Maṇḍana’s intellectual theory of motivation

Maṇḍana’s thesis is an answer to the problem of how to identify the core of a prescription. What makes people undertake actions? Kumārila’s śabdabhāvanā theory and Prabhākara’s kāryavāda had already offered their answers. Maṇḍana expands on Kumārila’s intuition about human behaviour being always goal-oriented by offering a radical reductionist hypothesis. According to this hypothesis, being a motivator is nothing but communicating that the action to be undertaken is an instrument to some coveted result. In this sense, prescribing X to people desiring Y is nothing but explaining that X is the means to achieve Y.

This cognitive interpretation of what motivates one to act could be accused of intellectualism. What about agents who, though understanding that X would be the appropriate course of action, do not undertake it, perhaps out of sloth?

A possible answer is that Maṇḍana’s theory describes the behaviour of ideal agents, who are able to evaluate rationally what is the best means to a coveted goal. Alternatively, one might suggest (as hinted at at the end of section 11.2) that even such irrational people would be impelled to act, even if they then do not physically undertake any act. The iṣṭasādhanatā is a motivator even for them, although they do not act correspondingly. One might think of the comparable case of someone who intensely desires an ice-cream and comes to know that great ice-creams are available in a given part of the city. They are ready to go there, but undergo an accident and are prevented from going. Although they do not practically act, the knowledge about the ice-cream shop did act as motivator for them.

Correspondingly, pravṛtti is used as a synonym of prayatna `effort’ and indicates the undertaking of an activity, not yet its realisation. Similarly, a person said to be pravṛtta is one who has already conceived the decision to undertake an action, although no movement can be seen yet.

(cross-posted on my personal blog.)

About elisa freschi

My long-term program is to make "Indian Philosophy" part of "Philosophy". You can follow me also on my personal blog:, on Academia, on Amazon, etc.

5 Replies to “Maṇḍana’s intellectual theory of motivation”

  1. Hi Elisa, I am still trying to wrap my head around this issue. It is unfamiliar to me, and as you note, it could yield surprising results. For me, just beginning to learn Sanskrit, it will take a while to read Vidhi Viveka and other relevant texts to arrive at a better understanding.

    As for the weakness of will problem that you raise for Mandana’s “intellectualist” theory:

    From your own description of his theory, desire seems to play an indispensable role in motivating action. The prescription must be for *desired* ends, isn’t it so? If so, first there must be a desire for some given end. Then there must be a cognitive representation of the means to the desired end, communicated by prescription. At first sight it seems to me that both the desire and the cognitive representation are indispensable to motivating action, though the cognitive representation is the more proximate motivator. (Perhaps the last point can be disputed, depending on Mandana’s account of psychology. To me it seems that the desire remains and continues to motivate all along, and if it were to suddenly subside, one would not be motivated to act on the means even with the knowledge that it leads to the end.)

    If that’s right, then not performing some action due to lack of sufficient motivation, even when one knows that the action leads to the desired end, can be explained in terms of the weakness of the desire. Because the desire for the end is not all that strong (a velleity), it is not sufficient to move one all the way to action.

    A similar explanation could be given for cases of temptation, where there is a stronger desire that overpowers the weaker.

    Aside from the weakness of will problem, it is not entirely clear to me why Mandana’s position should be called intellectualist or cognitivist. Even modern Humean accounts of motivation employ a desire-belief model that does not look too different from Mandana’s account, at least as far as I can see. Or, there is a crucial difference that I am failing to notice?

    • Thank you, Boram, for your (as usual) stimulating points. I agree with you that desire is an important element of the picture (it is not by mistake that Maṇḍana calls his theory with some variants of the name iṣṭasādhanatā). However, is this really enough?

      Quitting to smoke, losing weight, getting rid of an addictive love… there can be strong desires which seemingly get not satisfied not because there is a stronger desire to counter them (people may crave for chocolate but also just eat it out of habit or boredom etc.), but because the fact of knowing that by doing X I will obtain Y is not identical with doing X.

      Concerning the difference between intellectualism or cognitivism and Hume, I agree with the similarity with Hume, but I don’t understand what you are pointing at. Could you elaborate more?

  2. Hello Elisa,

    I distinguish between Hume’s view and Humean views, just as I might distinguish Hume’s own empiricism from those of the logical positivists. Hume’s own view seems to me to be that there is no such thing as practical reasoning. On the other hand, I would count instrumentalism about practical reasoning and internal reasons theory as “Humean” views about practical reasoning and motivation.

    By a Humean account of motivation based on the belief-desire model, I mean this:
    (1) Desire for some given end, and
    (2) Belief about which means conduces to that given end,
    guiding one to act on the means in order to achieve the end.

    The belief in question only serves to fulfill one’s desire for some given end, and there is no belief that can lead one to give up that desire unless it is associated with fulfilling a stronger desire (This is the restatement in the belief-desire model of Hume’s thesis that reason is but a slave of the passions).

    Because means-end beliefs only serve to fulfill desires on this model, and desires are subjective or noncognitive in the sense of having a world-to-mind (telic) direction of fit, I would count such a view as noncognitive. By contrast, an objective or cognitivist view might take some normative properties to be part of the furniture of the mind-independent world, let’s say some to-be-doneness that when cognized can motivate one to act accordingly, perhaps even to revise old desires and generate new ones in light of that cognition.

    So what I meant to suggest is that Mandana’s view looks a lot more like the subjective Humean views than the cognitivist ones.

    • Thank you, Boram, now I understand better your point. Still, I am not sure about two aspects of it:
      Apart from the terminology, don’t you think that beliefs play a role in the Humean account? If so, is your opposition to the label “intellectualism” terminological or substantial? (I am understanding “intellectualism” as when one speaks of Socrates’ position as being ethical intellectualism).

      • Hi Elisa,

        To answer your first question, in the Humean account I have in mind, desires are the source of motivation, and means-end beliefs merely channel the motivation towards this or that action. In Mandana’s account as I understand it, the means-end belief is the motivator, or the cause of this or that action, in the sense of being the specific (असाधारण) cause of the action (i.e., the desire for Y may be common to multiple ways of getting Y, but the means-end belief picks out a particular X as the means to getting Y).

        As for the second question, I suppose it’s partly terminological, partly substantive. But I can’t really find a way of expressing the substantive issue clearly, so I will only explain the terminological issue.

        To me the label “intellectualism” by itself is rather vague, so I understood it in light of your gloss that it provides a “cognitive interpretation”. This led me to assume that you are taking Mandana to be offering a cognitivist account. But this carries certain misleading connotations (in my mind at least), given the contrast between cognitivism and noncognitivism in Western metaethics. (Likewise with the characterization of the rival pratibhaa view as “behaviorist”… I am accustomed to think of that term as applying to accounts of mind or psychology that focus on third-personally observable inputs and outputs, to the exclusion of first-personally introspectable mental processing.)

        It does help if you gloss intellectualism in terms of “ethical intellectualism”. Is that the view that knowing what’s right or ought to be done suffices for doing it? Now that helps me to understand why you raise weakness of will as a key issue.

        However, as far as I can see, there is nothing preventing Mandana from being a non-intellectualist that allows for weakness of will.

        For the sake of analogy, even though inference is a means of knowledge, there can be blockers of inferential awareness, and that does not prevent inference from being the specific cause of inferential knowledge. In the same way, even if means-end cognition is a motivator, why shouldn’t Mandana admit that there can be motivation blockers? Even if there are such blockers, that need not prevent the means-end awareness from being the specific cause of means-directed motivation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *