Impulsiveness and Spontaneity


The main purpose of this contemplation shall be to distinguish between the concepts of impulsiveness and spontaneity. Reason for undertaking this contemplation is that these two are usually, but not justly, considered as one.


The Oxford English Dictionary considers ‘impulsiveness’ to be “the quality of being impulsive in feeling or action.”1 With this is impulsiveness from the beginning of this contemplation given reference to living beings, and to humans in particular. For it are humans par excellence that feel and act. And in this, so we understand, can they be impulsive. Now in the English language can the noun ‘impulsiveness’ and the adjective ‘impulsive’ be brought back to the noun ‘impulse’. This latter word has maintained the original structure of its root, which regards the Latin ‘impellō’ (also root of the English ‘impel’). For like the English ‘impulse’ can be dissected into ‘im’ and ‘pulse’, can the Latin ‘impellō’ be dissected into ‘im’ and ‘pellō’. With ‘im’ undergoing no change and with ‘pulse’ being rooted in ‘pellō’ do the sections and the wholes of ‘impulse’ and ‘impellō’ fit one on one. Now this Latin (and English) prefix ‘im’ has similar functions as the prefixes ‘em’, ‘en’ and ‘in’. One of these functions is the denotation of an initiation. An impulse is an initiated pulse. Initially there was no pulse, but its initiation made a pulse arise. ‘Pellō’ in its turn carries meanings that pertain to a setting into motion or action.2 So an impulse then can be understood as an initiation of motion. To follow this meaning into the from ‘impulse’ derived ‘impulsive’, can the latter be understood as ‘initiatory in motion’. And ‘impulsiveness’, the term with which we started this contemplation, can in its turn be understood as ‘the quality of being initiatory in motion’.

Impulsiveness is the quality of being initiatory in motion. To the question what it is that is being initiated into motion the dictionary already gave an answer in its definition of ‘impulsiveness’. For the initiated motion regards that of “feeling or action”. This definition would have been more precise when it had mentioned ‘feeling and action’. Because for impulsiveness to exist both feeling and action are required. Someone with stirred feelings which however do not lead to actions shall not likely be typified as an impulsive person. And everybody acts. However acting on itself does not make a person impulsive. So to make ‘feeling and action’ instead of ‘feeling or action’ part of the definition of ‘impulsiveness’ is more precise. Fully accurate is ‘feeling and action’ however also not. Someone may have stirred feelings, whirling and swirling, but if this person ignores these feelings and takes action out of rational considerations he can not be said to be impulsive, even though both feelings and actions are present in such a case. It is only when actions originate directly in feelings that someone can be regarded as impulsive. Such a person is, as the dictionary mentions in its definition of ‘impulsive’, “swayed by emotion”.3 ‘Impulsiveness’ then can simply be defined as ‘acting from emotion’.


Impulsiveness is acting from emotion. Way too often is such an impulsiveness glorified in contemporary Western culture. The breathing space that is experienced when (by Christian culture) suppressed emotions are freed and let lose is very understandable. It is however not very glorifiable. Especially not when, and this is often the case, such impulsiveness is glorified under the name of ‘spontaneity’. Many people pride themselves on being spontaneous, while they actually are impulsive. So what then is the difference between impulsiveness and spontaneity? To point this difference out we need to have a closer look at spontaneity.

The English ‘spontaneity’ can be read as ‘spontane-ity’, in which ‘spontane’ has the function of an adjective. This adjective is however not (much) used in English. Instead the adjective ‘spontaneous’ is used, leading to the noun ‘spontaneousness’, which is understandably analogous to ‘spontaneity’.4 All these English words can be traced back to the Latin ablative ‘spons’, meaning primarily ‘will’ and ‘volition’.5 The derivative ‘sponte’ (obviously too present in ‘spontaneity’) bears meanings such as ‘by will’, ‘voluntarily’, ‘deliberately’, ‘purposely’ and ‘by oneself’.6 Now as stirred but from action suppressed emotions do not lead to impulsiveness, so do from action withheld willings not lead to spontaneity. Also in spontaneity actions must be there. Thus, as impulsiveness was defined as ‘acting from emotion’, can spontaneity be defined as ‘acting from will’.


The English word ‘will’ goes back to the Indo-European base ‘wel’ or ‘wol’.7 In the German language this root found its way into the contemporary ‘wollen’, translatable as ‘to will’, ‘wahlen’, translatable as ‘to choose’ and ‘wohl’, translatable as ‘wellness’. In the English language the aforementioned Indo-European base still resounds too in ‘wellness’,8 but also in ‘wealth’.9 So choice, wellness and wealth are all related to will. Having a closer look at these relations may give a clearer view on will.

