Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “On Desire: Why We Want What We Want” as Want to Read:
On Desire: Why We Want What We Want
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

On Desire: Why We Want What We Want

3.81  ·  Rating details ·  400 Ratings  ·  48 Reviews
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
Hardcover, 322 pages
Published November 1st 2005 by Oxford University Press, USA (first published September 26th 2005)
More Details... edit details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.
This book is not yet featured on Listopia. Add this book to your favorite list »

Community Reviews

(showing 1-30)
Rating details
Sort: Default
Esteban del Mal
A bit pedestrian if you come to the topic with any background. Fun diagrams like "The Chain of Desire" and "The Taxonomy of Desire" are a lame attempt at street cred. Presents a naive understanding of Buddhism. We are ever at odds with our Biological Incentive System (BIS), but must we reduce eons of evolution to an acronym worthy of an online management school primary text?
Bob Nichols
Discussions about intelligence and cognition frequently omit the role of desire. Irvine's book brings desire to the forefront and describes how it works with cognition. Irvine does a good job of separating terminal (desire for own sake) from instrumental (desired for the sake of something else) desires. Terminal desires are set by evolution (food, sex, rest, protection) because they have survival value and they have a built in biological ("hedonic") incentive system. Satisfying desire feels good ...more
Why do we want what we want? William Irvine’s On Desire examines the nature of desire, exploring first how profoundly it affects our lives, then surveying psychological inquiries into its basis before at last turning to consider how religions, philosophies, and odd ducks have attempted to grapple with it. Irvine is author previously of A Guide to the Good Life, a manual on the practice of Stoicism, and the two works have a common subject and a likely audience. On Desire is one part science and a ...more
Oct 13, 2007 rated it it was ok
Recommends it for: those who want
I feel a bit nerdy typing this up at 1:00 a.m. on a Saturday night so I can return this book tomorrow on my way to babysitting. They're 8 days overdue at the library.

My favorite philosophy professor reviewed this book and half way through the book I noticed his quip on the back of the book

"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 incentive systems,
Geoff Bartakovics
Jan 22, 2008 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: anyone with a shopping addiction
Recommended to Geoff by: Browsing in the library
Seriously good summary of various philosophers' takes on "why we want what we want." No Oprah-esque at all, though it does end with a somewhat zen view on recognizing the irrational/emotive parts of our desires so that we can influence...if not control...those desires.

Like "stumbling on happiness," this is one of those books that lucidly describes/categorizes human experiences that you recognize. For example:

"The relationship between the intellect and the emotions is therefore asymmetrical. Alth
Jun 16, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Heard this author on NPR, talking about another book, A Guide to the Good Life: The Art of Stoic Joy. I read this since the other isn't out in paperback and isn't in the library. I liked this one a lot. Made me think - though I feel like I should have known more of this.
Jun 27, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: philosophy
Can we convince ourselves to "want what we already have"? (p. 6) Can we master our desires? I really liked this book. It helps to understand how we may be biologically created to want things. Our problem is trying to control those wants so that they don't control us. (There is a nice section about Thoreau in the chapter on eccentrics. Appropriate.)
Oct 29, 2017 rated it really liked it
This was better than I expected, maybe because of the practical self-help side of it that I didn't expect -- not only does Irvine discuss desire, he talks about different methods of dealing with desire, too. I think that I'll read it again and continue to find value in it.
Emily Krueger
Sep 13, 2018 rated it liked it
Although very detailed, the tone and various implications of the author were problematic.
Emmanuel Honesty
Aug 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing
May 21, 2017 rated it really liked it
very interesting read. It is a keeper in the library for times when i want to rethink my life. it could be summarized a bit but on the other side if it was denser maybe it would be too much.
Karl Nordenstorm
Oct 16, 2016 rated it really liked it
If you are the kind of person who reads books like this one, then you probably already knew much of what it has to say. In brief the book covers stoicism, zen-Buddhism, cynicism, epicureanism and various Christian sects. However this makes a fine reading experience - vivid language, enlightening anecdotes, intriguing little reflections spread throughout - it simply is pleasant to hear the literary voice of William B. Irvine.

The following double-quote (Irvine quotes somebody named Fran Lebowitz)
Maya Rock
Jun 06, 2008 rated it it was ok
Recommended to Maya by: Karah
Terrific packaging. While there were moments here and there, ultimately I did not fall in love with this. The chapter titles were great. Throwing the word "desire" into anything makes it compelling--The Evolution of Desire, The Psychology of Desire etc. I really felt I had more of an understanding about desire from Buddhist reading stuff than this.

