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Conatus (Latin for effort; endeavor; impulse, inclination, tendency; undertaking; striving) is a term used in early philosophies of psychology and metaphysics to refer to an innate inclination of a thing to continue to exist and enhance itself.[1] This "thing" may be mind, matter or a combination of both. Over the millennia, many different definitions and treatments have been formulated by philosophers. Seventeenth-century philosophers René Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, and Gottfried Leibniz, and their Empiricist contemporary Thomas Hobbes made important contributions.[2] The conatus may refer to the instinctive "will to live" of living organisms.

The history of the term conatus is that of a series of subtle tweaks in meaning and clarifications of scope developed over the course of two and a half millennia. Successive philosophers to adopt the term put their own personal twist on the concept, each developing the term differently such that it now has no concrete and universally accepted definition.[3] The earliest authors to discuss conatus wrote primarily in Latin, basing their usage on ancient Greek concepts. These thinkers therefore used "conatus" not only as a technical term but as a common word and in a general sense. In archaic texts, the more technical usage is difficult to discern from the more common one, and they are also hard to differentiate in translation. The term has been a notable influence on nineteenth- and twentieth-century thinkers such as Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Louis Dumont.

Classical origins[edit | edit source]


Marcus Tullius Cicero

The Latin cōnātus comes from the verb cōnor, which is usually translated into English as, "to endeavor"; but the concept of the conatus was first developed by the Stoics (333–264 BCE) and Peripatetics (c. 335 BCE) before the Common Era. These groups used the word ὁρμή (hormê, translated in Latin by impetus) to describe the movement of the soul towards an object, and from which a physical act results.[4] Classical thinkers, Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 BCE) and Diogenes Laertius (c. 235 BCE), expanded this principle to include an aversion to destruction, but continued to limit its application to the motivations of non-human animals. Diogenes Laertius, for example, specifically denied the application of the term to plants. Before the Renaissance, Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225–1274 CE), Duns Scotus (c. 1266–1308 CE) and Dante Alighieri (1265–1321 CE) expressed similar sentiments using the Latin words vult, velle or appetit as synonyms of conatus; indeed, all four terms may be used to translate the original Greek ὁρμή. Later, Telesius and Campanella extended the ancient Greek notions and applied them to all objects, animate and inanimate.[5]

First Aristotle, then Cicero and Laertius each alluded to a connection between the conatus and other emotions. In their view, the former induces the latter. They maintained that humans do not wish to do something because they think it "good", but rather they think it "good" because they want to do it. In other words, the cause of human desire is the natural inclination of a body to augment itself in accordance with the principles of the conatus.[6]

In Descartes[edit | edit source]

See also: René Descartes
File:Frans Hals - Portret van René Descartes.jpg

René Descartes

In the first half of the seventeenth century, René Descartes (1596–1650) began to develop a more modern, materialistic concept of the conatus, describing it as "an active power or tendency of bodies to move, expressing the power of God".[7] Whereas the ancients used the term in a strictly anthropomorphic sense similar to voluntary "endeavoring" or "struggling" to achieve certain ends, and medieval Scholastic philosophers developed a notion of conatus as a mysterious intrinsic property of things, Descartes uses the term in a somewhat more mechanistic sense.[8] More specifically, for Descartes, in contrast to Buridan, movement and stasis are two states of the same thing, not different things. Although there is much ambiguity in Descartes' notion of conatus, one can see here the beginnings of a move away from the attribution of desires and intentions to nature and its workings toward a more scientific and modern view.[9]

Descartes rejects the teleological, or purposive, view of the material world that was dominant in the West from the time of Aristotle. The mind is not viewed by Descartes as part of the material world, and hence is not subject to the strictly mechanical laws of nature. Motion and rest, on the other hand, are properties of the interactions of matter according to eternally fixed mechanical laws. God only sets the whole thing in motion at the start, and later does not interfere except to maintain the dynamical regularities of the mechanical behavior of bodies. Hence there is no real teleology in the movements of bodies since the whole thing reduces to the law-governed collisions and their constant reconfigurations.[10] The conatus is just the tendency of bodies to move when they collide with each other. God may set this activity in motion, but thereafter no new motion or rest can be created or destroyed.[11]

