The Emotions

In traditional philosophy the emotions are passions, i.e. passive states, as opposed to actions, which are behaviors. In life, action often seems to bubble out of strong emotion, but it can be resisted, which seems to indicate that emotion and will are separate but related sources of action. Action from a purely detached, "cold blooded," passionless decision is conceivable but perhaps rare, since any matter that engages the self sufficiently to fix one's attention, and intention, is likely to involve some emotion, however mild. The "cold blooded" killer seems, and is, more horrible than someone acting out of strong emotion. Such a person seems inhuman, just because of a sense that he is pathologically detached from human feeling and operating more like a mere mechanism. Emotional involvement implies that something means something to the person, and perhaps involves some suffering. The cold blooded killer thus acts as though he doesn't even care, one way or the other, neither suffering nor aware of suffering.

Emotions are feelings but not sensations. Sensations are localized in the body and tend to provide perceptual or physiological information. Sensations can simply be feelings of touch, or of pleasure, pain, hunger, thirst, satiety, sexual arousal, etc. Emotions are systemic and, while causing physiological reactions (and so sensations), are not localized -- they are states of the self, not of the body, although immediately affecting and reflected in the body. Thus, one has a pain in the toe, or pleasure in the genitals, but happiness or sadness everywhere. At the same time, although pleasure is primarily a sensation, "taking pleasure" in doing something is an emotional state which can be connected to many kinds of activities. Similarly, although sexual arousal is a sensation, lustfulness can be an emotion existing with or without any actual arousal.

Since emotions are not acts of will, they are not freely chosen, but occur spontaneously, which is why a "crime of passion" is less severe than a crime of calculation, as less under control of the will -- and it is, of course, acts of will that are morally praiseworthy or blameworthy. Cold blooded action, although simultaneously judged as inhuman, is ironically more open to moral sanction, which is exclusively human. Nevertheless, the occurrence of emotions is bound up with attitudes, situations, and knowledge, all of which can change quickly, altering the emotion just as quickly. Thus, discovering that a presumed enemy was actually acting as a friend can turn anger and hatred quickly into remorse, gratitude, and affection. Although emotions may accompany attitudes (pride), not all attitudes (alertness, stubbornness) are emotions. It is noteworthy that of the seven deadly sins, some are vices, i.e. habits and attitudes, with emotional content (envy, wrath), some without (gluttony, sloth).

The cognitive and situational component of emotion means that emotions are as varied as the circumstances of life, which means that the range and variety of emotions is great and complex -- as can be seen in the accompanying tables at left and right. It is unlikely that a system of emotions could do justice to the complexity, though in general emotions are thought of as positive or negative, good or bad. The valence may be due to either an inward or an outward circumstance:  A feeling of pride may be vicious, when a person is proud of something wrongful or shameful, while anger, often thought of as intrinsically negative, may nevertheless be properly directed at something wrongful, shameful, or evil. Fear and horror are bad, not because of anything in the self, but because of the danger posed by, or the evil represented by, some object. Wonder and awe similarly refer to objects, often to some sublimity or surprising complexity in them.

The metaphysical framework for the emotions can be provided by the theory of positive transcendence in The Origin of Value in a Transcendent Function. There it was concluded that sensation as such was transcendent (the positive content of transcendence) and that pleasure and pain were intuitive forms of sensation as value. Sensation, pleasure, and pain, however, are causally conditioned phenomena. Pure forms of objective value -- right and wrong, good and evil, and the beautiful and the ugly -- were then examples of "unconditioned" positive transcendence, purposive value, intrinsic to objects. Now it can be observed that the emotions fit in between these metaphysical extremes. They are, as noted, not sensations, and so are relatively detached from the body, but they are also in part causally conditioned and so undoubtedly in and of the body, unlike unconditioned value -- as the heart may begin to beat heavily with strong emotion, emotion is often felt as seated in the breast. On the other hand, they are also, as also noted, responsive to and expressive of cognition, and so to purposive value that is recognized in the self or in objects. Emotions thus bridge the ontological and cognitive gap between sensation, or pleasure and pain, and purposive value. They combine and bridge the causal and the cognitive, the subjective and the objective, the immediacy of self and the mediacy of representation.

