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Emotions: A Defence of Irrationality

Carole Haynes-Curtis on stuffed tigers, pink elephants and Mr. Spock.

Ever since Anna Karenina was written, people have been deeply moved by the fate of Tolstoy’s heroine. In a paper in a learned journal1, Dr. Colin Radford asked how this was possible. Radford didn’t deny that at least some of us are moved by Anna Karenina’s fate, but correctly asserted that this raises a problem. For the object of this emotion doesn’t exist outside Tolstoy’s story and, most importantly, the people moved know she is non-existent. Hence Radford concluded that our being moved by her fate is in some sense irrational and incoherent, and that we intuitively recognise this fact and wouldn’t normally deny it.

On the face of it this does not sound an extraordinary claim nor a particularly controversial one, and yet a number of philosophers have spent considerable time and effort in denying even the possibility that any of our emotional responses, including our aesthetic ones, are irrational or incoherent. The reason these philosophers are loathe to accept Radford’s view is, I believe, because within the British philosophical tradition the charge of ‘irrationality’ particularly in the face of our aesthetic responses is considered unacceptable and derogatory. What I want to argue, however, is that in the context of the emotions ‘irrationality’ is in some ways a good thing. To that end, in Part One of this article I will try to clarify the sense in which some of our emotions are, as Radford says, irrational and incoherent by explaining how such terms enter the argument. In Part Two I will attempt to answer Radford’s further question as to ‘how’ this is possible by drawing specifically on the Existential philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre who maintains [in Sketch for a Theory of the Emotions] that all emotions are inherently ‘irrational’.

Part One: Fear of Tigers

When we say an emotion is irrational, incoherent etc., we are not judging the emotion itself in isolation, but rather we could be said to judge descriptions of emotional experiences in respect of three complementary and interrelated criteria. Firstly, is the relationship between the emotion and the object of that emotion appropriate or not? Secondly, is the emotion a rational response to its object? Thirdly, is the person’s response coherent with their stated beliefs at the time? Given these criteria we can distinguish five standard cases that can be made in respect of our own or another’s account of an emotional experience. The first is what might be called the paradigm case, in which we make a positive judgement in respect of all three criteria.

A friend tells you that he was recently frightened while taking a walk in the local woods by being suddenly confronted by a tiger that had escaped from a nearby zoo. He says that he was paralysed with fear and thought the tiger was about to attack him when luckily the tiger was rendered senseless by a marksman with a tranquilliser gun. On our first criterion (whether or not the emotional response, in this case fear, is appropriate to the situation) we would judge, I think, that it was indeed appropriate. Fear does seem an appropriate response to being confronted by a tiger. By the second criterion we would want to know whether or not the tiger, the object of our friend’s fear, actually existed. Let us suppose that it did indeed exist. As the tiger did exist, and as we accept our friend’s account that he was confronted by it, we might now judge that his response was rational given our belief that tigers are dangerous. As our friend has said that he also believed that the tiger was about to attack him, we can now judge that his reaction was also coherent as it was consistent with his beliefs at the time. Thus in our paradigm case we have judged that the emotional response was appropriate, rational and coherent.

For our second example let us vary the story; our friend tells us that having heard that a tiger had recently escaped from a local zoo, he was confronted by a tiger in the woods and being afraid ran away. Our judgement as to whether his fear was appropriate or not is on the face of it exactly as above. However, in this case let us suppose we know that what he was actually confronted by was not a real living tiger, but a stuffed tiger which we had deliberately placed there as a practical joke, and that we had from our hiding place witnessed the whole event. In this case we might decide that his fear was irrational, because although there was a real (in the sense of existing) object to his fear, it was not a real tiger, and therefore posed no real threat to him. We might allow however that given that he did not know this fact, and was therefore acting upon a belief that unbeknown to him was false, his emotional response was nevertheless coherent in the sense that it was consistent with his beliefs at the time. In this sense we might also allow that his response was appropriate given his beliefs, although others might argue that it was inappropriate given our knowledge of the facts. Either way we might conclude that in this case we could describe his emotional response as irrational and yet coherent. Suppose I now inform my friend that he has been the victim of a practical joke, and that what he thought was a real tiger was in fact a stuffed one. In the light of this information he might now view his own response in retrospect as inappropriate and irrational in the senses given above. Suppose also that in order to confirm my story that it was all a practical joke, I now pull back the curtain and present my friend with the stuffed tiger that I had placed in the woods. He should not now, of course, be frightened as he knows that the tiger is not real. However, let us say that he is. This leads us to our third example.

