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It "wanted" ...

by jmh1 min read15th Feb 20207 comments

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I've seen a few post using that construction when the "It" has not capacity to want at all. They have prompted a question in my own approach to thinking about things.

First, I am not critiquing the posts or otherwise suggesting a problem with them, though that could be inferred so want to put that disclaimer up front. I do think there is a place for the use of such a rhetorical device. I also think there is a place for expressing what might be incomplete thoughts. Moreover, I don't think the specific word is the concern either -- this is not about computers, or viruses, or even perhaps plants "wanting" something.

The questions is should we generally take pause when we find ourselves using that type of rhetoric to ask if we are perhaps trying to work from an incorrect or seriously deficient map to navigate the territory we're trying to traverse?

In other words, should we use that as a marker to come back to and try to express conditions or functional structure more precisely, or at least confirm it really was a harmless short cut via language to get the idea across (and the idea is not dependent on the rhetoric).

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This is perhaps tangential to your point or pedantic, but "want" was not always merely synonymous for "desire" in English. "Desire" implies something with conscious awareness of a lack wishing to have that lack redressed. "Want" can mean simply the lack without the consciousness of it: e.g. "this watch wants a seconds hand", or "as he wanted education, his wits were poor." This way of using the word seems to have been dropping off in recent decades, but may explain some of the examples you have seen.

Perhaps in many cases, if "X wants Y" then that means X will do or bring about Y unless it is prevented by something external. In some cases X is an unconscious optimization procedure, which therefore "wants" the thing that it is optimizing, in other cases X is the output of some optimization procedure, as in the case of a program that "wants" to complete its task or a microorganism that "wants" to reproduce, but optimization is not always involved, as illustrated by "high-pressure gas wants to expand".