Emotions, Public Reasoning and Logic

Disagreements about hot button topics are not only about ideas. Even more basically they are disagreements about emotions. In particular, about the emotional stance one should adopt to changes in society.

There are many policy differences between Trump and Hilary Clinton. But at root the disagreement is about emotional comportment regarding recent decades, and especially the Obama years. Were they good or bad? Is anger about them justified, or were they a move in the right direction? Or about the older days: Is it good we are leaving them behind as Clinton suggests, or should we reclaim them as Trump suggests?

Trump is not an intellectual. He doesn’t need to be to get his points across, because those points are mainly one of mood – of how one feels about this or that aspect of our society.  The power and grip of his points don’t require he defend them theoretically – maybe someone later will come along who will do that better. But for now his grip over his supporters comes from him not budging from his emotional state. What looks petulant to his opponents, looks strong to his supporters. Same with the Clinton, or the Bernie Sanders supporters, or anyone.

Our public discourse is not effective right now. It’s because before people can talk to each other, they need to acknowledge each other’s emotional states. Need to acknowledge that they have different emotional responses, before jumping into whether those responses are good or bad. If I can’t say to the other person, “Yes, I understand how you feel“, and he can’t say that back to me, then we are not going to be reason together.

Hence a primary condition for public reason is emotional equanimity. The ability to hold conflicting emotions in one’s consciousness without letting one’s own emotional response overwhelm one.

My emotional response to global warming is anxiety and concern. Most Trump supporters’ response is lack of concern and a sense they are being hoodwinked – global warming as just a ploy to steam roll them. If a dialogue is to be possible, and before we can get to a debate about the scientific facts, this difference in emotional outlooks has to be dealt with.

It is natural to bemoan the sorry state of debates on cable news. The screaming and the preening and posturing, instead of focusing on the ideas. But the cable news debates are not meant to be intellectual debates – even if the cable stations falsely, in their confusion, pitch them as such. Rather, those “debates” are useful and productive in bringing out the emotional disagreements that underlie the intellectual disagreements.

Where the cable news debates fail isn’t in upholding the standards of intellectual debate. They fail rather in the way a counselor fails to help a couple listen to each other during a fight. Were Ross and Rachel (from the TV show Friends) really on a break when Ross cheated on Rachel? The argument about the fact of the matter goes nowhere because it doesn’t address the core emotional disagreement, and each doesn’t acknowledge the other’s feelings.

The problem with cable news debates isn’t that they are not intellectual enough. If that were the problem, then presumably if a Trump supporter and critic were more like academics, then the problem would be solved. But the problem won’t be solved! For the academics are faced with the same situation.

In academic philosophy, what should be the emotional response to the direction of the profession? For some the right response is alarm, anger and nostalgia for the past that is being lost. For others it is a measured optimism that things are getting better. For still others it is anger, disappointment and sense of betrayal that the profession is still rooted in the past status quo. Here are a couple of recent examples of these emotional battles (one at Daily Nous, and another at the Electric Agora that involved me, where I got caught up in my emotions).

In a way, the academic philosophy battles are puzzling. They involve philosophy professors, graduate students and ex academics, all of whom probably have taken introduction to logic at some point, and some even teach it. Given that logic is the study of reasoning, why are people who studied it nonetheless not able to reason effectively about their disagreements regarding the profession?

The cause lies in the difference between emotional equanimity and setting aside emotions. Most introduction to logic courses do the latter – they treat reasoning as if it doesn’t concern emotions at all. As if reasoning consists simply in making inferences correctly, and being able to spot logical fallacies, and where we don’t have to worry about emotions – those pesky “irrational” forces of the mind. I am no expert in logic, ancient or modern. But this aemotional way of conceiving reasoning does seem to have its roots in  the modern treatment of logic as basically the same kind of inquiry as mathematics.

I took intro logic at Cornell. And the next level logic course, covering Godel’s theorems, at Harvard. I could follow the second level logic class enough to begin to appreciate the strange, self-referential beauty of Godel’s theorem. But mastering it was beyond me. It was clear there are vast realms of reasoning of which I could have only the dimmest sense – like my understanding of most areas of physics or math. Godel, Tarski, Kripke: they are geniuses in a field that is important and fundamental to human life.