On being again confronted with the stuffed tiger, this time knowing that it is not a real living tiger, and therefore knowing also that it poses no threat to his well-being or safety, our friend says, “No, please put back the curtain” and when asked “But why?”, he replies, “Because I still find it frightening.” We would now have to judge his emotional response to be inappropriate, irrational and incoherent. It is inappropriate as fear is not an appropriate response in relationship to stuffed tigers, irrational as the object of his fear is a stuffed tiger, and incoherent as he not only knows and acknowledges that the object of his fear is in fact a stuffed tiger, but also knows and acknowledges that it cannot possibly harm him. It is possible also thai he himself would judge his own emotional response in this situation exactly as we do – as inappropriate, irrational and incoherent.

Our fourth case will feature hallucination. We are visiting a man who is in a clinic drying out from alcohol poisoning and is suffering from what is commonly called D.T.s. During one of his worst bouts he hallucinates and imagines that he sees flying pink elephants with razor sharp tusks that are attempting to tear him to shreds. He is screaming that he sees them and describes them to us as he lashes out with his arms and legs in a frantic frenzy. He is obviously terrified. On our first criterion, that of whether the relationship between his fear and the object of his fear is appropriate, we must in this case judge it to be inappropriate, as there are no such things as flying pink elephants with razor sharp tusks. As there is no real existing object of his fear we must also judge his emotional experience to be irrational. We know that there is no real existing object of his fear because as was said we are there, and as we can’t see them they cannot, of course, exist. But they do ‘exist’ for him, so again as in our second case, we could allow that although he is acting upon a false belief, viz. that they exist and are dangerous, his emotional experience is in fact coherent as it is consistent with his belief. We could thus arrive at the same judgement as we arrived at in our second case i.e. that his emotional response was irrational and yet coherent.

Just as the fourth case paralleled case two in espect of the judgements arrived at, so case five sarallels case three. This time our friend has just eturned from the cinema where he watched a lorror movie. He is quite frequently frightened by horror movies, and the film he has just watched was no exception. Not having seen the movie ourselves we ask him to describe it to us. He gives us a vivid account, at one point saying, “And when the alien creature was about to attack and eat the heroine, I was petrified.” Given our previous criteria we would have to judge his emotional response to be, as in the third case, inappropriate, irrational and incoherent. It is inappropriate as fear is not an appropriate response to ‘screen creatures’, although there is an anomaly here. For, of course, the ‘screen creature’ has been designed specifically to frighten people like our friend or indeed us, which is why the film is called a horror movie. However, keeping strictly to our criteria the ‘screen creature’ has the same status as the ‘stuffed tiger’ of case three. For as it exists only in celluloid our friend’s fear of it must be considered irrational as it is only a ‘screen creature’ and incoherent as he not only knows and acknowledges that the object of his fear is a ‘screen creature’ but also knows and acknowledges that it cannot harm him. But this irrational, incoherent fear is, of course, exactly what the horror movie-maker is relying upon. For there is a sense in which we go to the horror movie precisely to be horrified and, in fact, anticipate such a reaction. Hence there must be a sense in which we can be said to enjoy, for instance, being horrified.

It is interesting to note that many popular art forms (such as movies, TV programmes and pulp novels) are categorised under headings such as horror, comedies, weepies, thrillers and so on precisely in respect of the emotional response they are supposed to evoke. So whether we like or dislike them will depend to some extent on whether or not they deliver the emotional responseresponse we were led to expect. And this anticipation confirms that the emotional experience undergone at the time, although it later seems irrational and incoherent, is nevertheless considered a genuine emotion; that is, it is not feigned. For if while watching a horror film, for instance, we had to feign the emotional experience of fear or horror there would seem little point in our seeing the film – we might just as well stay at home and save our money.