Descartes specifies two varieties of the conatus: conatus a centro and conatus recedendi. Conatus a centro, or "tendency towards the center", is used by Descartes as a theory of gravity; conatus recendendi, or "tendency away from the center", represents the centrifugal forces.[12] These tendencies are not to be thought of in terms of animate dispositions and intentions, nor as inherent properties or "forces" of things, but rather as a unifying, external characteristic of the physical universe itself which God has bestowed.[13]

Descartes, in developing his First Law of Nature, also invokes the idea of a conatus se movendi, or "conatus of self-preservation".[14] This law is a generalization of the principle of inertia, which was developed and experimentally demonstrated earlier by Galileo. The principle was formalized by Isaac Newton and made into the first of his three Laws of Motion fifty years after the death of Descartes. Descartes' version states: "Each thing, insofar as in it lies, always perseveres in the same state, and when once moved, always continues to move."[15]

In Hobbes[edit | edit source]

See also: Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes

Conatus and the psyche[edit | edit source]

Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), too, worked off of the previous notions of the conatus principle. However, he criticized the previous definitions for failing to explain the origin of motion. Working toward this end became the primary focus of Hobbes' work in this area. Indeed, Hobbes "reduces all the cognitive functions of the mind to variations of its conative functions".[16]

Furthermore, Hobbes describes emotion as the beginning of motion and the will as the sum of all emotions. This "will" forms the conatus of a body[7] and its physical manifestation is the perceived "will to survive".[2] In order that living beings may thrive, Hobbes says, "they seek peace and fight anything that threatens this peace".[7] Hobbes also equates this conatus with "imagination", and states that a change in the conatus, or will, is the result of "deliberation".[17]

In Spinoza[edit | edit source]

See also: Baruch Spinoza

Spinoza (1632–1677) applies the idea of a conatus to the human body, psyche and both simultaneously, using a different term for each.[18] When referring to psychological manifestations of the concept, he uses the term voluntas (will). When referring to the overarching concept, he uses the word appetitus (appetite). When referring to the bodily impulse, he uses the plain term conatus.[19] Sometimes he expands the term and uses the whole phrase, conatus sese conservandi (the striving for self-preservation).[20]

Benedictus de Spinoza

Spinoza asserts the existence of this general principle of a conatus in attempting to explain the "self-evident" truth that "nothing can be destroyed except by an external cause".[21] To him, it is self-evident that "the definition of anything affirms, and does not negate, the thing's essence".[22] This resistance to self-destruction is formulated by Spinoza in terms of a human striving to continue to exist; and conatus is the word he most often uses to describe this force.[23]

In Spinoza's world-view, this principle is applicable to all things, and furthermore constitutes the very essence of objects, including the human mind and morals, for these are but finite modes of God.[24] As he states in the Ethics (1677), the conatus is of "indefinite time"; it lasts as long as the object does.[25] Spinoza uses conatus to describe an inclination of things to increase in power; rather than just continuing to exist statically, all beings must strive towards perfection.[19] Further, all existing things act if and only if such action maintains or augments their existence.[24] Spinoza also uses the term conatus to refer to rudimentary concepts of inertia, as Descartes had earlier.[2] Since a thing cannot be destroyed without the action of external forces, motion and rest, too, exist indefinitely until disturbed.[26]

Behavioral manifestation[edit | edit source]

The concept of the conatus, as used in Baruch Spinoza's philosophy of psychology, is derived from sources both ancient and medieval. Spinoza reformulates principles that the Stoics, Cicero, Laertius, and especially Hobbes and Descartes developed.[27] One significant change he makes to Hobbes' theory is his belief that the conatus ad motum, (conatus to motion), is not mental, but material.[28]

