so, for my first ‘real’ post, I’m going to throw down a few things that I’ve intimated in the past on twitter. I’m devoting this post to the problem of human emotions, or rather, the problems that arise when we try to tackle human emotions with logic. I’m more concerned here with a few trends that I have seen in recent philosophy workshop talks/debates between classmates/grumblings on twitter. These trends are troubling and perhaps dangerous. I also want to make a brief outline on how emotions should be considered, but it’ll be tentative at best.
I struggle with depression and anxiety. I have my entire life and it’s shaped who I am as a philosopher and curmudgeonly person. I’ve often claimed that I’m cranky because I care. This is true. My day-to-day existence is that of being agitated in some way or another. It’s a double-agitation; I am constantly both agitated to keep striving and working and thinking, and agitated to not, feeling inadequate or frustrated with the world. My mental/emotional health has been my entire life’s motivation. Of course, emotions are also the motivations for everyone, but there’s a large amount of emotion-denying both in common culture and in philosophy that leads to an unaware and unexamined motivational problem for many. There of course are those who think that this motivation problem should instead be suppressed or replaced with more ‘positive’ emotions, as if it were so easy. Emotions cannot be swapped out for one another. Any attempt to do so is rather hurtful and invasive.
There’s a problem with affect in philosophy, at least in the way that we discuss affect. We have a tendency to overwrought emotions as irrational and horrid experiences that deprive us of our capacity for logic -or- occasionally philosophers have some sort of hippy-dippy sense that passions are the be all and end all of human experience (or, the “Isn’t it great that we FEEL things?!” discourse). There’s a duality here, either trying to outright condemn emotions for their fleeting nature, or to try to save them from their cold destruction by logic. If both of these positions sound like strawmen, good. The issue seems to be a reduction of both logic and emotions to something simpler than they are, as if it’s some sort of on/off switch. Of course there are many who understand that logic and emotions are intertwined and cannot be fully parsed from one another, but they seem to be too few and far between in my experience.
Too often, when academics talk about affect, it seems to often be as if it’s something in a museum exhibit. We’ve catalogued it, defined its parameters, explained how it used to mean something back in the day to those who felt them and we pepper in our own moral rationalization regarding whether or not these were “valid” emotions. Affect is better for study when it has passed and no longer is an active threat. Many philosophers who work in affect seem instead to be working in some sort of navel-gazing prose poetry. I’ve met several colleagues who refer to ‘suffering’ with a sterile outsider’s perspective in their tone of voice where it’s hard to imagine they’ve ever suffered anything in their lives more than the occasional hangover. Something died in affect theory. We are no longer talking about feelings, but instead about something that I prefer to avoid the word “affect” since it has this sterile academic use. Instead, I’m just simply going to use the term “feelings” or the most brilliant term bestowed by the internet: “the feels”.
‘The feels’ understands the nature of emotions perfectly. They are always a multitude, all the time. It is impossible to pin down one singular emotion that rules over an action alone. Instead, there is often a motivational ambivalence between a few emotions that guide someone to make a decision. Logic in any truly pure form is detached from any human reality. Logic is logic. It has no practical application in our actions unless it is motivated by our emotional stance. The desire to follow logic or reason is still a desire and thereby is still emotive.
There’s also an issue that arises with an assumption that there is a dualism between rationality and irrationality. Instead, we should examine things as being split by rational, irrational, and non-rational. The rational conforms to pure logical forms. The irrational stands against anything and everything that is logical, often with a nihilistic contrarian polemic against logic. Meanwhile, the non-rational operates beyond or parallel to logic. This category just shouldn’t be compared to logic. Emotions are not by nature irrational, but non-rational. They operate without a logical framework, but do not actively defy logic. Emotions cannot be judged in terms of being logical or not until some sort of post hoc reflection. An immediate emotional reaction just is. Reaction is a brute fact outside of reason. It’s only the maintenance and reflection of emotion that can be evaluated in terms of rationality or irrationality, that is, after one has had time to think on the cause of the emotional reaction and its consequences in motivation.
That’s about all I have right now on this. Emotions are complicated and need a more complicated, rigorous approach in determining their use as motivation for ethical action. I’ve been trying to carve this out for a while, and hope that I can use this blog as a way to tease out this problem some more in the future.