Intellect versus affect: finding leverage in an old debate


We often claim to know about what is good or bad, right or wrong. But how do we know such things? Both historically and today, answers to this question have most commonly been rationalist or sentimentalist in nature. Rationalists and sentimentalists clash over whether intellect or affect is the foundation of our evaluative knowledge. This paper is about the form that this dispute takes among those who agree that evaluative knowledge depends on perceptual-like evaluative experiences (perceptualism). Rationalist proponents of perceptualism invoke intellectual experiences (intellectual perceptualism), while sentimentalist proponents invoke affective experiences (sentimental perceptualism). The goal of this paper is to offer a fresh strategy for adjudicating between intellectual and sentimental perceptualism. I argue that the perceptualist’s hand will be forced either in the direction of intellectual or sentimental perceptualism once she decides between two views about the modal status of our basic evaluative knowledge. I close with an argument that the more plausible of the two options (given the assumption of perceptualism) is the one which fits best with sentimental perceptualism. The argument, then, is that perceptualists ought to be sentimentalists.

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  1. 1.

    A perceptualist who denies perceptual experiences have truth-evaluable content will need to rephrase this thought.

  2. 2.

    Talk of presentation is increasingly familiar in the philosophy of mind. See Silins (2015). For examples of perceptualists who use presentation-talk, see Johnston (2001) and Kauppinen (2013).

  3. 3.

    Here I follow Robert Cowan (2015).

  4. 4.

    See, for instance, John Balguy (1991: 406) and Richard Price (1991: 141 – 42). Strands of intellectual perceptualism can also be found in early 20th century ethics. For example, Stratton-Lake (2015) finds hints of the view in W.D. Ross’s writings. Stratton-Lake argues that, at the very least, Ross should have been an intellectual perceptualist.

  5. 5.

    See, for instance, the 3rd Earl of Shaftsbury (1991: 173) and Francis Hutcheson (1991: 263). Sentimental perceptualists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including Franz Brentano (1969), Alexius Meinong (1972), and Max Scheler (1973), developed more detailed versions of sentimental perceptualism, particularly by aiming to be more precise about the nature of the affective perceptions and corresponding evaluative properties/relations.

  6. 6.

    I use ‘affective’ to indicate the experiences which are studied by psychologists and cognitive neuroscientists under the headings ‘emotion’ and ‘affect’ (the word ‘desire’ is much less common in those disciplines), and which we tend in everyday discourse to call ‘desires’ and ‘emotions’.

  7. 7.

    For a major defense of intellectual perceptualism, see Huemer (2005). And for sentimental perceptualism, see Oddie (2005).

  8. 8.

    See, for example, Oddie (2005), Döring (2007), and Roberts (2003). Some theorists who ascribe to this view about ordinary desires and emotions do not write systematically enough about value epistemology to make it clear whether they think of themselves as sentimental perceptualists.

  9. 9.

    See Aristotle (1984).

  10. 10.

    See, for instance, Huemer (2005).

  11. 11.

    Many early modern sentimental perceptualists offer such arguments. See Gill (2006) for discussion. For an updated version of a sentimental perceptualist argument from motivation, see Oddie (2005).

  12. 12.

    See Huemer (2005). Intellectual perceptualists can also borrow lines of argument offered by rationalists who aren’t themselves intellectual perceptualists, e.g., those in Enoch (2011).

  13. 13.

    For a discussion of the history of such phenomenological arguments, see Gill (2006, 2009). Similar arguments are offered today. For example, Kauppinen (2013) and Oddie (2005) use phenomenological arguments to defend sentimental perceptualism, and Huemer (2005) does the same in defending intellectual perceptualism. In many cases, phenomenological objections to a form of perceptualism are raised by those who reject perceptualism altogether. See, for instance, Williamson (2007) and Sosa (2007) against intellectual presentations; and see Whiting (2012) and Dokic and Lemaire (2013) against sentimental presentations.

  14. 14.

    For discussion of Balguy’s argument, see Irwin (2008: 446 – 47).

  15. 15.

    Gilbert Burnet, in a letter to Hutcheson, argues that affect is too variable and uncertain to be the foundation of evaluative knowledge. See Burnet and Hutcheson (1971). For updated epistemological arguments against sentimental perceptualism, see Brady (2013) and Szigeti (2013). I respond to Brady and Szigeti in Milona (2016).