Spinoza, with his determinism, believes that man and nature must be unified under a consistent set of laws; God and nature are one, and there is no free will. Contrary to most philosophers of his time and in accordance with most of those of the present, Spinoza rejects the dualistic assumption that mind, intentionality, ethics, and freedom are to be treated as things separate from the natural world of physical objects and events.[29] His goal is to provide a unified explanation of all these things within a naturalistic framework, and his notion of conatus is central to this project. For example, an action is "free", for Spinoza, only if it arises from the essence and conatus of an entity. There can be no absolute, unconditioned freedom of the will, since all events in the natural world, including human actions and choices, are determined in accord with the natural laws of the universe, which are inescapable. However, an action can still be free in the sense that it is not constrained or otherwise subject to external forces.[30]

Human beings are thus an integral part of nature.[26] Spinoza explains seemingly irregular human behaviour as really "natural" and rational and motivated by this principle of the conatus.[31] In the process, he replaces the notion of free will with the conatus, a principle that can be applied to all of nature and not just man.[26]

Emotions and affects[edit | edit source]

Spinoza's view of the relationship between the conatus and the human affects is not clear. Firmin DeBrabander, assistant professor of philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and Antonio Damasio, professor of neuroscience at the University of Southern California, both argue that the human affects arise from the conatus and the perpetual drive toward perfection.[32] Indeed, Spinoza states in his Ethics that happiness, specifically, "consists in the human capacity to preserve itself". This "endeavor" is also characterized by Spinoza as the "foundation of virtue".[33] Conversely, a person is saddened by anything that opposes his conatus.[34]

David Bidney (1908–1987), professor at Yale University, disagrees. Bidney closely associates "desire", a primary affect, with the conatus principle of Spinoza. This view is backed by the Scholium of IIIP9 of the Ethics which states, "Between appetite and desire there is no difference, except that desire is generally related to men insofar as they are conscious of the appetite. So desire can be defined as appetite together with consciousness of the appetite."[2] According to Bidney, this desire is controlled by the other affects, pleasure and pain, and thus the conatus strives towards that which causes joy and avoids that which produces pain.[35] Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860) agrees with Bidney in interpretation, but states in The World as Will and Representation (1819) that he disagrees with Spinoza because "according to the whole of my fundamental view, all this is a reversal of the true relation. The will is first and original; knowledge is merely added to it as an instrument belonging to the phenomenon of the will."[36]

In Leibniz[edit | edit source]

Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz

[Conatus] is to motion as a point is to space, or as one to infinity, for it is the beginning and end of motion.

Gottfried Leibniz (1646–1716) was a student of Erhard Weigel (1625–1699) and learned of the conatus principle from him and from Hobbes, though Weigel used the word tendentia (Latin: tendency).[37] Specifically, Leibniz uses the word conatus in his Exposition and Defence of the New System (1695) to describe a notion similar that of Hobbes, but he differentiates between the conatus of the body and soul, the first of which may only travel in a straight line by its own power, and the latter of which may "remember" more complicated motions.[38]

For Leibniz, the problem of motion comes to a resolution of the paradox of Zeno. Since motion is continuous, space must be infinitely divisible. In order for anything to begin moving at all, there must be some mind-like, voluntaristic property or force inherent in the basic constituents of the universe that propels them. This conatus is a sort of instantaneous or "virtual" motion that all things possess, even when they are static. Motion, meanwhile, is just the summation of all the conatuses that a thing has, along with the interactions of things. The conatus is to motion as a point is to space.[39] The problem with this view is that an object that collides with another would not be able to bounce back, if the only force in play were the conatus. Hence, Leibniz was forced to postulate the existence of an aether that kept objects moving and allowed for elastic collisions. Leibniz' concept of a mind-like memory-less property of conatus, coupled with his rejection of atoms, eventually led to his theory of monads.[40]