That we can retrospectively enjoy being horrified, even to the extent that we can anticipate such retrospective enjoyment, is witnessed by the fact that although not everyone enjoys horror movies, enough people must do so for the horror movie-makers to continue making such films or else they would not be considered commercially viable. If we admit that we can enjoy certain emotional experiences, albeit in retrospect, and thus find them desirable, even though in themselves these emotions might appear undesirable (for instance, terror, fear, sorrow etc.) then we can now see how our ability to have irrational, incoherent, but nevertheless genuine emotional experiences heightens our enjoyment of, and thus appreciation of, art in general, and fiction in particular. For fiction can provide us with the opportunity to experience, for instance, genuine terror while actually being completely safe, or experience genuine sorrow with no need for anyone to suffer. Thus the importance of our ability to have irrational and incoherent emotional responses in regard to fiction cannot be overstressed. When Radford asked in his original article, “How can we be Moved by the Fate of Anna Karenina?”, he had by pointing out that this or indeed any emotional response would seem to be irrational and incoherent, already paradoxically laid the seeds to answerinq his own question. For that supposed anomaly, far from being a problem actually highlights the fact that the success of fiction relies to a large extent on its ability to so move us. In other words, it provides us with genuine emotional experiences which would be impossible if we could only be moved rationally in relation to real characters. I believe that Radford’s original problem, however, was that he was puzzled by our apparent willingness to admit being irrational and incoherent in this way in a rational world. Jean-Paul Sartre’s answer to this (and in fact the rationale that underlies his whole theory of the emotions) is that while we can and do admit to being irrational in respect to ‘lived’ emotion, we only make such a judgement after the event. At the time of experiencing the actual emotion or of ‘living’ it, we are not actually living in a rational world, but in an irrational one. This view, of course, requires some explanation and for that reason Part Two will contain a brief account of Sartre’s philosophy regarding the emotions.

Part Two: Humans and Vulcans

Sartre wasn’t concerned with the appropriateness or rationality of this or that particular ‘lived’ emotion, but rather was interested in the question of ‘what must consciousness be, that emotion should be possible’. He wanted to understand the conditions of existence which cause an emotion to appear, and it was his description of the pre-reflective consciousness as it actually ‘lives’ the emotion that led him to the conclusion that all emotions are inherently irrational.

For Sartre, if emotion is an attitude directed towards the world it is a very special one. It is not an accidental modification of the individual’s view of an unchanged world. Neither is it merely a purely subjective quality that we impose upon the world according to our humour. Our world is transformed by our emotions, and this transformation is legitimate in that it contains an ‘existential objectivity’. The transformed world is our reality. Although it is consciousness that chooses to transform the world it is important to remember that it is not reflectively conscious of doing so. We do not reflectively decide to conjure up emotions. And it is important that the emotional world we do conjure up is a world we believe in - for as Sartre makes plain, true emotion is not play-acting. Hence there is a sense in which to believe in the particular emotion we must believe in the world in which it appears. Radford’s problem then of how in a rational world we can undergo irrational emotions disappears for Sartre, because according to Sartre the onset of emotion necessitates a complete modification of our being-in-the-world, and this modification in itself transforms the world from a rational place into an inherently irrational one. The world is irrational because in it we cease to use our reason or our common sense, thus the emotional world can be seen as the paradigm of the unreasonable or irrational world or, as Sartre calls it, the magical world where our normal chains of reasoning do not apply. To understand the magical element of the emotional world i.e. the sense in which it is irrational, Sartre contrasts it with what might be called the paradigm of the rational world, that is the utilisable world. This is the world in which by rational means we can achieve desired goals by deterministic routes. And the objects in this world gain significance by virtue of their help or hindrance towards our goals. In the emotional world, however, the world confronts us as ‘one non-utilisable whole’ and thus ‘intentional objects’ are no longer presented in terms of their utility, and reason flies out of the door. For instance, the grimacing face outside pressed up against the window-pane might surprise us by the suddenness of its appearance if perceived in a rational ordered world, but would present little threat to ourselves if ordinary deterministic rules applied. Rationally we might think to ourselves that the doors and windows are locked and bolted, the telephone is to hand, the neighbours would hear smashing glass and so on. The objects that we can utilise in our defence and the obstacles he would have to surmount in order to reach us are so many that the emotion of horror or terror would seem out of place.

