Why philosophers still don’t get emotions

Philosophers like to think of themselves as rational*, as ‘rational’ connotes intellectual superiority. An air of intellectual superiority is essential to the pride of philosophers because in other regards they tend to be lacking (e.g. physical stature, social skills, success with women). The philosopher’s egotistic belief that he possesses a magic compass called rationality can render his beliefs impervious to commonsense arguments and everyday observations to the contrary.

Thus it is with the typical philosopher’s beliefs concerning emotions. The philosopher has fallen in love with the narrative that any expression of emotion is tantamount to thought crime. His attitude toward the emotions belongs to a superstitious age where emotions, particularly the violent ones, were seen as some kind of demon-possession. Try to penetrate this backward ideology with a few simple examples which demonstrate that emotions can be rational and you will smacked down with a brick wall.

But I think the tide is slowly turning. Example: Emotions and Moral Skepticism

The author is starting to get it, but is still a long way off. He completely misses the point that emotions are intrinsically action-orientated. Emotions are ways of dealing with the world. They drive us to action which may or may not be pursuant to our goals in a rational sense. More likely the former, as emotions are intentional. We do emotions, they do not ‘do us’ as in the demon-possession understanding. Emotions are ways of taking control of situations, not giving it up**. To argue that emotions are irrational is to claim that all actions inspired by emotion cannot be helpful in obtaining one’s goal. This clearly is not the case.

Take anger for example. Righteous anger was a very successful strategy for the Women’s Liberation movement. You wouldn’t have thousands of Feminazis protesting, burning bras and decrying all men as pigs without the emotion ‘pissed-off’.

Take resentment – this emotion can be useful in maintaining my commitment to throwing off the yolk of wage-slavery and inciting revolution against the capitalist pig-dogs. Hitler used this emotion remarkably well in pursuit of his goals.

What about love and compassion, are these not rational emotions considering that my goal is to help mankind? Only an incompetent philosopher would claim that these emotions do not give rise to actions that are rational in pursuit of the stated goal.

*For a collection of assorted rants against this specious concept, see Debunking myths of reason

**It would be interesting to investigate the extent to which a negative view of emotions has been propagated by the elite and the middle classes in order to maintain passivity amongst the populace, making them more amenable to existing societal arrangements. We could investigate the attitude of elites toward the emotions in regard to the Women’s Liberation, anti-colonial, anti-slavery. anti-segregation and union movements.

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4 Responses to “Why philosophers still don’t get emotions”

  1. Richard Says:

    Um, have you ever met (or even read) any philosophers?

    Try to penetrate this backward ideology with a few simple examples which demonstrate that emotions can be rational and you will smacked down with a brick wall.

    Really? By who?

    The philosopher has fallen in love with the narrative that any expression of emotion is tantamount to thought crime.

    Seriously, who in the world thinks this?

  2. beholdtheman Says:

    Obviously generalisations and hyperbolic – rhetoric is much to do with philosophy. However,

    “The degree of one’s emotions varies inversely with one’s knowledge of the facts.” – Bertrand Russell

    But I refer to the general, pervasive, stoic-like sentiment that philosophers have toward the emotions. It can be subtle. Often this sentiment reveals itself indirectly, as when reason is exalted, emotion is by way deprecated.

    I can dig up more quotes if you like.

    Now you know that I have read one sentence of Russell.

  3. Richard Says:

    So Russell claims that knowledge typically tempers the strengths of our emotions. That’s radically different from claiming, as you suggest, that all emotion is inherently irrational. (At what point does “hyperbole” shade into outright misrepresentation? If you have a reasonable point then you should be able to make it without resorting to such misleading rhetoric.)

    I refer to the general, pervasive, stoic-like sentiment that philosophers have toward the emotions.

    But I deny that there is any such “general, pervasive… sentiment”. Ironically, enough, you appear to have fallen victim to a comforting “narrative” of your own. Rather than complacently ranting about some straw-man notion of “philosophers” (as they exist in the public imagination — or at least in yours), you might do better to engage with specific claims from real philosophers. This practice would help keep you anchored in reality — assuming that is your goal, rather than perpetuating self-satisfying “narratives” without concern for their accuracy.

  4. beholdtheman Says:

    I don’t think you could persuasively demonstrate the opposite of what I am saying. Would you care to suggest that the dominant philosophies of our time, and past times, generally see the emotions as rational? Please do, so that I can laugh at you.

    Of course there are exceptions within my generalisation, such as the Existentialists and Romantics, but generally my claims ring true.

    I don’t think Russell’s subtext is as benign as you interpret.

    We all know the Stoics had few kinds words for emotion, but they weren’t the only ones. Plato, Kant, Ben Franklin, the Catholic Church (following Aquinas) and those silly British Analysticians all opposed reason against emotion, treating non-‘rationalistic’ thought as a proverbial crime. These views are far more common in the West than views that treat emotion with the same dignity as ‘reason’.

    However, more and more professional scholastics, who call themselves philosophers, are starting to see that emotions aren’t all so devilish. Hooray!

    Heidegger not so long ago wrote, “Thinking begins only when we have come to know that reason, glorified for centuries, is the stiff-necked adversary of thought.”

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