Leibniz also uses his concept of a conatus in developing the principles of the integral calculus, adapting the meaning of the term, in this case, to signify a mathematical analog of Newton's accelerative "force". By summing an infinity of such conatuses (i.e., what is now called integration), Leibniz could measure the effect of a continuous force.[39] He defines impetus as the result of a continuous summation of the conatus of a body, just as the vis viva (or "living force") is the sum of the inactive vis mortua.[41]

Based on the work of Kepler and probably Descartes, Leibniz develops a model of planetary motion based on the conatus principle, the idea of aether and a fluid vortex. This theory is expounded in the work Tentamen de motuum coelestium causis (1689).[39] According to Leibniz, Kepler's analysis of elliptical orbits into a circular and a radial component can be explained by a "harmonic vortex" for the circular motion combined with a centrifugal force and gravity, both of which are examples of conatus, to account for the radial motion.[40] Leibniz later defines the term monadic conatus, as the "state of change" through which his monads perpetually advance.[42]

Related usages and terms[edit | edit source]

Friedrich Nietzsche

Several other uses of the term conatus, apart from the primary ones mentioned above, have been formulated by various philosophers over the centuries. There are also some important related terms and concepts which have, more or less, similar meanings and usages. Giambattista Vico (1668–1744) defined conatus as the essence of human society,[43] and also, in a more traditional, hylozoistic sense, as the generating power of movement which pervades all of nature.[44] Nearly a century after the beginnings of modern science, Vico, inspired by Neoplatonism, explicitly rejected the principle of inertia and the laws of motion of the new physics. For him, nature was composed neither of atoms, as in the dominant view, nor of extension, as in Descartes, but of metaphysical points animated by a conatus principle provoked by God.[45]

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860) developed a philosophy that contains a principle notably similar to that of Hobbes's conatus. This principle, Wille zum Leben, or "Will to Live", described the specific phenomenon of an organism's self-preservation instinct.[46] Schopenhauer qualified this, however, by suggesting that the Will to Live is not limited in duration. Rather, "the will wills absolutely and for all time", across generations.[47] Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), an early disciple of Schopenhauer, developed a separate principle which comes out of a rejection of the primacy of Schopenhauer's Will to Live and other notions of self-preservation. He called his version the Will to Power, or Wille zur Macht.[48]

Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), greatly depended on Spinoza's formulation of the conatus principle as a system of self preservation, though he never cited him directly in any of his published works.[49][50] Around the same time, Henri Bergson (1859–1941), developed the principle of the élan vital, or "vital impulse", which was thought to aid in the evolution of organisms. This concept, which implies a fundamental driving force behind all life, is reminiscent of the conatus principle of Spinoza and others.[51]

For Max Scheler, the concept of Drang is the centerpiece of philosophical anthropology and metaphysics. Though his concept has been important throughout his entire philosophical career, it was only developed later in his life when his focus shifted from phenomenology to metaphysics. Like Bergson's élan vital, Drang (drive or impulsion) is the impetus of all life; however, unlike in Bergson's vitalistic metaphysics, the significance of Drang is that it provides the motivation and driving force even of Spirit (Geist). Spirit, which includes all theoretical intentionality, is powerless without the movement of Drang, the material principle, as well as Eros, the psychological principle.[52]

The cultural anthropologist Louis Dumont (1911–1988), described a cultural conatus built directly upon Spinoza's seminal definition in IIIP3 of his Ethics. The principle behind this derivative concept states that any given culture, "tends to persevere in its being, whether by dominating other cultures or by struggling against their domination".[53]

Modern significance[edit | edit source]

Physical[edit | edit source]

After the advent of Newtonian physics, the concept of a conatus of all physical bodies was largely superseded by the principle of inertia and conservation of momentum. As Bidney states, "It is true that logically desire or the conatus is merely a principle of inertia ... the fact remains, however, that this is not Spinoza's usage."[54] Likewise, conatus was used by many philosophers to describe other concepts which have slowly been made obsolete. Conatus recendendi, for instance, became the centrifugal force, and gravity is used where conatus a centro had been previously.[12] Today, the topics with which conatus dealt are matters of science and are thus subject to inquiry by the scientific method.[55]

