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.

16 thoughts on “A defense of a defense of emotion in philosophy

  1. Of course, what Damasio calls the “traditional views on the nature of rationality” are not traditional at all. I am not sure that, finally, they are even Descartes’s views. Where do they then emerge? Magicalersatz criticizes a recognizable picture image of philosophic inquiry, to be sure. But where does this image *really* come from? My bet is that it comes from a particular kind of historiography of philosophy, probably French or German, probably late 18th-early 19th century.

  2. Ligurio, could you give us some text for your views.

    Descartes does not think all thinking is deductive, mathematical or mathematical-like, but he certainly does think our best reasoning for many purposes is just that. The starting points are supposed to be clear and distinct ideas; emotions and the senses cloud them and make our thought untrustworthy.

    Locke expresses very similar thoughts in the last part of the Essay.

  3. Context of discovery vs context of justification. That’s one useful distinction.

    Another is to break the false dichotomy that one can be rational or emotional, but not both at the same time. That’s certainly false: emotions can aid in rationality (as Damasio argues), but much more importantly emotion doesn’t (necessarily) preclude rationality.

    From my own experiences, and many friends I’ve spoken to, even in times of emotional distress, it’s not like one’s reasoning capacities suddenly disappear. Unfortunately, that’s what many people still think, and I think it contributes to sexist biases.

  4. Rachel, if I could just clarify. I don’t think that Damasio thinks exactly that emotion aids reason; rather, emotion does something more like completing the thinking that we wrongly are inclined to suppose is just reasoning. Hume had a similar hypothesis, which comes from ECHU, V, Part II:

    [without custom or instinct] all our knowledge must have been limited to the narrow sphere of our
    memory and senses; and we should never have been able to adjust means to
    ends, or employ our natural powers, either to the producing of good, or
    avoiding of evil

    This is sort of comparing apples and oranges…

  5. annejjacobson,

    I think Descartes is probably right that the “best thinking for many purposes” is “deductive…or mathematical-like”–but only for many purposes (or, perhaps, a few important ones), not all of them.

    The recent work exploring Descartes’ indebtedness to Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises suggests that the capacity to “start from first principles”–supposing this is in some cases an ideal starting point–is not obtainable without a fair amount of askesis. And, of course, such askesis can’t *begin* with the philosopher’s knowledge of first principles.

    (I do agree with the main point of the post–it’s just that I think the view being critiqued is more likely representative of a kind of triumphalist enlightenment historiography. When does the history of philosophy begin to be written as a history of doctrines and arguments rather than a history of philosophic lives (as in Plutarch’s Lives of the Philosophers)? I think not until the 18th or 19th century.)

  6. P.S. Even for Descartes, then, the process of meditative withdrawal and imaginative composition of place–which can’t be taken for granted in the way that all of us *do* take it for granted when we teach him–presupposed that “emotion could assist the reasoning process.” This is, to be sure, not quite as strong an affirmation of “emotion” as you find in Plato, where erotic desire is the very engine of philosophic inquiry, but it is far from the naive and presumptuous rationalism it is often taken to be.

  7. ligurio, you raise a lot of interesting questions. It would be great if others could address some. Let me concentrate on one. I think that until roughly the mid-1970’s, analytic philosophy’s ‘history of philosophy’ was principally critical engagement with historical texts. This does result in associating philosophers with their theses, but this practice is a very old one, and not a recent invention. Aquinas on Aristotle’s De Anima is a good example.

    Also, for Dimasio, the idea that emotion assists reason invokes a wrong model – or so I am interpreting him. Our disagreement may be largely verbal, but perhaps not. For Dimasio a disengagement of emotion and reason does not leave use just with a weaker reason; rather, it leaves us incapable of living a rational life.

  8. We should also avoid the error of assuming that the ‘triumphalist’ reading is incorrect simply because people often erroneously provide triumphalist readings of historical figures. There is much in Descartes to suggest that he directly opposed passion and reason. If he did not want to be subsequently interpreted as such, he should not have defined virtue as “a firm and consistent resolution to carry out whatever reason recommends without being diverted by… passions or appetites.” (CSMK 257-258) He also should not have repeatedly opposed virtue to “disorders of the passions.” (CSM 1 388) Doubtless his view is more subtle than these out-of-context quotations indicate, but it’s not as though he went out of his way to avoid being read in the way Damasio reads him. We are, I think, justified in seeing our current outlook as an improvement over his.

