Finding Ourselves in the World: Emotion, Orientation, Place. Part I

By Jeff Malpas, University of Tasmania

On 13 June 2018, Professor Jeff Malpas delivered this keynote lecture at The University of Western Australia, to open a conference on ‘The Future of Emotions: Conversations Without Borders’:

Here is one possible ‘future’ for the emotions – at least an imagined future, though one from back in the 1960s. The face should be fairly familiar – Science Officer Spock of the Starship Enterprise. In the TV series Star Trek, Spock was presented as the instantiation of a purely logical being without emotions to cloud his judgement – as perhaps the sort of being humans should become – although one of the persistent themes of the TV series was that it is precisely the human, often equated with the emotional, that often turns out to save the day, usually in the person of Captain James T. Kirk.

Jeff Malpas
Professor Jeff Malpas delivering his keynote lecture.

Star Trek presented a commonplace way of understanding the emotions that sets them in contrast to reason. Indeed, the contrast between Spock and Kirk is one that frequently appears in fiction – the figures of Holmes and Watson in the original Conan Doyle stories providing another example of the same idea, and one can find similar instances elsewhere.  Although this picture might seem overly simplistic or even naïve, it is a picture that has a long philosophical history to it, and the idea of the conflict between emotion and reason exemplified in the contrast between Spock and Kirk or Holmes and Watson is one that goes back to the very beginnings of Western philosophical thinking – one can see its beginnings in Plato’s famous idea of reason and emotion as two horses yoked to the same chariot, both requiring proper control to work together.

The general picture is one that remains powerful today. It is especially evident, in a philosophical context, in the work of many contemporary ethicists. Peter Singer, for instance, takes emotion to be subversive of genuine ethical conduct – the latter being based in a purely rational and ‘objective’ assessment of decision and action. Not just in ethics, but in many different areas of especially English language philosophy, it is commonplace to find the idea that our primary access to the world is or ought to be in terms of a detached mode of rationality. This view is present outside of philosophy as well. Across many different domains and areas of human activity, there is an increasing focus on the primacy of what are often represented as purely ‘rational’ modes of engagement – whether we look to algorithmic decision-making, more generalised forms of artificial intelligence, many forms of economic thinking (especially those that privilege the ‘market’), or even some of what is termed ‘evidence-based decision making’ there is a widespread assumption, not only that reason and emotion are distinct such that reason can operate independently of emotion, but that our primary engagement with the world ought to be, even if it not always is, by means of reason alone, and that the primary mechanisms that should order our lives ought to stand apart from any emotional dispositions or tendencies.

Star Trek, in keeping with the mood of the sixties when it was made, is interesting not only because it exemplifies the idea of the supposed separation of reason and emotion so clearly, but also because it contests this idea of the primacy and adequacy of reason. Still, the prioritisation of reason over emotion remains widespread and commonplace – and perhaps that will seem as it should be to many. After all isn’t emotion just something subjective, and isn’t reason about the connection with what is objective and real?

Both the separation of reason from emotion, and its prioritisation, together with the broader separation of mind from body that it exemplifies, is something to which the neuropsychologist Antonio Damasio refers, in a way that already indicates the direction of Damasio’s thinking on this matter, as ‘Descartes’ error’ – thereby also identifying this view with the sixteenth-century philosopher René Descartes. Regardless of the historical accuracy of Damasio’s invocation of Descartes here, this idea of the separation and prioritisation of reason in relation to emotion, even though it has earlier precedents and is sometimes contested by movements within modernity such as Romanticism, is indeed characteristic of modernity and is itself closely tied to modernity’s own progressivist agenda. The betterment of human being is thus typically associated with the escape from our emotional attachments and constraints through the liberating power of reason alone – our engagement with the world being like that of a purely abstracted intelligence, perhaps more like that portrayed in William Blake’s image of Newton. On this account, the better world of the future would be one in which we were all more like Spock than Kirk, more Holmes than Watson, more Newton than Blake himself.

