In a fascinating essay, it’s argued that Aquinas viewed human understanding of the world as a unified dynamic of reason and emotion in action. Here’s a few thoughts on that subject (this isn’t a gloss on the essay, though)
– Meaning is bound up with emotion – it’s through emotion that we understand and even perceive a situation as a situation, and it’s through emotion that our experience itself is shaped.
– The trick here is to not think in terms of faculty psychology – there’s not one faculty, emotion, and another, reason (or intelligence here), with one being more important than the other. In fact, as Paul Moes argues in a fascinating article on emotional regulation , the two, far from being competing faculties, are simply differing aspects of one, unified dynamic. Moes cites a number of clinical cases in which brain damage caused a patient who suffered an assault caused serious problems in her ability to reason precisely because of the impact the assault had on her emotions:
‘It is not that Phillipa is incapable of learning or appreciating the cognitive aspects of social rules, or that she does not have any creative capacity, it is that she has become emotionally disconnected from these events. So, for Phillipa, external events do not trigger the normal internal signals (at least as processed at the cortical level) as part of a feedback system telling us that our actions may be inappropriate, that we should alter our strategy, or that we should consider an alternative understanding of a situation. In sum, without an appreciation for the emotional feedback from others, and the internal emotional consequences of our actions, we fail to make reasonable and responsible judgments concerning the world.’
– So emotional feedback from others is crucial to our being able to reason and to make judgements – or, perhaps more importantly, to be able to judge things as things of importance, or to be able to reason in a responsible way.
– Taking a page or two from Aquinas, we might say that the ‘understanding’ of reality means being informed both by appetites and goals as well as the external world. To this let us add, the understanding is also informed by emotion.
– Emotion develops and emerges primarily socially – this is hinted at in the quoted paragraph above on emotional feedback. Moes cites a number of important points in the social emergence of emotion made by Piaget – a key one being that concepts developed on one’s own, as it were, are more fully and more completely understood when the individual is part of a group:
‘Piaget felt that human mental processes such as schemata and groupement are parallel to mathematical principles. For example, the mathematical formula, A + (-A) = 0, is a corollary to the idea that objects or their representations have constancy and that there is reversibility to concepts. He felt that children gradually acquire these more abstract concepts through interaction with the world, but more importantly through interaction with people. So by age six or seven, children understand the schema of constancy, i.e., an object retains its mass, despite a change in shape. The child also begins to learn that if he has a sibling, that the sibling has him or her as a sibling (i.e., reversibility)—something a typical three-year-old does not understand. The notion of groupement not only captures some presumed final state of affairs (i.e., a cognitive abstraction or schema), but also the process and conditions through which that abstraction occurs. The abstraction is accomplished through the interaction with significant others whereby the child comes to a more complete understanding of the concept than would be possible from a single perspective. The process is considered complete when the child no longer requires additional input or interaction to form a complete working model that appears to accurately represent the process or situation.’
– We can see how a loss of social, emotional feedback would be a hindrance in the reasoning process – a lack of such feedback would entail a lack of ability to fully reason and understand the world.
– This conclusion isn’t reached because emotion is more important than reason, but because reason and emotion are one, unified way of understanding the world.