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The Heart Has Its Reasons: An emotional tribute to Robert C. Solomon
by Joel Marks
According to a widely accepted view, which I share, philosophy and rationality fit together like hand and glove. The method of philosophy is none other than reasoning, and some would define philosophy as simply that method applied to the most basic questions of existence. Rationality is also commonly recommended by philosophers as the most excellent virtue: the essence of the good life. Thus, a certain antipathy has come to characterize philosophy’s relationship to the passions. Philosophy is best done with a cool head, and emotion would seem to be the opposite of that and hence the enemy of virtue. The philosopher Robert Solomon saw things differently. His sudden passing in January of 2007 at age 64 shocked the philosophical community. I dedicate this issue’s column to his memory.
Solomon spent his career defending the idea that emotions are far from being mere ‘sensations’, like burns or tickles, but are instead what he called ‘judgments’. In the jargon of philosophers, this means that emotions are intentional phenomena akin to or even consisting of beliefs, and hence cognitive. So to be angry is not only or even necessarily to be in an agitated physiological state, but to have a very definite idea in your mind. For example, you believe that so-and-so uttered an insult (“You are an idiot”) and was motivated to do so by a particular thought (the aim of holding you up to ridicule). These are complex ideas, which can be described, as opposed to a ‘brute experience’ like a toothache, about which there is not much to say except that it hurts in the vicinity of your upper left second molar. The implication is that emotions can be assessed for their rationality. A toothache is just a toothache, but anger can be rational or irrational. What I would like to suggest is that emotions can be assessed for rationality in several different ways.
To begin with, a particular instance of an emotion can be so assessed based on the truth or falsity of its component beliefs. If I were angry at you for insulting me, but in fact you did not do so, then my anger would be irrational to that extent. Note that I could have a mistaken belief about what you said (your words were “Hugh is an idiot” not “You are an idiot”) or about your intention (you did say “You are an idiot” but ironically).
As beliefs are not the same thing as the facts they purport to embody, an emotion can go rationally wrong in more interesting ways as well. For example, my belief that you insulted me may be true, but without sufficient warrant. You did say “You are an idiot,” but everybody at the party was just joking around at the time; I was foolish to bristle at the mere utterance. However, what I had missed was that when you said it, you were also making signals to the others present (a knowing wink and shaking of the head) to indicate that this time you really meant it. So my anger was irrational, even though incorporating a true belief, because my having that belief was unjustified.
Now suppose you had in fact complimented me and I believed that you had and still I was angry with you. What ho? Here is a case, potentially, of truly fundamental irrationality of emotion. For now it is not simply my getting something wrong about the facts at hand, or about my warrant for them, but rather a deep disconnect between my beliefs and the very logic of a particular type of emotion. Anger just makes no sense when its target and cause are benign. Oh, we can always weave some tale that would restore rationality to a seemingly bizarre situation; thus, your compliment angered me because you should have realized I was trying to remain inconspicuous. But then it was really your hurtful thoughtlessness that angered me, which makes emotional sense, and not the compliment as such.
The point is that emotions are rational at base. So even if I falsely or unwarrantedly believed you had insulted me, making my anger irrational in that way, my anger would still be rational in that the right sort of thing was causing it, namely an insult (real or imagined). If a compliment (or believed compliment) had caused it instead, my anger would be irrational in a more profound way. Indeed, we may wonder whether such a thing were even possible.
Let’s push the question even further. As I noted at the beginning, some see rationality as having ethical significance, so one might question whether an emotion is rational in an ethical sense. Could there be something irrational about anger, then, even when both its logical and cognitive criteria are being met? Purushottama Bilimoria, in his contribution to a book on Emotions in Asian Thought (SUNY Press, 1995) co-edited by Roger T. Ames and myself, points out that, in the Indian tradition exemplified by the Mahabharata, anger is one of “twelve negative emotions or vices that stand in the way of self-control and hence should be avoided” (p.75). One can surely imagine reasons for denigrating all kinds of anger, ranging from the spiritual, e.g., that anger riles the soul whose equanimity is a prerequisite of enlightenment, to the mundane, e.g., that anger interferes with the resolution of disputes.
Finally, coming full circle, how about the hypothesis that emotion as such is irrational, that is, in the ethical sense? In that same volume on Asian thought, Robert Solomon took aim at my own defense of dispassion as a virtue. As one of my doctoral dissertation advisors, Arthur S. McGrade, once noted, I was always a passionate proponent of eliminating emotion from the good life. Robert Solomon lived a very good life as an enthusiast of emotion. He has been and will continue to be missed.
© Prof. Joel Marks 2011
Joel Marks is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of New Haven (West Haven, Connecticut) and a Bioethics Center Scholar at Yale University. He cares passionately about animals. Visit his website TheEasyVegan.com.