The Unnecessary Distinction between Reason and the Passions

David Hume (1711 -1776)

The philosopher David Hume famously proclaimed that reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions. Hume was working through the classic dichotomy and philosophical opposition between reason and passion, ideas and emotions. He concluded that belief by itself was insufficient to motivate action; some affective attachment was required in addition to the idea in order to motivate the subject to act. What we call the ‘will’ is merely the experience of this confluence between belief and action.

I happen to think that Hume is on the right track in his portrayal of abstract thought, or what he calls ‘demonstrative’ reasoning, reasoning about relations between ideas. Without some affective attachment to the nature or consequences of information and ideas, our conclusions take the form of idle data and inert propositions. Hume describes another form of reason, probabilistic, which plays a role in action insofar as it determines whether courses of action will result in pain or pleasure. Still, for Hume, it is the aversion to pain and the attraction to pleasure which ultimately motivate us to act on the determinations of probabilistic reasoning.

It was in reading Hume that I first came to see that the opposition between reason and the passions was probably a mere philosophical construction, for there does not appear to be any such faculty called ‘reason’ properly understood either as a countervailing force or as a supplement to something called ‘the passions’. If there is conflict of the will, it is between two or more alloys of affect-reason. There is no reflection or idea that is not itself an affective disposition. Likewise there is no process of thinking through ideas that is not a process of affective sorting and selecting. It’s not just that reason and affect are deeply and inextricably enmeshed; it’s that the terms actually refer to two facets of the same thing. Hume presupposes a classic but artificial dichotomy constructed by Platonic-Christian writers who – in part for reasons having to do with maintaining the eminence of philosophers – simply isolated and abstracted two points on a continuum of emotive thought and privileged one above the other. What is called reason (what philosophers do best) is identified as the definitively human faculty; while what we call the passions are bestial, earthly, un-free, and worst of all, feminine. For many contemporary theorists, reviving the denigrated status of affect is considered one way of dissolving the hierarchy and restoring equality. The binary itself is rarely dissolved.

But it seems to me that real distinction to be made in forms of reasoning has less to do with the presence or absence of the passions than with the presence or absence and the proximity of close relationships. Indeed, empirical research suggests that the presence of intense emotions alone explains rather little about action. So, for example, one can be deeply impacted by the moral lessons conveyed in a film or novel – moved to tears! – yet remain unmotivated to change one’s life in accord with those lessons. Similarly, one can be calm and emotionless in resolving to undertake a dangerous course of action to save one’s family.

Work on the motivation of social activists reinforces this perspective, as does research on ethical consumerism. As well, the most suggestive challenge to Benedict Anderson’s thesis that soldiers are motivated to fight and die for a nation, which exists only as an shared idea (an ‘imagined community), comes not from critics of war but from soldiers themselves. Military historians and military psychologists working closely with soldiers have documented that it is immediate and intimate relations with family and community that motivate individuals to become soldiers, and it is the close life-and-death relationships they develop with fellow soldiers that motivate them to fight. Patriotism and nationalism rank far below these and many other considerations. Love of country or freedom or whatever may prove our most virulent and vocalized affective attachments, yet they remain attachments to abstract rather than proximate relations. Love of country is more akin to love of a character from a novel than love of one’s best friend. The volume of our emotions indicates only the presence of attachments, not of motivations. Thus, our decision to fight in a war to protect our family may be marked by exceptional calm and silence.

Interestingly, Hume almost lets the cat out of the bag on this point, conceding that some movements of passion in the mind are so subtle as to feel exactly like reasoning!

Reason, for instance, exerts itself without producing any sensible emotion … Hence it proceeds, that every action of the mind, which operates with the same calmness and tranquility, is confounded with reason by all those, who judge of things from the first view and appearance. Now ‘tis certain, there are certain calm desires and tendencies, which, tho’ they be real passions, produce little emotion in the mind, and are more known by their effects than by the immediate feeling or sensation … When any of these passions are calm, and cause no disorder in the soul, they are very readily taken for the determinations of reason, and are suppos’d to proceed form the same faculty, with that, which judges of truth and falsehood. Their nature and principles have been suppos’d the same, because their sensations are not evidently different.

David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, p. 417.

Having just spent 416 pages explaining the nature of the distinction, Hume is not about to admit that they do indeed ‘proceed from the same faculty’ or, consequently, that the alleged distinction between reason and affect needs to be reconsidered. This places him in the curious position of claiming that what is evidently a form of reasoning to human beings in everyday life is known to philosophers to be a mere illusion – calm passions masquerading as reason. One wonders how this discovery was ever made. Thank goodness for philosophers.