Emotional Truth: The Search Starts Here


[Photo by Gianmarco Lodi]

“A thought comes when it will,
not when I will.” – Nietzsche, quoted in Solomon (2003).
Nietzsche’s quote raises an
important question about both thoughts and, implicitly, about emotions. Many
people would say their emotions only come when they will and not when they
want. So how do thoughts and emotions interact in everyday life and in therapeutic
processes like cognitive behavioural therapy? Do we really have any control
over our emotions or are they things that just happen to us?
This is the first in a series
of posts examining these and related ideas. But, first of all, I want to lay the
groundwork for the discussion with a brief excursion into philosophy. Why start
with a philosophical view of emotion? Because once you enter into the
helter-skelter scramble for facts and theories that is modern psychology it can
be difficult to see the wood for the trees or even which forest you’re in. A
philosophical view allows us to get a handle on the big picture, to have a
general view about what emotions are for and where they come from, before we
plunge into the details.
Luckily for us Robert Solomon
is the kind of philosopher who keeps his eye on psychological research but
provides a birds-eye view. His philosophy of emotions, therefore, takes into account
work done by neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio and Joseph LeDoux. That’s not
to say he agrees with their interpretations of the evidence!
Folk Psychology
Before looking at Solomon’s
view, though, it is useful to reflect on two aspects of the folk psychology
view of emotion:

  • The passivity of emotions:
    Solomon (2003) points out that emotions are popularly regarded as something
    over which we have little control, experiences that happen to us.
  • The hydraulic metaphor:
    Solomon (2003) draws attention to the hydraulic metaphor of emotions. The idea
    that emotions build up inside us like steam in an engine. Crucially it is
    something that comes from inside and bursts forth, or is held stoically in
Both of these ideas are
strongly embedded in many cultures around the world. Solomon (2003) argues that
both of them are, to some degree, wrong, or at least not useful ideas.
Against Passivity and the
Hydraulic Metaphor
Is it possible to be just
angry? No, anger is always directed somewhere, at something or someone, even if
it is at such a diffuse object as ‘the whole world’. Anger requires an object
with which to be angry. How does this fit with the folk psychology view of
emotion? Not too well. From Solomon’s point of view anger is directed outwards
whereas the common understanding is of a largely internal process.
Robert Solomon has long been a
proponent of the idea that emotions are not just things that happen to us. As
existentialist philosophers like Sartre point out, we have a responsibility to
take ownership of our emotions. They do not own us, we own them. To say
otherwise is to cede control of a fundamental part of ourselves to…well to who?
And then there’s the hydraulic
metaphor of emotion. Solomon does not agree with the idea that our emotions are
primarily physiological pressures building up inside of us. On the contrary,
Solomon argues, emotions are in fact choices. But, not necessarily choices in
the emotional moment, but patterns of choices over a period of time. Certain
ways in which you tend to view the world: your appraisals.
Consider whether it is
possible that certain habitual emotional responses that you have are perhaps,
just that, habits. And, thinking prosaically, like your shopping habits, they
are constrained by certain factors (e.g. your financial resources), but you
still have to take control and responsibility for them.
So, rather than a mysterious
force welling up from within, Solomon views emotions as choices for which we
have to take responsibility. Emotions are, in fact, strategies.
With these thoughts (and
feelings!) in mind I will move onto more empirical ideas in future posts.
About the author

Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD
is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from
University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about
scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book
“Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks.

Kayode Ojo
Kayode Emmanuel Ojo is the Co-Founder and Managing Director at SHEFFA Limited. He is presently studying Computer Science at the National Open University, Victoria Island, Lagos.