A defense of a defense of emotion in philosophy

In an important post Magicalersatz assserts:

The idea that philosophers should start from first principles, construct premises, and ‘follow the argument where it leads’ without hindrance from emotion or personal perspective is a romantic one. It’s also an absurd one. We all come to the table with biases, presuppositions, and background assumptions – whether we admit it or not. And yes, these types of commitments are present even in ‘the core’.

The fact that her statement can seem just common sense may be a testimony to the way in which ideas from empirical research is permeating our perspectives. And if it doesn’t seem just common sense, you should know that there is a great deal of empirical support for the idea that reason alone isn’t going to get us far. We can and should try very hard to get rid of – or at least mitigate – morally problematic biases, but the idea of a good, substantive philosophy emerging from pure reason is a myth.

The thesis that human beings are not purely rational, even when we think we are being so, started to emerge with a number of researchers in the 1960’s-70’s. The first official attack on the Cartesian conception of reason that has many in Anglo-American philosophy in its grip comes with Damasio’s 1994 Descartes’ Error:

ALTHOUGH I CANNOT tell for certain what sparked my interest in the neural underpinnings of reason, I do know when I became convinced that the traditional views on the nature of rationality could not be correct. I had been advised early in life that sound decisions came from a cool head, that emotions and reason did not mix any more than oil and water. I had grown up accustomed to thinking that the mechanisms of reason existed in a separate province of the mind, where emotion should not be allowed to intrude, and when I thought of the brain behind that mind, I envisioned separate neural systems for reason and emotion. This was a widely held view of the relation between reason and emotion, in mental and neural terms.

In the Introduction of new editions, Damasio notes correctly the now entrenched nature of his views:

I advanced the hypothesis … that emotion was in the loop of reason, and that emotion could assist the reasoning process rather than necessarily disturb it, as was commonly assumed. Today this idea does not cause any raised eyebrows …

Of course, the details are not fully worked out, there are competing hypotheses (dual process pictures, for example) that do not incorporate all his ideas, and so on. BUT in general the demise of the ‘man of reason’ is pretty much a done deal.

Academic free speech and the academy: an informative approach

Mary Margaret McCabe has a thoughtful post on free speech and civility. She argues that there is a pragmatic inconsistency in letting civility trump free speech in the academy.

If academic institutions exist for the pursuit of knowledge and understanding, whether alone, or with colleagues, or with students, such inquiry does not say in advance what may or may not be thought, or considered or assumed or believed. Socrates’ injunction to follow the argument where it leads is surely the right one: inquiry is not constrained by canons of what can or cannot be said or thought. This is true, at whatever level the inquiry occurs. So an inquiry into inquiry is similarly unconstrained. Equally, an inquiry into how inquiry should be institutionalized is free in the same way. The context of inquiry, that is, is a suitable topic for inquiry too – the openness runs across fields and up the orders, to include, of course, the inquiry into academic freedom itself.

If that is right, then the basis of academic freedom is internal to the nature of academic business.

What about civility? Aside from cases of the impossible interlocutor, one who will not listen, civility is something to which we academics should aspire:

Civility is an important aspiration in the context of inquiry that is free in the sense I outlined. For free inquiry occurs between and among people; and people are over and over affected not only by the content of what is said, or even the general import of what is said, but also by its manner and its tone. Loud and fierce declarations of opinion often force an interlocutor to be silent, or to be afraid; in such cases civility is clearly conducive to an effective and productive exchange of ideas.