But that importance isn’t related to fostering better public reasoning.

In most intro logic courses it is left mysterious why humans fall for logical fallacies. But it is obvious why. Most of the time in daily life the inability to appreciate another’s argument isn’t rooted in the intrinsic difficulties of the topic being discussed (people scream at each other about global warming not because global warming science is hard, though as a science it must be). Rather, it’s because we fail to appreciate the outlook of someone with a different emotional comportment than ours.

It is part of having an emotional comportment on a topic that any other emotional response to that topic feels irrational. In this sense, emotions are more like pains than like ideas. If I just entertain the idea “my leg is hurting”, then I can entertain the opposite idea just as easily. But if I am in pain and my leg hurts, then I can’t in that moment entertain the opposite idea. That defeats the point of the pain, which is to get me to act to help my body. Pain is experienced as calling for action; not for deliberation about whether the pain is real.

Emotions are similar. Especially strong, potent emotions. If I feel threatened by the other person, the emotional state of feeling threatened is experienced as calling for the action of shutting down that person, or distancing myself from them. Just as when in pain the knife which is thrust into my leg is experienced as to be removed, so too in the midst of emotions like anxiety or feeling threatened or betrayed the ideas of the person who is threatening is experiences as to be rejected. As not meeting the standards of rationality.

Hence often in public debates which go nowhere the conversation devolves into each side marking its boundaries, and drawing the other side as occupying the irrational camp. Knowledge of logical fallacies doesn’t help avoid this self-protective mode of interaction. For that knowledge itself just gets used as a weapon: it is the other side which is making all the fallacies, and my side which is resolutely seeing the right inferences.

If there is to be progress in the midst of such distrust, then the first condition will have to be for the participants to cultivate equanimity. To be able to observe their own emotions without jumping to action as the emotion calls for it – and from the space of such stillness, to be able to see the other person’s emotions as plausible, or at any rate, as where that person just happens to be, and so where, if I want to talk to them, where I have to begin with them.

This kind of cultivation of equanimity is not taught in our introduction to logic classes. But it should be, if the aim is to help those intro students reason better with their fellow citizens. It would be logic which concerns not just the relation between propositions, but a logic which concerns the interactions of people in a complex world.

Does this reduce logic then to therapy or counseling? No. Cultivating equanimity is not just therapy. It is something else very close to the hearts of philosophers: wisdom. Like philosophy courses in general, the introduction to logic courses have become separated from the concept of wisdom.

If we want to foster better conversations, we need to bring the concepts of rationality and wisdom back together in order to deal with our emotions.

9 thoughts on “Emotions, Public Reasoning and Logic”

  1. I agree that it’s wise to try to understand how people we are talking to feel, but given that people often don’t do that when talking to family members and friends, it is unlikely that they are going to go out of their way to do that with their political opponents.


    1. Most people don’t even do it with themselves, really be in a still and compassionate way with all of their own emotions. Like most, this is something I struggle with. If each person can be fully with how they feel overall (not just with the emotions overwhelming them consciously), that creates a mode of consciousness which enables them to be with others’ emotions, no matter how opposed to oneself they are.

      It is tempting to think, “of course I know and am comfortable with my emotions. It is only those other people’s emotions which are painful.” This is an illusion. I am unable to acknowledge others’ emotions when I am unable to acknowledge some of my own; what I repress in myself I want to repress in others.


      1. We can access our own emotions through introspection. Of course we have mechanisms for lying to ourselves about our emotions: I can convince myself that I never feel envy when the intense indignation that I feel towards wealthy people is a rationalized and moralized form of envy towards their wealth. Still, I have no immediate access at all towards the emotions of others. I have to guess at what they feel and in many cases, they hide their emotions or even lie to themselves about what they are feeling, which makes it still harder to ascertain what they are feeling.


        1. I think we often know what others are feeling, but your point is well taken. It only heightens the importance of asking and attempting to understand others’ emotional states while talking to them about abstract issues like politics or strongly held philosophical views.