  16. 16.

    Elijah Chudnoff, whose view I discuss below, is a rare intellectual perceptualist who resists this model. For a detailed discussion of the history of the understanding-based view and a detailed overview of how it works – albeit with a focus on mathematics – see Chudnoff (2014).

  17. 17.

    Some rationalists argue that there’s no need to appeal to intellectual experiences to explain how understanding gives rise to knowledge (see Audi 1998). Understanding is sufficient all on its own. I do not evaluate this non-perceptualist form of rationalism here.

  18. 18.

    The reader may be wondering about the contingent a priori. I consider the prospects for an intellectual perceptualism modeled on the contingent a priori in the next section.

  19. 19.

    We could give up this requirement, but then it would be puzzling how these experiences could generate knowledge (see Chudnoff 2013).

  20. 20.

    On high-level perception in general, see Siegel (2011). On high-level value perception, see, for instance, Cowan (2015) and Werner (2016).

  21. 21.

    Cowan (2015) explains in detail why cognitive penetration of this sort is the best explanation for how high-level value perception is possible. Another possibility, as Cowan notes, is that dispositions to experience visual evaluative representations in response to certain stimuli are innate. I consider this alternative below.

  22. 22.

    See Cowan (2015) and Werner (2016).

  23. 23.

    See Cowan (2015) and Väyrynen [forthcoming].

  24. 24.

    Even if the belief in the example above were rational, the justification supplied by the experience would still intuitively fail to be basic (Väyrynen [forthcoming]). Cowan (2015) makes a similar argument.

  25. 25.

    I defend this claim at length in Milona [forthcoming].

  26. 26.

    Perhaps our innate evaluative structure consists in innate evaluative beliefs, in which case the experiences aren’t primitive (i.e., because they arise out of prior evaluative beliefs).

  27. 27.

    See Dwyer (2008: 414) for the claim that innate evaluative (or moral) principles would rule out this belief.

  28. 28.

    Proponents of non-affective, innate moral grammars have been very hesitant to characterize that structure in a precise way. Dwyer (2008: 414) even says “To be frank, the form and content of the principles that I claim characterize the moral faculty remain a mystery.” John Mikhail (2007: 143 – 52) does propose several principles, but they do not specify in non-evaluative language the conditions under which some evaluative property/relation is instantiated. For example, one says that negating a good effect is bad; but that principle won’t do us any good until we have some way of figuring out what is good. One substantive principle he proposes is “an effect that consists of the death of a person is bad.” But it seems to me that this is probably only true all else equal, and in any case, it is only one principle. For some interesting remarks about Mikhail’s view, see Dancy (2004). My aim here is not to criticize Dwyer, Mikhail, or anyone else; it is only to say that intellectual perceptualists shouldn’t think that they can appeal to the work of these theorists to formulate a plausible basis for a contingency-allowing theory.

  29. 29.

    Dancy (2014) argues that that our basic evaluative knowledge is a priori and contingent. McKeever and Ridge (2006) develop powerful objections to this position.

  30. 30.

    McKeever and Ridge (2006) make essentially the same point against any rationalists who wish to appeal to Kripke-style examples of the contingent a priori to make sense of ethical knowledge.

  31. 31.

    There are other purported examples of the contingent a priori. McKeever and Ridge (2006) discuss some of them and explain why they’re not good models for any rationalist.

    It is worth noting that some theorists who invoke the contingent a priori do so in order to explain how we can be justified in taking our sense experiences to be reliable. See, for instance, Cohen (2010). Our a priori knowledge of the reliability of sense experience, if we have it, would be contingent, for sense experience might not be reliable. But theorists who believe that we can have a priori contingent knowledge for the reliability of sense experience do not think that we achieve such knowledge by way of intellectual presentations of the reliability of sense experience. This is (inter alia) presumably because it would force us to ask how we know intellectual presentations of contingencies (e.g., that sense experience is reliable) are reliable. Thus whatever model of the contingent a priori these theorists defend won’t be a good model for intellectual perceptualists.

  32. 32.

    See Schroeder (2008) and Schafer (2013).

  33. 33.

