Feeling Philosophy

                                                Feeling Philosophy



Philosophy is an emotional subject. There are philosophical emotions. But are these emotions specific to philosophy or just instances of more general emotions? Is the emotional life of a philosopher essentially identical to that of a physicist or an historian, or is it a life of a different emotional flavor? And how do these emotions contribute to the discipline of philosophy? Do they affect what is believed or what is chosen for study? Are they the reason people go into the subject? These questions are seldom if ever asked, but they are right in front of our noses. We philosophers live with our philosophical emotions every day, wrestling with them, suffering them, enjoying them. But we don’t think of them as part of the subject, as worth philosophical investigation. I propose that we create a new branch of philosophy: the philosophy of philosophical emotion (a branch of meta-philosophy). This is a subject in its infancy (conception?) with not much in the way of data and nothing theoretical to speak of. Here I merely record some impressions and recommend further study.

            Russell was dubbed a “passionate skeptic” and indeed his emotions ran high in the matter of doubt; but he was also a passionate believer—in logic and reason. He was deeply troubled by skepticism about the empirical world, but he had no doubts about reason itself. Wittgenstein was a notably emotional philosopher, as his two major works testify. He spoke of the torments of philosophy, about the difficulty of stopping doing it, about its temptations and false exhilarations. Quine confessed his emotional preference for “desert landscapes” and seemed determined to rid philosophy of emotional uplift; yet his verbal playfulness and mischievous style suggest philosophical joy. Hume’s writings fairly throb with passion and he devoted a lot of time to the subject of passion; he was clearly not a man lacking in emotion. Descartes seems emotionally controlled, a thinking (not emoting) thing, but his animated defense of his positions are anything but affectless. Thomas Nagel speaks of a tendency to hate the problems of philosophy and to wish they would go away. Nietzsche did nothing but emote philosophically. I could go on, as could any philosopher familiar with the field’s figures and feuds, as well as their own daily experience. I have been awash in philosophical emotion for the last forty years—swimming in a sea of it, sometimes drowning and sometimes surfing. I would say that I have found philosophical emotion to be mostly agreeable, though testing on occasion—that is, the kind of emotion I experience when alone thinking. The emotions aroused by the profession of philosophy are another matter, and these are not always so agreeable. I am less interested in exploring these emotions, which reflect local conditions and professional institutions—though they echo some of the emotional qualities found in the pursuit of philosophy as such (despair, exhilaration).

            My own sense is that philosophical emotions are distinctive, not merely instances of something more general, though there are overlaps with other areas. When I studied psychology as a student I was never so emotionally engaged. Philosophical emotion struck me from early on as intoxicating, possibly dangerous, often elating. Even despair about making progress seemed uplifting. Of course, there is the mundane matter of anxiety about making mistakes, getting it wrong, bungling it—being no good. But I have found the emotions of philosophy to be generally positive and not to be obtained elsewhere. It may even be true that I went into philosophy largely because I liked the emotions it produced in me. I liked the way philosophy felt (still do). What it is like to be a philosopher was a reason to be one. One of the attractions is the freedom from the tedium of facts: you don’t have to learn a lot of uninteresting basic information—so there are no dead areas. You are free to speculate and theorize, argue and refute. Logical reasoning is your only constraint, and it is a pleasant form of constraint: it keeps you feeling on track, not lost at sea. Thus we philosophers tend to love logic. Logic, we love you. We feel married to logic. We get offended if logic is insulted or disrespected. Our emotions are logic-centered. But we also love imagination, flights of intellect, mental adventures. This is why the thought experiment gets our juices flowing: here our logical mind takes flight and takes in the conceptual landscape. A seminar room becomes rapt when a philosopher produces a beautiful new thought experiment. The mood lifts, the spirit takes wing; philosophical emotions flood the premises. I don’t think other subjects can reproduce these emotions, though they may afford compensating emotions, because philosophy is not like other subjects. Its characteristic emotions match its content. It is both liberating and burdensome.

Perhaps some areas of philosophy differ from others in their emotional contours—ethics one way, philosophical logic another. But speaking for myself I find the whole field quite emotionally unified: I feel much the same way no matter what I am working on—though perhaps there is a tighter sense of constraint in some areas than others. For me philosophical logic has always been the most satisfying part of philosophy. Identity has thrilled me many times, while existence has caused me the most heartache. Necessity I have loved and fretted over. I have never tired of necessity: I always feel stimulated by it and enjoy its company. Overall I find philosophy emotionally unified within itself and emotionally distinct from other subjects of study. It is true that other subjects can excite similar emotions in me—physics, biology—but that is only when they resemble philosophy. Then I want to do philosophy of physics and philosophy of biology.

            There is a question about whether other types of activity resemble philosophy emotionally. Some analogies can be made, but I don’t think they demonstrate any real unity. I have compared philosophy to pole-vaulting (I used to be a pole-vaulter), but the comparison is more poetic than literal. Is it like fiction, writing it or reading it? Not really, except perhaps for the sense of freedom (but the freedom is different in the two cases). Nor is philosophical emotion anything like musical emotion. Is it romantic? Not quite, but it is not far off. Philosophical emotion is sui generis, which is why there is no substitute for it. We should study it and try to understand its workings. We should bring it up with our students. We should be concerned about its pathologies and negative aspects. We should refine and cultivate it. I suggest conducting surveys and convening workshops, with perhaps a new journal (the Journal of Emotional Philosophy).  [1] This new subject might have some interesting emotional aspects—the emotions we feel while thinking about philosophical emotions.


  [1] I see no reason why we could not take recordings from the brain of a philosopher engaged about a philosophical problem: which parts of the brain light up? We could compare this brain activity with that aroused by other subjects.

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