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Emotions, philosophy of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-N016-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 23, 2024, from

Article Summary

Emotions have always played a role in philosophy, even if philosophers have usually denied them centre stage. Because philosophy has so often been described as first and foremost a discipline of reason, the emotions have often been neglected or attacked as primitive, dangerous or irrational. Socrates reprimanded his pupil Crito, advising that we should not give in to our emotions, and some of the ancient Stoic philosophers urged a life of reason free from the enslavement of the emotions, a life of apatheia (apathy). In Buddhism, too, much attention has been given to the emotions, which are treated as ‘agitations’ or klesas. Buddhist ‘liberation’, like the Stoic apatheia, becomes a philosophical ideal, freedom from the emotions.

Philosophers have not always downgraded the emotions, however. Aristotle defended the view that human beings are essentially rational animals, but he also stressed the importance of having the right emotions. David Hume, the eighteenth-century empiricist, insisted that ‘reason is, and ought to be, the slave of the passions’. In the nineteenth century, although Hegel described the history of philosophy as the development of reason he also argued that ‘nothing great is ever done without passion’. Much of the history of philosophy can be told in terms of the shifting relationship between the emotions (or ‘passions’) and reason, which are often at odds, at times seem to be at war, but ideally should be in harmony. Thus Plato painted a picture of the soul as a chariot with three horses, reason leading the appetites and ‘the spirited part’, working together. Nietzsche, at the end of the nineteenth century, suggested that ‘every passion contains its own quantum of reason’.

Nietzsche’s suggestion, that emotion and reason are not really opposites but complementary or commingled, has been at the heart of much of the debate about emotions since ancient times. Are emotions intelligent, or are they simply physical reactions? Are they mere ‘feelings’, or do they play a vital role in philosophy and in our lives?

Citing this article:
Solomon, Robert C.. Emotions, philosophy of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N016-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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