The words 'desire' and 'motivation' often appear in different kind of sentences for (what I assume is) grammatical reasons, but I have a really hard time separating them as concepts.

When we talk about desire or motivation it seems like we ultimately are talking about why we act; we are seeking some kind of explanation of our actions and without desire or motivation there will be no action. We act because we desire/are motivated by X.... What motivated you / what desires caused you to do that? Do you desire x / are you motivated by x?

It can be a physical (causal) explanation, e.g. the increase in dopamine drove me, it can be a design explanation, e.g. humans are 'designed to' pursue sugar, fat, sex etc, or it can be an intentional explanation, e.g. I work hard because I want money.

It might feel like an explanation is sometimes about desire and some times about motivation but are we really talking about any conceptual difference?

Please help me sort this out.

A side point (about MY definition of a value)

I understand that we can value something without being motivated by it. But a value to me is just a type of belief i.e. a belief about what we desire or should desire. Hopefully our values correspond to our desires; our values can influence our desires over time, but believing we value something does not automatically make us act accordingly; we have to make it emotional if we want something to drive us to action i.e. if we want something to motivate us / be a desire.

  • 4
    This looks like a question for an English-language site, rather than philosophy.
    – CesarGon
    Commented Jul 24, 2013 at 17:25
  • 1
    Whats provoked your thought on this? For example, if you could locate the discussion in Buddhism where desire is critiqued, and to do so - one needs to understand what it is. Or in Platos Symposium which is a discussion about erotic desire. Commented Jul 25, 2013 at 8:13
  • I was reading 'When Nietzsche wept' and (the character) Nietzsche was talking about psychological symptoms (such as anxiety and obsession), and how understanding the underlying meaning behind these symptoms might be a way to resolve them. So I started thinking (critically) about the concept of underlying driving forces; our so called true motivations or true desires. Rather than our shallow beliefs about what drive us (i.e. our values). When I saw 'true desires' and 'true motivations' next to each other I wondered whether there was any real difference between these two concepts.
    – Kriss
    Commented Jul 25, 2013 at 8:52
  • @MoziburUllah (I forgot to add your name so you can see that I have answered. You might have too many conversations in the air to find your way back otherwise :) ) Most people seem to define desire the way I define a value i.e. what we believe we want or what we believe we should want for one or another reason. This is fare enough but not a satisfying answer to me because then I have no word for what is truly driving us i.e. what we aspire our values to correspond to.
    – Kriss
    Commented Jul 25, 2013 at 9:21
  • 1
    @Kriss: I asked because that is the context that you should put in your question to give it some shape! Commented Jul 25, 2013 at 11:26

9 Answers 9


This is more of a linguistics question than a philosophical question.

The short answer is that a Desire may be a motivation, but a motivation is not necessarily a desire. In more concrete terms, A desire is one kind of motivation, but there are others, like a sense of duty, fear, etc.

This should probably be put to the guys over at the English language exchange.

  • I'm not asking about how the words are being used in common language but whether the two words are conceptually the same i.e. whether the two 'symbols' are referencing the same phenomenon in reality. I think I human can desire/have motivation to be dutiful or fearful.
    – Kriss
    Commented Jul 24, 2013 at 17:12
  • +1 I think this answer is good. It explains that the so symbols do not refer to the same phenomena in reality. What else does the OP need?
    – CesarGon
    Commented Jul 24, 2013 at 17:24
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    +1. Good answer; desire is indeed a proper subset of motivation (in this context).
    – Ben
    Commented Jul 24, 2013 at 17:52
  • So how do you guys define desire? (Wordnet says that desire is "the feeling that accompanies an unsatisfied state" or "an inclination to want things". The first definition I would say describes a force of motivation i.e. the two words refer to the same phenomenon (the feeling which causes the action), the second definition describe a phenomenon which is either a force for motivation or what I referred to as a value.) If fear can not be a desire then can joy, sadness, and other emotions also not be desires? You are claiming 'what is' but I'm missing an explanation for your claims. @CesarGon
    – Kriss
    Commented Jul 24, 2013 at 19:03
  • I'm far from convinced that I'm right about these claim which is why I pose it as a question to be explored. I see weaknesses my writing: I mix up emotions an feelings, I separate desires from values in a way that exclude all believes (rational wants) from being desires, leaving potentially only the wants that drive us to action to be called desires, which potentially leaves me no choice but to call all that motivate desires. This might not be a productive/useful separation but I can not just take your word for it without being given an alternative separation of desire, motivation and values.
    – Kriss
    Commented Jul 24, 2013 at 19:25

Desire means having a wish to get something.


Motivation means which inspire us to achieve the goal which can lead our life better.

