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Ideas about emotions and their function in human and animal life have been a major theme in philosophyand more recently in psychology and the social sciencessince the time of the ancient Greeks. The history of ideas about emotion is an essential part of the history of ideas about human nature and about human continuityand discontinuitywith other animals. Whether emotions are essentially part of our "animal nature" or products of culture and cultivation, for example, is an issue that determines a great deal about our attitudes toward and evaluations of them. The history of ideas about emotion plays a particularly controversial role in the history of ideas about gender and culture. Whether women are "more emotional" (and thus less rational) than men, whether Greeks are more emotional and less rational than "Barbarians" or Englishmen are more emotional and less rational than their colonized subjects have been central themes in the often ugly histories of sexism and racism. Thus it is noteworthy that recent feminist studies have deeply probed the political role of the emotions and gender politics. And the history of ideas about emotion provides several important threads in the history of ethics, whether in the guise of "passion as a threat to reason" or in the more benign role of sympathy and the moral sentiments. Whether emotions contribute to or undermine rationality has been a central issue in ethics (at least) since Socrates.


What is an emotion? And are emotions rational? Those two questions have dominated the philosophical history of the subject, and, of course, the answer to one suggests a set of plausible answers to the other. If emotions are such as to contribute to our well-being and the good life, and if emotions motivate moral behavior, then it makes good sense to say that emotions are rational or at least contribute to rationality. On the other hand, if emotions are merely an unintelligent residue of our "animal nature," they are more likely to be distractions or obstacles to civilized living and thereby irrational. Nevertheless, the picture is more complicated than this would suggest. One train of thought since ancient times suggests that the emotions are indeed an aspect of our animal life, unsuitable to civilized life. But since Charles Darwin (18091882), the emotions have been argued to be continuous in the evolution from animal to man and, so considered, probably functional and adaptive at least at some point in their history. In either case, this biological view of emotions has been supported in the past few centuriessince René Descartes in the seventeenth centuryby increasingly sophisticated physiological and neurological models of emotion.

The history of ideas about emotion is thus divided into two sometimes complex and interweaving tracks in which emotions tend to be "dumb" and "sophisticated," respectively. The first kind of theory takes an emotion to be a feeling or physiological process. In medieval medicine, the emotions were the result of organic "humors" in the body. In early modern philosophy, they were the product of "animal spirits" in the blood, which caused simple sensations of pleasure and discomfort. William James (18421910), at the end of the nineteenth century, insisted that emotions are sensations caused by physiological disruptions. In the twenty-first century, many psychologists and philosophers hypothesize that emotions, or at least the "basic" emotions, are "affect programs," essentially hard-wired and evolutionarily derived complexes of neurological, hormonal, and muscular responses, with accompanying feelings, of course. But such feelings are of minimal significance, mere "icing on the cake" according to one prominent researcher (Joseph le Doux). An emotion is for the most part an unconscious or at least not necessarily conscious physiological process, which may or may not still serve an evolutionary function but does not involve sufficient "cognition" to be rational in any meaningful sense.

By contrast, Aristotle (384322 b.c.e.) insisted that emotions, while fully natural, are also an essential part of rational, civilized life and themselves social and cultural, consisting of ideas, learned and cultivated and even "intelligent." In the twentieth century, many psychologists and philosophers defended various "cognitive" and "appraisal" theories of emotion, in which an emotion is constituted, at least in part, by ideas, beliefs, or judgments and by an active engagement with the world. Aristotle insisted, accordingly, that quite the contrary of a dumb reaction, an emotion such as anger was a learned and cultivated response to what was recognized as an offense or a "slight," and as such it required not only the recognition of the nature of the offense but a measured and appropriate response. As such, emotions represented sophisticated, sometimes uniquely human, behavior. A cat might be aggressive or defensive, but only a human being with a moral upbringing can be morally indignant. A dog might demonstrate dependency and affection, but only a human being can fall in love. Thus some contemporary theorists who defend an "affect program" conception of emotions distinguish between "basic" and "higher cognitive" emotions, perhaps insisting that only the former are "really" emotions but acknowledging that many of the most important emotionsguilt, shame, pride, and jealousy, for instancerequire cultivation and culture.