  9. Hi Anne,

    I’m not sure what you mean by “the Cartesian conception of reason,” but many people argued that “a disengagement of emotion … leaves us incapable of living a rational life” earlier than (and I think more insightfully) than Damasio: just sticking with recent analytic philosophers, Iris Murdoch, Martha Nussbaum, and John McDowell all come to mind, and I’m sure I’m forgetting about other people who are at least as important. (And outside of recent analytic philosophy, there are tons of others: what about Nietzsche, if not Aristotle?)

    Why does Damasio deserve to be singled out instead of them? Even if you are just thinking of people who used empirical psychology to argue for versions of this claim, _In A Different Voice_ predates _Descartes’ Error_ by more than a decade. (Granted, Gilligan’s science is not as “hard” as Damasio’s; some people would discount her because she does not use neuroscience.) And at the end of the day, I’m not sure that you need empirical psychology to argue for this claim at all. Rather, I just doubt that there are any plausible conceptions of emotion and reason–or at least practical reason–on which these things are not mutually dependent.

  10. BB, When I said that there was strong empirical support for the thesis, I did not imply that no philosophers had argued for it also. Hume most certainly did. In fact, Gilligan did not; she just argued that one kind of moral reasoning brings in considerations about care, as opposed to some sort of abstract justice, or, as Annette Baier put it, a conception of morality as like rules of the road.

    What one needs in the way of argument depends on the context of the discussion. I think practical reason is an easy case, but theoretical reason is very important in the context of Magicalersatz’s claim. Hence, the Sider example.

    It’s also the case that philosophers operate with a conception of thinking that in fact those studying reason empirically do not hold. Often people say at this point that they have a normative conception of reason, but if we cannot meet the norms, people should stop claiming that feminists are somehow alone – or with the outsiders – in not meeting it.

  11. An interesting post as per usual (and with magical’s as well).

    You both make a good case that the attempt to remove emotion in total is at least a fool’s errand and perhaps not even desirable. But I don’t think that is the fundamental issue. Rather, the questions are when is emotion helpful and when is it an obstacle towards arriving at the truth. Damasio’s claim that “emotion could assist the reasoning process rather than necessarily disturb it” is pretty weak. I take it as fairly obvious that there are plenty of cases where emotion is a hindrance. But, I don’t know the answer to these questions myself.

    With regard to FP, the point magical seems to be addressing was the claim, apparently, that FP is “too” emotional, not whether emotion is sometimes useful in philosophical inquiry. I don’t think I’ve actually come in contact with anyone making this charge against FP (and it strikes me as false anyway), but I’m happy to defer to others with regard to its commonness. In any event, such a claim seems like it would be very difficult to assess.

  12. “We should also avoid the error of assuming that the ‘triumphalist’ reading is incorrect simply because people often erroneously provide triumphalist readings of historical figures.”

    Well, triumphalist histories are histories written by the victors. And the victors always have something to hide. So it’s actually not an error to assume that their readings of history will be incorrect. This is why we don’t rely on Augustus’ Res Gestae for our historical understanding of the Roman imperium. Yet we continue to rely on a functionally Hegelian narrative of “the history of philosophy” even though none of us are probably “Hegelians” at all. But look at our disciplinary divisions, our institutional structures, and, yes, even the picture-book notion of the historical practice of philosophy that continues to inform our syllabi. We are all 19th century zealots of the Prussian State in practice, if not in theory.

  13. ajkreider, interesting comment, as per usual also!
    I don’t think that the Magical’s post was necessarily about FP. I think there is a conception of philosophy as radically disengaged when at its best. I’d love to think that this conception is greatly diminished, but I think its rhetoric is still around and still shaping what criticisms people are willing to make.

    There is interesting work done recently by Read Montague and others; I think the latest article is on Montague’s home page. Lots of studies in the psychology of economics look at how people think and behave in a betting game. It can easily look like a purely rational pursuit. However, it turns out that people who have trouble reading social cues go haywire in the game. I think this is one aspect of the important theses about emotion and reason. That is, what we think of as purely rational is actually drawing on a range of human capacities that are much more like getting the feel of things than like reasoning through things.

  14. Ligurio, I don’t know whom you are thinking of, but it seems to me just false to say that most historians of philosophy today are relying on a functionally Hegelian narrative. I say that after, among other things, several days recently spent at a Hume Society Conference.

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