    For a discussion of this view and its history by one of its proponents, see Neander (2012). For other defenses, see Prinz (2004) and Burge (2010). Burge in particular appeals to bio-functions not in order to reduce content, as some others do, but merely to explain how perceptual experiences end up with certain content. I’m suggesting that sentimental perceptualists do something similar. The content challenge, as I conceive it, is not a challenge to give a reductive analysis of affective evaluative experiences but rather to explain how there are affective experiences with such content.

  34. 34.

    If one doubts that fear presents any sort of value, then some other example could be substituted.

  35. 35.

    See Ellsworth (1994). Note that the justification we get from affect that triggers on the basis of highly limited non-evaluative information needn’t be knowledge-level justification.

  36. 36.

    Even if a sentimental perceptualist favors some alternative answer to the content challenge, the argument I give in this section can still be recovered. Appealing to such bio-functions is the most straightforward way for sentimental perceptualists to address evolutionary debunking arguments (e.g., Street 2006).

  37. 37.

    Schroeder (2005) uses ‘the standard model’ to denote a view about moral explanation. I am using it to denote a similar view about the order of knowing in evaluative inquiry.

  38. 38.

    The argument I give works against other models that necessity-requiring theorists might adopt, too. Elijah Chudnoff [forthcoming] defends what he calls low-level intuitions, which consist in seeing a general evaluative (or mathematical, etc.) truth by seeing a particular one. (I assume that Chudnoff means for the general truths to be necessary and the particular ones contingent, but I won’t try to settle the interpretive question.) According to Chudnoff, when we have low-level intuitions, “The same experience puts you in a position to learn about the general and the particular. And though the general has some epistemic priority, this priority does not take the form of epistemic dependence on background beliefs.” I have no direct argument against low-level intellectual intuitions, but my argument does suggest that there are certain instances of evaluative knowledge in which the necessary does not have epistemic priority over the contingent. And that’s all I need, as far as the argument for this section is concerned.

  39. 39.

    One might think we can just add that the agent struggling to achieve her ends has to have a good end. But this move doesn’t help. By putting evaluative content into the antecedent of the principle, we make it too trivial for Sasha’s purposes. For such a principle to be of any use, she’d need some evaluative insight into which ends are good.

  40. 40.

    A similar argument can be offered for any candidate principle. One might think, for instance, that the following is more likely true: if an agent is struggling to achieve her ends, the achievement of which would harm no one, and another agent, S, is able to help, then S has a reason to do so. Even if this principle is true (and I doubt it is), Sasha might well be confused about whether it is, and it is counterintuitive to insist that agents confused about the truth of such principles cannot know contingent evaluative truths of the sort Sasha seems to know.

  41. 41.

    This is a variation on an example originally presented by Dretske (1970).

  42. 42.

    A contingency-allowing perceptualist believes that what we experience as true in imagined cases is a counterfactual conditional. Such counterfactual conditions are (normally) only contingently true. This is because we evaluate the conditional by going to the nearest world in which the antecedent is true and see whether, in that world, the consequent is also true. This allows that there may be more distant worlds in which the antecedent is true and the consequent false. See Sect. 4.2.

  43. 43.

    This method relies on a common, but controversial, assumption that the imagination can be at least a decent guide to possibility. But if the imagination isn’t such a good guide, then the contingency-allowing perceptualist needn’t give up her view. She will say that we just don’t have much knowledge of (non-analytic) necessary evaluative truths, or at least we cannot know of any truth that it is necessary. Perhaps we just know fairly general ceteris paribus principles. That seems to me not such a bad result.

  44. 44.

    If perceptualists need to make room for such principles, then, given the arguments in Sects. 3 and 4, there would be serious pressure to defend an awkward combination of intellectual and sentimental perceptualism.

  45. 45.

    See Burnet and Hutcheson (1971). For a more detailed discussion of this dispute, see Gill (2006).


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For valuable comments on earlier versions of this paper, I am grateful to Robert Cowan, Stephen Finlay, Nicholas Laskowski, Janet Levin, Alida Liberman, Caleb Perl, Ralph Wedgwood, and an anonymous reviewer. I am especially grateful to Mark Schroeder, who provided a wealth of feedback and encouragement throughout this paper’s development.

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Milona, M. Intellect versus affect: finding leverage in an old debate. Philos Stud 174, 2251–2276 (2017).

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  • Rationalism
  • Sentimentalism
  • Moral epistemology
  • Perception