Anyway I liked this Zen story on page 191: "There is a story about a Zen student who goes to a temple and asks how long it will take him to gain enli
Jan 16, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Irvine does a good job with this book and it can be an introductory book on understanding and managing desire - to defeat something you need to understand it well.

Origin of Desire:
He starts with our evolutionary past - our evolutionary ancestors who had desires were more likely to survive and reproduce than the ones who didn't. Two kinds of desires:

- Terminal Desire: An end in itself.
- Instrumental desire: it is part of a chain desires. We normally need to go through a lot of instrumental desi
Jan 26, 2008 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction

When I took this book from the shelf at BN and flipped through the opening pages, I saw a page with a single quote from La Rochefoucauld: "Little is needed to make a wise man happy, but nothing can content a fool. That is why nearly all men are miserable." And with that, I bought the book.

The text itself is easy to read. Though clearly writing as a philosopher, Irvine neither preaches nor obfuscates. The three sections, "The Secret Life of Desire," "The Science of Desire," and "Dealing with Desi
William Irvine
Oct 22, 2016 rated it liked it
I came across this book by complete accident - i.e. by Googling my own name, 'William F Irvine', just to see what came up. Discovering that my namesake is a Philosophy Professor (I have a degree in the same subject and am particularly interested in the area of desire) I couldn't NOT buy a copy. I enjoyed William B Irvine's comprehensive tour of the religious and philosophical views on the subject, particularly the Stoics'. I also enjoyed his explanations on desire's biological/psychological orig ...more
Dan Gorman
Jan 04, 2017 rated it liked it
Intriguing, but the parts never fully come together, and Prof. Irvine sometimes uses bizarre metaphors to explain his ideas. The general argument, based on a look at evolutionary psychology and the history of philosophy, is that humans can never fully escape desire, due to its biological and genetic components. However, as rational beings (in theory), humans can adjust their mindset and, if not eliminate desire, learn to control desire. There is no single way to master desire, and people would ( ...more
Oct 23, 2015 rated it really liked it
As biological beings, our lives are primarily subjected to fulfilling desires that are dictated by our pre-conscious emotions. Our capacity for reason and intellect are, at bottom, devices evolved to fulfill insatiable desires and not the rational, logical entities we may believe they are. It is only through a conscious act of will based on some well-thought out strategy, be it religious, philosophical or some other method, that we can begin to overcome this life dictated by desire in order to l ...more
Jan 04, 2010 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I liked the breakdown of desire into component parts of terminal desires and instrumental desires. The former being hunger, sex, status etc and largely biologically determined, and the intellectual desires that we build in chains to fulfil them. I’d never really thought about desire in this way. The rest was largely an account of how different, philosophers, religions etc have tackled the issue. This was not a particularly demanding book, but the author did succeed in getting me to think which I ...more
Sep 05, 2012 rated it really liked it
Nice little book that examines how desire has a negative impact on our lives, why we have desire in the first place, and methods to overcome desire and live a more fulfilled life. I skimmed through the second section about the science of desire, but I thought the third section which examines religious and philosophical ways to grapple with our lust for unnecessary things (and our need for the admiration of other people) was concise and a good starting point for further reading.