Many theorists would argue that whether or not anything like an affect program is involved in emotions (and no one would argue against the idea that emotions are somehow the product of our brains), that is not what an emotion really is. An emotion is a kind of experience of the world, and, as such, it necessarily involves intentionality, an orientation toward objects in the world (for example, situations, other people, or oneself). Thus anger is not just feeling flushed and tense; it is a feeling about something, involving, for instance, a judgment that someone has insulted or wronged you. And love is not just a feeling but an attitude (or a huge complex of attitudes) about someone. Emotions are "cognitive" in that they seem to involve and presuppose beliefs about the world; for example, fear is premised on the judgment that one is in danger, and shame is based on the recognition that one has done something shameful. They are also evaluative (and involve "appraisals") in that they involve the recognition that some things are important. Grief, for instance, is an emotion that recognizes a serious (perhaps devastating) loss. Emotions are therefore not "dumb" but, one might say, potentially as smart and sophisticated as the person who has them and the culture that embeds and teaches them. Anger may sometimes be nothing more than blind rage, but it can also be an exquisite response to injustice. Love may be as naïve and foolish as a teenage "crush," or it may be profoundly insightful and involve deep mutual intimate knowledge. Feelings and physiology play their roles, of course, but the emotion is much more than that.

How Rational Are Emotions?

Plato (c. 428348 or 347 b.c.e.) famously divided the soul into three parts: reason, spirit, and appetite. He also used a dramatic metaphor to explain the harmonious interrelation between them, reason as the charioteer driving two spirited horses. But Plato also recognized that what we call emotions seem to encompass not only spirit and appetite but reason as well. When, in his Rhetoric, Aristotle defines anger as "a distressed desire for conspicuous vengeance in return for a conspicuous and unjustifiable contempt of one's person or friends," he makes it quite clear that emotion and reason are not to be divided but combined. Aristotle, who was so precocious in so many disciplines, seems to have anticipated many contemporary theories. His analysis of anger includes a distinctive cognitive component, a specified social context, a behavioral tendency, and physical arousal. Whereas Aristotle took emotion to be essential to the good life, the Stoics analyzed emotions as conceptual errors, conducive only to misery. In modern terms, the Stoics Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4b.c.e.?65 c.e.) and Chryssipus (c. 280c. 206 b.c.e.) developed a full-blooded cognitive theory of the emotions two millennia ago. Emotions, in a word, are judgments, judgments about the world and one's place in it. The disagreement between Aristotle and the Stoics was whether these judgments were rational and thus conducive to happiness, or not.

Even before the ancients in the Mediterranean, fascination with the emotions occupied the best minds in early India and China. In India, the emotions (rasas ) were considered central to the arts, artistic expression, and, most important, aesthetic appreciation. Thus the cataloging and analysis of the emotions, their causes, and their effects on the mind and body formed the heart of Indian aesthetics. In Buddhism, the control of one's emotions, the elimination of the agitating emotions (klesas ), and the cultivation of compassion were all viewed as essential to enlightenment and to putting an end to the suffering that was so characteristic of life. In China, both Confucians and Daoists recognized that the cultivation and management of one's emotions (qing ) was essential to living well. The Confucians emphasized the importance of cultivating social emotions such as respect and reverence. The Daoists focused their attention on the more "natural" and spontaneous emotions. The concept of rationality as such did not play the central role it did in the Western tradition, but nevertheless, insofar as that concept embodied a general sense of wisdom and well-being, the cultivation of the right emotions played an essential role in their various philosophies. Meanwhile, in the Middle East, the ancient Hebrews endowed their God with a whole range of (super)human emotions, from wrath and jealousy to love. In the New Testament, the emphasis shifted to love and faith, which the medieval scholars argued to be the epitome of rationality. The great importance of such emotions guaranteed that the subject would remain of great interest to the theologians of the Christian tradition.