As a prime meaning of ‘wealth’, as it is used at present, can be given ‘abundance of possessions’ or ‘abundance of worldly goods’.10 And the relation that will has with wealth is that the first can be a force for the attainment of the latter. Will is the force behind the dynamism that brings about the destruction of actuality for the realization of possibility.11 The focus on the regarded possibility shall of course depend on the consciousness of the willing one. And for many is the possibility of possessing worldly goods the primal focus of attention. Their will drives them towards wealth.

Now it is often said that behind every will lies a deeper will. The more superficial will then is considered as a distortion of that deeper will. And this seems indeed the case with the willing of wealth. For how attractive is the possession of worldly goods if it does not come with wellness? It can be said that in willing wealth the will is distorted into a wanting. The will is distortedly present in the externally directed wanting of worldly goods. In willing wellness however is the attention withdrawn from the goods of the outside world, and focused on oneself and on one’s own state of being.12 Here the awareness is present that better than wanting external goods is the wishing for wellbeing.

Where the will is very much distortedly present in the want of external wealth, there is it less distortedly present in the wish for wellness. ‘Less distortedly’ but not ‘undistortedly’. For wishing is not the same as pure willing. Where want of wealth is focused at the external world, and where wish for wellness is focused at oneself, there are these two focuses taken together in the will of choice. Choice carries within itself both a directedness towards one’s own self and a directedness towards the world, balancing both.13 Pure will is the self-aware choice for worldly realization.14 Where one of these two lack can will only be present distorted, and not pure. In the want for wealth is will distorted due to lack of inner-awareness. And in the wish for wellness is will distorted due to lack of outer-awareness. In will of choice however the will is pure due to an encompassing inner-outer-awareness.

Instinction and Rationality

Spontaneity was defined as ‘acting from will’. And with will defined as ‘the self-aware choice for worldly realization’ can spontaneity also be defined as ‘acting from the self-aware choice for worldly realization’. This is quite different from impulsiveness, which was defined as ‘acting from emotion’. Where spontaneity belongs to willing, there does impulsiveness belong to wishing. For the focus of attention on oneself that is present in wishing we find reflected in the emotional self-centeredness of impulsiveness. An emotional person sees nothing but himself in the wavy and sometimes stormy feelings that overwhelm him. Then, as a third category of acting (belonging to wanting), can also instinction be mentioned here, which may be defined as ‘acting from instinct’.15 For instinctive beings simply act out of a focus on their surrounding world, having very little self-awareness. This leads then to the threefold of instinction, impulsiveness and spontaneity.

There is however also a fourth. And this fourth comes to the fore out of the distinction that can be made between willing choice and processing choice. This processing of choice takes place at the level of the ratio.16 In this rational process of choosing it can be said that neither outer-awareness nor inner-awareness are present in the same fixed way in which outer-awareness is present in instinction and inner-awareness in impulsiveness. In rationality the awareness pulsates between these two. The rational thinker shifts swiftly back and forth between self-awareness and world-awareness, the result of which will be his choice. It is usually against this rationality that impulsive people pride themselves on being impulsive, calling it erroneously ‘spontaneity’.

Will for Choice

Above we brought the rationality of process of choice to the fore. This phenomenon of rational weighing of worldly and personal data shall be a well known phenomenon for most people. But how are we to understand the pure will for choice that is present in spontaneity? Perhaps this pure will for choice can be better understood in contrast with distorted will in general. For a distorted will is concerned with what choice shall be made, while pure will is concerned with that choice shall be made. A distorted will is directed at certain particularities. A want is concerned with specific objects of the world, while a wish is concerned with specific feelings. And also in processing choice the attention juggles with particular data, with a particular outcome of that process set as goal. Pure will for choice however is not concerned with such particularities. It is concerned with choice itself, regardless of the specific outcome of that choice. In pure will is will, so to speak, its own goal. We see such a thought also reflected in for instance Aristotle’s concept of praxis in his Ethica Nicomachea,17 or in the Hindu philosophy on action in the Bhagavad Gītā.18 Contemplating these philosophies may surely ripen the understanding of true spontaneity.


The primary goal of this contemplation was to discriminate between impulsiveness and spontaneity. This because these two are often muddled together, usually by impulsive people. During this process of discriminating, two other concepts also bubbled to the surface, namely the concepts of instinction and of rationality. Instinction was considered as acting out of want for wealth, taking place out of world-awareness. Impulsiveness was considered as acting out of wish for wellness, taking place out of self-awareness. Rationality was considered as acting out of procession of choice, taking place out of the swinging between world- and self-awareness. And spontaneity was considered as acting out of will for choice, taking place out of an encompassing world-self-awareness.