Although some of us may well think we have met people rather like Spock, the claims made about his lack of emotion don’t entirely ring true. Indeed, as he actually appeared, Spock wasn’t so much lacking in emotion as seeming to lack any powerful emotions. Thus Spock certainly exhibited, to take two obvious examples, both curiosity and surprise – usually indicated by a judicious raising of the eyebrow. That both of these, along with other, what I would call (following Israel Schaeffler[i]cognitive emotions such as doubt and confidence should indeed be understood as emotions is an important point. It is partly the failure to do so that often contributes to a narrowed down conception of the extent to which the emotional and the cognitive are intertwined.

There is, of course, some ambiguity here in talk of ‘emotion’ – which is one of the things that becomes evident when we ask whether curiosity or surprise are indeed to be counted as emotions. Whether they are or not, and how we differentiate emotions from simple attitudes, from moods, affects or passions seem to me questions to which there are no absolute and determinate answers. As the history of emotions itself shows, how we classify emotions and what we take an emotion to be is not fixed, but changes with other social and cultural circumstances. This doesn’t mean that emotions are themselves somehow arbitrary or determined only by convention, such that there is no underlying truth to our emotions and the judgements we make about them, but rather that the reality of emotional life is such as to support many different understandings and interpretations of it. Our emotional lives, like our lives generally, form complex landscapes that always allow many different descriptions and depictions that are no less true for the fact that they are many.

Precisely because of the breadth as well as the indeterminacy that seems to me to attach to emotions and emotional life, when I talk of emotions here I am going to use the term in a wide rather than narrow sense, and that means that I will use the term to include affects, moods, passions and the full range of felt states and attitudes by which, as the term ‘emotion’ itself implies, we are moved. That idea of ‘movement’ (or agitation or excitation which the etymology of ‘emotion’ also suggests) is an important one, since it brings with it the idea of emotions as indeed what give force and direction to our lives. The examples of Spock and Holmes, however, seem to run directly counter to such a view of emotion. What they might seem to suggest is that it is possible, and one might even argue preferable, to live one’s life in a way given over to reason alone – to live in a way that sets emotion to one side.

So deep-seated is this idea of the primacy of reason that it can be hard even to make plausible the suggestion that it might be erroneous. Yet like Damasio, I think it surely is erroneous, and it is the nature of the error, as well as an alternative way of thinking, that I want to explore here. What I want to suggest to you is not only, as Hume declared, that reason is the slave to the passions, but that our very access to the world is possible only on the basis of our prior emotional engagement with things, and that reason is essentially secondary to this, if, indeed, we can even think of it as apart from it.

One of the problems with a purely rational approach to the world – even were such a thing possible – is that it offers no indication of how we should engage with things or even what it might be with which we should engage. Understood in the manner in which it is set against emotion, reason is not substantive, but almost entirely formal. This is one way of understanding Hume’s point – a point that underlies Hume’s claim concerning reason as slave of the passions – that reason has no motivating power. It is thus that it must serve that which does motivate, namely the passions, and it does so by, among other things, enabling the identification of the means to those ends towards which we are indeed motivated. But in doing this it concerns only the relations between ends and means, and between different objects, as those ends and objects are already picked out in certain ways by what Hume referred to as the passions, that is to say, by our own prior emotional stances towards the world.

In this respect, it should not be surprising to find that Holmes is so vulnerable to boredom and depression – such emotions or moods can be seen as themselves emanating, at least in some cases, from a profound sense of detachment from the world, a deep and abiding loss of interest in things, an indifference that is nonetheless painful precisely because it betokens a disabling of our capacity for engagement at the same time as it leaves intact our need for such engagement. In Holmes’ case, this boredom is alleviated only by the interest of a criminal case, or failing that, by the resort to narcotics. This is not to suggest that reason or rationality are themselves inherently boring or depressing, but rather that they do not in themselves offer any means by which the self can attach itself to things. Indeed, they involve an essential capacity for abstraction that, because it removes us from the concreteness of our situation, also removes us from the source of that which motivates and engages us. If we really were to take the form of a purely rational mode of being-in-the-world, we would also, by that very fact, be removed both from objects and from ourselves, having nothing to motivate us towards objects nor even in relation to ourselves. Put simply, we would not care about anything and as such would have no interest in anything either. In this respect, it is not only that reason does not motivate, as Hume argues, but that reason, as traditionally conceived, does not orient either.