Friedrich Nietzsche (18441900), like Sigmund Freud (18561939), who admired him, described instead the darker, more instinctual and less rational motives of the human mind. This was not to say that all passions are wise; some, he declares, "drag us down with their stupidity," and others, notably the "slave morality" emotion of ressentiment, are devious and clever but nevertheless disastrous for both the subject and society. Nietzsche, like the ancient Greeks, insisted on the cultivation of the right emotionsthose having to do with strength and self-sufficiency, but he insisted even more on the self-destructiveness of emotions such as ressentiment and envy. There is wisdom in emotion, he says in The Will to Power, "as if every passion didn't contain its own quantum of reason." So, too, in The Emotions: Outline of a Theory, the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre (19051980) gave a "phenomenological" analysis of emotions as "magical transformations of the world"willful strategies for coping with a difficult world. Again, emotions were conceived as inherently purposeful, with an added twist: We choose our emotions, according to Sartre, and so we are responsible for them.

Thus, emotions have been conceived, in many cultures since ancient times, as conducive to wisdom and well-being, and in this sense at least some of the emotions can be said to be rational. And emotions, if conceived of as "cognitive" and involving beliefs and appraisals, are rational in a further sense. They involve concepts and judgments. But our emotions are rational or irrational within a culture depending on whether they are appropriate or inappropriate to the circumstances, more or less accurate in their perception and understanding and more or less warranted in their evaluation of the situation. Thus it is mistaken to say either that emotions (in general) are rational or irrational. It depends on the emotion and the circumstances as well as on the culture. But what is most important in this conception of emotions as much more than mere "gut reactions" and thus as rational or irrational is that what we think about our emotions, the ideas we have about them, in part determine what they are. It is not as if thought and reflection are irrelevant to the emotions, which have their own animal life. Our emotions are to some extent products of our thoughts and reflections, and, of course, our thoughts and reflections are often the product of our emotions. Thus the ideas we have about emotions become part and parcel of our emotional lives.

See also Friendship ; Intentionality ; Love, Western Notions of ; Moral Sense ; Philosophy, Moral .


Damasio, Antonio. Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. New York: Putnam, 1994.

. The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1999.

De Sousa, Ronald. The Rationality of Emotion. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT, 1987.

Lyons, William. Emotion. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. The Emotions: Outline of a Theory. Translated by Bernard Frechtman. New York: Philosophical Library, 1948.

Solomon, Robert C., ed. Thinking about Feeling: Contemporary Philosophers on Emotions. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

, ed. What Is an Emotion?: Classic and Contemporary Readings. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Robert C. Solomon

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What Are Emotions?

What Are The Sources of Emotions?

Why Do We Have Emotions?


Emotions are specific and intense psychological and physical reactions to a particular event.


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Mood disorders


One morning Mandy waited for the light to change so that she could cross the street to school. As the light in her direction turned green, she stepped off the curb. Suddenly, Mandy froze as a car shot right past her through the red light and crashed into a car already in the intersection. Mandy was not hurt. The car that went through the red light was not that close to her, but she felt terrified, then weak and shaky. She was so upset that she started to cry. That morning at school, whenever Mandy thought about the accident she had seen she felt nervous and shaky. By lunchtime, when she talked to her friends about the accident, the shaky feeling was starting to wear off, and she was beginning to feel anger toward the driver of the car that had run the red light. Although Mandy was not physically hurt, her mind and body were experiencing a strong emotional reaction to a dangerous situation.

What Are Emotions?

Emotions, often called feelings, include experiences such as love, hate, anger, trust, joy, panic, fear, and grief. Emotions are related to, but different from, mood. Emotions are specific reactions to a particular event that are usually of fairly short duration. Mood is a more general feeling such as happiness, sadness, frustration, contentment, or anxiety that lasts for a longer time.

Although everyone experiences emotions, scientists do not all agree on what emotions are or how they should be measured or studied. Emotions are complex and have both physical and mental components. Generally researchers agree that emotions have the following parts: subjective feelings, physiological (body) responses, and expressive behavior.

