argument in the dilemmas, without altering the substance of the arguments. Ultimately the dilemmas are not completely transposed from the American context, because that would be then a completely different book; a minimalist rather than maximalist approach to the editing was taken.

The social dilemmas in the free downloadable booklet are as follows:

     1) Is society based on a contract?
     2) Is liberty the highest social value?
     3) Is equality the highest social value?
     4) Is Capitalism just?
     5) Should we establish a world government?
     6) Is ethnicity essential to identity?

For each dilemma there is a short magazine-length argument for, and another against, the question. Specialist vocabulary is listed so that teachers and students can cover definitions together and each dilemma comes with a contextual introduction and a follow-up article which unpacks the arguments in the articles.

A separate Manual for Teachers accompanies the Philosophical Dilemmas booklet, which contains ample help for teachers, taking them through the booklet point by point. There is also a test quiz provided for each dilemma. I put these quizzes into an online format for students so that they did them online and they were automatically marked.

I would get the students to read the articles and form a position before class. I would read the articles myself as well as the follow-up article which unpacks the arguments in the articles. This is especially helpful for teachers without a lot of specialist background in philosophical argumentation. Obviously, as a dilemma, it is not about who is right, let alone taking 'a winning side', but about the arguments and what they involve. The dilemmas encourage unpacking the difficulties within the arguments as far as they will allow. In the end, with regard to a student's view, background value judgements will come to bear -- but these are well worth teasing out and discussing in themselves and we did this in our classes. This can make for a series of sessions on any one dilemma, but this doesn't matter where it is about the process not the outcome, and about the mental work that needs to be done, rather than any particular content that has to be covered and digested.

I used the booklet with Year 10 here (ages 15-16). This was with above average well-motivated students however. Using the booklet with senior students would be ideal (ages 16-18). Also, it should be mentioned that because there is still quite a bit about the U.S. in the actual articles the students read, they may also be learning something about the history and culture of North America. In Australia students already have quite a strong and familiar sense of American culture, simply because of the prevalence of it in our own. This may not be the case for everywhere in Britain and so British teachers may want to check the material first. I didn't find any cross-cultural problems with the booklet as it stands, and furthermore, where illustrations in the articles remain American, I felt it was of important things that seniors students ought to know as general knowledge anyway. These decisions turned out to be correct because I didn't have any problems -- nor did the students -- with the illustrations from American culture in my class, but then I am in a very multi-cultural environment here. Teachers elsewhere may need to make their own call on this.

Philosophy in School is a growing area and it is always helpful to have good material. We have trialled the booklet we have produced here in Sydney schools and the International Society for Philosophers is pleased to make it available for free, at https:---.

Good luck, let us know how you are going!

(c) Matthew Del Nevo 2010


Senior Lecturer in Philosophy Catholic Institute of Sydney 99 Albert Rd Strathfield NSW 2135 Australia

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