Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk



Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk



Mr. Spock feels no emotion; Captain Kirk overflows with it. Spock coldly calculates; Kirk passionately emotes. Spock has no sense of humor and never smiles; Kirk enjoys a joke and smiles frequently. Kirk loves, not so Spock. Do they understand each other? It seems clear that Spock doesn’t understand Kirk: he finds emotions alien. He is to Kirk as we are to bats. He observes Kirk’s behavior, listens to his words, knows all about his nervous system (what does Spock not know about?)—but he doesn’t know what it is like to be Kirk. For he lacks the experiences that define emotions, and you can’t grasp experiences that you don’t yourself experience. He sees no point in emotion, and looks disdainfully upon it, but he also has no idea what it is. If he were a philosopher, he would see in it an objection to materialism (you can know all the physical facts about Kirk but not know his emotions). Kirk’s phenomenology is unknown to him: he knows what it’s like to be a cold calculator but not what it’s like to be a hot feeler.  Spock, after all, is not human, as his pointy ears indicate (he is Vulcan)—he is a conscious being of another species. Even his vast intelligence doesn’t extend to knowledge of human psychology (except perhaps functionally).

But does Kirk understand Spock? You might suppose that he does because he is also a rational thinker, no stranger to logical calculation (Mr. Scott is another story). He knows what it’s like to reason logically, maybe even to detach himself from disruptive feelings, so he should be able to extrapolate to Spock’s pure logicality. But actually it is not at all clear that he understands Spock—he is constantly puzzled and nonplussed by his Chief Science Officer. The reason is that he can’t really grasp what it’s like to have a non-emotional psychology; he is so steeped in emotion himself that to imagine a life without emotion is beyond his powers of comprehension. How can Spock notfeel? How can Spock be a person and yet have no emotions? What is it like to experience the world without having any feelings about it? An intelligent bat might likewise have trouble understanding human psychology precisely because of something it lacks: what can it be like not to experience the world by sonar? Do the sighted really grasp what it is like to be totally blind? Our imagination is shaped by our own inner life, but that inner life is made up of a totality of components, all interacting. The components suffuse each other, forming an entire phenomenological landscape; it is not so easy to detach one component and leave the rest. What would it be like (Kirk might muse) to think and yet have no feelings about what you are thinking about, especially concerning matters of life and death? So we don’t know what it’s like to be a bat, and the blind don’t know what it’s like to see, and Spock doesn’t know what it’s like to be Kirk; but similarly bats don’t know what it’s like to be us, the sighted don’t know what it’s like to be blind, and Kirk doesn’t know what it’s like to be Spock. Or maybe there is partial knowledge in this direction but not complete knowledge (as is the case in the other direction too). The general point is that it is hard to get outside of one’s own phenomenology. We tend towards phenomenological solipsism.

There is also something inherently puzzling about Spock, which is skirted by Star Trek: does Spock have desires? He is depicted as having few desires, but he appears to have some—and how can he not given that he is capable of intentional action? He doesn’t love or lust or grow angry or feel dejected or grief-stricken, but he seems to desire to do his duty, to save lives, and to make his voice heard. He certainly has values and these must exist in the form of hopes and wishes. He wishes, above all, to be logical, which is a wish easy for him to fulfill. But now, if he has desires, even quite strong ones, shouldn’t he also have the emotions that typically go along with desire—frustration, satisfaction, unease, and tranquility? Here Spock seems paradoxical: he values and desires yet he doesn’t feel. This is a psychology genuinely difficult to make sense of. Kirk sometimes shows awareness of this point when he quizzes Spock rather skeptically about his lack of emotion: surely, he suggests, Spock must feel something about this! How can things work out the way Spock hoped and yet he feels no joy in that? Spock merely cocks his eyebrow, leaving the enigma unresolved. Desire and emotion necessarily go together and yet Spock maintains his emotional blindness. So he might really be objectively unintelligible as well as relatively so (to humans like Kirk). What would Spock feel if his logical powers deserted him following a head injury? Would he feel precisely nothing or would it bother him to lose the faculty he prizes above all others? He wishes humans were more logical, but then isn’t he upset when they are not? Or is it just that he has reduced emotions, the kind that don’t spoil the psyche’s overall equilibrium? The matter is left unresolved by the great Gene Rodenberry.

I will mention one other philosophical issue raised by the Spock-Kirk duo, concerning the nature of virtue.  There is no doubt that Spock is depicted as virtuous, irritatingly so at times, but he is a man (sic) without feelings, including empathy. So virtue cannot (according to Star Trek) consist in having good feelings—it is not ethically Humean. He always does what is right, but he has never felt compassion or generosity in his life. On the other hand, Kirk is also depicted as virtuous, despite his emotional gushing (those passionate speeches!): he is a soul whose emotions are good. So he is far from the Kantian ideal: his emotions are his moral guide not dispassionate reason. The thing is both depictions are persuasive: we have here a representation of two possible human types, both virtuous in their own way. Was the creator of Star Trek alert to this debate in moral philosophy and anxious to maintain an inclusively dual conception of virtue? It really is possible to be virtuous in one of two ways the series seems to say. Not Hume or Kant but Hume and Kant. There is Spock-style virtue and Kirk-style virtue. Possibly each has its blind spots and weaknesses, but each also has its strengths. Moral psychology is thus complex and not unified; virtue can reside in very different types of mind. Viewers of the series might identify with each man alternately, seeing the merits of one kind of virtue compared to the other (logicians always preferring Spock). The point is repeatedly made that Spock’s type of virtue, admirable though it is, comes at the price of a lack of humanity, in the form of an absence of emotion; while Kirk’s kind is more erratic and unreliable, though never fundamentally on the wrong track (he is Captain James T. Kirk, after all). Spock seems above the other crewmembers in respect of moral rectitude, with the possible exception of the Captain, but we find him a cold fish despite his moral probity. The contrast between the two presents an excellent class in philosophical moral psychology.[1]


Colin McGinn

[1] My own attitude is that I sometimes grow impatient with Kirk’s passionate excesses, but I feel a bit sorry for Spock. Still, I’d be proud to serve on the Bridge with either of them (along with Lieutenant Uhuru of course).


3 responses to “Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk”

  1. jeffrey g kessen says:

    Jerry Coyne recounts having been “caught” naked in Richard Lewontin’s lab—on two separate occasions. See Coyne’s latest Post on his blog,”Why Evolution is True”. God knows how many times I’ve been caught naked in someone or other’s lab. Hey, so I like to experiment while naked. Spock might remark it as curious that we humans tend to characterize our encounters with naked people, however innocent the circumstances, in terms of our having “caught” them.

  2. jeffrey g kessen says:

    Whenever someone was caught “clothed” at, “The Parliament House”, we knew he was part of Orlando’s own, “Metropolitan Bureau of Vice”. Damn dumb bastards.

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