Article ID: CBB895271926

Maps of desire: Edward Tolman's drive theory of wants (2023)


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.

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Authors & Contributors
Feest, Uljana
Vitello, Mary
Matt, Susan J.
Fernandez, Luke
Vicedo, Marga
Sackur, Jérôme
Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences
History of Psychology
Revue d'Histoire des Sciences
Philosophy of Science
Isis: International Review Devoted to the History of Science and Its Cultural Influences
History of the Human Sciences
University of Chicago Press
State University of New York Press
Random House
Hill & Wang
Harvard University Press
Cambridge University Press
Emotions; passions
Experimental psychology
Behavioral sciences
Tolman, Edward Chace
Skinner, Burrhus Frederic
Gallup, Gordon
Hockett, Charles Francis (1916-2000)
Stevens, Stanley Smith
Schnitzel, Arthur
Time Periods
20th century
19th century
20th century, late
20th century, early
18th century
United States
Vienna (Austria)
University of California, Berkeley
Ford Foundation
United States. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)

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