Although emotions did not play a significant role in modern philosophical discussion up to the 1970s, today they form an important subject of philosophical inquiry. If one considers a broader historical context, however, this discovery of emotions in practical philosophy turns out to be a rediscovery. From antiquity to the Middle Ages, a discourse on “passions” and “affections” was an integral part of moral philosophy and ethics. Although Aristotle, the Stoics, Saint Augustine of Hippo, and Saint Thomas Aquinas had widely diverging opinions about the role emotions should play in ethics, they all agreed upon the importance of emotions for the moral life. Up to the 18th century, when the English and Scottish moralists (Shaftesbury, Butler, Hume, and Smith) centered their moral philosophies around “moral sentiments” and when Rousseau traced back any sort of moral behavior to the pure feeling of “commiseration,” emotions continued to be at the core of morality. Yet, with the triumph of positivism in the social sciences and the birth of scientific psychology in the 19th century, emotions were reduced to mere biophysiological phenomena that had to be dealt with in a purely functional sense. Against the background of the Cartesian distinction between spirit and matter, emotions were categorized as belonging to the body without having any cognitive content. Emotions as a whole were thus reduced to what the classical discourse on emotion had classified as “appetites” and “passions.” From such noncognitive drives, the classical discourse had distinguished more subtle emotional phenomena like “affections” or “sentiments” that belonged to the higher parts of the soul.
The contemporary revisionist discourse on emotions has taken up this strand of thought. The nowprevailing cognitive approach to the emotions distinguishes emotions proper from mere physical drives like bodily appetites by their cognitive content. From the cognitivist’s viewpoint, emotions are individuated by reference to their characteristic beliefs. One cannot describe the pain that is peculiar to fear without saying that it is pain at the thought of a certain sort of future event that is believed to be impending. It is this intentionality, or “aboutness,” of emotions that sets them apart from mere biophysio- logical reactions to an external or internal stimulus.
This new conception of emotion as a cognitive phenomenon has several consequences for the conception of the interplay of emotionality, sociality, and morality. First, because emotions are no longer seen as mere passive responses to given stimuli, their productive role in shaping and constructing social reality can be addressed. Second, emotions do not only structure social interactions but are, in turn, shaped by social circumstances. They are social constructs. Third, the question of how development and emotionality are linked on the personal and societal level arises. Fourth, the role of emotions in rational decision making and moral reasoning has to be reconsidered. In all of the four points, special emphasis is put on the relationship between emotions and time.
Emotions and the Social Construction of the World
Mainstream sociology stresses the role of cognition and action in the social construction of the world. With a cognitive conception of emotion in mind, however, an emotional construction of the world becomes no less plausible. How emotions structure our apprehension of reality can be made clear by reference to the first cognitive theorist of the emotions, namely, Aristotle. In Book Two of his Rhetoric, Aristotle treats emotions (pathe) as “that which causes people to change with respect to their judgement.” For example, becoming ashamed of a person involves being led to view that person as involved in misdeeds that bring dishonor. Anger involves the view that somebody has insulted one, and so on. To be moved to a certain emotion involves making the judgment constitutive of the emotion and excludes other judgments. Being moved to envy does not allow one to be moved to pity toward the same person at the same time. The judgment implicit in an emotion influences the way in which we view the world.
In addition to this cognitive modulation of our worldview, emotions affect our perception. As common experience shows, one is easily deceived about perceptions when one is in emotional states. What something is perceived as differs for people moved by different emotions. Ronald de Sousa thus compares emotions to paradigms, which are how we see the world.
This insight in the role of emotions as partly constitutive of our way of viewing the world is most clearly expressed in Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time, in which he refers to Aristotle’s Rhetoric as the first account of our necessarily emotional being-in-the-world. For Heidegger our “affectedness” is constitutive of our cognitive and performative ways of being in the world. Hence, for Heidegger, the emotional construction of the world is the most fundamental one.
If our emotions are at the core of the social construction of the world, what then is their relation to time? Three points can be made. First, emotions shape our subjective experience of time. While we are depressed or bored, for example, things seem to be stretched in time. On the contrary, our being angry, stirred up, or stressed results in an acceleration of time-experience. Second, emotions can be differentiated as to their relatedness to the past, the present, or the future. Past-directed emotions like gratitude and guilt relate to something that occurred in the past. By contrast, present-directed emotions like love, hatred, courage, anger, joy, and sorrow are feelings that relate to something that, although it may have happened in the past, continues to affect us. Although, as in past-directed emotions, one may love somebody in part for what he or she did in the past, love also demands that we love the person as he or she presently is. Future-directed emotions, such as hope, despair, and fear, refer to states of affairs that have not yet happened but that are expected to come about with more or less likelihood (fear, hope) or with certainty (despair).