Biological[edit | edit source]

The archaic concept of conatus is today being reconciled with modern biology by scientists such as Antonio Damasio. The conatus of today, however, is explained in terms of chemistry and neurology where, before, it was a matter of metaphysics and theurgy.[56] This concept may be "constructed so as to maintain the coherence of a living organism's structures and functions against numerous life-threatening odds".[57]

Systems theory[edit | edit source]

The Spinozistic conception of a conatus was a historical precursor to modern theories of autopoiesis in biological systems.[58] In systems theory and the sciences in general, the concept of a conatus may be related to the phenomenon of emergence, whereby complex systems may spontaneously form from multiple simpler structures. The self-regulating and self-maintaining properties of biological and even social systems may thus be considered modern versions of Spinoza's conatus principle;[59] however, the scope of the idea is definitely narrower today without the religious implications of the earlier variety.[60]

See also[edit | edit source]


Notes[edit | edit source]

  1. Traupman 1966, p. 52
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 LeBuffe 2006
  3. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named Wolf
  4. Clement of Alexandria, in SVF, III, 377; Cicero, De Officiis, I, 132; Seneca the Younger, Epistulae morales ad Lucilium, 113, 23
  5. Wolfson 1934, pp. 196,199,202
  6. Wolfson 1934, p. 204
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Pietarinen 2000
  8. Garber 1992, pp. 150,154
  9. Goukroger 1980, pp. 178–179
  10. Grant 1981, pp. 140–44
  11. Gueroult 1980, pp. 120–34
  12. 12.0 12.1 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named Koll
  13. Garber 1992, pp. 180,184
  14. Wolfson 1934, p. 201
  15. Blackwell 1966, p. 220
  16. Bidney 1962, p. 91
  17. Schmitter 2006
  18. Wolfson 1934, p. 199
  19. 19.0 19.1 Allison 1975, p. 126
  20. Duff 1903, chp. VII
  21. Spinoza & 1677 Book III Prop 4
  22. Spinoza 1677, p. 66
  23. Allison 1975, p. 124
  24. 24.0 24.1 Lin 2004, p. 4
  25. Spinoza 1677, pp. 66–7
  26. 26.0 26.1 26.2 Allison 1975, p. 125
  27. Morgan 2006, p. ix
  28. Bidney 1962, p. 93
  29. Jarrett 1991, pp. 470–475
  30. Lachterman 1978
  31. Dutton 2006, chp. 5
  32. DeBrabander 2007, p. 20–1
  33. Damasio 2003, p. 170
  34. Damasio 2003, pp. 138–9
  35. Bidney 1962, p. 87
  36. Schopenhauer 1958, p. 292
  37. 37.0 37.1 Arthur 1998
  38. Leibniz 1988, p. 135
  39. 39.0 39.1 39.2 Gillespie 1971, pp. 159–161
  40. 40.0 40.1 Carlin 2004, pp. 365–379
  41. Duchesneau 1998, pp. 88–89
  42. Arthur 1994, sec. 3
  43. Goulding 2005, p. 22040
  44. Vico 1710, pp. 180–186
  45. Landucci 2004, pp. 1174,1175
  46. Rabenort 1911, p. 16
  47. Schopenhauer 1958, p. 568
  48. Durant & Durant 1963, chp. IX
  49. Damasio 2003, p. 260
  50. Bidney 1962, p. 398
  51. Schrift 2006, p. 13
  52. Max Scheler, 2008, p. 231-41, 323-33.
  53. Polt 1996
  54. Bidney 1962, p. 88
  55. Bidney 1962
  56. Damasio 2003, p. 37
  57. Damasio 2003, p. 36
  58. Ziemke 2007, pp. 6
  59. Sandywell 1996, pp. 144–5
  60. Matthews 1991, pp. 110

References[edit | edit source]

Further reading[edit | edit source]

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