On Desire: Why We Want What We Want

Overview


A married person falls deeply in love with someone else. A man of average income feels he cannot be truly happy unless he owns an expensive luxury car. A dieter has an irresistible craving for ice cream. Desires often come to us unbidden and unwanted, and they can have a dramatic impact, sometimes changing the course of our lives.

In On Desire, William B. Irvine takes us on a wide-ranging tour of our impulses, wants, and needs, showing us where these feelings come from and how ...

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On Desire: Why We Want What We Want

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Overview


A married person falls deeply in love with someone else. A man of average income feels he cannot be truly happy unless he owns an expensive luxury car. A dieter has an irresistible craving for ice cream. Desires often come to us unbidden and unwanted, and they can have a dramatic impact, sometimes changing the course of our lives.

In On Desire, William B. Irvine takes us on a wide-ranging tour of our impulses, wants, and needs, showing us where these feelings come from and how we can try to rein them in. Spicing his account with engaging observations by writers like Seneca, Tolstoy, and Freud, Irvine considers the teachings of Buddhists, Hindus, the Amish, Shakers, and Catholic saints, as well as those of ancient Greek and Roman and modern European philosophers. Irvine also looks at what modern science can tell us about desire--such as what happens in the brain when we desire something and how animals evolved particular desires--and he advances a new theory about how desire itself evolved. Irvine also suggests that at the same time that we gained the ability to desire, we were "programmed" to find some things more desirable than others. Irvine concludes that the best way to attain lasting happiness is not to change the world around us or our place in it, but to change ourselves. If we can convince ourselves to want what we already have, we can dramatically enhance our happiness.

Brimming with wisdom and practical advice, On Desire offers a thoughtful approach to controlling unwanted passions and attaining a more meaningful life.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"A sprightly and entertaining book.... Those who would like to understand and control some of their desires will be glad to find this book on the library shelf."--Library Journal

"What is delightful about this book is that the usual suspects are not as conspicuous. Instead, the Shakers are discussed alongside Buddha, and Diogenes adjacent to Thoreau.... With clear writing, backed up by careful exegesis and a unique twist to a common thesis, this work is necessary for most undergraduate collections, and for students of philosophy and happiness. Summing Up: Highly recommended."--Choice

"William B. Irvine has written a disarmingly seductive and easily readable treatise on the origins, nature, vicissitudes, and 'crises' of desire. He simply and clearly discusses biologically instilled incentive systems, the rich psychological research on the peculiarities of our motivation, and the wisdom of various religious and spiritual traditions. It is a well-informed, wise, informal interdisciplinary book that is highly recommended for the general reader."--Robert C. Solomon, author of The Passions, About Love, The Joy of Philosophy, Not Passion's Slave, and In Defense of Sentimentality

"Irvine has given us a very engaging book on what desire is: how central it is to human existence, what science has to tell us about it, and what we can do with it and about it. He combines knowledge, wisdom and wit with a light but sure philosophical touch."--John Perry, Professor of Philosophy, Stanford University

"...a sweeping review of philosophical, psychological, evolutionary, and religious concepts of desire. The writing is lucid and economical."--PsycCRITIQUES

Publishers Weekly
While most contemporary philosophers mull over theoretical matters and shy away from giving advice on how to live, Irvine plumbs the age-old question: how do we master our desires? When it comes to desire, he says, "we are like a vacation home owner who, regardless of who shows up at the door... welcomes the visitor and convinces himself that he must have invited the visitor." Our evolutionary past, Irvine claims, has wired us for endless dissatisfaction since, from an evolutionary standpoint, it doesn't matter if we're miserable as long as we survive and reproduce. Early humans who basked in contentment, he argues, were less likely to survive than ones with a nagging itch to better their lot. Given this treadmill, how can we lead happy, meaningful lives? Irvine shares the advice of those who claim that "undesirable desires arise because we care what other people think of us." Examining teachings of Zen Buddhists, the Amish, the Hutterites, Hellenistic philosophers (the Stoics, Epicureans and Skeptics) and others, he concludes, "the best way to gain... lasting satisfaction... is to change not the world and our position in it but ourselves... we should work at wanting what we already have." This is no easy task, and Irvine admits that readers seeking further instruction had best look elsewhere. (Oct.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Irvine (philosophy, Wright State Univ.) believes that while some desires develop from our rational concerns, others simply appear unbidden-and those are by no means restricted to our natural appetites and bodily responses. Here he explores desire through discussions of psychology, "biological incentive," "the human condition," religion, and philosophy. His account of "religious advice," particularly the long discussion about such Protestant sects as Mennonites, Shakers, and others who specialize in controlling and reducing desire, is the most interesting. The philosophers whose teachings he examines include the Stoics and Epicureans; Zen Buddhists get a brief mention as well. This is a sprightly and entertaining book, but readers will wonder whether they have fallen into a philosophers' game. On the face of it, the itch for ice cream, the lust aroused by a Vegas showgirl, and the search for the beatific vision do not have much in common except that they can all be lumped together by the word desire. Are pangs of hunger and impulses to the good connected by anything more than a word? Still, those who would like to understand and control some of their desires will be glad to find this book on the library shelf.-Leslie Armour, Dominican Coll. of Philosophy & Theology, Ottawa Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195327076
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 5/16/2007
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 771,108
  • Product dimensions: 6.90 (w) x 4.90 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

William B. Irvine is Professor of Philosophy at Wright State University, in Dayton, Ohio.

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Table of Contents

Introduction
Part One: The Secret Life of Desire
Chapter 1. The Ebb and Flow of Desire
Chapter 2. Other People
Part Two: The Science of Desire
Chapter 3. Mapping Our Desires
Chapter 4. The Wellsprings of Desire
Chapter 5. The Psychology of Desire
Chapter 6. The Evolution of Desire
Chapter 7. The Biological Incentive System (BIS)
Part Three: Dealing with Our Desires
Chapter 8. The Human Condition
Chapter 9. Religious Advice
Chapter 10. Religious Advice Continued-Protestant Sects
Chapter 11. Philosophical Advice
Chapter 12. The Eccentrics
Chapter 13. Conclusions

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Posted June 17, 2009

    Disappointed?

    Kenneth Kloby says...Part 1 was a good introduction, Part 2 was far too repetitive, and Part 3 doesn't seem to be delivering the promised advice. Maybe I need to go back and read it again?

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 22, 2009

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 4, 2012

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 22, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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