          I think often in debates it can feel like, “Why the heck does that person think that? Why do they ignore X, Y and Z, which is so obvious?” Searching for answers, it is tempting to look to facts about their intelligence (they are dumb, uneducated, too educated, etc.), or their character (guillable, racist, arrogant, elite, etc.), or the institutions they are a part (they are religious, marxist, etc.). But one thing which is often skipped over is asking: “How does the view I am defending make you feel?” We skip over it on the assumption that feelings don’t have anything the reasons for the views themselves (how I feel about global warming is irrelevant to whether global warming is real). But feelings are not irrelevant to understanding and trusting each other, which has to come before we can focus on the reasons for the views themselves.


          1. I agree that it’s wise and decent to take into account how the view I am defending makes the other feel.

            However, it’s very complicated to ascertain how the other feels in many cases. Let’s first take a simple case: a bicycle runs me over (that did happen) and I am thrown to the ground. I feel frightened, fragile, vulnerable, and a little angry, mostly fragile and vulnerable.

            Nevertheless, most situations are more complicated than that. You point out wisely that the SJW’s act out of pain. I don’t doubt that and it’s wise to take that into account, but that pain is processed, rationalized and moralized by them. Nietzsche in the Genealogy of Morality gives a good description of how resentful people (who undoubtedly feel pain about being enslaved) rationalize and moralize their resentment and create what he calls “slave morality”. So too with the so-called woke philosophers: their original pain becomes a complex self-righteous moral system.

            Hence, to understand the other (in most cases, although not in very simple cases like being run over by a bicycle) we need to take into account not just their pain, but how that pain has been intellectually processed, rationalized and moralized. Of course we can do that, but it takes a lot of mental work.

            In the case of the woke philosophers, neither side in the debate bothers to take into account how the other side feels in all its complexity (not just the primary visceral emotional reaction) and that’s why the whole “debate” has stale-mated in an exchange of mutual insults and accusations.


        2. ” we need to take into account not just their pain, but how that pain has been intellectually processed, rationalized and moralized. Of course we can do that, but it takes a lot of mental work.”

          Exactly right. I think that is the kind of mental work that is needed. Or at any rate, that I would like to do more.

          You are spot on that even if asked about their feelings, people won’t give clear answers. Most likely they will give answers that are part of their rationalizations, and the way they have set it in their mind about how they are the victims/heroes/etc. This means there is a kind of work to be done to create environments and intellectual spaces where people don’t take such answers at face value (and so get upset by them), but probe further, more generously, to help each other better understand their own emotions – the emotions as they speak to them, not just what they are mimicing.

          Fruitful reasoned discourse on hot button issues requires a cleansing of the emotional energy of the conversation space – a kind of do over so that we can start fresh, with a sort of Cartesian questioning from basics. What gets in the way of the do over is one’s own rationalizations and emotions which get triggered by the others’ rationalizations.


          1. We agree on the basic point. However, I don’t see the process of becoming aware of one’s own rationalizations as triggered by the rationalizations of others as happening on a mass level, even in a supposedly elite discipline such as philosophy. It’s a process that one can work on oneself, through concentration and self-awareness and in which one can help others on an individual basis as a kind of therapy. But therapy requires one-on-one attention, generally over a fairly long period of time, months or even years, with a certain regularity, let’s say, an hour a week. So you could work on a small group of people who trust you as a therapist/teacher in constant contact over a period of time and get them to see what you point out. I came to more or less the same conclusions through my own personal therapeutic process, so can others. However, the majority of people have so much mental energy and ego satisfaction invested in their rationalizations that they are just not going to give them up.


            1. Agree it won’t happen at a mass level. Anymore than skills in physics, art or baseball can happen at a mass level. It can happen only for those who care to develop the skills of self-reflection and communal reflection, and who put in the effort to do so.

              The relation to the majority of people is indirect. As you say, it will never be direct as in they will buy into this kind of reflection. But of those who do practice this kind of reflection, some might down the line speak to the majority of people in a way that appeals to them and who are in positions of power to make systemic changes – as happened with Marcus Aurelius with stoicism, Constantine with Christianity, Ashoka with Buddhism, etc.

              I am for liberal democracy. That doesn’t mean I assume the way positive change happens is to get majority of people to be philosophers, or lead highly reflective lives. It does mean I hope the majority of people will choose people to lead who lead reflective lives and who foster compassionate, intelligent communal reflection.


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