“I contend that the notion of mere knowledge is a high abstraction, and that conscious discrimination itself is a variable factor only present in the more elaborate examples of occasions of experience. The basis of experience is emotional.” —A.N. Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas
Lately I have thinking about the phrases “I feel” and “I think.” It’s been my observation that a) the two phrases are being used interchangeably by many folks these days and, b) more and more people in our post-modern age seem to use the phrase “I feel” over and against “I think.” Along these lines, I’ve also been thinking about the human physiological systems that these two phrases correspond to which psychologists term “cognitive” and “emotional.”
The relationship between cognition and emotion has captivated thinkers in the West for ages and ages. The ancient Greek Stoics tended to view emotion as a hindrance to reason and virtue; Reason, according to the Greeks, should subdue emotion. Later Western thinkers, like David Hume, viewed emotion more generously. Hume famously said that “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” Up until recently cognition and emotion were viewed as working separately, and even against each other, but contemporary scientific research has shown that these two systems work together and are actually interdependent.
As I’ve dug into this subject a bit I’ve been really happy to learn two important things about cognition and emotion:
First, most psychologists agree that when we talk about cognition we’re talking about processes such as memory, attention, language, problem solving, and planning. Further, many human cognitive processes involve sophisticated functions that may be unique to primates and involve the cortical region of the brain which, evolutionarily speaking, is the newer “higher,” more evolved part of the brain.
Second, there is not as much agreement on the definition of emotion. Scholarpedia indicates that “Brain structures linked to emotion are often subcortical, such as the amygdala, ventral striatum, and hypothalamus. These structures are often considered evolutionarily conserved, or primitive.” So emotions are associated with the older part of the human brain (perhaps we can say they are more fundamental…?)
I’ve been excited to learn about the work of neurobiologist, António Damásio. Damásio’s theory is that “it is wrong to think that only minds think.” In Damásio’s best known book, Descartes Error, he writes “The body and our emotions have a key role in the way we think and in rational decision-making.” Damásio insists that “the body…contributes a content that is part and parcel of the workings of the normal mind,” and it follows that “the mind is embodied, in the full sense of the term, not just embrained.” Relatedly, although cognition and emotion are intimately intertwined, according to other researchers like Joshua Greene and Jonathan Haidt, emotion often takes the lead in helping us to think correctly and virtuously. In other words, when it comes to moral judgement it is “more a matter of emotion and affective intuition than deliberate reasoning.”
I think Whitehead (quoted above) would like Damásio’s theory quite a bit (I’ve read that Damásio, like whitehead, was also a fan of William James, so that’s cool…), and also agree with Haidt and Greene. I know that one of Whitehead’s big things was to try NOT to reduce all sense experience to the mind or impressions of the mind. Human consciousness, For Whitehead, is merely one small, highly developed aspect of experience, which is indeed a fundamental feature of all things. We are essentially “feeling our way forward,” as Joseph Bracken once wrote in regard to Whitehead’s concept of prehension.*
Getting back to the “I feel” vs. “I think” phenomenon, what partly sparked my reflections on this topic were comments that biblical scholar N.T. Wright made in a May 2016 episode of Homebrewed Christianity. Wright doesn’t like when people say “I feel.” Below is a quote I found from a 2002 paper he gave that sounds very similar to the remarks he made in the Hombrewed episode:
“Let me first reflect on our own cultural climate…We have allowed ourselves to say ‘I feel’ when we mean ‘I think’, collapsing serious thought into knee-jerk reactions…You will see easily enough where this argument is going. In order to have any serious discussion about ethical issues, we need to remind ourselves the whole time of the importance of Reason (along with, and obedient to Scripture and Tradition) as one strand of the classic threefold Anglican cord. The current fashion for substituting ‘experience’, which all too easily means ‘feeling’, or ‘reported feeling’, is simply not the same sort of thing. Experience matters, but it doesn’t belong in an account of authority; put it there, and the whole notion of ‘authority’ itself deconstructs before your very eyes.”
I, honestly, completely disagree with Wright here. In fact, what Writght is describing above sounds broken and almost alexithymic to me. Personally, I am happy that people are saying “I feel” in place of “I think,” because, as I have pointed out above, it’s looking more and more likely that Hume was on the right track here. And if one is a Whitheadian, process-relational influenced thinker it certainly is the case that we feel something first and then we interpret it and justify it with reason. If I’m honest about my experience, I have to admit that this is the case. I intuit things, I get inklings about stuff, and then I follow that up by trying to wrap words and logic around these feelings. These vibrations may be subtle, but they’re there. Sure, I can try to close off and ignore these sensations, these pulses that are impressed upon me, and attempt to put Reason above all else, but I’m afraid that by doing this I would be ignoring something deeply fundamental about being a living, embodied human.
* Although many contemporary neuroscientists and psychologists distinguish between “emotions” and “feelings” (emotions being the more fundamental, physical bodily reaction to external stimuli, and feelings being the mental interpretation of that emotional experience) it sort of seems to me like Whitehead used the terms interchangeably (as most people do), or perhaps reversed the order, with “feeling” (being almost synonymous with his important concept of prehension) coming first and emotion being the mental interpretation. I personally find the contemporary neuroscientific distinctions helpful.