But, says Sartre, the grimacing face does not reveal itself to us as an object in a deterministic world, but rather reveals itself to consciousness as an object, or in fact as the object, in a world suddenly transformed into the magical. We are frozen with terror. Our relationship with the world and the world itself has been transformed. It is for this reason that Sartre describes the emotional attitude of consciousness as, by its very nature, irrational for as he sees it the emotion can only succeed or make sense in an irrational world, or in a view that sees the world as an irrational and non-determined place.

Sartre also gives a functional account of emotions. He says that when the deterministic rational world places too great a demand on us, or poses seemingly impossible tasks, we annihilate the problems posed by annihilating the very world that makes such impossible demands. It is in this sense of an escape that we can see the attraction of fiction, for in providing us with emotional experiences it lets us escape into the magical world of emotion and forget our daily lives, worries and routine. In fact, we often say that we lose ourselves (and presumably our problems) in a good book, or by watching a good film.

Sartre’s position is maybe not so strange as we might first think. For there would appear to be a common belief in, and acceptance of, the position that all emotional responses are in some sense inherently irrational. Most people see this, not as some philosophers appear to, as derogatory and undesirable, but as a quintessential part of being human.

Paradoxically the best illustration that I can give of this is by making reference to a purely fictional character who serves as the archetype of the rational or logical man – that is, Mr. Spock, a member of the crew of the Starship Enterprise in Star Trek. As Trekkies will immediately protest, Mr. Spock is portrayed as an alien or, at least, as half Vulcan and half human, but this is precisely our point. The Vulcan side of Mr. Spock, which is apparently the stronger part of his personality, is portrayed as being thoroughly rational and logical, and thus contemptuous of his human side which is portrayed as emotional and ipso facto irrational. Of course, Mr. Spock in Vulcan mode could no more be emotionally moved by the fate of Anna Karenina than he could be by the death of the rest of the Enterprise crew. Thus while in some circumstances we admire his logical abilities and cold rationality in other circumstances we feel sorry for him, sorry that he lacks that emotional dimension which although it might be irrational is nevertheless a part of, and an essential part of, being human. When he does, in those rare moments, allow the human side of his nature to show through in the form of, of course, an emotional response, there is, I think, a sense in which we are pleased; pleased that by feeling an emotion he thereby gains some insight into what it is to be human. And of course in being pleased we are after all being irrational - for he is only a fictional character. That aside, there is as I’ve said some truth in the common belief that there is something inherently irrational in succumbing to any emotional responses, but that this is not necessarily a bad thing, for it is all part of being human. Thus in this sense describing something as irrational does not necessarily mean we condemn it. It is precisely in this sense that, I think, we can accept both Radford’s position (that some emotional experiences can in retrospect according to given criteria be described as irrational and incoherent), and Sartre’s position (that all emotional experiences as ‘lived’ are in some way inherently irrational).

The philosophers who criticised Radford’s original paper do not deny that they are or can be ‘moved by the fate of Anna Karenina’. What they do deny however is that to be so moved is in any way irrational. Could it be that these philosophers paradoxically have an irrational fear of being or admitting to being irrational in any part of their lives? Whatever their reasons their view, as I hope I have shown, is unfortunate and misplaced, not only because it is precisely this ability to have irrational and incoherent emotional experiences that enables us to enjoy art in its many varied forms, but also because being irrational on some levels is a quintessential part of being human.

© Dr. C. Haynes-Curtis 1995

1 ‘How Can We Be Moved by the Fate of Anna Karenina?’ by Dr. Colin Radford is in Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume XLIX 1975 p.67-80

Carole Haynes-Curtis leads an existentialistic existence in a Cornish cottage, and is probably responsible for all those rumors of pumas and leopards roaming the West Country.

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