Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Think. Act. Do. Feel? : On the relationship between knowledge and emotion

Think. Act. Do. Feel? : On the relationship between knowledge and emotion

I’ve decided to write on a topic preeminently philosophical, but also psychological, religious, phenomenological, and much else. It has the two-faced caricature, prima facie, of being on the one side either too complex for discussion, or on the other, as some might critically contest, too mundane to warrant discussion. But I will venture into these murky waters nonetheless, and hopefully many informants will mean better navigation. So here it is, with all of its existential significance: How does information, upon being received, affect a person? How do ‘facts’ become internalized, appropriated, given a “home to roost” (as Hannah Arendt puts it) within us, so that they can then be translated in all of their meaningfulness into practice that makes a difference?

I’ve been interested in the idea of character, lately (with much credit due to reading Arendt). The notion that thinking about things creates change internally is simple yet profound. But I want to go deeper than thought. I want to ask about the evocative power of story, of the affect facts and stories have on our hearts (for do we not all have a sense of what we mean when we use the word ‘heart’ instead of ‘mind’?). Let’s provisionally call ‘heart’ that in which our emotions dwell and flow from. I find this discussion particularly intriguing because it is one in which anyone can participate; all one has to do is reflect on their own experience (that is not to say that secondary sources wouldn’t be appreciated here, too, but just to say that personal experience is most important in this case and makes the discussion accessible to all).

Here is an example of my own. When I hear a fact, this is what a process I go through might look like: (1) I stop and think about it; I repeat it to myself, just to let it sink in. (2) I allow it time to move something in me. (3) If I am emotionally moved to “do something about it,” I then think about what I can conceivably accomplish. (4a) I will either feel overwhelmed by the thought of getting involved or discouraged that it won’t amount to much, or (4b) I will feel empowered and become determined to make a conscious and committed change in my life that will at least be “doing my part.” But in almost all of these steps, emotion, or what French phenomenologist Michel Henry calls ‘affectivity’ plays a central role in my move either toward action or resignation.

In this regard, how far can philosophy or a religious message go in participating in the concrete dilemmas of our world if it only appeals to our reason? But the ‘heart’ and the ‘heart’ are never so separate from one another. What for you reaches your affect the most?


  1. Thanks for posting this, Sarah. The question of the relationship between cognition, affectivity and action is of great interest to me as an educationalist. I have drawn much, for example, from the research of neuroscientist Antonio Damasio and colleagues concerning the importance of affect in decision-making ("Descartes’ Error" and subsequent publications). Within Christian circles, James K. A. Smith makes a case for the primacy of affect in "Desiring the Kingdom", and for “liturgical practices” as the more powerful influence on the shaping of desires than an intellectually oriented “worldview” that is often the targeted outcome in Christian colleges. There is much in this book that resonates with my own convictions about learning.

    Whereas psychologists typically distinguish the cognitive, affective and psychomotor domains, often to the point of separation, it is important to remember that actions are those of an integral person, who is always a thinking-feeling creature. Educators often appeal to the importance of “educating the whole person”, but practices and structures are determined, more often than not, by the intellectualist tradition of Western schooling.

    I agree with you concerning the “power of story”, and follow Jerome Bruner in affirming narrative thinking (“narrationality”, I would say) as the primary mode in which meaning is encountered and decisions are made, in distinction from “paradigmatic” (scientific) thinking. (This maps onto the reformational philosophical distinction between naïve experience and theoretical thought.) But we need to go “deeper than thought”, and this implies deeper also than narrative thinking.

    This “deeper” is indeed the “heart”. From a biblical anthropological perspective, however, I understand the heart to be deeper than affectivity also. It is the core, the “religious concentration-point” of our existence, undergirding all human functions. The intellect is not the hallmark of humanness, but neither do I believe it to be adequate to attempt to compensate for or counter the presumed priority of the intellect by affirming the (greater) importance of the emotions. Robert Coles is addressing this question of “something deeper” in The Moral Intelligence of Children, when he affirms the importance of recognising that, while “we are creatures of cognition as well as passion … we are also purposeful creatures, intent on fitting together our knowledge and desires in such a way that this life we live makes some kind of sense.”