The component of emotions that scientists call subjective feelings refers to the way each individual person experiences feelings, and this component is the most difficult to describe or measure. Subjective feelings cannot be observed; instead, the person experiencing the emotion must describe it to others, and each persons description and interpretation of a feeling may be slightly different. For example, two people falling in love will not experience or describe their feeling in exactly the same ways.

The facial muscles involved in emotional expression are governed by nerves following a complex system of direct and indirect pathways to and from the motor cortex (voluntary smile circuit under conscious control) and the limbic system and brain stem (spontaneous smile circuit not under conscious control). This may explain why peoples faces can express emotions like happiness, fear, and disgust without their being aware of it.

Physiological responses are the easiest part of emotion to measure because scientists have developed special tools to measure them. A pounding heart, sweating, blood rushing to the face, or the release of adrenaline* in response to a situation that creates intense emotion can all be measured with scientific accuracy. People have very similar internal responses to the same emotion. For example, regardless of age, race, or gender, when people are under stress, their bodies release adrenaline; this hormone helps prepare the body to either run away or fight, which is called the fight or flight reaction. Although the psychological part of emotions may be different for each feeling, several different emotions can produce the same physical reaction.

* adrenaline
(a-DREN-a-lin), also called epinephrine, (ep-e-NEFrin), is a hormone, or chemical messenger, that is released in response to fear, anger, panic, and other emotions. It readies the body to respond to threat by increasing heart rate, breathing rate, and blood flow to the arms and legs. These and other effects prepare the body to run away or fight.

Expressive behavior is the outward sign that an emotion is being experienced. Outward signs of emotions can include fainting, a flushed face, muscle tensing, facial expressions, tone of voice, rapid breathing, restlessness, or other body language. The outward expression of an emotion gives other people clues to what someone is experiencing and helps to regulate social interactions.

What Are The Sources of Emotions?

Scientists have developed several theories about how emotions are generated based on subjective feelings, physiological responses, and expressive behavior.

The James-Lange theory

American scientist William James (18421910) and Danish scientist Carl Lange (18341900) both studied the relationship between emotion and physical changes in the body. In about 1885, they independently proposed that feeling an emotion is dependent on two factors: the physical changes that occur in the body and the persons understanding of the bodys changes after the emotional event. James and Lange believed that physical changes occur first, and then interpretation of those physical changes occurs. Together, they create the emotion.

According to the this theory, when Mandy experienced a threatening situation (almost being hit by a car), her body first sent out chemical messengers, like adrenaline, that caused physical changes such as increased breathing and a faster heart rate. Her brain then sensed these physical changes and interpreted them as the emotion fear.

One of the problems with the James-Lange theory is that emotions seem to happen too quickly to be accounted for by the release of chemical messengers and the changes they cause. Another problem is that different emotions (for example fear and anger) have been shown to cause the same physical responses.

The Cannon-Bard theory

In 1927, about 40 years after the James-Lange theory was developed, Harvard physiologist Walter Cannon (18711945) and his colleague Philip Bard (18981977) developed a new theory that related the workings of the nervous system to the expression of emotions. Cannon and Bard found that people could experience emotion without getting physical feedback from chemical messengers. They proposed that upon experiencing a stimulating event, information about the event is collected by the bodys senses and is sent through the nervous system to the brain.

In the brain, the message is sent two places at the same time. The message is sent to the cortex*, which creates emotions; in Mandys case it created fear. At the same time, the message also goes to the hypothalamus (hy-po-THAL-ah-mus). The hypothalamus is the part of the brain that controls automatic body responses. It tells the body to send out chemical messengers that cause the body to respond. Some of these responses are experienced as behaviors such as shaking, rapid breathing, and crying.

* cortex
is the part of the brain that controls conscious thought; it is where people experience thinking and feeling.

The Schacter-Singer model

In 1962, American scientists Stanley Schacter (19221997) and Jerome Singer (still teaching at Yale University in 2000) took elements of both the James-Lange and the Cannon-Bard theories and modified them to try to better explain the relationship between physical responses and emotional experience.

