Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters


Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_311



Cognitive science has shown that emotions are a sine qua non for cognition, and nowadays emotions are not anymore understood as irrational or “nonintellectual” feelings. The debate regarding the nature of emotions is still ongoing; however, it would be possible to provide a general definition of emotions as complex states of mind and body, which have an active power – they are not characterized only as receptivity – that impacts human’s intentionality towards the environment.

The goal of this entry is to highlight the role of emotions in reasoning, focusing on their meaningfulness in learning environments and in those educational practices where emotions work together with rationality to enhance understanding and learning. Following the description of the three main ways to understand emotions in the contemporary philosophy of emotions, this entry will discuss the differences between the standard cognitivist approach and other approaches grounded in the embodied cognition in education.

Emotions as Judgments

Cognitivism in the philosophy of emotion assumes that emotions are identical to propositional judgments. In the History of Western Philosophy, Aristotle was the first to highlight the rational valence of the pathemata, and the Stoics provided the identification between emotions and evaluative judgment. Many contemporary philosophers ground their cognitivist approach to these ancient roots (cf. Nussbaum 2001) valorizing the intelligence of emotions in practical reasoning.

The arousing of prejudice, pity, anger, and similar emotions has nothing to do with the essential facts, but is merely a personal appeal to the man who is judging the case. (Aristotle, Rhetoric 1354 a16–19)

Emotions as Perceptions

A quite novel approach is the perceptual model (cf. Prinz 2004), for which emotions are a form of perceptions, i.e., the more primitive and basic form of cognition. This approach has significant consequences for moral philosophy, since it claims that as perceptions are related to judgment about the empirical word, emotions are, therefore, related to moral judgments (Goldie 2007).

The perceptual model emphasizes the “feeling towards,” i.e., the intentional character of emotions: just like perceptions, emotions overcome themselves in order to reach the object they are for. This model has a mind-to-world direction:

The emotions are intentional. By this I mean that the thoughts and feelings involved in an emotion have a directedness towards an object. […] the object of an emotion is that onto which one’s thoughts and feelings are typically directed, and to which they typically return, so the object of my pride in this example is not just myself, nor just my house, but my-house-which-belongs-to-me. (Goldie 2000, pp. 16–17)

In practical reasoning, emotions are not only a passive stance, but thanks to their intentional and motivational power they are an active force in the “organization” of patters of actions. As in the cognitivist approach, emotions “could be said to be judgments, in the sense that they are what we see the world ‘in terms of.’ But they need not consist in articulated propositions.” (De Sousa 2014, p. 19). Following this direction many exponents of the perceptual model reply to the main critique toward cognitivism, i.e., the nonconceptual apprehension of the world of beast and babies (cf. Deigh 1994), by binding emotions with desires.

Emotions as Body Feelings and Other Similar Approaches

The criticism towards the standard version of cognitivism has led to new paradigms that share the recognition of the strong value of body experience and environment. Even if these approaches have some peculiar traits creating differences among them, one could still highlight the common rejection of the standard assumption that cognition is instantiated “centrally” by the brain only. Emotions are expressions of the whole living organism embedded in the world and affectivity pervades the mind.

According to William James emotions are body feelings: in the apprehension of reality first comes the body feeling and then the judgment of experience. Physiological changes precede emotions that are the subjective experience of body changes.

If we fancy some strong emotion, and then try to abstract from our consciousness of it all the feelings of its characteristic bodily symptoms, we find we have nothing left behind, no “mind-stuff” out of which the emotion can be constituted, and that a cold and neutral state of intellectual perception is all that remains. (James 1950, p. 173)

Aside from James’s account, in this category we could count those approaches emanating from continental philosophy, mainly from phenomenology, existentialism and women’s philosophy, and multidisciplinary approaches that combine different disciplines as philosophy, psychology, sociology, biology, and neuroscience. In particular, enactivism (Varela, et al. 1991), that describes an embodied and embedded cognition, and the extended mind hypothesis (Clark and Chalmers 1998), that focuses on the cognitive valence of external tools, have elaborated very promising theories about the role of emotions in general or particular emotions in cognitive processing (cf. Colombetti 2014; Slaby 2014; Candiotto 2015; Carter et al. 2016).

In these approaches, the comprehension of emotions is grounded in an account of the mind that emphasizes its embodied and affective character, making the emotion the more primitive way in which an organism understands, decides, and acts in a particular environment.

