Passion vs. Reason

Visiting lecturer Katharina Paxman explained that all actions – even the reasonable ones – are dictated by passion.

DavidHumePROVO, Utah (January 15, 2015)—Pop culture is filled with fictional characters who, instead of being motivated by emotions, decide everything by cold logic. These characters, like Sherlock Holmes and Spock, run entirely on reason and shun passion. Or at least we think they do, because according Katharina Paxman, all actions – even the reasonable ones – are dictated by passion.

Paxman, professor of philosophy at the University of Western Ontario, gave her presentation “Reason and the Passionate Mind” for the first installment of the philosophy lecture series. She focused her remarks on the work of David Hume, a Scottish philosopher of the eighteenth century. Paxman began her lecture with a quote from Hume’s Treatise: “Reason is, and ought only to be, a slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”

Paxman explained this to mean that even when we believe that we are acting according to reason and nothing else, every decision we make comes down to our preferences. “Reason can’t tell us what to prefer,” she said. “It is only once we have a propensity or aversion towards something that we can use reason to direct our action, and this requires passions.”

A common objection to this argument is often phrased like, “Experience shows me that sometimes I am moved by reason, not passion. It feels different.” To this, Paxman explained that there two different kinds of passions: calm and violent. The calm are those we experience without as much emotional force, but nevertheless find motivating. “The calm feel like reasoning, and therefore are often confused with it,” she said. “We are mistaken when we think we are motivated by reason.”

Reason is relegated to an instrumental role, as reason can only direct judgment by giving information about what exists and suggesting means to achieve our ends. What role, then, do emotions play? To answer this question, Paxman introduced two theories on the nature of emotions.

The first, the non-cognitive, states that an emotion is identical to the feeling associated with it. The second, the cognitive, states that emotions necessarily incorporate our beliefs, which in turn can be evaluated by reason.

She concluded, “What it is to act rationally needs to be reconceived to include not only reason, but also emotion.”

—Samuel Wright (B.A. American Studies ’16)

Photography by Bandan Das