Conation is a term that stems from the Latin conatus, meaning any natural tendency, impulse, striving, or directed effort. It is one of three parts of the mind, along with the affective and cognitive. In short, the cognitive part of the brain measures intelligence, the affective deals with emotions and the conative drives how one acts on those thoughts and feelings.
The term conation is no longer widely known—it is in "The 1,000 Most Obscure Words in the English Language," defined as "the area of one's active mentality that has to do with desire, volition, and striving", but a closer look turns up several references to conation as the third faculty of the mind.
Conation is defined by Funk & Wagnalls Standard Comprehensive International Dictionary (1977) as "the aspect of mental process directed by change and including impulse, desire, volition and striving," and by the Living Webster Encyclopedia Dictionary of the English Language (1980) as "one of the three modes, together with cognition and affection, of mental function; a conscious effort to carry out seemingly volitional acts." The Encyclopedia of Psychology "Motivation: Philosophical Theories" says, "Some mental states seem capable of triggering action, while others—such as cognitive states—apparently have a more subordinate role [in terms of motivation] ... some behavior qualifies as motivated action, but some does not."
While a method to measure conation has only been developed recently, the concept has been around since ancient times. The idea of conation, volition and will making up the third, action-driven part of the mind has traditionally been accepted by philosophers and psychologists.
Plato and Aristotle spoke of the three faculties through which we think, feel and act. George Brett in his "History of Psychology" added, "Augustine was not far from the same standpoint ... his language at times suggests the same three-fold division of knowing, feeling and willing."
In the 18th century, Moses Mendelssohn (1729–1789) spoke of these three components of human beings in his "Letters of Sensation" (1755), in which he said that the fundamental faculties of the soul are understanding, feeling and will. Johannes Nikolaus Tetens (1736–1805), sometimes called the "Father of Psychology" because of his introduction of the analytical, introspective methods, believed that the three faculties of the mind not only existed, but were an expression of an underlying "respective spontaneity of the mind."
Immanuel Kant's tripartite division of the mind gave psychology the support of the most influential philosopher of his day. In his "Critique of Pure Reason" (1781), "Critique of Practical Reason" (1788) and "Critique of Judgment" (1790), he discussed them transcendentally rather than empirically. In his classificatory scheme, pure reason corresponded to intellect or cognition; judgment to feeling, pleasure or pain, therefore affection; and practical reason to will, action or conation.
"There are three absolutely irreducible faculties of the mind, namely, knowledge, feeling, and desire. The laws which govern the theoretical knowledge of nature as a phenomenon, understanding supplies in its pure a priori conceptions. The laws to which desire must conform, are prescribed a priori by reason in the conception of freedom. Between knowledge and desire stands the feeling of pleasure or pain, just as judgment mediates between understanding and reason. We must, therefore, suppose that judgment has a priori principle of its own, which is distinct from the principles of understanding and reason."
The three-faculty concept later showed up in Scotland. In 1854, Sir William Hamilton said, "If we take the Mental to the exclusion of material phenomena, that is, phenomena manifested through the medium of Self-Consciousness or Reflection, they naturally divide themselves into the three categories or primary genera; the phenomena of Knowledge or Cognition, the phenomena of Feeling or of Pleasure and Pain, and the phenomena of Conation or Will and Desire."
Concurrently, Britain's Alexander Bain (1818–1903) was writing of "The Senses and the Intellect" (1855) and "The Emotions and the Will" (1859), which became the standard textbooks for 19th century British psychology.
Bain said, "The phenomena of mind are usually comprehended under three heads:
- I. FEELING, which includes, but is not exhausted by, our pleasures and pains. Emotions, passion, affection, sentiment are names of Feeling.
- II. VOLITION, or the Will, embracing the whole of our activity as directed by our feelings.
- III. THOUGHT, intellect, or Cognition."
Spinoza, Hobbes and Descartes were all involved in a goal-directed theory of motivation. An essential part of that theory was Spinoza's delineation of conatus as basic endeavor. He said it was the source of all striving, longing, ambition and self-expression. It was the tendency for a person to persist against obstacles. For these philosophers, conation was the very essence of the person, for, as Spinoza said, it was through conation that one persevered in one's own being.