Emotions, philosophy of

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

4. The twentieth century

In the twentieth century one can trace the fate of emotion in Western philosophy through two very different tracks. In the USA and England, the emotions were given short shrift, in large part because of the emphasis on logic and language. The British philosopher Bertrand Russell elaborately praises love and passion in the opening pages of his autobiography, but in his philosophy says virtually nothing about them. The nature of emotion was a major concern of William James and the young John Dewey in the early years of the century, but it was James, with his emphasis on the physiological nature of emotion, who determined much of the bias against emotion in philosophy and psychology for years to come. James argued that an emotion was a sensation (or set of sensations) caused by a ‘visceral’ disturbance which in turn was prompted by some disturbing ‘perception’. Perhaps the first major attention to emotion in Anglo-American philosophy came in mid-century, when an ethical theory named ‘emotivism’ came to dominate both the English and the US scene (see Emotivism). But emotivism, which was part and parcel of a cross-the-board philosophical purgative known as ‘logical positivism’, was essentially a dismissal of ethical (and many other) questions in philosophy as ‘meaningless’ (that is, unscientific and without verifiable solutions). Emotion came back onto the stage of philosophy but only as the butt of the argument: ethical statements are meaningless, so they can therefore be nothing but expressions of emotion.

During the same period in Europe, however, the emotions enjoyed more attention. Franz Brentano succeeded the British moral sentiment theorists in attempting to base an ethics on a foundation of emotions. Max Scheler, Martin Heidegger and, more recently, Paul Ricoeur developed ambitious philosophies in which emotions were given central place in human existence and accorded considerable respect. In the shadow of the Second World War, Jean-Paul Sartre offered a slim but important ‘Sketch’ of a Theory of Emotions, followed by his Being and Nothingness which includes within its many pages a number of detailed ‘phenomenological’ analyses of emotion. Sartre’s conception of emotions as ‘magical transformations of the world’ – wilful strategems for coping with a difficult world – added a new ‘existential’ dimension to the investigation of emotion (see Sartre, J.P. §2).

In Anglo-American philosophy, the fortunes of emotion changed slowly. In an article simply entitled ‘Emotion’ (indicating how rarely the topic had even been broached), Errol Bedford addressed the Aristotelian Society in 1956 on the nature of emotion and the errors of thinking of emotions as ‘feelings’. The essay might have sat on the shelves gathering dust except for the fact that the then dean of Oxford philosophers, J.L. Austin, took it upon himself to remark on one of Bedford’s claims. The subsequent attention kept the article alive, and in the 1960s the subject seemed to come to life again. Today, emotions are no longer at the margins of philosophy, and there is a rich variety of debates about the nature and the conceptual structure of emotions, their rationality and their place in the good life

Citing this article:
Solomon, Robert C.. The twentieth century. 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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