Also, I kept thin
Taylor Ellwood
Mar 05, 2013 rated it really liked it
On Desire is a fascinating book that looks at how we interact with desire. The author comes off as a little prudish, advocating more of an approach of ignoring desires, but even with that tone, the book provides a look at what desire is, what the neurological basis of it is, as well as how different cultures and communities deal with desire. I would have liked to have seen exercises in this book from the author. It is more of a philosophical treatise than anything else, but still worth a read.
Xavier Shay
Oct 02, 2011 rated it really liked it
Very easy to read, with a good balance between explanation and stories. Didn't get a large amount of new material out of it, but was worthwhile for what I did:
- Distinction between hedonistic and non-hedonistic, terminal and non-terminal desires
- Whole chapter on protestant approaches to desire (Amish), how they place community above all else, and the different ways they approach sex and celibacy.
Apr 22, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: ebooks, 2011
On Desire is a fun romp through literature, religion, philosophy and science to discuss the basis of desire. Irvine may be a professor but his prose is written for the everyman. I found myself constantly quoting passages to my husband, and thoroughly enjoyed his wit. On Desire may not cure the wants and needs that I have 100% but it does help me understand where they come from, and give me advice on how to conserve some of them.
Dave Bolton
Sep 13, 2011 rated it really liked it
Great. I moved straight onto this after reading Irvine's book on Stoicism. While the middle part (on the biological and social reasons for our desire) drags a little at times, and the practical third part of the book is lighter than it could have been, ultimately I'm a different person having read this book -- and that is significant considering I was thinking about this stuff a lot before anyway. This has given my thoughts some structure and foundation.
Oct 24, 2015 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
disappointing. author was annoying repetitive throughout the book (seriously, cutting that stuff would have saved over 50 pages!) and his analysis of both the biology of desire and the counsels of the wise for dealing with desire are sadly pedestrian. I really didn't learn anything new from this book. :(
Apr 23, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
While the information was interesting and the book contained useful insights, it was not a page-turner. The writing wasn't bad, exactly. It was just boring. There's a good chance I was expecting too much out of a philosophy book.

If I could rate just the information conveyed, it would merit 5 stars.
Dec 18, 2008 rated it liked it
A clearly written recap of the basics when it comes to the philosophy and psychology of desire. That's about all, though. There are more original philosophers and penetrating psychologists out there writing on the subject. As for personally coming to terms with desire, you're probably best of with one of the sacred books of Buddhism.
from the library c2006

Part one the secret life of desire
ch 1 the ebb and flow of desire
ch 2 other people

Part two the science of desire
ch 3 Mapping our desires
ch 4 the wellsprings of desire
ch 5 the psychology of desire
ch 6
ch 7

Part three dealing with our desires
ch 8 the human condition
ch 9

ch 13
Aug 20, 2008 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
This book is fairly light and would be appropriate for an undergraduate who is just beginning to think about desire. It does have some interesting discussion of historical attempts to manage our unruly passions. For example, it contains an interesting discussion of the Amish and their strategies for managing the social emotions. The focus of the book is less theoretical than practical.
Apr 08, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Wow, really well researched! This is a great one to check out! Not only does he talk about ways we can check in with the arising and falling of the presence of desire and find a balance to clear and transform that emotion..., but the author discusses why DESIRES biologically occur with us humans! Very interesting!
« previous 1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 next »
There are no discussion topics on this book yet. Be the first to start one »
  • Taking the Red Pill: Science, Philosophy and Religion in The Matrix
  • The Complex: Mapping America's Military-Industrial-Technological-Entertainment-Academic-Media-Corporate Matrix
  • Reality Isn't What It Used to Be
  • The Oxford Book of American Short Stories
  • Guidebook to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
  • Coercion: Why We Listen to What "they" Say
  • Planet Simpson: How a Cartoon Masterpiece Defined a Generation
  • Know the Past, Find the Future: The New York Public Library at 100
  • My Dateless Diary: An American Journey
  • Writing the Memoir
  • The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real
  • Belzoni: The Giant Archaeologists Love to Hate
  • The Search For The Real Self: Unmasking The Personality Disorders Of Our Age
  • The Integral Vision: A Very Short Introduction to the Revolutionary Integral Approach to Life, God, the Universe, and Everything
  • Exploring Happiness: From Aristotle to Brain Science
  • Buffalo Lockjaw
  • Nonviolence: Twenty-Five Lessons from the History of a Dangerous Idea
  • The 2012 Story: The Myths, Fallacies, and Truth Behind the Most Intriguing Date in History
“According to psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson, we have an unfortunate tendency to “miswant”—to want things that we won’t like once we get them. “In a perfect world,” they observe, “wanting would cause trying, trying would cause getting, [and] getting would cause liking.”20 But ours is not a perfect world. In particular, our predictions about what we will like tend to be mistaken, and as a result, we tend to want things that, when we get them, will make little difference to our level of happiness. (The” 1 likes
“Psychologist Arthur S. Reber offers the following summary of the psychological research on decision making: “During the 1970s . . . it became increasingly apparent that people do not typically solve problems, make decisions, or reach conclusions using the kinds of standard, conscious, and rational processes that they were more-or-less assumed to be using.” To the contrary, people could best be described, in much of their decision making, as being “arational”: “When people were observed making choices and solving problems of interesting complexity, the rational and logical elements were often missing.” 1 likes
More quotes…