According to Heidegger, a third claim can be made. Because emotions have a temporal structure, it is through the experience of emotions that the temporality of time is grasped. Emotions make accessible to us the fact that our being-in-the-world is in principle embedded into temporal horizons. Experienced time necessarily has an emotional quality.
Emotions as Cultural Concepts
On the noncognitive scientific account, emotions are biologically determined reactions that are (more or less) universally dispersed among humans and primates. Charles Darwin and other 19th-century biologists and psychologists tried to conceptualize emotions as biologically determined patterns of instinctive behavior. Recent anthropological and ethnological research, however, has uncovered the cultural diversity of emotionality. Darwin and his fellows were right insofar as some basic emotions, like hunger, fear, anger, sorrow, and joy, seem to be universal and in fact do have an innate type of bodily expression. But more sophisticated emotions like envy, compassion, and guilt are clearly socially shaped and differ from culture to culture. Opinions diverge on whether these culturally shaped emotions retain a robust essence untouched by social and cultural context or whether they are socially constructed through and through. Yet, no matter whether the emotions themselves or only the emotion-triggering stimuli are culturally determined, it is well established that emotive cultures vary strongly over time. Every culture establishes certain “feeling-rules,” which regulate the expression of emotions and which have to be accommodated by “feeling-work.”
Emotion and Development
It is a commonplace that an individual’s life is emotion-laden in its earlier stages and becomes calmer as one gets older. This is one reason why wisdom is usually attributed to old people. In developmental psychology, the formation of our cognitive capacities is associated with the balancing of our emotions. In Piaget’s genetic epistemology as well as in Freud’s psychoanalysis, the development of our cognitive structures goes hand in hand with the formation of affect-control.
Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, applied this conception of individual development to the evolution of collective entities. According to Freud, civilization may be understood as a collective process in the course of which affect-control is established on the level of society and its institutions. Whereas for Freud this process is a fragile one, because the natural drives cannot be fully tamed, Norbert Elias develops a much more optimistic view in his influential work on the Civilizing Process. According to his interpretation, Western history since the Middle Ages can be reconstructed as a progress in the history of manners and morals. For Elias, the state’s monopolization of the use of legitimate physical force and the emergence of a capitalist economic system bring about the gradual abandonment of the emotional laissez-faire that was characteristic of the medieval warrior societies. Already in the high court society (höfische Gesellschaft) governed by a code of etiquette, the unstable emotional life is partly overcome by regulations of civility. The absolutist society of the 17th century and the modern nation-state are further steps in the process of civilization, which is marked by the internalization of constraints and the strengthening of affect-control.
Elias’s teleological and overly optimistic account of history has been criticized from various perspectives. Some contemporary sociologists maintain that at least since the 1970s, the process of civilization as defined by affect-control has been reversed. The liberalization of sexual morality, the stirring of emotions by mass media reporting, and the emo- tionalization of politics have reintroduced emotions into public and political life. Whereas critics urge that this trend toward re-emotionalization be seen as a process of de-civilization, cognitivist theorists of emotion argue that this need not be so. To judge whether the resurgence of emotions poses a threat to the current state of civilization, the relationship between emotions and rationality must be explored.
Emotion and Rationality
The reconstruction of occidental history as a process of progressive civilization rests upon the underlying assumption that emotions are irrational forces that have to be suppressed, canalized, or transformed by rational institutions. In Max Weber’s terminology, the “rationalization” of society presupposes the mastery of reason over emotion. In this perspective, the civilizing process can be seen as a process of rationalization precisely in that it involves the strengthening of affect-control. Rationalization, then, is coextensive with the de-emotionalization of public conduct.
The view that emotions are the opponents of rationality is one of the constitutive tenets of occidental philosophy. Even Plato and Aristotle, although more attentive to the positive roles of emotions, put forward a reason versus passion dichotomy that has been deeply influential ever since. Yet, whereas in the reason/passion dualism, the passions were still seen as properties of the soul (if only of its lower part), the emotion/cognition dichotomy employed by current mainstream psychology is even sharper. On this account, emotions are bodily disturbances without any cognitive content whatsoever.
The presumptive irrationality of emotions that is implicit in this dichotomy can be put down to emotion’s relationship to time. According to Aristotle’s On the Soul (III, 10), the supremacy of reason over passion is established by virtue of its broader temporal horizon. Because reason, unlike emotion, takes into account the future benefits that rational action may bring about, rationality entails the capacity to distance oneself from the present emotional states.
