Maps of desire: Edward Tolman’s drive theory of wants

AHP readers will be interested in a new piece in History of the Human Sciences: “Maps of desire: Edward Tolman’s drive theory of wants,” by Simon Torracinta. Abstract:

Wants and desires are central to ordinary experience and to aesthetic, philosophical, and theological thought. Yet despite a burgeoning interest in the history of emotions research, their history as objects of scientific study has received little attention. This historiographical neglect mirrors a real one, with the retreat of introspection in the positivist human sciences of the early 20th century culminating in the relative marginalization of questions of psychic interiority. This article therefore seeks to explain an apparent paradox: the attempt to develop a comprehensive theory of ‘why … we want what we want’ in the 1940s by esteemed American ‘neo-behaviorist’ psychologist Edward Tolman – a proponent of a methodology famous for its prohibition on appeals to unobservable mental phenomena. Though chiefly known today for his theory of ‘cognitive maps’, Tolman also sought to map the contours of desire as such, integrating Freudian and behaviorist models of the ‘drives’ to develop a complex iconography of the universal structures of motivation. Close attention to Tolman’s striking maps offers a compelling limit case for what could and could not be captured within an anti-mentalist framework, and illuminates an important precursor to theories of motivational ‘affect’ in the postwar cognitive and neurosciences. His work upsets a standard chronology that centers on the ‘cognitive revolution’ of the 1960s, and points to the significance of psychoanalysis to an earlier turn to cognitivism. Tolman concluded his theory pointed ‘in the direction of more socialism’ – a reminder of the politically labile anti-essentialism of behaviorism’s commitment to mental plasticity.

About Jacy Young

Jacy Young is a professor at Quest University Canada. A critical feminist psychologist and historian of psychology, she is committed to critical pedagogy and public engagement with feminist psychology and the history of the discipline.