    There is an important related notion (though I am not ready to spell out the precise nature of this relationship), also with biblical roots: that of the will. But I've run out of space now!

  2. I also work with the Reformational "heart" in my own idiosyncratic way in a manuscript on "Christian scholarship" I must yet shop successfully. I use the language of where your energy comes from when trying to discern the "shape of your heart". I use 'energy' to avoid the very prominent nineteenth century division that Doug alludes to between head and heart where heart stands for one's emotions/passions. Energy is clearly used in a metaphorical way, drawn as it is from the physical dimensions of existence. But the point is I think similar to Doug's: there is a centre of action whether thinking, feeling, imagining, shaping, playing, whatever, that is prior to any division between thought and passion or even between thinking and willing as they have been understood within faculty psychology. That centre is that "from which the issues of life flow": a biblical tag that has been very important in the reformational tradition. For me the example of Jesus that energizes me is his work as peace-maker. I try very hard to produce scholarship that is in line with that side of Jesus. He has many sides I admit but that is the one that I find it easiest to give my life to. Sarah, your four point process of discernment made me smile for with a couple of verbal alterations it sounds very like the process I describe in my manuscript. Hopefully great minds are thinking alike. Or maybe it is that we both see something true to the world we live in and are ourselves in? Anyway, lovely post, and a fine response from our educationalist colleague.

  3. Thank you both for your insights! Doug, you have a whole library of resources I could go to in order to explore this issue more, it seems! I remember taking a Philosophy of Education course in the 2nd year of my undergrad, and it was fascinating how complex the whole issue is: both psychologically and systematically. Do students learn better in unisex classes or co-ed? What about religion in schools? Montessori-style? I remember the studies showing the effectiveness of 'kinesthetic learning' (or learning that incorporates physical movement in order to activate different parts of the brain) were really interesting! I think the main thing I took away from that class was the fact that there is no "one system" or formula that fits all; every child is unique and needs individual attention in order to progress well. I am glad to see that 'Descartes' error' is being unlearned across the board―not only in philosophy. I do have to wonder aloud if this backlash against the privileging of modern reason coincides with the movement into New Age type spiritualities, in which 'holistic well-being' is so essential. Certainly this type of well-being is present in biblical narratives as well, but perhaps has to be looked for a little more. Perhaps this one is open for discussion. The will as a faculty, however, seems to have roots in the Pauline writings (Hannah Arendt explores this a bit).

    I am encouraged to hear that our thinking/feeling processes are somewhat similar, Bob! (And thank-you for your compliment). I've never thought of the heart as centre (until I think it was introduced to me in reading Vollenhoven this year), and moreover, as running even deeper than affect. I do hear the language of 'energy' gaining momentum in our circles at present, and for good reason I think.

    One question I find myself asking "post posting," is 'How is one to digest so much information at once in the age of information, in a way that does not cause indigestion?' If the process I described above is somewhat correct, it is also somewhat slow. If a bare fact is to have any influence on our selves, properly processing it is crucial. I suppose this is where the will could come into play; one needs to be intentional and selective as to what they choose to learn about, what they decide to mull over. But then again, we are bombarded with so much (and this has its advantages, to be sure!) that not everything can be managed this way.

