Abulia and impulsiveness revisited: a conceptual history


G.E. Berrios, Department of Psychiatry, University of Cambridge, Addenbrooke's Hospital (Box 189), Hills Road, Cambridge, United Kingdom.


Historical analysis suggests that the decline and fall of the will was due not to any major piece of empirical work demonstrating that the concept was unsound but to general changes in philosophical fashion, and to the temporary influence of the anti-mentalistic tenets of behaviorism and the anti-volitional assumptions of psychoanalysis. Clinical disorders like abulia and impulsiveness share conceptual features that 19th-century alienists captured well in their clinical category of disorder of the will. Current accounts, which include semi-explanatory concepts such as “drive”, “motivation” or frontal lobe “executive” are not conceptually better than the old notion of will nor are they superior as correlational variables for neurobiological studies. It is suggested that the will, updated according to modern work in the philosophy of action, be re-adopted as a research category in current psychiatry.