According to the Schacter-Singer model, both physical changes and conscious mental processing are needed to fully experience any emotion. In this model, in response to her near-accident, Mandys body sent out messages to create physical changes such as an increased heart rate. Mandys brain sensed these changes and then analyzed them and put a label on them. The emotional label selected for the feelings was fear, and it depended in part on Mandys experience with large fast cars; in other words, she knew from experience in her past that cars are dangerous. This model explains why the same physical responses can produce different emotions. The brain decides, for example, whether fear or anger or surprise is the appropriate emotion based on mental processing of physical information. Thus, interpretation of information from the environment, body feelings, and experience figure more prominently in the Schacter-Singer model.

Researchers believe that the frontal lobes and the amygdala are among the most important brain structures affecting emotions. Feelings of happiness and pleasure are linked to the prefrontal cortex. Anger, fear, sadness, and other negative emotions are linked to the amygdala.

Research continues on the relationship between the body, the brain, and the perception of emotions. One current area of research is focused on whether certain areas of the cortex are dedicated to specific emotions and whether a person can feel an emotion when a particular part of the cortex is stimulated directly by an electric impulse.

Why Do We Have Emotions?

Emotions appear to serve several physical and psychological purposes. Some scientists believe that emotions are one of the fundamental traits associated with being human. Emotions color peoples lives and give them depth and differentiation. For many people, strong emotions are linked to creativity and expression. Great art, music, and literature deal on a fundamental level with arousing emotions and creating an emotional connection between the artist and the public. Some scientists also believe that emotions serve as motivation to behave in specific ways.

Physiologically, emotions aid in survival. For example, sudden fear often causes a person to freeze like a deer caught by a cars headlights. Because animals usually attack in response to motion, at its simplest level, fear reduces the chances of attack. When Mandy froze in response to a car racing by her, this was an example of a physical response to an emotion that improved her chances of survival.

The French neurologist Guillaume Duchenne (18061875) studied the bodys neuromuscular system. In this experiment (c. 1855), he used an electrical stimulation device to activate the involuntary facial muscles involved in smiling and laughter. Getty Source/Liaison

Emotions also help people monitor their social behavior and regulate their interactions with others. Every person unconsciously learns to read the outward expressions of other people and apply past experience to determine what these outward signs indicate about what the other person is feeling. If a person sees a man approaching who is walking very aggressively, holding his body stiffly and frowning, the person might correctly assume that the man is angry. Using this information, the person can decide whether to leave or to stay or what tone of voice and body language to use when approaching the man.

What Is Emotional Intelligence?

Emotional intelligence refers to peoples ability to monitor their own and other peoples emotional states and to use this information to act wisely in relationships. Emotional intelligence has five parts:

  1. Self-awareness: recognizing internal feelings
  2. Managing emotions: finding ways to handle emotions that are appropriate to the situation
  3. Motivation: using self-control to channel emotions toward a goal
  4. Empathy: understanding the emotional perspective of other people
  5. Handling relationships: using personal information and information about others to handle social relationships and to develop interpersonal skills

Researchers are beginning to develop tests that can measure emotional intelligence. Scientists who study emotions generally believe that people with high emotional intelligence usually work well in cooperative situations and are good at motivating and managing others. People with low emotional intelligence often misinterpret emotional signals and have difficulty with relationships. Although emotional intelligence probably has an inherited component, many psychologists believe that people can be guided into making better use of the emotional intelligence that they possess.

Some outward expressions of emotions (body language) mean different things in different cultures. For example, if a young person avoids looking directly at a person in authority, it is taken as a sign of respect in some cultures. In other cultures, this expression suggests guilt or a lack of trustworthiness.

See also

Anxiety and Anxiety Disorders

Bipolar Disorder




Goleman, Daniel. Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam Books, 1997. This book introduced the idea of emotional intelligence to the public.

LeDoux, Joseph The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998. This book examines the connection between physical responses and emotions.

Mackler, Carolyn. Love and Other Four-Letter Words. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 2000. Young adult fiction that addresses trying to make sense of the strong emotions that occur during adolescence.

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