welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please


Philosophical Feelings

Mikhail Epstein feels that philosophy is not only thinking.

“A sensitive heart is a rich source of ideas” – Nikolai Karamzin

We’ve got used to identifying philosophy with thinking. The collocation ‘philosophical thought’ seems to be axiomatic, nearly tautological: indeed, philosophy is thought in its highest sense. None of the dictionary entries defining philosophy – and there are dozens, even hundreds of them – mention feelings, emotions, experiences. In the English-language internet the expression ‘philosophical thought’ occurs over one hundred times more frequently than the expression ‘philosophical feeling’ (777,000 and 6,000 respectively). This shows the huge disproportion between the rational and emotional components of philosophy in the common view. However, not only thoughts can be philosophical, but also feelings. Among many various philosophical feelings are those relating to the world as a whole, to the laws of existence, to human nature. They rise into the rank of philosophical feelings due to their universality.

Why at all should philosophy, literally love (philo) of wisdom (sophia), be manifested in thinking only, and not in feelings? It goes without saying that love is a feeling; and wisdom is not necessarily just a thought, but rather a kind of thought-feeling, an alloy of both: wisdom is the achievement of an emotional saturation of thought, and an intellectual saturation of the emotions. Wisdom speaks about herself like this in the Bible: “Then I was by him [God], as one brought up with him: and I was daily his delight, rejoicing always before him” (Proverbs 8:30). Here, Wisdom is presented above all through feelings; through delight and rejoicing.

Moreover, the power of thinkers is characterized by the depth of their philosophical feelings. Therefore, does philosophy, the love of wisdom, have the right to dry itself up into entirely rational categories and propositions – to devastate its emotional drive by becoming purely analytical judgements?

The Awakening Conscience
The Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt (1853)

Philosophical and Non–Philosophical Feelings

Philosophical thoughts distinguish themselves from non-philosophical ones by the fact that they embrace the world as a whole. “John is stupid” is not a philosophical thought, while “the human species is stupid” is. In the same way, taking offence at your rude and annoying neighbour does not fit into the class of philosophical feelings, while a bitter feeling of the imperfection of the world, or of being wounded by human suffering do. The object of philosophical feelings is existence per se and such universals as ‘unity’ and ‘multiplicity’, ‘freedom’ and ‘necessity’, ‘life’ and ‘reason’, ‘space’ and ‘time’. The feeling of time being wasted because of an inability to accomplish a planned action – that is just a feeling. But the melancholy of time, the general feeling of transience and doom when faced with the inexorable destruction of all that is familiar and beloved – that is a philosophical feeling.

Any feeling reaching the level of universality can become philosophical. Thus it is necessary to understand the nature of the universals that constitute the subject of philosophy. A universal is usually understood as a general concept, the common quality of many phenomena: for example, ‘white’, ‘beautiful’, ‘number’, or ‘mind’. However, a universal might also be something that evokes similar feelings: something that brings about joy or wonder, provokes fear or boredom: eg ‘love’ or ‘death’. The point is not that a feeling can become the object of philosophical reasoning, but that a feeling itself, when acquiring universality, becomes philosophical. Not just thinking about joy but also experiencing joy is a philosophical occupation if the joy is related not to particular events or everyday circumstances, but to a multitude of things, to the world order in general, or to the laws of existence. Such universal feelings or philosophical sentiments might be labelled ‘unisentals’.

Philosophically sensitive people experience their attitudes towards the world as an emotional drama. They are tormented and exhilarated, and amazed by the mysteries of the universe. Ecclesiastes is a book of such philosophical joys and sorrows: “So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind!” Solomon writes (Ecclesiastes 2:17) Is this a thought or a feeling? Obviously, it is a feeling, since it is expressed by the words ‘hate’ and ‘grievous’. However, the object of this feeling is not a neighbour or a passer-by, but life itself and “what is done under the sun”. This feeling results in a general judgment: “all is vanity and striving after wind!” Here feeling and thought mingle into one another, forming a sort of philosophical mind-mood or ‘senti–mentality’.

One of the emotions, wonder, was considered by Aristotle to be the forefather of philosophy as such, and of knowledge in general: “For it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin to and at first began to philosophize; they wondered originally at the obvious difficulties, then advanced little by little and stated difficulties about the greater matters, e.g. about the phenomena of the moon and those of the sun and of the stars, and about the genesis of the universe. And a man who is puzzled and wonders thinks himself ignorant” (Metaphysics, 350 BC). Aristotle is saying that everyday wonder is transformed into philosophical wonder, the source of philosophy itself, according to the extent to which it is applied to the ‘greater matters’ – to the principles of existence and the origin of the Universe. Wonder provokes people to ask questions about the nature of ordinary things, and thus to become absorbed in their causes, and further, in the causes of the causes and deep into the foundations of all phenomena, which is the subject of metaphysics. Actually, the purpose of philosophy is not to explain definitively and make plain all issues, but to lead us into the deepest recesses of the unknown, from wonder to stronger wonder, from mystery to deeper mystery.

