Reason, perception, emotion and language are all ways of knowing1. Reason is defined as formal logic or knowledge that is gained through rationalism. Perception is an empirical inquiry gained through experience. Emotion is a normative judgement that while language is comprehensive rationality. Different ways of knowing affect different areas of knowledge, which are Mathematics, Human Sciences, Natural Sciences, Ethics, History and the Arts.
Both are closely linked with one another. For example, reasoning is the principle theory behind math, affecting the way in which one uses logic to reach answers in Mathematics. Hence, if one does not understand the Mathematical problem, one will not be able to solve it. Similarly, emotion is needed when painting on canvas or writing the lyrics to a song as it involves the expression of ones’ feelings. Perception is often necessary as well because an artist uses his past experiences and forms his own ideas by observing his surroundings.
Before we can evaluate the ways in which emotion enhances or undermines reasoning, we must have a clear definition of an emotion. An emotion is a cognitive and/or a physiological response to a perceived stimulus while reason is any kind of cognitive activity2. There are a few problems in the analysis of an emotion. One of them is the fact that we cannot be definite as to what counts as an emotion. While certain passions are considered emotions, it is difficult to define what constitutes an emotion because there are feelings, like moods, which are long-term and do not fit into the usual “violent passion” definition of an emotion. Emotions can also be viewed as both rational and irrational because they usually involve both logic ability and personal beliefs. Another problem is that it is difficult to tell whether we control our emotions or whether our emotions control us. Hence, whether an emotion undermines or enhances reasoning as a way of knowing is debatable, but I believe that it undermines reasoning more that it enhances it.
There are two theories of emotion that oppose each other: The James-Lange theory, and Schatcher’s Cognitive theory3. The first theory, the James-Lange theory, states that for an emotion, the body must first respond, and then one feels the emotion4. The two men who came up with this theory claimed that when we see a snake, our bodies first respond, we run and only then do we feel an emotion because the body has been aroused. They arrived at this theory because they believed that just thinking about or seeing a snake has no real effect until after the body has responded. Hence the physical feelings are the emotions. James argued that the feel of an emotion – which, for him, equals the emotion itself – is only the perception of danger without the actual feeling of fear5. Due to the fact that the emotion is produced without cognitive reasoning but physiological responses, we can conclude that emotion can exist purely on its own without reason, hence undermining it.
The second theory, the Cannon-Bard theory, states that the bodily reaction and the emotional response to an event occur at the same time6. This theory came about after the discovery of the thalamus as a physical unit of the brain that can instantly transmit messages. The theory claimed that when an emergency is perceived, both the bodily reaction and the emotional system respond at the same time. Since we react by instinct, reasoning is not enhanced by emotion for there is no time for the mind to rationalize. Both of these theories claim that emotions are immediate reflex responses to situations without the conscious cognitive interpretation of the emotional context. Here, emotion stands opposed to reason, since we have already established reason to be any kind of cognitive activity.
There are many incidences where emotions are shown to undermine reasoning. A good example is on a battlefield where there are two different squads fighting against each other. The shooting continues and as more and more men are gunned down, the losing troop is forced to retreat. Finally, only one soldier is left to fight against the enemy. He knows he is outnumbered and logic tells him that he cannot win, but instead of cowering in fear, he emerges from behind the bushes and starts shooting blindly at the enemy. If the soldier had used rational thinking, he would have known that doing so was suicide but due his patriotic love for his country and his fellow comrades, he has chosen to disregard everything including his life to take his last shot at killing the enemy.
There is a Chinese proverb, “qing ren yan li chu xi si”, that is literally translated to mean, “in the eyes of a man who loves a woman, no matter how ordinary she is, he believes that she is the most beautiful woman in the world.”7 Xi Si, a lady from ancient China, was considered one of the most beautiful women in Chinese history. In a man’s eyes, even if his lover is the most unattractive woman, she is as beautiful as Xi Si. This proverb implies that love is blind and can distort one’s view of another person. Emotions thus overrule objective, rational thought, undermining the capacity for reason entirely.
Another time that emotion undermines reasoning is shown is when a mother fearlessly jumps into the ocean to save her drowning child. Reason will tell her that she is endangering her life by doing so but because of her selfless love for her child, she will risk her own safety to save her child. Her emotions of love and affection for her offspring overpower her concern for the safety of her life, which reason serves to bring to mind. Hence, she chooses to disregard her own safety to ensure the well being of her own child.
Shakespeare demonstrates many cases of emotions undermining reasoning in his plays. One strong example is in the play Romeo and Juliet, when Romeo kills Tybalt in a fit of rage8. Romeo’s irrational behaviour is sparked off when Tybalt kills Mercutio, Romeo’s best friend. He loses all sense of right and wrong and the only thing that is he on his mind is revenge. His anger and sorrow over the death of his friend causes him to lose all rationality. He chases Tybalt down and kills him. It is only after Tybalt’s death that Romeo realizes what he has done and the severe consequences of his actions. Not only did he kill a man, he killed a kinsman of his beloved Juliet. His foolish actions, all done in an unclear mind, would cause him to be exiled and separated from Juliet. However, all these thoughts did not go through his mind at that point because he was too overcome by his emotions.
Although it is obvious that the experience of an emotion involves physiological reactions and sensations, an emotion is also the cognitive activity of identifying the emotion as an emotion of a certain sort9. This involves “appropriate” knowledge of the circumstance, showing reasoning and rationality. The action of your heart beating faster and your palms becoming sweaty is not enough to show that one is in love. One must know the meaning of the word “love” before one can identify it. French aphorist La Rochefoucauld one wrote, “How many people, would have ever loved if they had not heard the word?”
The third theory, Schachter’s cognitive theory, is proof that emotions do enhance reasoning10. Psychologist Stanley Schachter believes that we label a bodily response by giving it the name of an emotion we think we are feeling. In an experiment conducted by him, he concluded that we tend to label our behaviour and control our feelings according to our environment and how others are acting. In this experiment, a group of people were told that the placebo they were given would cause them to be “high” and were put into a room with people acting as if they were “high”. After some time, they started acting that way also. When a different group of people were given the same placebo and were told that it would make them angry, they started acting angry after being surrounded by stooges who were groaning and yelling.11
Cognition is closely involved with the emotions we feel. When a certain group of people are led to believe that they will experience pain in an experiment, they will be more anxious than members of another group who are told they will be unharmed. When the first group receives a minor shock, they will overestimate how painful it really is because they expect and believe that they will be hurt. This shows that the mind plays a crucial part in a person’s emotion.
Physiological arousal and an awareness and interpretation of one’s situation are both imperative to emotion. Without any symbolic thought processes, no physiological disturbance will occur and be labelled an emotion12. For example, meeting someone with a sharp knife in a dark alley at the stroke of midnight may cause physiological responses such as an increased heart rate and perspiration. However, it is only through the cognitive interpretation of the situation’s implications that one experiences fear itself. This enhances reasoning, as one must know that a knife can kill and a man loitering in a dark alley at midnight can harm someone in order to feel the emotion of fear.
Although emotions are sometimes shown to involve cognition, most of time, they cloud our minds and block us from thinking rationally. As seen in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Romeo’s spleen at that very moment causes him to lose control of his own actions. The soldier’s patriotism causes him to fight till the end for his country and his people. Reasoning only comes to play a part when we use our minds to label what we are feeling and why we feel that way based on past experiences. Hence, our actions, done mostly in the heat of the moment, do not show any rationalization or formal logic until after it is carried out. This shows that emotions undermine reasoning more often than it enhances it.