  4. Your employment of the metaphor of energy, Bob, reminded me of Spinoza’s notion of “conatus”, which may be rendered as “striving, endeavour, and tendency.” My attention was first drawn to this by Catholic religious educator Thomas Groome’s appropriation of it. Indeed, after exploring its etymology and philosophical parentage, Groome clearly echoes Spinoza when he writes that his “understanding of conation emerges first from the recognition that we humans have a fundamental ethos that moves us to realize our own ‘being’ in relationship with others and the world.” He glosses this contention with the phrase, “will to being” (I would italicise “will”, if the blog allowed me this emphasis). Groome’s is an emphatically holistic perspective – conation “subsumes cognition, affection and volition in synthesis as a self-in-community” – as is the Hebrew understanding of “heart”. Damasio, whom I mentioned previously, also turns to Spinoza’s understanding of “conatus” to help make sense of what gives impetus, coherence, and direction to human life. He quotes The Ethics, to the effect that conatus is that “striving by which each thing strives to persevere in its being”; this is “the actual essence of the thing.” But Damasio focuses on this as a biological drive – which no doubt it also is, as well as being much more.

    Human beings are responsible agents, not (biotically) determined, but accountable for their actions. I foreshadowed a comment about “will” in my last post. Although earlier philosophers identified elements of what we know as the will, Augustine brought these strands together into a comprehensive conception, while adding further strands. By far the most important of these innovations was inspired by Romans 7, and Augustine’s own experience of struggling with sin. As you say, Sarah, Arendt comments on the significance of this. What she senses is that there can be no conception of the will without recognition of sin, a notion alien to the Greeks and Romans. It is Arendt who credits “the discovery of the Will” with introducing “the wondrous fact of a freedom that none of the ancient peoples had been aware of.” This freedom consists in the recognition that we are compelled neither by the logic of rational argument nor the imperiousness of our desires but can stand momentarily apart from both, and can take a stand. For Plato, knowledge would make us virtuous. Aristotle saw the problems in this conception (and coined the term proairesis in part to try address it), but trusted in habituation to yield virtue. For Paul and Augustine, we are called to commit ourselves voluntarily (i.e., wilfully) to the purposes God has for us. The decisions we make freely and responsibly – what are authentically our decisions – are the ultimate determinants of character.

    But I've run out of "characters", it seems - and it took a long time to delete what I had submitted to gain access again. I will go to Part 2, if allowed.

  5. 150 characters (including spaces) over the limit. Perhaps that is a valuable constraint on verbosity, but here I am nonetheless with Part 2:

    So I, too, Sarah, am interested in character (though not the reductive, moralistic conception that is prevalent in “character education” efforts in schools). But I hope I haven’t gone too far off track. I’m inquiring whether “feeling empowered” and “becoming determined” (4b in your initial posting) are one and the same – or whether the former does inevitably lead to the latter. Don’t we often have to make a “conscious and committed change” when we feel emotionally powerless to do so? Does not suffering via endurance produce character (Romans 5)? Augustine says (“De Trinitate”) that we must “will” to remember. Often, we are moved, rather, to forget.

    I’m still exploring the implications of all this, and thank you for initiating the discussion. There’s not much explicit reflection on the role of will in education these days (except, interestingly, in “anthroposophical” – Waldorf/Steiner – circles). Paul Tough’s recent "How Children Succeed" certainly seems to be surveying this territory, without focusing on the term. Persistence, self-control, delayed gratification, conscientiousness – “grit” – are the descriptors he employs. And I should probably get back to the undeniably important role of affect in all of this – and also how this bears on committing to social justice (in the context of this blog). How may we do that which we would not? And there are also your concerns about “New Age holism” to consider....

  6. That's so interesting you should bring up Tough's book; I recently read an article from CBC on the book (this one: http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/story/2012/11/22/f-how-children-succeed-paul-tough.html). Very, very interesting. I'm also writing my term paper for the Hannah Arendt course comparing ideas of character with the implications of her thought for it. So thank you for sparking a few ideas for me there, Doug!

    I do think 'feeling empowered' is a precursor to determination unto action. It is 'a', as in, not the only one. I think just committing consciously to change regardless of how one feels about it is the first step. Like bringing to light what's been lurking in the dark depths of one's subconscience (if it's a matter of psychological change that needs to happen), or speaking out and making others conscious (if it's a matter of societal or systemic change that needs to happen) - i.e. awareness as a result of speaking truth. But I'd wager the act of speaking truth or committing to a cause in a declarative kind of way would spawn feelings of empowerment not only in the speaker but in the hearers as well. And so it's a sort of reciprocal relationship between affective hope and cognitive awareness and verbal pronouncement. Might we say?