For example, I want to become an Actor. That's my desire but How can I reach at the level where all will appreciate my acting. Then we need a motivation to play a better and better performance. Like I got motivated/inspired from Mr. X actor and it motivates me to play a role like him.

A desire can lead to do something we need but motivation is the final thing which can put on the place where we wanted to come when we desire to reach there.


A desire is a state of the world that you would like to realise. This means that the world is not in that state, and that achieving that state would be good for you. I am not going to discuss what "good" means here; it could mean happier, wealthier, whatever.

A motivation is a force that compels you to do something. In other words, it is the reason why you act. There are different kinds of motivations. Sometimes you act because you want to achieve a state of the world that you judge as better than the current one; for example, you may donate 100 € to a charity because you believe in helping others. In this case, your motivation is a desire.

But there are other kinds of motivations. You may be motivated by fear or revenge, for example. If you keep digging a trench under the blazing sun despite feeling extremely tired, it's only because there is this guy pointing a gun at you. In this bizarre example, your motivation is your fear; desires are not involved.

  • I can see two separate points. But I'm not sure you argue either. First you are (potentially) talking about two different things by separating a state from a force. But I'm doubtful that a force can cause/compel? Each state can cause the next state; from this you can derive a pattern (e.g. the model of gravity) and call it a force, but technically a force is just a description of many states over time. A model cannot cause/compel, it only describes how things move. Moreover, if you call the state you want (rather than the experience) a desire then anything can be a desires: a car, a location..
    – Kriss
    Commented Jul 25, 2013 at 3:02
  • The second (which might be accidental but) it seems like your definitions are implicitly saying that another difference might be that if you take action because you want something positive you call it a desire or a motivation while if you take action because you want to escape something negative then you call it only motivation (?). You can frame everything in the positive or the negative while talking about the same thing. E.g. you want to escape a fearful situation but only if you end up in a better situation i.e. “a state you would like to realize”. Do you agree or am I missing something?
    – Kriss
    Commented Jul 25, 2013 at 3:10
  • @Kriss: I don't agree with your statement that "if you take action because you want something positive you call it a desire or a motivation while if you take action because you want to escape something negative then you call it only motivation". In the latter case, I call it fear, threat, or whatever other word I may use depending on the case. These words describe potential motivations, very much like desires. In that regard, motivation is the role they play for you, rather than what they intrinsically are.
    – CesarGon
    Commented Jul 25, 2013 at 11:09
  • Regarding your first comment, I find it hard to defend that a force cannot cause or compel. Precisely, a force is what we usually conceive as the source that makes us act. Hunger, cravings, sex drive, etc. are forces. Do you think they don't cause or compel?
    – CesarGon
    Commented Jul 25, 2013 at 11:15

I find the above answers to your question unsatisfying in one way or another. (Not that I have a more conclusive answer hiding up my sleeve for you.)

Nonetheless, contrary to some earlier responses, it seems a very pertinent philosophical question to me. (Of course, if you know that you already know all that there is to know about philosophy, then you might be in a position to definitively rule in and rule out what is and isn't a relevant question for everyone and anyone else at any time. However, such a person would seem to me to be better described as a sage, not a philosopher)

CesarGon's attempts to delineate between the two terms seem a bit too reductive. To say that someone digging a hole at gunpoint is not acting on a desire seems very unsure. They would surely be acting under the very palpable desire of "not getting shot" or of "staying alive." Therefore CG's attempt to separate that state analytically from other (more positive) states of desire seems inadequate.

Similarly, CG defining a motivation as something that "compels us to do something", hardly seems to separate it from a desire. In fact one could argue the exact opposite: that a subject is more compelled by the state we call desire than by a motivation per se. I might be motivated to find a new car... but, as any advertiser knows, that motivation may always remain latent unless I can be taken hold of by a particular desire to buy this car in front of me.

This latter example seems to me to bring us a little closer to the defining line (at least in use) between these two terms:

Motivation often appears to convey a more neutral (de-subjectivised) narration/explanation of possible reasons for the appearance of an action or event. Motives in this sense are plural and interchangeable. One can be moved to an action on the back of multiple motives (ie. they are plural). And one can share all these motives with vast swathes of the greater population. I do my exams because I am motivated to succeed, to please my parents, to earn money, etc. One can make a list of one motivations and cumulatively keep adding to the list in order to keep oneself motivated (i.e. they are interchangeable).

Desire, on the other hand, seems the much more elusive and subjective term. One is generally not speaking neutrally when one attributes the term desire to a particular situation or state. Even more strangely, when compared to motivation, it appears both the more individual and the more universal term at the same time.

In one sense, a desire can be understood as the particular individuated (subjectively experienced) state of being motivated. But this seems to say too little. Any motivation would in that sense be a desire when experienced subjectively. To some extent this is correct.