That wonder is not only the beginning but also the end of philosophizing is forcefully expressed by Immanuel Kant: “Two things fill the heart with ever-increasing wonder and awe the more often and the more steadily that they are meditated on: the starry skies above me and the moral law inside me” (Critique of Practical Reason, 1788). Not only wonder prompts meditation, but meditation invokes even greater wonder.

There are also other feelings that can be philosophical – pain, grief, boredom, delight, exultation – if they are experienced on behalf of all humanity. “I looked around me, and my soul became wounded by the suffering of mankind.” This beginning of Alexander Radishchev’s book Journey from St Petersburg to Moscow (1790) laid the foundations of all Russian philosophy, which is shaped by feelings of suffering and compassion, by the Karamazovian cry of indignation over a child’s tear.

Or, in Alexander Pushkin’s small tragedy Mozart and Salieri (1830), Salieri feels envy towards Mozart: not common envy but philosophical envy – the envy of algebra towards harmony – the feeling of the extreme injustice of God giving genius to a light–minded reveler like Mozart, and denying it to a hard-working perfectionist like Salieri. This envy results in a kind of philosophical indignation: “There is no truth on earth… Nor in heaven either!” In fact, the range of philosophical feelings is extremely wide:

Philosophical contempt – contempt for those shallow circumstances, trifles, and the everyday fuss which divert people from the main issues – from the search for the meaning of life, from fulfilling of our supreme destiny.

Philosophical wrath – wrath against the unjust world order which gives everything to some and nothing to others; which torments the righteous and rewards the wicked.

Philosophical anxiety – anxiety over the elusive meaning of the whole; over the world being seen in fragments and the mind being unable to assemble them into a meaningful unity.

Philosophical fear – fear of existence because it is unknowable, or fear of non existence because it is devastating; fear about our little selves, incommensurate with the infinity of the world.

Philosophical sorrow – sorrow over the fact that all things pass and nothing on the earth is eternal; even the greatest of deeds and people are forgotten.

Philosophical tenderness – an affection I experience when I see a thin tree resisting a strong wind, and it bends and straightens again under its gusts. At this moment I start to feel empathy with everything that is frail and feel admiration for its inner strength, and, in general, for the persistence and endurance of everything small, and so my tenderness and admiration becomes philosophical. These kinds of feelings in particular lay the foundation for the Daoist and other Chinese wisdom that proclaims that everything that is flexible and pliable is stronger than what is hard and unbendable.

Philosophical torment is described well in Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot:

“He remembered how he had stretched out his arms towards the beautiful, boundless blue of the horizon, and wept, and wept. What had so tormented him was the idea that he was a stranger to all this, that he was outside this glorious festival… Every little fly that buzzed in the sun’s rays was a singer in the universal chorus, ‘knew its place, and was happy in it’. Every blade of grass grew and was happy… only he knew nothing, understood nothing, neither men nor words, nor any of nature’s voices; he was a stranger and an outcast. Oh, he could not then speak these words, or express all he felt! He had been tormented dumb.”

The Vocation of Philosophy

The aim of philosophy is not only to explain or even (to recall Marx’s comment) to change the world, but to cultivate the most refined and profound feelings concerning the world and existence: not only to explain or change the world intellectually, but to make us sensitive citizens of the world. To achieve this we need to proceed from particular, situational feelings, towards all-embracing ones. This aim could be illustrated through the poetry of William Blake, if we substitute his word ‘see’ with the word ‘feel’:

“To feel a World in a grain of sand,
And Heaven in a wild flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour.”

Philosophy has to take a course on sentimental education to acquire this ability to, in the words of Byzantine Hesychast monks, “immerse the mind in the heart”, i.e., to emotionally experience what it contemplates. The cultivation of philosophical feelings should therefore become a focus of philosophical education. Philosophical departments presently build research and curricula on various schools and systems of thought, but it’s important not only to catalogue and form one’s intellect, but also to elaborate the ways of emotionally experiencing the world: to admire the great through the small, to be tormented with the inextricable contradictions of existence, to feel exultation about dialectics, etc. The vocation of philosophy consists in expanding the area of feelings through the generalizing capacity of reason, so that love, joy, hope, pain and grief can be experienced on the largest, world-wide scale, and not just be reducible to applying to random situations.

