The emotions accompanying our mental activities

It is time to put to rest the Platonic assumption that emotions are one kind of activity (or faculty) and reasoning another kind of activity (or faculty). They are not two forces vying against each other, and it is not that one is the ‘slave’ or the ‘master’ of the other: Hume holding that reason is the slave of the passions, Kant replying that passions had better be kept under watchful eye by our reason. This Platonic assumption concerning the divide between our reasons and our emotions has been carried forward into our conversations concerning ‘John’s being emotional’ or ‘Jane’s being quite cerebral.’ Granted, it may be that John has strong emotional responses to a range of things and it may also be that Jane’s responses tend to be more tempered, but neither has anything to do with a response’s being untethered to reasons.

Quite the contrary, believing a number of things is at least a prerequisite for emoting. For I cannot be angry with another unless I believe that this other has deliberately wronged me. And I can be angry with ‘the world’ only if the world consists of hostile people who are bound to harm me. In this, sadness is like anger: only if someone I value greatly has gone away can I feel sorrow. Even if I cannot verbalize this belief to others when the emotions comes on (and mostly we do not do so from a first-person perspective when we are experiencing anger or sorrow or whatever), still it does not follow that this belief is not a necessary condition for the possibility of experiencing this emotion. It is.

I want to make an even stronger case than this. Drawing on what I have argued so far in previous posts, I want to claim that emotions are intensities that accompany all of our mental activities. Intensities can be verbalized by using words like ‘very,’ ‘quite,’ ‘more,’ ‘higher,’ ‘heightened,’ ‘very little.’ Additionally, intensities admit of degrees: e.g., a little, somewhat, quite, really, very. So, I can be very angry with you or, as I write, I can be especially calm. Moreover, one can be very angry with someone at first, then less so after a time, then scarcely at all later on. Lastly, one’s mild frustration can give way to a sense of delight.

Emotions can be subtle. A mathematician in the midst of his work could say that he is ‘absorbed’ or ‘engrossed,’ and I would take this to be a way of describing the unfolding of his emotions. He may say that he is alert, calm, engaged, somewhat joyous. Someone who is exuberant is so because he has his mind set just then on enlivening possibilities. The world seems open to him in so many ways, in too many to count.

I have touched upon intensity, and I have implied in the paragraph above that each mental activity has a certain emotional ‘tenor’ (and possibly a mixture). Now, spelling out what it means for an emotion to ‘accompany’ an activity may shed further light on the relationship between the sorts of things we are involved in (reasoning being one of those) and the sorts of responses we have as we go along. Emotions, on this considered understanding, are not what is ‘aimed at.’ I am not trying to feel pleasure while I climb; as I climb and my body moves well, I feel pleasure and that is good so far as that goes. What I may be aiming at is a ‘fitness’ in my beliefs, proposals, memories, lines of thought. I suppose, in saying this, what I am after is the thought that excellent mental activities are also and always accompanied by excellent emotional unfoldings. For instance, as I get better at thinking clearly, my emotings tend to become subtler, possibly less intense or more intense, and, above all, more refined. They would have to be this way–more tranquil, more joyous, not at all ‘jittery’–if they were to properly go along with clear thinking. Conversely, poor thinking of various sorts–getting stuck, venting, complaining, doubting, repeating nonsensical things, thinking of all sorts of obstacles, excessive grieving, etc.–would also be accompanied by a stream of often intense emotions–be these anger, frustration, regret, remorse, fear, bleakness.

This is one way of reading a couple of lines from Inward Training, an early Daoist work. ‘When the mind is calm, the senses are calmed. / When the mind is well-ordered, the senses are well-ordered.’ When we cultivate certain mental activities and let go of others, when we perform them well, and when these activities are performed for longer durations, the emotings that accompany these activities will accord with them. Thus, the cruel man and the holy man stand in incomparable worlds.


Each morning the moon stands aloft over my left shoulder. I did not see it this morning. Playing tricks on me, it appeared around my craning neck.

‘A trickster figure.’ At this, the lightness of the world, we laughed.