But very often we mean something different, something more fundamental, when we speak of desire. In this sense it relates not to a multiplicity of motivations, but to some ur-motivation; some central motivation that drives our other motives (from the start?) and directs them. "What is it you desire?" This sense of the term has a more metaphysical ring to it, which is why it has long been a central concern of philosophy in one disguised form or other (from "conatus" to "will" to "the unconscious" and on and on).

To return to our car-purchaser analogy: the purchaser may be motivated to buy a car because they need a form of transport. But this hardly seems to explain the extremely prominent place of automobiles in modern society. A broader explanation might posit that the need to replace one's car, with a newer "flashier" car every year, is motivated by the wish to compete in a hyper-materialist and strongly hierarchical social world, where image has become increasingly important. Positing an ur-motivation like this brings us closer to the term "desire" as it is normally used. It would seem to indicate a more ultimate/ulterior motive: what a subject "really" desires. For example, one might undercut even the latter explanation of car-purchasing by positing a still more expansive/original explanation: that the "motivation" to buy a new car is not simply about people wanting to "keep up with the Joneses", but is itself sparked by (and absolutely necessitated by) the far more fundamental desire of the Capitalist productive structure itself to always produce profit and economic growth (i.e. a fundamental socio-political motivation completely indifferent to the subject's individual motives). Desire in this sense influences, drives and perhaps even determines other more mundane "motivations" that we might point to as explanations for our behaviour.

For this reason, desire (as ur-motivation) often appears as something universal... but at the same time, something less plural or interchangeable. No doubt we do contain multiple desires. But, by comparison with motivations, one often experiences acute conflict when one experiences multiple desires. One could be motivated to be either a doctor or a painter and not be too worried either way. However, if one truly desires to be both, then one might feel acute conflict at choosing between the two life-paths... and/or experience an intense sense of lack or loss when one finds that they cannot fulfill one or other of these two desires.

The much more obvious example here would be the interconnections between the terms desire and love, or desire and lust. This connection does not hold for "motivation". You would not produce a neutral list of specific motives/motivations when asked by your partner/lover "why do you want to be with me?". Producing a piece of paper with a list of neutral and cumulative motivations (such as "living together keeps the rental costs down," or "I wish to have a live-in lover", etc) is likely to bring a quick end to one's relationship. When we are asked such questions (or when we ask our partners), we wish to get a sense of the "ur-motivation" that drives our relationships. What is it that drives our relationship over and above the plurality of mundane motives that we experience alongside it? This is what desire normally refers to. If that desire is lost then, for many, no list of other motivations (no matter how long or detailed) can stand in as its replacement (i.e. desire is not interchangeable in the way motivations are).

Okay, apologies, that turned into an ad lib essay. Hope it helps someone in some way. I know this is a ghost thread by this stage. But your question helped me clarify some of the issues for myself at least!

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    – J D
    Commented Mar 26, 2020 at 21:29

This is not a merely linguistic question since desire and motivation fulfil logically different roles in the explanation of action.

Desire connects with motivation at least in this way: If I did an intentional action, say I bought a packet of cigarettes without coercion or constraint, then it makes sense to ask what my motivation was in buying the cigarettes. Didn't I realise the health risks associated with smoking ? Why did I buy the cigarettes? When you have answered the 'why?' question, then you know my motivation. A standard model, going back at least to Hume, has it that the motivation for my intentional action involves a belief and a desire. I bought the cigarettes because I believed they were available and because I desired to smoke them. On this approach, desire along with belief is one of the elements that explain why I did a particular intentional action, in other words a specific desire constitutes one part or element of my motivation where a specific belief constitutes the other. If desire constitutes a part or element of motivation then they are on different logical levels.

It isn't the case, though, that desires invariably motivate. I can have a desire to smoke a cigarette and yet repudiate that desire. I have a desire to smoke but also a stronger desire not to smoke. If a desire can be present without a motivation then again they are logically distinct.

Desires can also fail to form and hence to motivate if a certain belief is absent. If I believe that the building in which I am working is on fire, then I am very likely to have a fire-avoiding desire to quit the building. However, the building can be blazing within inches of my office yet I will have no fire-avoiding desire to quit the building if I have no belief that the building is on fire. One way of describing this kind of case is in terms of a distinction between dispositional and occurrent desires. I have, let us asssume, a dispositional desire to quit burning buildings - a prospensity to form desires to quit such buildings - but there will be no occurrent desire, no desire to quit this building now, unless I believe (as I may well not) that the building is on fire.


Motivation is a will to do anything because the result is somehow rewarding. Desire is a basic will that every human shares to some extent.


