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Passionate reasoning as emotional understanding: pragmatism and using emotions in inquiry


Pragmatists have been eager to employ the method of science in philosophy, which meant, too, that they paid a great deal of attention to the attitudes that regulate the process of scientific or systematic inquiry. At the same time, they, at least in the nonstandard theories of emotion to be found in Charles Sanders Peirce and John Dewey, espoused a cognitivist view of emotion, which resonates with some of the concerns that have been at the forefront of the contemporary philosophy of emotion (COPE). In particular, they converge upon the view that something like ‘emotional understanding’ is very important. While COPE, especially in the case of Julien Deonna’s and Fabrice Teroni’s ‘attitudinal theory of emotion’ which has some pragmatist affinities, is focused on showing how emotional understanding is central to moral agency, it is my aim in this paper to offer a pragmatist account of emotional understanding as ‘passionate reasoning’ that goes one step further. By highlighting the way in which emotions ought to be interpreted even in the context of scientific or systematic inquiries it makes a case for moralizing science from within, i.e. without submitting it to values that are alien to inquiry. In particular, passionate reasoning helps addressing three problems of inquiry: the problem of the lack of context, the problem of the problem wrongly put, and the problem of (not/just) my problem.

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  1. 1.

    The concept of ‘doubt’ Peirce and Dewey employ is derived from Alexander Bain’s The Emotions and the Will (Bain 1888). While Bain has his own comprehensive theory of emotion, there is no evidence that Peirce or Dewey properly engaged with it.

  2. 2.

    I use the term ‘affective states’ to cover all states that sit on a continuum between momentary bodily feelings and habituated, cognitively rich sentiments. In that, I follow Christopher Hookway’s discussion of these phenomena in the pragmatist literature, especially in Peirce (see Hookway 1993, 2002, 2012).

  3. 3.

    While the general, critical dimension of this paper will resonate with some ideas and concerns in feminist, standpoint and/or communitarian epistemology as developed by Heather Douglas, Helen Longino, Sandra Harding, or Lynn Hankinson Nelson, I want to concentrate on these two pragmatists’ view because emotions get a more original and sustained treatment there.

  4. 4.

    Both non-standard theories can be and have been related to James’s work. Dewey discusses and further develops the James-Lange- or discharge-theory (see EW 4: 169–188); for Peirce see Savan 1981: 321–322; 326.

  5. 5.

    Importantly, Peirce says “almost always”, not “always”. I would expect the exceptions to be cases when interpretation is mechanical or passive.

  6. 6.

    I regret that a detailed discussion of these is beyond the scope of this article (but see Hookway 1993: 166–167; and Hookway 2002).

  7. 7.

    The more we learn to be cautious when it comes to sketching an infallible view of human nature, the harder it becomes to determine whether there are particular “types of men” or which instincts are “fundamental” (as supposed in Peirce’s ‘psychotaxy’, see CP 7.378–7.387), which emotional reactions “necessary” (Peirce thinks that ‘devotion’ is for ‘mothers’, see CP 1.626), and which patterns for emotions “universally appropriate” (Peirce assumes that ‘horror’ is at the idea of ‘incest’, see CP 5.445). Here, a greater sensitivity to socio-political context as well as cooperation with other sciences is needed to counter Peirce’s “provincial mind” (de Waal 2012: 92).

  8. 8.

    Note that Dewey had covered ‘feeling’ a few years earlier (1887) in one chapter in his Psychology, but not explicitly in relation to ‘emotion’. In the beginning of the chapter he sounds quite like Peirce: “Feeling, it is to be remembered, signifies not a special class of psychical facts, like memory or conception, but one side of all mental phenomena” (EW 2: 216). However, especially as regards cognition, his account of ‘feeling’ here seems less clear than the later one.

  9. 9.

    The term ‘appraisal’ may invite confusion. I am making no allusion to appraisal theories of emotion here or in general and, following (Moors 2014), I have three reasons for this: 1) these theories are focused on the mental that produces the appraisal while the rest of experience follows and becomes conscious; the non-standard pragmatist account cannot conceive of experience and the mental as separate (see e.g. Krueger 2014: 140); 2) while there seems room for it in “second flavour” appraisal theories (see Moors 2014: 306), the processing of situational features must be thought of as an essential part of the interpretation on my account; 3) I am not convinced that the ‘central goals’ or ‘concerns’ that are supposed by appraisal theories are quite the same in Peirce and Dewey.

  10. 10.

    In virtue epistemological speech, emotions combine reliabilist and responsibilist elements.

  11. 11.

    The affinity with pragmatism, which has at least some textual evidence (see fn 12, below), makes me focus on this account and neglect the many works that investigate related questions, such as Michael Brady’s, Catherine Elgin’s, or Christine Tappolet’s, to name but a few. Since Deonna and Teroni understand their theory of emotion as genuine alternative to other leading theories of emotion (see Deonna and Teroni 2015), I want to avoid incompatibilities at a more technical level.

  12. 12.

    It is only in passing that Deonna and Teroni acknowledge a relation to Dewey (see Deonna and Teroni 2012: 89), while they show more interest in taking James seriously (see Deonna and Teroni 2012: chap. 7).

  13. 13.

    “Under ideal conditions” means “under conditions in which no problems, no questions, no ‘indeterminate situations’ would occur”. This, of course, is not realistic to the pragmatist because they believe that we will, being the creatures we are, continue to be troubled by an inherently doubtful world to which we have to adapt; nor is it really clear that this would be desirable because it seems that we would be nothing but perfectly adapted machines that, without thinking, would simply run on infallible habits (see Massecar 2016: 13).

  14. 14.

    For an overview of the different categories and their history – From Passions to Emotions – as well as the political, cultural, and scientific conflicts that played a role in the conceptual changes, see Dixon 2012 and 2003. Dixon highlights that, with the rise of ‘emotion’ in the nineteenth century to cover all affective phenomena that had been previously distinguished in various ways, important differentiations that had always been tied to normative judgments were lost, or deliberately abandoned. Along with it went the “reflexive relationship” that mental concepts have with our lives (Dixon 2012: 338), or one could also say: the pragmatics of concepts which we apply in order to understand and to “educate” our mind.


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I would like to thank the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft) for the generous support with a research grant (CO 1498/1-1) that allowed me to carry out the research for this article at the University of Sheffield. My special thanks go to Christopher Hookway, Robert Stern, Joshua Forstenzer, Andrew Howat, and Florian Steinberger from whom I received valuable feedback on this project as well as to Humphrey Stumpfkorn and Mitzi L. Goof. I would also like to thank the European Society for the Study of Emotion as well as Shannon Dea at the University of Waterloo for giving me the opportunity to present parts of this project at two conferences. Finally, my thanks go to two anonymous reviewers for helpful feedback on an earlier version of this paper.

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Cojocaru, MD. Passionate reasoning as emotional understanding: pragmatism and using emotions in inquiry. Philosophia 46, 609–624 (2018).

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  • philosophy of emotion
  • pragmatism
  • emotional understanding