Feelings seize people more viscerally and powerfully than abstract thoughts: they are more deeply related to peoples’ personalities and actions. Thinking without feeling is shallow and tautological. Kant famously distinguished analytic statements from synthetic ones. Compare the analytic judgment “All bachelors are unmarried” and the synthetic judgment “All bachelors are unhappy.” The connection of concepts in the former proposition is based on logical analysis, and in the latter on emotional experience. When Pascal calls a human being “a thinking reed,” he invests this philosophical assertion with both a compassion and an admiration for humans. “All the dignity of man consists in thought. Thought is, therefore, by its nature a wonderful and incomparable thing” (Thoughts, fragment 365) – this is an example of a deeply synthetic and emotionally invested judgment. Purely analytic philosophy is often devoid of deep philosophical feelings, whereas synthetic philosophy embraces feelings intrinsic to the concepts yet nevertheless not logically deducible from them.

Philosophy that is only characterized by thoughts, judgements, syllogisms, and combinations of concepts, does not reach the level of wisdom, i.e., it does not live up to its designation. Great philosophers – Plato, Kant, Schelling, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Jaspers, Sartre, Berdiaev, etc – were overwhelmed by philosophical feelings and passions that also determined the scope of their minds. However, the philosophically significant boundary lies not between thoughts and feelings, but between mundane, empirical thoughts and feelings, and comprehensive, universal ones. If common emotions arise from small, fleeting things, then philosophical emotions stem from the state of the world and the course of history. Furthermore, philosophical emotions are not only caused by the state of the world, they also enable its most dramatic changes. Marx said that when ideas seize the masses they become a material force. However, it is not abstract ideas themselves that seize the masses, but thoughts incorporating emotions that are equipotent to the ideas – that is to say, emotions related not to individuals, but to collective experiences, and concerned with the life of the society or even of the whole of humanity.

It is precisely emotions on the philosophical scale that affect the world most powerfully. A revolution is accomplished through the philosophical emotions of wrath and anger, a feeling of the injustice of the world, an exasperation with the existing order of things. Scientific discoveries are accomplished through the philosophical emotion of wonder at the mysteries of the universe. Works of art and technical innovations are propelled by a magnificent feeling of creative freedom that allows us to transform the world.

Lyrical Philosophy

“I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind.”
I Corinthians, 14:15

There occur such states of mind when the mind indeed does start to sing. The thinking overflows with musical rhythm and the rapture of self-expression – yet it remains thinking, since it is drawn up through concepts, premises, and conclusions.

This musical thinking can be illustrated by a well-known example from Nietzsche:

“Behold, I teach you the overman. The overman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the overman shall be the meaning of the earth! I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes! … I love those that know not how to live except as down-goers, for they are the over-goers. I love the great despisers, because they are the great adorers, and fire off arrows of longing for the other shore…” and so on.
Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 1885

Is this philosophical lyricism, or is it rather lyrical philosophy?

Lyrical philosophy is the kind of philosophy that is not descriptive, but expressive. It requires and is revealed by the presence of the lyrical ‘I’ and the expression of direct acts of will in the first person singular addressing ‘you’: “I teach”, “I beseech you”, “Let your will…” The subject focused upon itself forms the essence of lyricism. Thus the lyrical ‘I’ is opposed to the epic ‘he/she’ and the dramatic ‘you’. We’ve learnt from Kant that a subject is inseparable from its acts of judgement concerning the world of objects, and thus all philosophy, in its judgements, contains in itself an insoluble residue of lyricism. Philosophy tends to feel shy about this lyricism and conceals it behind claims of objectivity and its closeness to ‘the scientific method’. Lyrical philosophy, on the contrary, is not ashamed of its rootedness in thinking subjects, and it allows them to express their subjecthood explicitly and systematically. At the same time, subjecthood as a means of expression of the philosophy of the subject in the Kantian sense (what we might call ‘the concept of the I’), should be distinguished from the purely personal subjectivity inherent in particular individuals with all their private inclinations and caprices. Subjecthood as a philosophical concern differs from subjectivity, the concern of poets and novelists, to the same extent that philosophical feelings differ from mundane ones relating to particular situations. That is exactly why it is necessary to distinguish the lyrical idea of the philosophizing ‘I’ from the ‘I’ of the author as a biographical subject. This is also why the lyrical protagonists of philosophy often present themselves under pseudonyms or aliases, like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra or Kierkegaard’s Johannes Climacus and other conceptual personae.

