Cody Gray recently asked "Why should philosophers feel any different about the existence of emotions than they do about the color of the sky?" as a rhetoric question. But both physics and psychology were once subject matters of philosophy, so there was a time when philosophy actually cared about these questions. But today, psychology takes care to wonder about the consequences of the existence of emotions, so philosophy no longer needs to care, right?

I have to admit that I read the popular science books form Richard David Precht about philosophy, and among others he discussed the work of Niklas Luhmann on love. So at least for me, the total separation of philosophy from psychology is all but obvious. But my specific question is whether philosophers should care about the existence of emotions or not. One good reason to ignore emotions might be that they complicate things and can lead to inconclusive controversies. I also could imagine that the intersection of philosophy and psychology - at least as far as emotions are concerned - is considered to be part of sociology (see Niklas Luhmann), so philosophy itself doesn't need to worry about it. But I would also be interested to learn whether emotions are still investigated in contemporary philosophy, or whether they are at least taken into consideration when they might have a significant impact on the practical consequences of some philosophical insight.

  • 2
    Now this is the way to make a point! :-) Great question, +1 from me. Commented May 21, 2012 at 10:31
  • To start the answer we must first define "emotion", and unforgettably is something clear, but also hidden from the people. Even the words of win-emotion are removed from the vocabulary. So go figure...
    – Aristos
    Commented May 23, 2012 at 10:40
  • Of course they must take emotions into account. As playing on emotions allow people to get away with some of the most illogical fallacies. Commented Dec 2, 2015 at 11:28

9 Answers 9


I suspect Cody's comment is somewhat out of context - certainly philosophers should care about emotions, if only to not be labeled a sociopath!

Notably, an entire branch of philosophy (aesthetics) is devoted to the study of "sensori-emotional values" (at least as defined by wikipedia).

Emotions are also clearly relevant in philosophy of mind and metaphysics in general. (e.g. if we are guided by our emotions, what impact does that have on free will?) In ethics, a theory known as Emotivism claims that ethical statements represent emotive judgements, and of course the emotions caused by our actions are critical for consequentialist thinkers. (e.g. what defines 'pain'? What defines 'pleasure'? Are there 'better' or 'more valuable' states of happiness?)

And I'm guessing you were asking about analytic philosophy, but just in case emotions play a role in continental philosophy as well, though I am not as familiar with this. For example, you can see Sartre's The Emotions. (Whether or not Sartre should have left this psychologizing to the psychologists as you suggested I will not say...)


First of all, philosophers do care about the color of the sky. Or perhaps it would be appropriate to say that they care about what it means that something is colored, how color concepts function, what it would take for something to be colored, whether there are examples of colored things, and so on. For instance, some people would argue that there are no colors but phenomenal colors. Think of it as mental paint for simplicity's sake. They might say something like that color experience isn't veridical, that ascribing color properties to things involves ascribing to them properties that belong to subjective experience and cannot belong to the objective, that all color ascriptions are confused, and that there are no colored things. Others would agree that color experience doesn't quite get things right, but say that color talk is made true by dispositions of objects to cause certain experiences in us in systematic ways, and that therefore it is completely fine to say that things have colors. And some people would want to understand colors in terms of categorical properties, and some in terms of causal powers, and so on and so forth. But that's all quite besides the point.

Philosophers care about emotions too - always have. And they are probably going to keep caring. For one thing, emotions seem to be important for explaining how people act, and philosophers care about explaining how people act. They also care about the fact that emotions seem to give us reasons to do things. For instance, someone who loves somebody seems thereby to have reasons to do all sorts of things they wouldn't have reason to do if they disliked them, or if they didn't feel anything at all about them. And philosophers care about the nature of having reasons.

Emotions are also interesting because they seem important to morality. For one thing, we moralize emotions. Sometimes people say that (other) people ought to feel ashamed, and some emotions seem to call for moral approbation or disapprobation. If Ted were to happily hit his aunt in the face with a rock and never felt guilty in the least, most people would think his act worse than if he did so reluctantly and felt horrible afterwards. And then there's the fact that emotion is involved in moral judgment. This is really well established. Pretty much everyone who doesn't have a graduate degree in philosophy just goes with what "feels" right/wrong in a given situation when they moralize. And there are lots of issues raised by such findings which are of interest to philosophers.

