The head and heart

unstable partners or competitors?

June 04, 2010|By ALLAN POWELL

A little used parable has some relevance for our own day. Once upon a time an elephant was walking along a country road. By chance, a mouse happened to be by the side of the road and begged the elephant to let him ride on its huge back. They came to a small bridge and crossed safely to the other side. The mouse shouted into the ear of the elephant, "We sure shook that bridge didn't we?"

It is a human trait to misjudge who really carries the weight and who is the small hitch-hiker looking for a place in the sun. The symbolism in this parable has been adapted to carry other messages.

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt uses the relative sizes as a metaphor to suggest the comparable capacity and power of emotion with respect to reason. The elephant (emotion) is far and away more dominant than the rider (reason).


Some very able minds agree with this useful model of the emotion - reason relationship. The great British philosopher, David Hume, is quite blunt in his assertion that, "Reason is, and ought to be, the salve of passion." Which of these two important agents of personality is the most powerful is still a subject of debate and a thoughtful look at this issue is always useful.

In a famous essay written in 1879-80, the American philosopher, William James, argued that, while we may possibly accept some features of life as logically correct or factually true (two plus two equals four and the earth is round), there are vital areas involving beliefs in which we will set to the side our analytical powers and decide the issue on the basis of how we "feel" about the case.

Or, put another way, temperament or feeling overrides raw intellect. A poet would simply say the head was overwhelmed by the heart. William James called this "The Sentiment of Rationality."

Further, James has eloquently written, "It is almost incredible that men who are themselves working philosophers would pretend that any philosophy can be, or ever has been constructed without the help of personal preference, belief or divination." One has but to read the biographies of great minds in whatever field of choice to find support for James' point of view.

We could use a thought experiment to show vividly how powerfully our feelings govern thoughts. A look at two opposing ideas on the meaning of life - one optimistic and one pessimistic - will show that the great majority will reject the pessimistic opinion on temperamental grounds. William James, the optimist, declares, "God's existence is the guarantee of an ideal order that shall be permanently preserved. This world may indeed, as science assures us, some day burn up or freeze, but if it is part of His order, the old ideals are sure to be brought elsewhere to fruition, so that where God is, tragedy is only provisional and partial and shipwreck and dissolution are not the absolutely final things."

On the pessimistic side, the British philosopher, Bertrand Russell, has written "That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving, that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms, that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave, that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of the human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built."

Is it not obvious that it takes a really "tough minded" individual to shed any warmth toward the raw pessimism of Bertrand Russell and to his general outlook? We, without effort, feel a warm kinship to the opinion of William James. Whether we like it or not, however, Russell's opinion is closer to the current view of science about the prospects of our earth than that of William James.

There is no real need for a conflict over the merits of reason and emotion. When one is dealing with the rational application of intelligence in the study of nature, and the operation of natural law, the rules of quantification rightly deserve proper use and respect. The emotions should be bridled in the service of intellect. When we are in the world of values and metaphysics, the heart should be allowed more leverage. Reason and emotion are partners that are barely compatible or even antagonists. They have an unstable relationship. It is our perpetual task to monitor and take charge if we are to benefit from a wise use of each of these great gifts.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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