We find something similar to Nietzschean lyricism in John Donne:

“Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill mee.”
(‘Death Be Not Proud’)

Or in Alexander Pushkin:

“But, O friends, I do not want to die.
I want to live, in order to think and suffer.”
(‘Elegy’, 1830)

However, although Donne and Pushkin focus on the lyrical ‘I’ through which various impulses and experiences pass, including those relating to the supreme values, to the meaning of life and death, the difference between this philosophical lyricism and lyrical philosophy consists in the fact that the poets do not systematize the concepts of ‘death’, ‘thinking’, ‘suffering’, etc. By contrast, Nietzsche focuses on the concept of the ‘overman’ and develops it systematically in the progress of his ‘treatise-poem’. However, he develops it in a lyrical way, as the immediate desire of ‘I’, a subject aspiring for the transition from man to overman. This is exactly lyrical philosophy – lyrosophy – where lyricism serves philosophy – in contrast to philosophical lyricism, where philosophy serves lyric.

Lyrical Philosophical Categories

Everybody knows what philosophical lyricism is: you can find it in the poetry of Omar Khayyam, John Donne, Goethe, Rilke, etc. Lyrical philosophy, on the contrary, has not found its place in the system of concepts yet. On the English language internet, the expression ‘metaphysical poetry’ is 27 times more frequent than ‘poetic metaphysics’ (209,000 hits against 7,800 respectively). Even more strikingly, on the Russian language web, the expression ‘philosophical lyric’ occurs 1.5 million times, while ‘lyrical philosophy’ only 3,600 times – a ratio of 416:1. At the same time it is obvious that no less a role is given to lyricism in philosophy than to philosophy in lyrics. What else is the thought of St Augustine, Montaigne, Kierkegaard, Emerson, Nietzsche, Gabriel Marcel, if not lyrical philosophy – the direct self–expression of the thinking subject in the process of their self–cognition? Yet even in the catalogues of the largest libraries, where we can find most exotic sections from ‘philosophy of football’ to [North Korean] ‘Juche philosophy’, ‘lyrical philosophy’ is still missing.

When discussing various philosophical schools and conceptual systems we often forget that, as in any other field of literature, philosophy can be divided into species and genres which to a certain extent intersect with those of fiction. Lyrical philosophy fully deserves consideration as a distinctive yet insufficiently explored mode of philosophical literature. But lyricism as a specific mode of philosophy must not be confused with any of its intellectual movements, such as idealism or materialism, phenomenology or deconstructionism. For example, existential philosophy can be lyrical, as in Kierkegaard; but it can also be epic, as in Heidegger’s Being and Time. It seems to be materialism above all which is completely devoid of lyricism – but in Trotsky and Benjamin we can find examples of lyrical Marxism. We could even speak about lyrical theology, for example in St Augustine’s Confessions, in opposition to the epic theology of Thomas Aquinas.

In a broader sense, we can talk not only about lyrical philosophy as one of philosophy’s species, but also about the lyricism of philosophy as such. As a matter of fact, the fundamental questions of philosophy concern what philosophy itself is: What is its vocation and subject area, and how is it positioned among other disciplines? Since compared to more specialized disciplines philosophy does not have its own particular object, it is perpetually preoccupied with the conditions of its own possibility and/or necessity. In this sense, philosophy is well-fitted to the human being, who, unlike all the other species, does not have a determined position within the cosmos and is preoccupied with the search for self–identity (and predominantly does so through philosophy). If a human being is an animal that seeks itself and is preoccupied with self determination, philosophy is a discipline that seeks itself and is preoccupied with self determination. That’s why great philosophers, from Plato and Aristotle, through Kant and Hegel, Nietzsche and Husserl, to Heidegger and Derrida, in one or another way engage in the inquiry about what exactly philosophy is, and why it is precisely in their thinking that it acquires its foundation and consummation.

Hence also the inescapable generic lyricism of philosophy. Philosophy is lyrical in the sense of perpetually discussing and thinking about itself; about its purposes, specifics, successes, failures, about what it means to be a philosopher, and why the world needs philosophy. In this sense even the philosophy of Hegel, which claims to be scientific and ‘objectivist’, is as a whole deeply lyrical, since it considers the whole history of the world as a prologue to itself, as a self-cognition of an absolute Idea, and its self-reflection in the mirrors of nature, society, and reason. Thus the issue of lyricism in philosophy is not arbitrary, not one of many, but central to philosophy as the experience of self-substantiating and self-contemplating thought.

© Dr Mikhail Epstein 2014

Mikhail Epstein is Professor of Russian and Cultural Theory at Durham University, UK. His book, The Transformative Humanities: A Manifesto, is out from Bloomsbury Academic.

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X