JMC : Classification of Desires / by Henry Ignatius Smith, OP

Classification of Desires in St. Thomas and in Modern Sociology


The aim of this dissertation is to explain the classification of desires as sources of human action, found in the writings of St. Thomas of Aquin, and to compare that classification with those of Ward and Small, who may be taken as representatives of modern sociology. Small speaks as follows as to the value of such an effort: "We may join with Tarde in finding the progenitors of our sociologists long before the name was invented. Tarde implies belief that the old philosophers and theologians were actually the pioneers in the fields of study which have at last reached such intensive cultivation that the class of investigators known as sociologists had to be differentiated. He speaks of the change promising better results, which is observable from the time when such specialists in sociology as the philologists, the philosophers of religion and especially the economists began to perform the more modest task of identifying minute facts and of formulating their laws." (General Sociology, p. 44.)

Efforts have been made throughout the history of philosophy in all of its lines, to arrive at a satisfactory classification of human desires. No classification has yet met general acceptance. McCosh says (Motive Powers, p. 13), "It would be of great service to every branch of mental science to have an approximately good classification of the appetences by which mankind are swayed. This is a difficult work, more so than the classification of plants or animals, the determining motives being so many and so varied in persons and in reality. . . . It may be possible to form if not a perfect, a good provisional arrangement of man's springs of action." Professor Ladd speaks as follows: (Psychology, Descriptive and Explanatory, p. 52f), "It must be admitted that classification, even if the range employed to designate its results be somewhat misleading, is the necessary beginning of psychological as well as of every other science. . . . The first impression when we enter upon the field of psychic facts for the purpose of classifying them is one of bewildering variety. . . . Moreover, in the interests of scientific exactness we at once ask ourselves, what principles of classification shall we adopt?" Putnam says (Textbook of Psychology, p. 154), "The feelings are the motive powers of the soul. . . . A satisfactory classification of the feelings is a matter of much difficulty for several reasons. The feelings are very numerous and many of them very complex in character. Several classifications have about equal value. Almost every writer adopts a classification of his own, growing out of his peculiar views or adapted to the end for which he writes." Baldwin recognizes in a similar way the necessity of classification of sources of action. (Mental Development, p. 349; Handbook of Psychology, p. 135.)

The older psychologists such as Des Cartes, Leibnitz, Kant, Sully, Spencer, Bain, Lewes, Hamilton and even those who were opposed to the faculty theory of the soul such as Brown, Schleiermacher, Beneke, Drobisch, Taine, Ribot, Bailey and Vorlauder, recognize without exception the value of classification of sources of action in our attempt to understand the processes of the human mind.

The economists no less than the psychologists recognize the advantage of this classification in the development of their science, as is to be seen throughout economic literature. Although Marshall says (Principles of Economics, p. 91), "The formal classification of wants is a task not without interest but it is not needed for our purposes," nevertheless few economists have failed to make an endeavor to work out a classification of either desires or the objects which arouse them. Since sociology has taken on the psychological trend which marks its recent history, the problem of classifying desires has taken on for it a new importance. Professor Ward (Pure Sociology, p. 256ff; Applied Sociology, pp. 25, 244, 327; Dynamic Sociology I, p. 472), is the first American sociologist who makes the classification of social forces or desires a fundamental feature of his system of sociology. Baldwin says (Social and Ethical Interpretations, pp. 15-22), "The only way to get a solid basis for social theory based upon human want or desire, is to work out first a descriptive and genetic psychology of desire in its social aspects." He bases his classification on the fundamental concept of conscious imitation. Ross (Foundations of Sociology, pp. 161-164), argues for the necessity of a complete classification of social forces. Professor Small (General Sociology, 436), says, "The resolution of human activities into pursuit of differentiated interests becomes the first clue to the combination that unlocks the mystery of society." (437) "Sociology involves first of all a technique for detecting, classifying, criticising, measuring and correlating human interests."

