Reason, emotion, judgement, faith

Here is one of those truisms that I quite like:

“The definition of insanity is to repeatedly do the same thing whilst expecting a different result.”

This seems to embody some wisdom – it might be told in order to bring someone trapped in repetitious behaviour to realise that they are doing something wrong, and that if they are unhappy with some aspect of their present situation then they need to change something.

Now compare that with the story of Robert the Bruce and the spider making a web, which generates the truism ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again’. Once more, this seems to embody some wisdom – it might be told in order to encourage someone not to give up, not to be daunted by a sense of failure but to learn to overcome the obstacles in their path and treat triumph and disaster just the same.

My point is not that one of these truisms is ‘more true’ than the other. My point is that discerning what is appropriate depends upon the faculty of judgement, what Aristotle called φρόνησις phronesis, or practical wisdom.

In my chapter 3 I was quite critical of “reason” – a position that I maintain. “Reason” – as understood in contemporary society – is, to my mind, radically inimical to the cultivation of phronesis. This is due to the idolatrous conception of reason, in particular, the way in which it systematically denigrates the emotional aspects of human life.

Now Scott responded with this comment: “Emotions follow beliefs. That is, they are involuntary reactions we have as things happen to us, but what they are (and how strong) depends on how those things are evaluated (subconsciously) by our beliefs. Hence, they are data that, if we are self-observant, tell us what our beliefs are — in particular, in this context, what we idolize. But the only way to change beliefs (short of personal revelation — different data) is through reason.”

I disagree with this. I would want to discriminate between “reason” – by which I would understand our capacity to exercise logical thought – and “intellect” which I understand in a much broader sense. Intellect is to my understanding something much more reflective and, indeed, a much more integrated-with-emotion sort of faculty. It is intellect which gives birth to phronesis. In other words, our emotional reactions are not (they do not remain) unconscious – the whole point of spiritual maturity is that the emotions progressively become more integrated into the wider personality.

What I mean by this is that the choice between sanity and Robert the Bruce can be made entirely rational on either side – I see that as simply a sterile working out from whatever premises are chosen, and trivially true. What the intellect can do, however, is work out which of sanity and Robert the Bruce is applicable in the particular instance. This faculty derives from, and is dependent upon, a high degree of self-understanding and awareness with regard to values. It is this faculty which, to my mind, can only result in faith – for all other value commitments end up producing idols. (I don’t expect this to be persuasive to those who currently worship such idols, but it makes sense to anyone ‘outside the bubble’.)

Which brings me to how this links in with faith. The commitment of Christian faith is that in Jesus Christ we see the truest account of what it means to be human – the image of God in human shape. In other words, Jesus Christ is the idol of the system, in the sense of being the capstone and summation of it. The choice between sanity and Robert the Bruce is one that ends up being drawn into an intellectual reflection that brings Jesus into the conversation (much more could be said in unpacking this – another time).

To walk with a particular faith is to make choices that reveal that the judgements formed derive from a specific set of assumptions and beliefs about the nature of reality; in other words, a Christian faith is displayed by a series of decisions that only make sense if the actor is assumed to believe the truth of the faith. The worth of Christianity is then assessable by the fruits of those decisions made by such actors (called saints in Christian theology).

The saints are those whose capacity for judgement has been built up from the intellectual integration of reason and emotion; or, to put that differently, the emotions of the personality have been trained to love God with all heart, soul, mind and strength. The saint is the one who has been enabled to desire one thing, and thus has purity of heart. That is why they see God.

One thought on “Reason, emotion, judgement, faith

  1. We get to the same place (purity of reason — or is it intellect — is purity of emotion, is sainthood), but we have what I think is a pedagogical difference in saying “how we get there”.

    I’ll skip over the reason/intellect distinction — I agree there is a distinction, but sorting through the Aquinas versus the Coleridgean versus my dynamic/static versions, is too complex to get into here. Suffice to say that I accept what you say about phronesis.

    My objection is to your saying “reason and emotion should become integrated”. What I am saying instead is that they are never actually segregated. I guess I don’t really see “the idolatrous conception of reason, in particular, the way in which it systematically denigrates the emotional aspects of human life” as a serious problem. To the extent which some people have said this, I think they are misdiagnosing, and I think you are doing the same misdiagnosis but in reverse.

    I would guess that those who say “keep emotion out of reason” are really trying to say “don’t let assumptions to which you are emotionally attached warp your reason.” And I see that as good advice. Consider Einstein’s inserting the cosmological constant because he didn’t like the idea of an expanding universe. But this isn’t really about emotion and reason being in conflict. It is just reasoning from faulty assumptions, and being emotionally attached to a particular assumption is just one way this happens.

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