And then there are questions about the nature of emotions and what theories of emotions are supposed to be like. Are emotions conceptually articulated? If so, what do they purport to represent? And how do they relate to moods and feelings? And to reason? And aren't there seemingly culturally specific emotions? Are emotions socially constructed or natural kinds or something else? And aren't emotions phenomena at the level of persons, rather than their cognitive components? How are you supposed to scientifically study things that seem to be so burdened by its role within a view of people as beigns who act for reasons rather than merely mechanistic things? Wouldn't it have to start by simply defining away the things that make emotions interesting? Can a psychological theory of emotion even begin to answer the philosophical questions? Cognitive psychologists are typically engaged in finding regularities and correlations, and to some extent in componential analysis to explain perceived capacities human beings have. And we still have no idea how to integrate cognitive and neuropsychology, so what are we to do with findings about which brain areas light up, anyway? There are lots of questions one might ask. Some of which are interesting, some of which may turn out not to be.

There are a lot of philosophers working on moral psychology, arguing interpretations of experiments with psychologists or trying to work out philosophical consequences of the psychological findings, and other such things. And there are philosophers working in the philosophy of psychology, studying the structure of psychological theories and theorizing, and philosophical problems that arise in the context of psychology. One such problem is how are we to integrate the different explanatory levels. We still don't have a very good idea of how personal/subpersonal cognitive/neurobiological/computational modes of explanation are supposed to fit together, or even if they are consistent. And then there are philosophers doing theoretical cog. sci. work. And so on and so forth.

I don't know if I've answered your question, but this will have to suffice for now.


Yes, they should care about emotions. Emotions give us purpose. Emotions, feelings and desires are at the core of what used to be called morality. Morality disappears after analysis; emotion will not.

The following is an excerpt from Bertrand Russell's "What is an Agnostic."

Is not faith in reason alone a dangerous creed? Is not reason imperfect and inadequate without spiritual and moral law?

No sensible man, however agnostic, has “faith in reason alone.” Reason is concerned with matters of fact, some observed, some inferred. The question whether there is a future life and the question whether there is a God concern matters of fact, and the agnostic will hold that they should be investigated in the same way as the question, “Will there be an eclipse of the moon tomorrow?” But matters of fact alone are not sufficient to determine action, since they do not tell us what ends we ought to pursue. In the realm of ends, we need something other than reason. The agnostic will find his ends in his own heart and not in an external command. Let us take an illustration: Suppose you wish to travel by train from New York to Chicago; you will use reason to discover when the trains run, and a person who though that there was some faculty of insight or intuition enabling him to dispense with the timetable would be thought rather silly. But no timetable will tell him that it is wise, he will have to take account of further matters of fact; but behind all the matters of fact, there will be the ends that he thinks fitting to pursue, and these, for an agnostic as for other men, belong to a realm which is not that of reason, though it should be in no degree contrary to it. The realm I mean is that of emotion and feeling and desire.

Source: http://scienceblogs.com/evolvingthoughts/2007/06/10/what-is-an-agnostic-by-bertran/


What kind of a thing is an emotion? How do we know they exist? Do they exist in time and space? Can we compare one with another? Can we combine them, add them together, decompose them? Can we concoct them in a lab? Why not?

You state psychologists are now the domain experts when it comes to studying emotion. Why do we consider them the primary experts in this field? How do they go about studying emotion, and how valuable is the knowledge so obtained? Can we use this knowledge in other fields, like physics or neuroscience? Is the type of knowledge they acquire of a similar kind as the knowledge obtained by an astronomer?

I believe these are all philosophical questions, so yes, philosophers should be very interested in them, just like they should be interested in everything else.

  • Good question ! Commented Dec 2, 2015 at 11:37

If you face questions that raise cognitive dissonance in yourself it helps to be able to deal with the emotions that come up. If you can't handle the emotion you default to your original world view and rationalize it. If you are smart the rationalization will sound plausible.

Caring about emotions is like caring about cognitive biases. It's part of the toolkit of efficient thinking.


i think you are right that they don't have quite the same role as they did.

i am reminded of Spinoza's Ethics, in which it is said the emotions play an absolutely central role.

please do read the SEP.

more generally, i associated older philosophies with the need to oppose the emotion to emotionless reason. this isn't relevant in the same way, i think, perhaps because with psychology we have demystified or despooked them to some extent.

there is also this article if you care to read it. it claims that emotions

are what make life worth living

with respect to emotional theories of art, i'm not sure that self expression has the same currency as it did. you could read a little criticism by wordsworth or tolstoy if you wanted to get an idea of the romantic view of emotional expression.