It shall be clear that such an encompassing world-self-awareness is not an easy thing to achieve. It asks of us to go beyond our rationality, and this beyond does not regard emotion. So before priding ourselves against rational people on being spontaneous it would be good to consider the above contemplation. We might very well be just emotionally impulsive.

  1. Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition on CD-ROM (v. 4.0), Oxford University Press, 2009.
  2. Oxford Latin Dictionary, Oxford University Press, London, 1968, p. 1320, 1321.
  3. Oxford English Dictionary, under ‘impulsive, a. (n.)’, 3.
  4. Webster’s New Dictionary of Synonyms, Merriam Webster, Springfield, 1984, p. 767.
  5. Oxford Latin Dictionary, p. 1809.
  6. Ibidem.
  7. John Ayto, Word Origins, The Hidden Histories of English Words from A to Z, A & C Black, London, 2005, p. 547.
  8. Word Origins, p. 544.
  9. Ibidem.
  10. Oxford English Dictionary, under ‘wealth’, 3a.
  11. Alice A. Bailey, ‘A Treatise on White Magic’, in: Twenty-Four Books of Esoteric Philosophy, (CD-ROM), Lucis Trust, London / New York, 2001. “This life principle in man manifests in a triple manner: 1. As the directional will, purpose, basic incentive. This is the dynamic energy which sets his being functioning, brings him into existence, fixes the term of his life, carries him through the years, long or short, and abstracts itself at the close of his life cycle. This is the spirit in man, manifesting as the will to live, to be, to act, to pursue, to evolve. In its lowest aspect this works through the mental body or nature, and in connection with the dense physical makes itself felt through the brain.”
  12. Oxford English Dictionary.
  13. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, ‘Enzyklopädie der philosophischen Wissenschaften im Grundrisse, Dritter Teil’, in: Digitale Bibliothek, Band 2, Philosophie, von Platon bis Nietzsche, (CD-ROM), Directmedia, Berlin, 1998, Zweite Abteilung der Philosophie des Geistes, Der objektive Geist, § 483, translated. “The free will has immediately in first instance the distinction in it, that freedom is its inner determination and goal and (that) it relates itself to an outer pre-found objectivity, […].”
  14. See also: ‘Reduction (and Pseudo-Reduction)’, Index: 201004221, under ‘Pseudo-Reduction’.
  15. Oxford English Dictionary, under ‘instinction’, 2.
  16. See also: ‘Reduction (and Pseudo-Reduction)’, under ‘The Human Scale’.
  17. Aristotle, ‘Ethica Nicomachea’, in: The Works of Aristotle, Volume IX, W. D. Ross (editor), Oxford University Press, London / et alibi, 1931, Book II, Ch. 4, sec. 1105a, 30. “The agent also must be in a certain condition when he does them ; […] he must choose the acts, and choose them for their own sakes, […].”
  18. Srimad Bhagavad Gita, translated by Swami Swarupananda, Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata, 2007, Ch. 4, sl. 18-20, or p.106-107. “He who sees inaction in action, and action in inaction is intelligent among men, he is a Yogi and a doer of all action. Whose undertakings are all devoid of plan and desire for results, and whose actions are burnt by the fire of knowledge, him, the sages call wise. Forsaking the clinging to fruits of action, ever satisfied, depending on nothing, though engaged in action, he does not do anything.”
  • ‘Reduction (and Pseudo-Reduction)’, Index: 201004221.
  • Aristotle, ‘Ethica Nicomachea’, in: The Works of Aristotle, Volume IX, W. D. Ross (editor), Oxford University Press, London / et alibi, 1931.
  • John Ayto, Word Origins, The Hidden Histories of English Words from A to Z, A & C Black, London, 2005.
  • Alice A. Bailey, ‘A Treatise on White Magic’, in: Twenty-Four Books of Esoteric Philosophy, (CD-ROM), Lucis Trust, London / New York, 2001.
  • Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, ‘Enzyklopädie der philosophischen Wissenschaften im Grundrisse, Dritter Teil’, in: Digitale Bibliothek, Band 2, Philosophie, von Platon bis Nietzsche, (CD-ROM), Directmedia, Berlin, 1998.
  • Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition on CD-ROM (v. 4.0), Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Oxford Latin Dictionary, Oxford University Press, London, 1968.
  • Srimad Bhagavad Gita, translated by Swami Swarupananda, Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata, 2007.
  • Webster’s New Dictionary of Synonyms, Merriam Webster, Springfield, 1984.