Philosophy & Feelings

Philosophy prizes reason and arguments, clear and critical thinking.

What, then, does philosophy say about emotions, about feelings?

Let's think, briefly, about feelings.

First, "I just feel this way . ." is rarely a good reason to believe anything. Emotions can lead us astray and sometimes they do. Emotions can contribute to poor reasoning and to mistaken beliefs. If someone believes something merely on the basis of their emotions, their belief is unlikely to be true. Anger, for example, can distort clear thinking and cause a disregard for fact-finding. So, just because someone feels a certain way about a topic, that doesn't mean that their thoughts about that topic are correct or that we should accept that thought.

On the other hand, emotions can sometimes point to the truth of the matter. For example, the feelings of empathy and sadness about what happened to someone can serve as some indication that that individual was treated wrongly. And those emotions can be stifled by a dismissive thought concerning whoever did the harm, that "They had to do that," "They had no choice," "There was no other way." Insofar as thoughts and claims like these are often false, they can distort the positive influence of the emotion: the emotion was 'telling us' that something is wrong, and a thought - although a false thought - undercut that, which is bad.

Thoughts, however, can correct mistaken emotions. Someone might, for example, see an action that they thought brought about intense suffering, and emotionally respond accordingly to that perceived suffering. If reason reveals that, contrary to initial appearances, there really was no suffering, then reason can correct that emotion.

In sum, concerning feelings there are:

  • Feelings that are not supported by good reasons, i.e., feelings supported by beliefs that are false or unreasonable or contrary to the evidence. Here, the feelings are typically bad to have. 
  • Feelings that are supported by good reasons, viz. true or reasonable beliefs. Here, someone isn't believing on the basis of "just their feelings," since there are, or could be, reasons supporting those feelings. This is typically fine, and often good, insofar as we really should have feelings and emotional responses to good and bad actions and events. 
  • And there are beliefs, held with good reason and without, and then with or without various emotions. What to say about these seems to very much depend on the particular belief, and particular feeling, and what, if anything, results from the combination: e.g., unreasonable beliefs, held in anger, can often lead people to feel and act badly. 
We are not Mr. Spock (not that there would be anything wrong with that? Or would there be?) and so feelings are appropriate for us to have. But this seems to be the case when, and only when, they can be supported by reasons also.

At least I think that's how I feel. (Sad trombone!).