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Reason & Emotion

James R. Robinson finds ways of bridging the gap (or not).

The heart and the mind, that is, emotion and reason, are often said to be in opposition. This is not so! This article aims to enhance our consciousness of the connection between the two.

Here, when I use the word ‘reason’, I will be refering to three distinct concepts. The first two are the faculty of reason – which is the power of thinking, comprehending, or inferring – and a reason – which is a spoken, written, or thought statement of justification or explanation. The third use of the word ‘reason’ refers to the rationality or reasonableness of a statement or set of statements. This third use of the word involves judging, according to some given criteria, whether a specific statement of justification or explanation (a reason) is sufficiently rational or not – that is, as to whether the reason is a rational reason! For example, the statement: “I want to go to the corner shop to buy some tropical fish” contains the explanation ‘because I want to buy some tropical fish’. This statement, however, might not seem rational to someone who knew that the shop is a grocers and not an aquarium.

Now let’s circle around to emotions. The word ‘emotion’ comes from the Latin noun mōtus, which means ‘motion’ or ‘movement’. Classically speaking, there are actually two types of emotion: emotions of the mind (affections), and emotions of the body (passions). This distinction is found in the works of St Thomas Aquinas. For example, in his Summa Theologica (c.1268), he notes the difference between a passion of love and an affection of love (1a. 82.5, ad1). Other examples of affections (in addition to the one already given by Aquinas) include enthusiasm, resentment, forgiveness and even diligent attention. It is enough to know here, however, that passion or affection simply distinguish the type of emotion: that passions are of the body, and affections are of the mind. For the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on those emotions (or movements) that are of the body. In focusing on passions specifically, it will hopefully become clear why there is the division between the heart and the mind in the first place.

Aquinas claims that all passions are accompanied by an increase or decrease in heart rate (Summa, 1a.2ae, 24.2, ad2). This is unmistakable if we pause to recognise what is happening to our heart when we’re eating, drinking, or engaging in aggressive or romantic activity. It should be noted that these activities are not themselves passions. Rather, they are activities which induce passions as a consequence of engaging in them. Indeed, one would commonly – though by no means is it necessary – engage in the activities of eating, drinking, fighting or having sex because one is correspondingly hungry, thirsty, angry, or horny, and the latter are passions – as are being satisfied, quenched, revenged or relieved as a consequence of engaging in the activities.

Let’s take the example of a passion of hunger. This is a passion arising in the body, notably the stomach. This feeling (which I’m using as a synonym for emotion here), is manifestly physical. It can take on different degrees – less or more hungry – and can be characterised by a variety of bodily sensations, such as a sharp pain or a dull discomfort. But these are still, of course, physical.

Now the passion of hunger is not part of the faculty of reason – that is, the power of thinking, comprehending or inferring – because the faculty of reason is of the mind and therefore non-physical. This observation extends to all physical emotions. This is one way to understand the divide between passion and reason, or the heart (sometimes literally) and the mind. However, this divide is not unbridgeable.

Reason and Emotion
Reason & Emotion by Cecilia Mou, 2021
Image © Cecilia Mou 2021. To see more art, please Instagram her at @mouceciliaart

Bridging The Divide in Two Simple Ways

The faculty of reason – traditionally called the intellect – produces reasons, in this case in the sense of thoughts which can be articulated in the form of spoken justifications or explanations. For example: if I suggest to my friend that “We should go eat something because I’m hungry”, then ‘because I’m hungry’ acts as the reason/explanation for my wish for us to go get something to eat. In this sort of way a passion can be used as a reason for an action, and, what’s more, can be made intelligible to the faculty of reason. So providing reasons based upon passions is one way to breach the divide between the heart and the mind.

Another way to think about the divide between the passions and the intellect, is by first noting that passions are somewhat involuntary. That is to say, we have no control over whether we feel hungry or thirsty, and only limited control over whether we feel angry or sad, and so on. While this is true, it is possible to control how or whether we act upon our passions. Therefore we are responsible for how we act upon them.

How we act upon our passions can be judged by our faculty of reason via the reasons we give for them, as to whether our actions are reasonable, or not! So this is another way of bridging the gap between the heart and the mind. For example the statement, “I went for a run in order to re-direct and use up my anger” might be taken to express a rational use of anger, if a criterion for a rational use of anger is, for example, that ‘anger is used in a productive way’. Therefore, even though the emotion of anger was not freely felt or voluntarily generated, it was used in a way that was sufficient to meet or fulfil the criterion of rationality. Consequently, my statement of justification – my reason for how I used my passion of anger, can be deemed rational. It is a rational reason!

Thought Experiment

We’ve seen that although there is a divide between emotion and reason, this divide is not uncrossable. This was first demonstrated by showing how passions can be intelligible to, and used by, our faculty of reason – when passions can be referred to as part of a statement meant to explain or justify a desire to act. Building upon this, it was seen that despite passions being somewhat involuntary, they can be acted upon in rational ways, according to the individual’s criteria of judgement.

An exercise that you, dear reader, can try, is as follows. Take any emotion that arises from the body – for example, hunger, thirst, lust, anger, fear, joy, or anything else physically felt, including pain and pleasures. Ask yourself whether it is possible to justify, or explain, some action based on it. For example, a justification for an action could be could be, “I will take the last bottle of beer from the fridge because I’m thirsty.” Then additionally ask yourself whether this justification is consistent with your various beliefs and commitments. One such criterion here could be the principle ‘sharing is caring’. In this case you did not consider whether any of your friends might like a beer – hence your principle ‘sharing is caring’ was not sufficiently met. You come to the conclusion that your reason for taking the last beer is not rational because acting in this way would be inconsistent with your other beliefs. Somewhat reluctantly, you call out to ask if anyone else would like to share the last beer with you.

© James R. Robinson 2021

James R. Robinson is a recent Master’s graduate living in the Netherlands, he currently works as a gardener and part-time as an English teacher.

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