Some dictionaries say


  • a strong feeling of wanting to have something or wishing for something to happen.
  • a strong feeling that you want something:
  • a strong feeling of wanting something, or something you want:


  • a reason or reasons for acting or behaving in a particular way.
  • enthusiasm for doing something:
  • the need or reason for doing something:
  • willingness to do something, or something that causes such willingness:

From these definitions we can conclude the following things:

  1. Desire is a strong feeling.
  2. If you have no feeling, you have no desire.
  3. Motivation often comes as a cause. This is not a feeling.
  4. Desire always comes from within ourselves. But motivation comes from inside (intrinsic) or outside (extrinsic).
  5. Nobody/nothing can motivate you if you have no desire at all. But can forcefully make you do something.


An aspired state or aspiration of a state.


Any drive or reason that produces action.

Two different things.


You can much undrestand the concept of desire and motivation which is directed with being and nothingness. Hegel and Jean-Paul Sartre stadied these concepts.

In Hegelian philosophy, self-consciousness is desire in general”

To desire Being is to fill oneself with this given Being, to enslave oneself to it.. To desire non-Being is to liberate oneself from Being, to realized one’s autonomy, one’s Freedom. To be anthropogenetic, then, Desire must be directed toward a nonbeing –that is, toward another Desire, another greedy emptiness, another I . Desire is human, or more exactly, “huamanizing,” “anthropogenetic,” only provided that it is directed toward another Desire and an other Desire.

From Hegelian philosophy

In Desire, Consciousness stands in relation to itself as individual. It relates to an object devoid of self-hood, which is in and for itself another than the self-consciousness. The latter for this reason only, attains self-identity, as regards the object through destruction of the latter. Desire is in general (1) destructive, (2) in the gratification of its wants, therefore, it comes to the conscious feeling of its for-itself-being as individual - to the undefined Comprehension of the subject as connected with objectivity.

On the Kantian interpretation of Hegel’s moral psychology, reason is constitutive of the free will because it provides a privileged perspective from which to evaluate our natural desires

In Hegelian philosophy about motivation,

Hegel says that we should stop speaking of motivation in terms of drives and instead begin speaking of character.

Hegel’s attempt to find a form of practical rationality that is fluid and internal to motivation rather than fixed and external.

the immediate presentation of our motivations is indeterminate, and the job of rational willing is to resolve that indeterminacy. When we interpret this claim through the lens of Hegel’s attempt to find a form of practical rationality that is fluid and internal to motivation rather than fixed and external, the result is a picture in which the experience of our motivations is the experience of something malleable, and the free will is our ability to form our motivations in and through our experience of their force.

To reflect on a motive is a way of ‘acting on’ that motive in the dual sense of being behavior motivated by that motive and of shaping that motive.

The Two-Factor Theory of motivation (otherwise known as dual-factor theory or motivation-hygiene theory) was developed by psychologist Frederick Herzberg in the 1950s.


Acting On’ Instead of ‘Stepping Back’: Hegel’s Conception of the Relation between Motivations and the Free Will Christopher Yeomans


The hedonic principle—the desire to approach pleasure and avoid pain—is frequently presumed to be the fundamental principle upon which motivation is built

In Sartre's Theory of Motivation,

Sartre's theory of motivation revolves around the Schelerian‐inspired notion of affectivity and the peculiar way affectivity provides us access to evaluative properties of the objects in our environment

Man has a given nature which determines him to realize certain ends. The motives of his actions are, so to speak, "ready-made and prehuman"

Sartre's analysis of human motivation would be complete, each man's behavior being explicable in terms of and only in terms of an ultimate and irreducible project of being. Such is not the case. Sartre goes on to uncover a basic and universal structure present in every individual's project of being, and in doing so, he presents us with a second theory of human motivation. This universal structure is revealed in the experience of anguish when man encounters the exterior world as it is, stripped of the meaning which his per- sonal project of being confers upon it.


Sartre says that man's behavior cannot be motivated in any essential sense by the exterior world or past events because Sartre in moments of anguish encountered the exterior world as it is-in its full gratuitousness, contingence, or "absurdity

Sartre's Theory of Motivation

Daniel Vanello, The Southern journal of philosophy 57(2).

About Sartre's point of view about desire, He said:

"desire is socially shaped need"

Sartre therefore no longer terms the fundamental relationship between consciousness and its objects desire; instead he designates this relationship as one of need.

And Sartre maintains that while pure need is praetical in the sense of heing survival-oriented, desire is elhical in the sense ofheing value-making.

For Spinoza everything seeks to preserve itself, or everything seeks to maintain its particular relation of motion and rest among its parts. This drive toward self-preservation Spinoza calls ‘desire’.

Chapter Title: Paralogisms of Desire Book Title: Death and Desire in Hegel, Heidegger and Deleuze

Book Author(s): Brent Adkins Published by: Edinburgh University Press

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