In Hobbes’s Man and Citizen (De homine) this argument is taken one step farther. According to Hobbes, humans are rational animals to the degree that they are capable of transcending the present. Thus they are rational animals only because they are providential animals.
By contrast, emotions seem to have an urgent, pressing character (they are, however, not entirely contained in a present-related point of view, as has been pointed out earlier). Because of their shortsightedness, emotions are treated as impediments to rational decision making in classical rational choice theory. As urgent and pressing, they affect the probability and credibility estimates of the agent. Consequently, they lead to irrational belief formation and interfere with the cost-benefit calculation of the agent.
The claim that emotions always hinder rational decision making has been cast into doubt by modern theorists of emotion. De Sousa points out that emotions can actually promote rational behavior. In situations of rational indeterminacy or in cases of indifference, they serve as tiebreakers and promote decisions where no decision could be made by rational deliberation alone. According to de Sousa, emotions are “patterns of salience” that help us find out what is rational at a given moment because they represent to the actor his or her preferences. If it is required that the action be chosen quickly, emotions offer a guide to rational decision making.
The neurologist Antonio Damasio has offered an argument that heads in the same direction. He draws on findings from patients with specific brain lesions that render them emotionally flat. Although these patients retain their other cognitive powers, along with their capacity to react emotionally, they lose their ability to make decisions. Based on these findings, Damasio makes the strong claim that “reduction in emotion may constitute an important source of irrational behavior.”
In Damasio as well as in de Sousa, rationality cannot be separated from the emotions. Rather, in order to be rational in a meaningful sense, rationality has to draw upon emotion’s capacity to represent to the agent his or her preferences (de Sousa) or to give meaning to otherwise senseless cognitive operations (Damasio).
Emotions and Morality
The relation between emotions and morality can be addressed from the three following perspectives. First, on the epistemic level, emotions take part in the formation of moral knowledge. De Sousa’s characterization of emotions as patterns of salience and his proposal to illustrate the function of emotions with reference to the role that paradigms play in the formation of theoretical knowledge suggest that only emotions allow us to recover what is morally required. One can even go so far as to maintain that emotions constitute the moral context of our actions. On this account, one does not become angry because a comment is offensive. Rather, the comment appears offensive by virtue of its being an object for anger.
Second, on the axiological level, emotions influence our moral evaluations. With a view to the history of ethics, this claim can be illustrated by pointing to the Scottish moralists of the 18th century, David Hume and Adam Smith, whose ethical systems center on the notion of moral sentiments. Critics of this tradition of ethical thought argue that although emotions may serve as the basis of moral evaluations in communitarian contexts, they are incapable of instructing moral action in more complex situations and de-localized contexts. This criticism is in part inspired by the idea that emotions have a narrow temporal horizon and thus cannot transcend the here and now. However, this need not be so. Consider once again the case of past-directed emotions like guilt or future-directed emotions like fear, which play an important role in the contemporary ethical discourse on collective guilt or the rights of future generations.
Third, on the level of the theory of action, emotions constitute an important subgroup of motivations for action. The crucial question here is whether emotions as motivations are stable enough to constitute a reliable ground for moral behavior. Two types of emotions can be distinguished by virtue of their timely dimension. Short-lived emotions (mere affects) may instigate a single moral deed. However, they cannot be relied upon because they depend on a situation that serves as a trigger for the emotion. By contrast, a standing emotion (passion) is characterized by its continuity in time: It is a permanent disposition for certain attitudes. For Aristotle, insofar as an emotion is part of a permanent state of mind (hexis), it may become part of what he calls “ethical virtues.” In his account, a virtue is a “mean” (middle ground) disposition with regard to both passions and actions. Because the right emotional state is an integral part of an ethical virtue, an apparently correct action would cease to count as a virtuous action if it were chosen without the appropriate motivating and reactive emotions.
See also Aristotle; Darwin, Charles; Ethics; Heidegger, Martin; Morality; Humanism; Values and Time
Aristotle. (2004). Rhetoric (W. R. Roberts, Trans.). Mineola, NY: Dover.
Heidegger, M. (1996). Being and time (J. Stambaugh, Trans.). Albany: State University of New York Press.
Damasio, A. (1999). The feeling of what happens: Body and emotion in the making of consciousness. New York: Harcourt Brace.
De Sousa, R. (1987). The rationality of emotion. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Elias, N. (1994). The civilizing process (E. Jephcott, Trans.). Oxford, UK: Blackwell.
Hobbes, T. (1978). Man and citizen (B. Gert, Trans.). Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press.