As positive transcendence -- the real content of existence -- emotions are what we are in the most fundamental ontological sense. This is why many people regard those who are low in affect or deficient in feeling as bloodless, cold, or inhuman, little better than machines or computers (the perrennial charge of Dr. McCoy against Mr. Spock in the old Star Trek). What is supremely human, calculation, control, and will, are properly human only in so far as they are connected to the realities of human happiness and misery. Deficiency of proper feeling can also be regarded as a moral deficiency, where morality is thought to be motivated by the Kantian or Confucian "goodhearted impulse" -- the sanguine character in Kant's typology. The idea that morality is based on sentiment was also characteristic of the Scottish school, including Adam Smith and Hume.

On the other hand, because emotions are not acts of will or deliberation, they are traditionally regarded as irrational, and Kant thought that moral action based on principle (his phlegmatic character) was only truly moral and praiseworthy. This, however, is only partially true. An irrational person will have irrational emotions; but a rational person, as long as they are not psychicly conflicted, will have rational emotions. Indeed, an apparently rational person with irrational emotions is displaying evidence of unresolved inner conflict. Self-deception in thought is easy. Self-deception in emotion requires the suppression of the emotion, which may be difficult and result in various unpleasant and unexpected symptoms. The emotions have a way of breaking through or of producing seemingly unrelated manifestations. Their ability to do this is an indication of the depths of the self that they express.

Jung regarded both thought and feeling as rational functions. Each of these, however, can be expressed rationally or irrationally, as Jung held, in his view of sexual archetypes, that men tend to have irrational sentiments, with the dominance of a cognitive function (logos), and women tend to have irrational opinions, with the dominance of an affective function (eros). Rational opinion, we would say, responds to abstract truth and fact, while rational sentiment responds to persons. Irrational sentiment, then, would disregard persons, while irrational opinion would disregard truth and fact. A balanced Jungian psyche will be responsive to both facts and persons, but it is definitely the gender stereotype that women are more emotional than men and more concerned about feelings. This is even regarded as positive and preferable by some feminists, like Carol Gilligan, who has recently been critiqued by Christina Hoff Sommers. It does seem to make a difference in national politics, where in 1992 Bill Clinton drew significantly more female than male votes. The men lost to Clinton, however, did not go to George Bush, who drew male and female votes equally, but to Ross Perot, whose idiosyncratic and individualistic manner apparently appealed to men disillusioned with Bush (like, among others, Clint Eastwood). Despite his exposure as a liar, sexual harrasser, and probable rapist, Clinton curiously continued to draw large female support. Apparently, his seductive and ingratiating manner has continued to appeal to women, despite the factual revelations about his actions, which were everything that feminists had previously been damning for decades. The "gender gap" has long been discussed as a problem for the Republicans, who seem deficient in the female vote, but in fact the real loss has been for the Democrats, who no longer receive the percentage of the male vote that they won in the Depression. Since the Democrats consistently promote a paternalistic state, the attaction of this for women, and the aversion to it by men, is a question that goes well beyond possible sexual archetypes about emotion. A recent Rasmussen Poll includes some interesting information on differences in political preferences between men and women.

The recent philosopher most clearly associated with the question of emotion and passion has been Robert Solomon, in The Passions, Emotions and the Meaning of Life [Hackett Publishing, 1993]. While Solomon was long famous for asserting the cognitive character of emotion, he is nevertheless a Nietzschean and Existentialist, where the cognitive character of emotion may not amount to much when there is no objective character to moral and evaluative issues. The meaning of life is not just to feel it passionately, but that what one feels is right and good, noble and honorable. That objective character is independent of however one feels about it. Solomon cannot be counted upon to respect that objective character.

