Recap and Intro
Plato has given us a structure for thinking about what the emotions are, how they develop and how they relate to our overall thinking ability. Now we’ll turn to Plato’s most famous student, Aristotle, to really flesh out how the emotions create and color our thoughts and behaviors, as well as how they relate to good and bad people and actions.
Looking ahead, we’ll finish setting up the P-A-L theory by learning about Lucretius’ take on the emotions. Once done we’ll see that the combined work of Plato, Aristotle and Lucretius form an internally coherent, empirically friendly, pluralist approach to understanding the mind and emotions and how they relate to ethics. Thus we’ll have seen that there was such a thing as a pluralist theory of the emotions with an attached ethical theory available before the cognitivist and visceral theories that began to be put forward in the 17th century.
You’ve probably heard of Aristotle before so, just like with Plato, I’ll not spend too much time on introducing you to him. And the above hyper link should help anyone who doesn’t have a good idea of who he is. But I will say that I agree with most philosophers in placing him behind only Plato in the list of the greatest philosophers of all time. Aristotle deserves all the fame that he has and his influence on Western society, like that of Plato’s, is incalculable.
Aristotle thought long and hard about the nature of thinking and wrote what in my opinion is the single best book on ethics ever written, the Nicomachean Ethics (the title is supposedly from the name of his son, Nicomachus, but we can’t be sure.) Its one of my all-time favorite books and has had a major influence on my life.
In that book and in the nearly as valuable and famous Rhetoric, Aristotle gives us a thorough, practical account of the emotions and how they affect moral actions and choices, which is the core of the powerful ethical theory, friendly to empirical research without being wedded to bad science that is the P-A-L account.
Like Plato, Aristotle thinks there is a special, interactive and reciprocal communication between the body, the “mind” (or “cognition in general”) and the emotions, a process I will continue to refer to as “duplex communication”. However, he took Plato’s overarching theory and fleshed it in an even more empirically-friendly manner with ideas and observations that really appeal to common sense.
Aristotle goes on at length to explain how the feeling aspect of emotions stem from and relate to human cognitive capacity and how emotions, feelings and cognition (remember I’ve used this to mean thinking like we do when playing chess or doing algebra) interrelate.
At the very core of the theory of emotions he comes up with is the idea that there are two types of emotion-based actions that go along with two basic emotion types: 1) some emotionally charged actions are much more cognitive than others and therefore we can say these actions are voluntary; 2) some emotionally charged actions are so fast and intense that stopping them is virtually impossible and therefore these actions are counter-voluntary. This fits in well with the Platonic framework we discussed before: Putting Aristotle’s thoughts into Plato’s words we can say that voluntary emotional acts are instantiated by the interplay between the psyche and thymos and involuntary acts are of the animalistic appetitive instinct.
The core ethical lesson can be grasped by an analogy: If you could have stopped or ignored a destructive appetite but didn’t, you’ve acted wrongly. And by the same token, if you could have stopped and reconsidered a destructive emotion and doing so would have let you redirect it or it would have dissipated, but instead you failed to re-think it and it led to a bad result, you have acted wrongly.
Understanding how all this is true and how it works requires us to discuss a few concepts Plato and Homer didn’t discuss quite as thoroughly or explicitly: Deliberation, Impulsiveness, Weakness, Voluntary Action and Counter Voluntary Action. Each of these builds up or explains some basic ethical premises and will help us answer myriad ethical problems. Let’s go ahead and get the first one done and in the next post we’ll take on the difference between Voluntary and Counter-voluntary action.
Aristotle studying animals
Aristotle notes that while other animals seem merely to respond to natural desires such as for food or sex, humans are capable of deliberating about our actions. This ability to deliberate is what allows a being to originate their actions. Even if we often don’t deliberate before acting, we can do so and doing so makes us true agents.
This immediately brings to mind the questions of why it is that we sometimes do not, if we ever cannot, and why. When we do, we deliberate in order to achieve our goals. We do not deliberate about goals themselves or about particular objects (e.g. that I must convert my dissertation into a blog), nor do we deliberate about “particular” things that our senses show us, (e.g. that I just ate Chinese food).
Deliberating is investigating,inquiring, calculating in relation to a specific end, a specific outcome that is not impossible to obtain. It is unimportant whether a thing tends to end up a certain way, if it could be different then we can deliberate about it. We get motivated to deliberate from our desire to accomplish our goal. When deliberation is done, a decision is made and the agent exercises their desire.
So, for example, take the existence of this blog. I didn’t deliberate about whether I should have a goal, or whether blogs exist or whether my dissertation was accepted by CUNY’s faculty, these are all facts. And I didn’t deliberate about whether or not my laptop is a laptop or whether the blog hosting site will save my work – I can see these things are true. But I had a desire to publicize and share my work. The question is how best to accomplish this goal. My mind immediately set upon the problem and I investigated blog sites, calculated how much time I could give to the project and roughly how long it would take to complete, and studied my work to see how I could change the language to make my findings more easily understood. I decided on a plan and I began to implement it. Now I’ll begin deliberation on how to formulate the next post on voluntary and counter-voluntary actions.