Emotions in Education

Generally, the theoretical background of most methodological approaches with regards to the use of emotions in reasoning comes from cognitivism and, partially, from constructivism. Problem solving and multiple intelligences (emotional intelligence, among the perceptual and conceptual ones) are emphasized by cognitive methodologies in education. One such approach suggests that emotional intelligence can fulfill the human experience of life and that its promotion could improve significantly the majority of relational skills. Daniel Goleman (1995) outlines five skills involved in emotional intelligence: (1) being aware of one’s emotions, (2) managing emotions, (3) motivating oneself, (4) empathizing, and (5) relating well with others in a group. He explains that these skills can be learned just like any other subject. Many trainings have been developed (i.e., the Life Skills training) in order to make students aware and leaders of their emotional competency, both in their positive and negative outcomes, providing them some tools for feeling.

If we think of emotions as essential elements of human intelligence, rather than just as supports or props for intelligence, this gives us especially strong reasons to promote the conditions of emotional well-being in a political culture: for this view entails that without emotional development, a part of our reasoning capacity as political creatures will be missing. (Nussbaum 2001, p. 3)

The capability approach, developed by Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen, stresses the importance of emotions as inner resources of the human being to develop her/his potentialities and to determine the quality of life – not only for the individual but for the community as well.

For constructivism (Averill 1980) the social context represents the basis of the generation of emotional responses; social epistemology moves beyond the traditional focus on solitary knowers and stresses social and public mechanisms in the quest for truth. A variety of projects were developed in the direction of creation of emotional life in safe learning environments where dialogical communication and sharing cognition were improved (i.e., the Philosophy for Children curriculum created by Matthew Lipman and the contemporary Socratic Dialogue).

[…] what often causes a breakdown of understanding is that the parties involved are able to appreciate only the linguistic or the cognitive factors involved in their interaction with one another but fail to achieve that exchange of emotions that would make their mutual understanding a reality. (Lipman 2003, p. 270)

The experienced and embodied knowledge stresses the external shared dialogical embodiment of the cognitively-motivational state of students. The key idea is that knowledge processes are not abstract but embedded in real practical situations (cf. Ardelt and Ferrari 2014). The social ratiocinating interactions are emphasized in all disciplines, also in the scientific ones. Some learning programs (Prensky 2013) based on the extended mind theory are still at work, often connected to media education. Extended emotions represent a meaningful hypothesis among the externalist conceptions of mind to design educational programs where knowledge is not understood as the goal of solitary knowers but as the dynamic result of an active and external cognitive and learning process emerging from the interaction inside a group.

The affective dynamics pertaining to a group profoundly transforms the individual group member’s emotional experience. Could this process reach the point at which entirely novel emotional processes are constituted? This would be a case where goings-on on the group level would function as a phenomenal extension of an individual’s emotions. (Slaby 2014, p. 32)

What is crucial to understand about the learning group settings is that the classroom emotional climate (CEC) is not just something good to pursue because it creates a better environment to improve the relationship among students and between students and teachers but, significantly, that it is exactly this learning environment that permits to attain cognitive and learning achievements. That is why emotions are not just shared but also “extended.”

A wide overview – even if not exhaustive – of the many and different programs which have as background what was presented here as the third approach on emotions (emotions as body feelings) could be found in Lund and Cheni (2015).


Discussions about the influence of emotions in learning and in the ability to process information, i.e., if emotions just affect learning or if they are a necessary component of reasoning, are still à la page. Research on the so-called epistemic emotions, i.e., curiosity, love of truth, wonder, intellectual courage, and meticulousness, looks very promising and offers significant contributions to the debate. Moreover, these results are strictly connected to research about the usability of knowledge learned since this kind of emotions could be seen as “facilitating structure” (Immordino-Yang and Damasio 2007) for the application of knowledge and therefore for practical reasoning.

Another import field of research focuses on transdisciplinary methodologies utilized to improve the emotional skills of the students. Regarding this point the emotion cross-cultural studies, combining art, literature, music, drama, film, etc. are very encouraging.

As the entry has underlined, there are many different theoretical and practical approaches to emotions in reasoning; however, it is possible to highlight a common and general account of the contemporary theories and projects, that is the recognition that emotions really matter, since they make something or someone more prominent, i.e., meaningful in relation to our acts. Then, regarding the learning theory and practice, emotions are very important to improve student’s motivation towards learning, their attention to determining salience to the topics, their capabilities to storage information, and to use the knowledge learned in daily life. Emotions have not just an instrumental value for learning – for example, helping to make juicier the process of learning for the students, more connected to their experience, and able to improve the students’ participation to the process – but also an intrinsic value, defined by the role of emotions in reasoning, i.e., to be the primitive source for the subject to understand and decide how to act in the world.




This research arises from the project “Emotions First”, funded by the EU (Marie Curie Individual Fellowship, grant agreement number: 655143), which I am currying out at the University of Edinburgh. www.emotionsfirst.org.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Eidyn CentreSchool of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences, University of EdinburghEdinburghUK