  7. I’m glad you found that helpful, Sarah. I said I would return to what was at the core of your initial posting, which I have to some extent passed over because of my concern to get past the reason/desire juxtaposition. As you say, “feeling empowered” – or just feeling anything at all – is certainly vital in decision-making. People with damage to the prefrontal cortex (seemingly the site of the “executive function”) can retain the highest level of cognitive functioning, yet be unable to choose between the options that reason presents. They may lose the capacity to determine what would be ethically and socially preferable behaviour. To allude to the title of another of Damasio’s books (much more detailed with respect to neuroscience than “Descartes’ Error” or “Looking for Spinoza”) they lack “the feeling for what happens”, so that no option carries greater affective weight than another.

    The body (including the brain, bathed in hormones – “wetware”), is an indispensable component in motivation, attention and cognition, etc. What Immordino-Yang and Damasio (2007) term “emotional thought” is pervasive. They observe that the “aspects of cognition that we recruit most heavily in schools, namely learning, attention, memory, decision making, and social functioning, are both profoundly affected by and subsumed within the processes of emotion….”

    This notion can be explained in two ways. First, a person is always feeling and thinking; whereas psychology legitimately distinguishes between affective and cognitive functioning for analytical purposes, these dimensions are never separable in human action. Second (to employ reformational philosophical concepts), the reciprocal interconnections between aspects of human functioning mean that the analytical has foundational (“retrocipatory”) connections with the sensitive, biotic and other earlier dimensions, while these in turn anticipate the analytical aspect (and subsequent normative-cultural dimensions).
    Martha Nussbaum’s exploration of “the intelligence of emotions” is entitled Upheavals of Thought. She mounts an argument that anticipates the notion of “emotional thought.” She suggests that “emotions are suffused with intelligence and discernment, and … contain in themselves an awareness of value or importance….” Hence, rather than “viewing morality as a system of principles to be grasped by the detached intellect, and emotions as motivations that either support or subvert our choice to act according to principle, we will have to consider emotions as part and parcel of the system of ethical reasoning.” Having acknowledged “that emotions include in their content judgments that can be true or false, and good or bad guides to ethical choice,” they cannot plausibly be omitted.

    So, yes, it is a matter of reciprocity, as you say, and there are more than two dimensions involved, as you also suggest. Speaking out (“confessing with your lips”) is a distinct third, and I hazard that there are a number of others. Identifying with a group – perhaps marching in a protest, or affiliating with a church – prove to be powerful determinants of ensuing decisions, that commence with one act of putting one’s body on the line.

  8. Thank you, Doug! I think I will be reading more of Nussbaum in my spare time; I studied her a tad a few years ago, but can't remember much of it now. But what you've relayed from her is exceedingly important I believe. I also found that the event yesterday provided ample food for thought on these matters--for those of you who aren't sure what I'm talking about, the CPRSE sponsored a book launch for two prominent scholars associated with ICS (William Sweet and Hendrik Hart) who co-authored "Responses to the Enlightenment." Ron Kuipers provided a response that touched on questions of the affective and cognitive dimensions of 'belief'. Hart and Sweet disagreed on a few points when it came to defining what exactly constitutes 'belief'. It was encouraging to see these men grappling with issues of this sort in a faith context.

    They also reminded me how important it is to dialogue about matters that may cause controversy, contention, or perhaps feelings of consternation, and to build amity in doing so. I've really appreciated dialoguing with you over this, Doug! These are things I've only learned about superficially, though I do remember the prefrontal cortex. There was a story of a young man who'd had his damaged, and he had a complete personality turnaround (for the worse).

    Next I would be interested in studying the discernment of feelings of intuition and how one develops ones that are trustworthy and ones that cooperate with empirical evidence so as to draw judgments that are most reliable.