The Philosophy of Emotion


By Zach Schepis

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

CUNY’s digital directory for their philosophy faculty reads like a long and winding list of decorated military personnel. Metaphysics, existentialism, ethics, aesthetics, logical foundations of artificial intelligence–an endless series of accolades commemorate wars of the mind both fought and won. All of these philosophical battlefields plundered so that the victors may wear the most distinguished badge of honor: the PhD.

But for all of their intellectual distinctions, for all of their specialized education and individual theories, the professors’ responses remain singular. One and the same.

“I’m sorry,” the voice stammers after a long pause. “I’m not sure this is quite in my area of expertise.”

A click of the receiver and the dial tone once more hums into being. Next name on the list. Next number.

“You know,” says the expert on moral psychology, “I really don’t think I’m qualified to answer this. You should try my colleague; I’ll give you her number.”

She answers, though there’s that silence on the other end of the line that is becoming uncomfortably familiar by now. It doesn’t take long for her to admit her doubts on the matter.

I’m sorry, she says before hanging up. I’m sure there’s someone out there who knows about this.

Her words ring hollow in the silence of cold calls that pile up into a heap of guilt-like ambivalence that no one wants to sort through.

The question was simple: what role do you think emotions play in philosophy?

The answer, however, was seemingly not so simple for these scholars. A certain trepidation hovered about the philosophers like a ghost they couldn’t shake, that they couldn’t make sense of. But why? Why this lingering doubt, this second-guessing of experience and professionalism and academia?

The philosophical quandary is hinged upon one all-encompassing titan of thought: Reason. Arguably one of the most fundamental cornerstones in our Western ideal of discovery, reason has paved the way for virtually every form of informed deduction, scientific discovery, and even the construction of rational thought itself. Reason makes it possible to explain almost any natural phenomenon.

Well… almost anything.

Enter emotions. They dictate the way we react to virtually everything around us; for the better, for the worse, or for any one of the limitless shades in between. They spur us to create art, to make love, to go to war, and vice-versa. They give meaning to our life, and help us to decide whether or not we feel alone in the universe.

The key word is “feel.” They allow us to feel. Yet this is a phenomenon that reason falls short of grasping. All familiar tangibility dissolves into thin air as one of the largest philosophical schisms in our existence continues to grow and grow.

So enough about the rational discourse between ethical justifications. For a moment let’s set aside all looming metaphysical and existentialist question marks. What about understanding our own feelings?

The history is as muddled and unclear as the very subconscious vessel we must plumb to understand it, but dive into the waters we must…

Here’s what we know:

Some of the earliest traces of the debate stem from the undertakings of Socrates. Chronicled by Plato in his timeless dissertation The Republic, we are afforded three separate components of the human mind — those being reasoning, desire, and emotion. He goes on to further elucidate that emotion and reason are two horses pulling us in opposite directions.

Next up on the list of household-name philosophers is Aristotle. For the Greek thinker, these emotions (or “pathe”) were agents of tumult outside the realm of our control. They bound us to the circumstances of our moral lives, in the capacity to feel the “right” emotions in the “right” circumstances.

The Roman Stoics on the other hand, believed in the complete eradication of the pathe. They even went so far as to translate pathos as perturbation, giving these emotional qualities an inherently negative connotation. They stressed undergoing a psychological passivity towards these emotions (hence the name “stoicism”) to side-step suffering. Because they didn’t fit nicely into our voluntary control, they were deemed to be not a proper part of ourselves.

These early foundations soon became the backbone of 17th century philosophers, and even stretched beyond to more contemporary thinkers. Erroll Bedford and Anthony Kenny revived the argument for 20th century scholars through arguing the assumption that emotions are feelings, impervious to either will or reason. The world-renowned Immanuel Kant regarded them as a conative phenomenon, but chose to group them with inclinations enticing the will to act on motives other than those of duty.

The list, obviously, goes on and on, through the cobwebs and dust, into the never-ending annals of recorded philosophical inquiry.

There is one common denominator: none of these scholars settled together on an agreeable definition, and only touched upon the subject as if it were a bed of hot coals they’d rather lightly step over on their way to more traversable territory.

It is clear, however, that they did agree on one matter. As far as they were concerned, emotions exist as a separate, wholly independent entity; one that we must reach towards with our logic and reasoning to better understand.

But what if the answer was far more inextricably wound into our sense of rationalism than we had previously imagined?

The need to create dualism is a natural human tendency, but perhaps the answer (if there is such a thing) is rooted in the singular.

In 1994 neurologist Antonio Demasio addressed the topic in a book titled Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. The title stems from a disagreement that the scientist had with Descartes findings about emotion, which favored a dualist separation of the mind and body, rationality, and emotion.

Damasio posited that it’s wrong to assume that only minds are capable of thinking. The body and our emotions, paired with our sense of reason, all work together and simultaneously to adopt decision-making processes.

Imagine you’re having an argument with your significant other. The matter in question has been stewing for quite some time unaddressed in each of your individual minds and imaginations, and the moment for meaningful confrontation has finally arrived.

You’ve meditated on this, calculated the possibilities and trains of thought that could potentially arise. You’ve armed yourself with calculated facts, with logical deductions and a tract of reason you find undeniable.

Yet when the conversation begins all of these irrefutable facts bounce off of your opponent. They barely penetrate the surface. Instead, you become disarmed by emotion, which influences you to act accordingly.

Even when we believe we are making “logical” decisions the very act of choice is arguably based upon some form of emotion. The best way to win a debate isn’t to simply hammer your audience with an unrelenting wall of factoids and logical deductions, but rather to create a vision that allows for discovery on the others’ behalf.

It goes hand-in-hand with leadership too. Think about all of the great leaders that can be observed throughout history: Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, hell even John Lennon. Would their life philosophies and doctrines of hope really have resonated as much with us if it weren’t for their charisma, for their overwhelming passion, and emotional outpourings?

Then why is it that philosophers have been so haphazard about touching them?

When it boils down to it, emotions are not a phenomenon that you can deduct empirically. They are not something that you can learn from a textbook. You must experience them, in all of their raw and undiminished power, if you wish to understand them. They are the philosophy of killing philosophy with feeling.

We build labyrinths of thought that we cannot escape with more thought. The Minotaur of Reason chases us through the self-constructed mazes of our mind, and sometimes the only way to escape is through wielding the flaming sword of emotion.

Definitions fall short of the mark, because by their very nature they limit. Emotions are all encompassing; they cannot be contained.

As Nietzsche once said, the value of life cannot be estimated.