Emotion: An introductory picture
Emotion: An introductory picture

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Emotion: An introductory picture

1 Introduction: a picture of emotion

Hedley is a rational sort of person. He never jumps to conclusions: when he needs to make up his mind about something, he considers all the evidence available to him, and if he is still not certain, he keeps an open mind. His desires are as careful and considered as his beliefs: if he has good reason to suppose that something is worth having or doing, then he wishes to have or to do it. He does not nurture whims or yearn for impossibilities. He is not weak-willed or impulsive. His actions invariably reflect what he judges to be best for him to do, once he has considered all the options.

Hedley's brother Hartley is just the opposite. Hartley is completely at the mercy of his emotions. He rushes to judgement, noticing only those aspects of the situation that are relevant to his current emotional state. As a result, his beliefs are frequently unreasonable and inconsistent. His desires and his actions are equally wayward, driven entirely by whatever he happens to feel at the time. He cannot stick to a plan, as he cannot resist the emotion of the moment. His impetuous behaviour is frequently followed by bitter regrets.

Neither Hedley nor Hartley sound like real people. Nobody is as rational as Hedley or as emotional as Hartley. Still, these two caricatures can be used to illustrate a particular conception of the nature of emotion and its relation to rational thought and action. You may not find that this conception matches your own, but it is a view that is often unthinkingly assumed, and it has had a significant influence on the way in which emotions are portrayed in contemporary western culture.

On this view, human beings contain two separate sources of action – a rational self, represented by Hedley, and an emotional one, represented by Hartley. Reason is regarded as unemotional and emotion is regarded as operating outside reason, perhaps even in opposition to it. When people picture themselves in this way, it is generally the rational element that they would like to be in charge: to describe someone as ‘being emotional’ is not usually a compliment. Of course, very few people would wish to be like Hedley, completely without emotion; such a person could not react with spontaneous joy to a friend's good news, or with spontaneous sympathy to a friend's misfortune. Emotions have their place, but in most situations, it is thought, emotion should be kept under control.

One of the goals of philosophical inquiry is to understand and to examine critically commonsense pictures of this kind. We might start by trying to provide a more precise characterisation of the picture of emotion that I have just described. Clearly, this view of emotion centres on a contrast between emotion and reason, but one that involves a number of different elements.

First, reasoning is regarded as a form of activity: in central cases at least, it is held to be something that we do, and which is under our control. We choose to focus on a problem, to search for more evidence, to settle on a decision, and so on. In contrast, emotions are viewed as involuntary occurrences: emotions are things that happen to us, rather than things we do. Indeed, people are sometimes said to be ‘overcome’ or ‘carried away’ by their emotions, as if emotions are not part of us at all, but forces that assail us from outside, disrupting the normal pattern of our lives. On this commonsense picture, then, reason is regarded as active, while emotion is viewed as passive. (This is one reason why modern philosophers often use the old-fashioned word ‘passion’ when they are talking about emotions: the word ‘passion’ comes from the same ancient Greek root as the word ‘passive,’ and can reflect a view of emotions as things that happen to us.)

Secondly, reasoning is a mental or psychological activity. (This need not imply that reasoning is an activity performed by an incorporeal mental entity. Perhaps mental activities are identical with processes that occur in the brain.) Our emotions, in contrast, are associated with changes that occur elsewhere in our bodies: sweating, changes in heart rate, decreased salivation and so on. In everyday talk, people sometimes locate emotions in their stomach or their heart, rather than their head.

Thirdly, emotional behaviour is contrasted with behaviour that is reasoned or considered. To describe someone as acting in a reasoned way is to imply that they have thought about what to do – they have weighed up the relevant considerations, and chosen the action that seems best in the light of all the evidence. In contrast, emotional behaviour is regarded as impulsive or impetuous: emotions push us to act, disregarding considerations that point to other options.

This picture of the relation between reason and emotion centres on a series of contrasts:

  1. Reason as active – emotion as passive.

  2. Reason as belonging to the mind – emotion as bodily.

  3. Reason as our true self – emotion as an external force.

  4. Reasoned behaviour as considered – emotional behaviour as impetuous.

  5. Reason as controlling – emotion as in need of control.

Taken together, these contrasts might suggest that emotions constitute a more primitive psychological system, one that we share with other animals and with very young children. In contrast, reason is regarded as separating humans from other animals, and adults from infants.

How can we assess this picture? We will begin by trying to get clear about what an emotion is. As we will soon discover, this question is highly controversial.


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