Reason Without Emoti·on
In ‘Reason and Emotion’ (RP 57), Miranda Fricker objects to the
polarisation of reason and emotion, the separation of which she
sees as a factor in the conflict between rational, patriarchal
modes of reasoning and the ‘expressive power of emotions’
which feminists have tended to prefer. Seeking to refute ‘a
falsely polarised model of the two faculties’, she attempts an
alignment of them which recognises their mutually constitutive
The argument, which demonstrates how emotions are constructed as a result of judgements, beliefs and the interpretation
of sensations by reason, is a convincing one; the conclusion,
however, is mistaken. If Fricker’s own analysis of these cognitive processes is right, to advocate that we should listen to our
emotions and ‘simultaneously revise our notion of what is rational and … make sense of those emotions with the help of
newly reasoned explanations’ seems problematic. Fricker suggests ‘an initial privileging of emotion as regards instigating
changes of consciousness … and thereby political change’. Her
conclusion – that an interaction of two faculties, involving
privileging of one or the other, does not involve some form of
domination – seems to me to be at least arguable. However,
Fricker’s central error is that, despite a very clear argument
against the separation of reason and emotion, she ultimately
reinstates the dichotomy with her insistence not only that ‘the
expressive power of emotion is not reducible to that of rational
judgement as expressed in language’, but also that it ‘means
something in itself’ to feel an emotion.
Exactly how sensation, emotion and judgement can be
placed on a continuum between internal and external influences,
Fricker makes clear by demonstrating the errors within the
positivist ‘Dumb view’. Mere sensation may be entirely absent
from the construction and expression of an emotion. When
sensation is bound up with emotion, it is not until reason interprets the sensation that the emotion may be registered. External
factors – the context of the experience – and internal factors – an
evaluation of the sense data – are indispensable to, not simply the
registration of an emotion, but its production. Sheer sensation,
then, is meaningless. Emotions, however, are not only ‘both
causally and intentionally linked to the external world’, they are
necessarily meaningful. A feeling of outrage at an unjust act
expresses something about that act: sensation is not added on to
the judgement as a sort of optional extra. Emotions depend upon
the world ‘both for their existence and for their definition’. Thus
far the reason-emotion dichotomy is convincingly challenged.
As regards the cognitivist view, Fricker insists that, in separating mere sensation from judgement, it is unable to overcome
the positivist failure to acknowledge that ‘sensations themselves
… are not merely caused by the external world but … are about
[it]’. To show that sensations are related to the external world
does not, however, warrant Fricker’s subsequent assertion that
sensations have ‘a degree of intentional content’. Only judge32
ments can have intentionality: that sensations can be related to
such judgements, caused by them, or interpreted by means of
reason, is what Fricker’s argument demonstrates. If a sensation
is to have meaning, that meaning must be constructed by reason;
otherwise, it will be ‘raw physiological sensation’.
In acknowledging that ‘feelings are causally and intentionally connected to the external world’, Fricker maintains that the
reason-emotion dichotomy breaks down, ‘since the key distinction in terms of intentional content is undermined’. I take this to
mean that because, on the cognitivist view, emotions are constructed by rational thought processes an emotion must be an
effect of such processes, and therefore unambiguous in its meaning and significance. Fricker suggests that emotions are often the
causes of judgements, not just the effects, and thus cannot be
viewed solely in terms of intentionality. This is clearly true. But
the dependence of emotion upon the use of reason does not entail
that all emotions will be understood or correctly interpreted.
Insistence on the importance of intentionality for the
cognitivist position is unnecessarily reductive; there are many
reasons for a person’s state of misapprehension about the world
and her reactions to it. A person affected by problems at work, on
reaching the off-licence seconds after the closed sign is hung on
the door, may respond with fury. She may (or may not) later
reflect that her rage was actually precipitated by the state of mind
induced by the problems at work. Such explanation needs no
recourse to theories involving pre-linguistic meanings.