When we first encounter things, it is typically not in some abstract or neutral fashion, but instead we find ourselves in the world in ways that already position or place us in relation to things in certain ways. In the most general sense, we may say that we always find ourselves in the world in a way shaped by prior cares and concerns. Sometimes those prior cares and concerns are themselves directly shaped by powerfully felt emotions, but they are also shaped by more moderate feelings or complexes of feeling that we may not even notice such that we separate them out as distinct feelings. In those everyday cases, our engagement derives from more long-standing and settled emotional attachments and dispositions that provide the basic frame within which our actions and decisions are situated. Emotion orients in a way that reason does not.

Orientation, moreover, always involves the body – not merely because it relates to action and bodily affect, but also because orientation depends on differentiation in oneself that can be related to differentiation in the surrounding world. This is a point famously made by Kant, but one can readily see it for oneself once one reflects on the way one’s acquaintance with the different parts of a space are intimately tied to the way those parts of space relate to the different parts of one’s body – as the space before, behind, above and below, to the right and to the left are grasped through one’s grasp of the different sides of one’s body – front and back, top and bottom, left and right. Without differentiation in one’s body one would be unable to grasp differentiation in space, in much the same way that a map is meaningless and useless unless it can be related back to one’s own bodily position. The orientational character of emotion together with the bodily character of orientation means that emotion must itself be closely connected with bodily states and dispositions. This does not entail, however, that emotion is therefore non-cognitive in character. This is not only because the contrast between the cognitive and the bodily involves a false dichotomy, but also because the orientational character of emotion already brings cognitive content with it (even if it is not always exhaustively characterised in any simple propositional specification). One might characterise emotion as just the felt aspect of our bodily and cognitive orientation in and towards the world. Emotion is the felt experience of finding oneself in the world – something echoed in one of the German terms sometimes used to refer to mood or emotional attitude (a term often awkwardly translated into English as ‘state of mind’), namely, Befindlichkeit– ‘how one finds oneself’.

Photograph of Martin Heidegger. Detail of a phototograph entitled : "W 134 Nr. 060678b - Hausen: Festakt, in der Reihe, Kultusminister Storz, Prof. Heidegger, Dichtel
Photograph of Martin Heidegger. Detail of a phototograph entitled : “W 134 Nr. 060678b – Hausen: Festakt, in der Reihe, Kultusminister Storz, Prof. Heidegger, Dichtel

Within that branch of philosophy known as phenomenology (summarily characterised as the philosophical enquiry into the structure that allows things to appear), this aspect of emotion, and especially of mood, as enabling and shaping our basic engagement with the world is often put by saying that emotions or moods are disclosive of the world. Emotions or moods provide the means by and through which the world, and the things in it, show themselves. In this respect, emotion can indeed be understood as that which moves us in and towards the world in certain specific ways such that aspects of the world stand out for us and so give direction to what we think, decide and do. This idea of emotions as ‘disclosive’ is often associated most closely with the work of the philosopher Martin Heidegger, although Heidegger tends to focus more specifically on moods, notably anxiety and boredom, but also wonder (it is Heidegger who notably employs term Befindlichkeit in this context). This phenomenological way of understanding the emotions is not, however, restricted to Heidegger alone. It is taken up in a quite explicit way in the work of Otto Bollnow, and it is also present, even if it is often left implicit, in the work of Merleau-Ponty, Levinas, Bachelard and many others. Part of what draws these thinkers together is indeed a commitment to the idea that our primary engagement with the world is not that which belongs with a merely ‘rational’ attitude to things (as this is usually understood), but is instead an engagement that belongs with affect and disposition…


Jeff Malpas is a Distinguished Professor at the University of Tasmania and Visiting Distinguished Professor at La Trobe University, Melbourne. He was founder, and until 2005, Director, of the University of Tasmania’s Centre for Applied Philosophy and Ethics. He is the author or editor of 21 books on topics in philosophy, art, architecture and geography. His work is grounded in post-Kantian thought, especially the hermeneutical and phenomenological traditions, as well as in analytic philosophy of language and mind. He is currently working on topics including the ethics of place, the failing character of governance, the materiality of memory, the topological character of hermeneutics, the place of art, and the relation between place, boundary and surface.

[i] Israel Scheffler, In Praise of Cognitive Emotions (London: Routledge, 1991).

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