Emotions, philosophy of

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

1. Reason, emotion: master and slave

Perhaps the most striking and definitive metaphor in the history of the philosophy of the emotions is that of master and slave, the wisdom of reason firmly in control and the dangerous impulses of emotion safely suppressed, channelled or forced into submission. The master–slave metaphor displays two features that still determine much of the philosophical view of emotion today. First and foremost there is the inferior role of emotion, the idea that emotion is as such more primitive, less intelligent, more dangerous and thus to be controlled by reason (an argument that Aristotle and other enlightened Athenians also used to justify the political institution of slavery). Second, and more profoundly, there is the reason–emotion distinction itself, as two different natural kinds, two conflicting and antagonistic aspects of the soul. Even those philosophers who sought to integrate them and reduce one to the other (typically reducing emotion to an inferior genus of reason, a ‘confused perception’ or ‘distorted judgement’) maintained the distinction and continued to insist on the superiority of reason. Hume, famously declaring that reason should be the slave of the passions, ultimately fell back on the same metaphor, simply turning it around.

Philosophical concerns about emotion are often part of some larger ethical or epistemological pursuit. For example, Descartes wrote his treatise On the Passions of the Soul in part because the emotions played an awkward but central role in his ‘two substance’ view of mind and body. In his Ethics, Spinoza, like the early Stoics, saw the passions – and the misunderstanding of the passions – as the key to explaining much of human unhappiness. Hume devoted the middle third of his Treatise of Human Nature to an ingenious analysis of the passions, employing the same minimalist ontology of ‘impressions’, ‘ideas’ and ‘associations’ that he used to describe the workings of the mind in general. Immanuel Kant included virtually all the emotions as ‘inclinations’ in order to distinguish them sharply from reason, the proper realm of ethics. Nietzsche, on the other hand, celebrated the worldliness of the passions in order to chastize philosophical reason as ‘other-worldly’ escapism (see Hume, D.; Kant, I. §9; Nietzsche, F.).

Conceptions of emotion vary with ethical and religious convictions. Virtually every culture distinguishes between good emotions (which are healthy, virtuous and conducive to social harmony) and bad emotions (which tend to be unhealthy, vicious and socially disruptive). Some emotions are said to be pious – love, hope and faith, for example; others are designated as sinful – pride, envy and anger, for instance. How the emotions are viewed also depends on which emotions are taken as exemplary – violent or calm, selfish or other-directed, hostile or benevolent. Compassion and affection suggest a very different view of emotions than do outrage and jealousy. Conceptions of emotion are influenced by the virtues and vices of the time and culture. Consider warrior rage and physical courage in Homeric Greece, the concept of justice in Socratic Athens, the importance of faith in the middle ages, passionate love in twelfth-century France, the ‘gentlemanly’ virtues in eighteenth-century Britain, personal piety and the place of duty in early modern Germany, litigious anger and moral indignation in contemporary USA. In place of the opposition between reason and the emotions, in other words, perhaps we should ask which emotions play what roles in which culture.

Citing this article:
Solomon, Robert C.. Reason, emotion: master and slave. 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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