The earlier philosophers with the strongest sense of reliance on the emotions were in the Scottish tradition of "moral sentiment" theory. This included its most famous exponent, David Hume. To Hume the emotions were indeed irrational, just in the sense that reason alone was unable to derive, verify, or justify the principles of morality. "Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions," is Hume's most famous and expressive pronouncement in that respect. Hume's view, while affirming the nature of the emotions as sources of conviction, denies their cognitive character, except in the sense that emotions may be explained as products of custom and history -- that reflecting Hume's political conservatism. Hume recognized, however, that such factual explanations cannot logically justify the moral and normative modality of the principles of ethics ("is" versus "ought"). Unlike people such as Solomon and Nietzsche, Hume does not seem to doubt the certainty and absolute character of the principles available through moral sentiments. Those whose sentiments disagree do not simply have equally valid, different convictions; they are wicked and vicious.

Hume's theory thus allows him to condemn wrong and evil, but it also leaves him unable to explain why wrong and evil are worthy of moral prohibition, since none of this is a matter of rational demonstration. Such a notion is conformable to the very popular idea that moral feelings are evidentiary and confer, by their strength, credibility and conviction. The wicked and vicious thus must suffer from a lack of feeling -- all evil is of the cold blooded kind. If only we could stir bad people into a proper level of affect, they could match our feelings and agree with us. Unfortunately, this naive perspective overlooks the fact that the wicked and vicious can be enormously passionate. Islamic fundamentalists make the wine and cheese crowd of fashionable leftism look like the ones truly deficient in feeling, let alone passion. Hume would not make that mistake, but then it does leave us with a situation in which no rational reconciliation is possible. The wicked and passionate can only be stopped by force. Perhaps they cannot be stopped by reason anyway, but on the basis of a theory like Hume's no rational persuasion is ever possible -- if incommensurable passions lead to conflict over property, possession, or coercion, then violence is the only avenue of resolution.

The notion that emotion contains an autonomous faculty of evidence and conviction is thus a grim and threatening prospect. If the cognitive content of emotion, however, is amenable to rational examination, which is certainly is, then there is a good chance that passions, however divergent, can be reconciled by enlightened understanding. That strong feeling drives away rational deliberation is a fact of life, and often a dangerous one, but it need not be fatal. What is definitely needed, however, is a passion for reason and knowledge as great as the passion for anything else. 20th century philosophy, with its emphasis on nihilism and scientism, suited itself very poorly for rational passion in ethics. Indeed, the academics the most passionate about moral and political issues in recent times have often been the most dogmatic, unreflective, and uncritical ideologues, as we see in the "post-modern left." Such people will, indeed, hold the field until philosophy can marshall its ranks anew around rational and positive inquiry into the tradtional truths of being and value.

The Chinese Seven Passions

Psychological Types

Gender Stereotypes and Sexual Archetypes



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Copyright (c) 2000, 2006, 2012 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

The Emotions, Note

Robert Solomon was a visiting professor at UCLA when I was a sophomore there in 1968-1969. He allowed students to grade themselves and after his year at the school said, with some disgust, that now he knew what a "multiversity" was.

Later, when I began my doctoral work at the University of Texas in 1975, I found that Solomon had ended up there, where he continued until his premature death, aged 64, in 2007. Eventually I took a seminar with him on Hegel, about whom he was writing a book (In the Spirit of Hegel, A Study of G.W.F. Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit [Oxford, 1983]).

I don't think I ever found Solomon's ideas very attractive, and he certainly never said anything about Hegel to render him attractive -- I don't even think that Hegel would have been pleased with Solomon's take on Absolute Idealism, about which Solomon was actually rather dismissive. His course on Existentialism for The Teaching Company portrays philosophers like Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre as advocates of personal "responsibility," without noting that this form of "responsibility" is now devoid of moral or rational content and of any actual moral accountability. On the other hand, I don't think that Solomon was ever impressed with me. So we were even. At least we didn't get into the kind of fight that I sometimes had with other professors.

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