Emotions, philosophy of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-N016-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 22, 2021, from

3. Descartes to Nietzsche

The study of emotion was central to Christian psychology and theories of human nature throughout the middle ages. But when René Descartes reviewed the literature on emotion in his Passions of the Soul, he concluded that what they taught was ‘so far from credible, that I am unable to entertain any hope of approximating the truth excepting by shunning the paths they followed’. Descartes, accordingly, tried to start anew, but he was fundamentally a scientist and a mathematician, awed by ‘the natural light of reason’. He also tended to disdain the bodily and the bestial, and the emotions, he argued, were caused by agitations in the ‘animal spirits’, minute particles of blood. The emotions involve sensations caused by this agitation, as well as perceptions, desires and beliefs. Thus, over and above the physical agitation and familiar sensations, the emotion of hatred, for example, ultimately arises from the perception of an object’s potential harmfulness, and involves a desire to avoid it. Accordingly, an emotion is not merely a perception of the body – it may also be ‘a perception of the soul’ and an essential ingredient in wisdom: ‘The utility of the passions consist alone in their fortifying and perpetuating the soul thoughts which it is good that it should preserve’. Bad emotions, by contrast, are those which ‘fortify these thoughts more than necessary, or conserve others on which it is not good to dwell’. Descartes’ six ‘primitive’ passions – wonder, love, hatred, desire, joy and sadness – are thus not mere agitations of the animal spirits but ingredients in the good life as well (see Descartes, R. §10).

Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza might well be considered a latter-day Stoic, for he also regarded emotions as misguided ‘thoughts’ about life and our place in the world (see Spinoza, B. de §9). But unlike the Stoics, Spinoza did not aspire to that ‘psychic indifference’ known as apatheia. Rather, he urged the attainment of a certain sort of ‘bliss’, which could be achieved only by getting straight one’s thinking about the world. In particular, we had to give up the idea that we were or could be in control of our own lives, and adopt instead the all-embracing idea of ourselves and our minds as part of God. Most of the emotions, which are passive reactions to our unwarranted expectations of the world, will leave us hurt, frustrated and enervated. The active emotions, by contrast, emanate from our own true natures and heighten our sense of activity and awareness.

David Hume attacked superstition and irrationality in all quarters, defending the virtues of reason (see Hume, D. §3). But reason, Hume argued, does not have the power to motivate even the most minimal moral behaviour. ‘It is not contrary to reason’, he declared in one of his outrageous proclamations in the Treatise of Human Nature (Bk II, Pt 3, Sect. iii) ‘to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger’. What motivates us to right (and wrong) behaviour, Hume insisted, were our passions, the moral sentiments. Rather than being relegated to the margins of ethics and philosophy, the passions deserve central respect and consideration.

Hume’s theory is especially important not only because he challenged the inferior place of passion in philosophy and questioned the role of reason. He also advanced a theory of the passions which, although limited and encumbered by his general theory of mind, displayed dazzling insight and a precocious attempt to account for the place of reason in emotion. Like many of his contemporaries and predecessors, Hume defined an emotion as a certain kind of sensation – what he called an ‘impression’ – whether pleasant or unpleasant, which was physically stimulated by the movement of the ‘animal spirits’ in the blood (as in Descartes). But the impressions that constituted our emotions were always to be located within a causal network of other impressions and, more importantly, of ideas. Ideas caused our emotional impressions, and were caused in turn by them. The pleasant impression of pride, for example, was caused by the idea that one had achieved or accomplished something significant, and the impression in turn caused another idea, which Hume describes as an idea of the self, simpliciter. The emotion, in other words, could not be identified with the impression or sensation alone but could only be identified by virtue of the whole complex of impressions and ideas.

Immanuel Kant was, like Hume, a champion of the Enlightenment, but although he also questioned the capacities and limits of reason, he was uncompromising in its defence against any attempt to replace reason by irrational faith or to ground ethics on fleeting human feeling instead of the universal and necessary dictates of reason (see Kant, I. §2). Thus Kant reinforced the crucial distinction between reason and the ‘inclinations’ and dismissed the latter (including the moral sentiments) as inessential to morals at best, as intrusive and disruptive or worse. And yet although Kant felt no need to develop a theory of emotion, his position on the ‘inclinations’ is more ambiguous than is usually supposed, and his respect for ‘feeling’ more significant. It was Kant, a quarter century before Hegel, who insisted that ‘nothing great is ever done without passion’, and it was Kant, in his Critique of Judgment, who celebrated the importance of shared feeling in the appreciation of beauty and the awe with which we try to comprehend the wonder of God’s creation (see Kant, I. §12). Indeed, even Kant’s central notions of respect and human dignity, the very heart of his rationalist ethics, are sometimes argued to be matters of feeling as well as reason, thus calling into question the harshness of his ruthlessly divided self. When his successor Hegel took over the reins of German philosophy in the early nineteenth century, Kant’s distinction between reason and emotion was again called into question, and Hegel’s own odyssey of reason (in The Phenomenology of Spirit) has rightly been called a ‘logic of passion’ as well.

Friedrich Nietzsche was a philosopher for whom passion was the watchword and reason a source of suspicion (see Nietzsche, F. §5). He was the culmination of a long line of ‘Romantics’, beginning with the Sturm und Drang poets of the previous century and continuing through the philosophy of his own favourite influence, the Neo-Kantian pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer. Nietzsche anticipated the global scepticism and conceptual chaos of the twentieth century and, like Freud who admired him, he described (and celebrated) the darker, more instinctual and less rational motives of the human mind. Accordingly, he praised the passions and, in an ironic twist, described the passions as themselves having more reason than Reason. But this was not to say that all passions are wise. Some, he declares, ‘drag us down with their stupidity’, and others, notably the ‘slave’ emotion of resentment, are devious and clever but to a disastrous end: the ‘levelling’ of the virtuous passions and the defence of mediocrity.

Citing this article:
Solomon, Robert C.. Descartes to Nietzsche. Emotions, philosophy of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N016-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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