Professor Giddings seems not to share these views of the need or the possibility of making a classification of desires in the endeavor to develop the science of sociology. He speaks as follows (Principles of Sociology, pp. 11, 12): "The subjective explanation has not been carried through the whole range of social phenomena. Much less has it been reduced to terms of a single motive or principle uniquely characterizing the conscious individual as a social being and determining all his social relations in so far as they are volitionally created. Instead of attempting to find such a principle, to deduce from it all its consequences and to organize about it the conditioning motives or circumstances that should be taken into account, there has been a tiresome endeavor to enumerate all the motives that actuate a man in his varied relations and in the satisfaction of all his wants, as if all motives were of coordinate importance to sociology." Hayes expresses a like disparaging view of classification of desires in the American Journal of Sociology, vol. XVI, "The Social Forces Error."

St. Thomas of Aquin, who constructed a complete system of individual and social philosophy in the spirit of his century, gave fundamental importance to the classification of human desires. He explored it thoroughly in both its subjective and objective aspects. He solved for his time and under its limitations many of the problems to which modern sociology is giving increasing attention. This study represents an attempt to explain the relations between the classification established by St. Thomas and that aimed at in modern sociology. Since Lester Ward has developed the most elaborate subjective classification which we have, comparison is instituted between the subjective classification of St. Thomas and that of Ward. Since Professor Small has proposed the most definite objective classification that we have, comparison is instituted between his work and that of St. Thomas. Psychologists such as McCosh, James, Ladd, Taine, Baldwin, base their classification of the sources of human action on emotional and affective states, instincts, impulses, appetencies. These are, of course, subjective. Among economists we find the objective classification of goods or objects of desire side by side with the subjective classification of wants or motives. Both subjective and objective principles are found, as has been said, among the sociologists. In addition to classifications of Ward and Small, which will be studied in detail, we find others discussed by Ross in his Foundations of Sociology; Stuckenberg in Sociology, vol. I; Ellwood in Sociology in its Psychological Aspects; Small in General Sociology, pp. 183ff; Baldwin in Mental Development. A helpful summary is given in Howard, General Sociology, University of Nebraska Publications, 1907.

It must be kept in mind that St. Thomas viewed his work in social philosophy as a subsidiary portion of his theological view of life. In his mind, all life is a journey from God to God. He was interested in secular knowledge and utilized it only as it took position and served purpose in his cosmic philosophy. The moral spiritual point of view governed him.

St. Thomas' discussions of the subjective and the objective classifications of human desire are found chiefly in the Summa Theologica. In this great work, he constructs a scientific Christian philosophy of life. He does this by working into harmony the rational philosophy of Aristotle and the traditional Catholic theology which reached, for the first time, full expression in his great work. Much material is to be found also in the Contra Gentiles, his Commentaries of Aristotle's Books, in his Scripture Commentaries, and Questiones Disputatae. In order to find the exact mind of St. Thomas regarding both the subjective and the objective classifications of desires, it was necessary to make a search of all of his writings. While his system of thought came to complete expression in only the Summa, he drew upon his vast range of information and his remarkable insight very frequently in the occasional writings which he left. There are to be found from time to time apparent discrepancies throughout the thirty-six volumes which he left, which after careful examination prove to be mainly nominal. Not only that, but in the course of his lifetime, St. Thomas had occasion to change his views. He takes great care to inform his reader of this whenever it occurs. The exposition of his doctrine which is here offered is the result of as careful a search of all of his writings as has been possible and of a faithful endeavor to discover the final views which he developed in his maturer life and to which he held.

A moral purpose governed St. Thomas in all of his study of human action whether individual or social. He discusses and classifies human desires because ill regulated desire leads to sin and properly regulated desire leads to virtue. Sin and virtue are the ultimate terms in which he thinks of and describes human conduct. Modern sociology is in the main analytical and descriptive. Attempts to classify human desires result from the wish to discover categories of human action, methods by which we may classify and through classification understand the marvellous complex of life known as human society. An interesting discussion of the relations of ethics and sociology may be found in Small, General Sociology, pp. 653ff. See also Chicago University Decennial Publications, 1 S. vol. IV. Small, The Significance of Sociology for Ethics.

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