If this is correct, does it follow that emotion cannot possess
meaning unrelated to reason? In light of Fricker’s argument that
emotion is not reducible to sensation, is it not plausible to allow
it some autonomy from reason as well? Fricker’s mistake is that,
in arguing – rightly – that the ‘language of emotion is not
reducible to the language of words’, she assumes that the
cognitivist is committed to the (mistaken) view that language
must be verbal and that ‘the expressive power of emotions is
exclusively located in one sector of emotion – judgement’. Of
course there are non-linguistic ways of expressing meanings,
which are legitimately called languages. However, non-verbal
expression of meanings is conveyed through a sensory ‘language’ which, to be understood, requires the use of reason
through the exercise of verbal language.
My objection to Fricker’s argument does not hinge on the
view that emotion is reducible to the language of words. What is
contested is that a portion of emotion outside of language has its
own meaning. If emotion and reason are interdependent, any
exteriority of emotions to reason is contradictory. For emotion is
part of the language of words: not a separate entity from sensation, but inextricably bound up with it. The mind-body dualism
is more effectively challenged thus than by the argument that
‘reason unites with emotion, thereby articulating the original
emotional expression’. The implication is that the two are initially separate.
Radical Philosophy 61, Summer 1992
If emotions are not.separable from reason, it makes no sense
to view them as pre-existing rationality and language. They are
not, Fricker argues, mere sensations; they are about the external
world, educable and acquired. But if this is the case, they cannot
be prior to the reason and language with which meanings are
Fricker argues that emotions are ‘socially constructed’. What
this demonstrates is that, although emotions will be experienced
in a particular way by individuals, they are not merely a form of
individual expression, but a form of social relations: shared
concepts and means of communication based on beliefs about
what is rational, as well as responses to physical experiences.
If emotion is related to judgement and value, would Fricker’ s
argument that judgement is likewise dependent on values refute
my claim that reason must regulate emotion? The example she
gives – pride in a friend who wins a valued prize – is supposed to
show that’ the judgement-emotion distinction breaks down’. The
concepts of judgement and reason are confused here, however.
While a judgement may well be based on an emotional response
to, or interpretation of, objective evidence, reason (not to be
conflated with judgement) cannot in itself be constructed by
emotions. That judgements may be dependent on values is not to
argue that facts must be informed by, and secrete, values. While
demonstrating that logic is non-ideological, Fricker maintains
that reason is culturally determined. To state that what is believed to be a good reason is subject to ideology is not, however,
to say that good reasons do not exist objectively.
Fricker’s argument breaks down if the distinction between
justifying and motivating reasons is not made. Emotion, she
claims, must regulate reason in order that ‘accepted forms of …
rationality do not brutalize and deny people’s emotions’. If no
objectively true reasons are admitted, what grounds would exist
for ever objecting to people’s emotions? Accepted forms of
emotion may well brutalize and deny rationality. Moreover, the
assertion that ‘if we give enough space to these (half-formed)
emotions, then we can let them reform the character of rationality’ surely courts the danger of committing Fricker to an alignment of ‘good’ with ‘intuition’ (which renders the concepts of
‘good’ and ‘bad’ meaningless) and of women with intuition.
Fricker claims that ‘rationality is the kind of thing which can
be moulded to serve … the interests of the dominant class’,
whereas subterranean emotion may be able to effect a change in
rationality. I have tried to demonstrate that subterranean emotion
cannot possess meaning outside of language. But what of the
point that rationality is culturally flexible and ideologically produced? Whilst what is understood to be rational may be culturally flexible, that human beings must be rational is not a relative
statement. It is rational, for example, to fear something that you
know will harm you. This may mean that it is rational to fear
nuclear war in one culture, but not in another. What it is rational
to fear is indeed culturally flexible: that it is rational to fear
something that will harm you is true and therefore rational.
When Fricker writes that ‘what it is rational to want or think or
do depends on one’s … emotions’, this should be amended to
‘what one believes to be rational … depends on one’s … emotions’. For what is true (and thus rational) is not dependent on
ideology, interest, culture or emotions: that is how it comes to be
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