The word philosophy means "love of wisdom." Love is an emotion. This is why philosophy has always been more of a humanity than a science. It has more to do with our nature than the physical world around us. We are emotional beings, and taking the philo- out of philosophy would be like taking the muse- out of music. Wisdom is not the thing that drives philosophers; it is the love of wisdom that is the engine of our progress.

  • There are a number of philosophers and others who have made the point that whatever love is it is not in fact an emotion. Also - philosophy is prior to the sciences and humanities and not closer to one or the other.
    – igravious
    Commented Jan 1, 2015 at 17:53

1. Philosophers should care about emotions if they care about practical reason:

When emotion is entirely left out of the reasoning picture, as happens in certain neurological conditions, reason turns out to be even more flawed than when emotion plays bad tricks on our decisions. (Descartes' Error, xii)

This fact surprised the author, a neuroscientist/neurobiologist. Like many, he thought that emotion merely clouds cool reason. Descartes was wrong when he founded his being in thinking, alone.

2. Emotion may play a role in creativity, which is relevant for problem solving and especially hypothesis formation, a notoriously difficult topic. As of 2014, machine learning folks do virtually no hypothesis formation, despite the fact that it is the gold standard. Perhaps this is due to a failure to fully understand how the full gamut of human cognition works. People often describe intuition as having a certain 'feeling'. Note that there likely isn't just one natural kind of emotion; for example see What Emotions Really Are.

3. Some philosophers, such as Charles Taylor, think personal identity is inextricably linked to values, which themselves seem somehow connected to emotion:

    What this brings to light is the essential link between identity and a kind of orientation. To know who you are is to be oriented in moral space, a space in which questions arise about what is good or bad, what is worth doing and what not, what has meaning and importance for you and what is trivial and secondary. I feel myself drawn here to use a spatial metaphor; but I believe this to be more than personal predilection. There are signs that the link with spatial orientation lies very deep in the human psyche. In some very extreme cases of what are described as "narcissistic personality disorders", which take the form of a radical uncertainty about oneself and about what is of value to one, patients show signs of spatial disorientation as well at moments of acute crisis. The disorientation and uncertainty about where one stands as a person seems to spill over into a loss of grip on one's stance in physical space.1 (Sources of the Self, 28)

1 See Heinz Kohut, The Restoration of the Self (New York: International University Press, 1977), pp. 153–154.


Emotions are but biochemistry of the brain. It is an evolutionary feature. Allow me to elaborate:

Humans are biologically programmed with basic instinctual data for what we call our intuition. Our minds prefer parallel, intuitive guidance over relatively slow, linear logical reasoning in fast-paced environments (i.e. almost every environment).

Intuition can be extended through thorough reinforcements, which in turn can be bound to different emotions (e.g. anger with the act of being hit), for guidance. Emotions bias conscious thoughts, favoring intuitive data.

Okay, now what?

Take rationality for example. It is a huge part of philosophy, and the basis for the scientific method itself. When you try to rationalize something, all the variables have to be considered, including emotions. While thinking about anything, to be able to rationalize your thoughts requires isolation of all possible biases.

  • I'm interested in two problems with this answer. First the "but" at the top. That emotions (or maybe better in context "feelings") are biochemical does not mean they are just that. Second, you seem to think logic would not be subject to the same reductive criticism. But why not?
    – virmaior
    Commented Nov 28, 2014 at 3:26
  • Everything psychological is biological. It goes without saying that our thoughts can be reduced to biochemistry, however the question specifically enquires about human emotions. It is a common fallacy that emotions are multidimensional, supernatural even, and I strongly felt that a proper briefing was necessary. And yes, logic is subject to similar criticism (if you can call it criticism), but it is not the focus here. Commented Nov 28, 2014 at 4:39
  • But then why would you imagine that logic has anything meaningful or helpful to say or the capacity to correct emotions?
    – virmaior
    Commented Nov 28, 2014 at 5:03
  • Correct for emotional biases, not correct emotions (even though logic can be applied there too). Commented Nov 28, 2014 at 7:44

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