The False Dichotomy of Emotionalism vs Rationalism
Aug 28, 2011

The False Dichotomy of Emotionalism vs Rationalism

There is this bizarre perception in our society that we are somehow in a great conflict between forces of emotionalism and rationalism. The idea here seems to be that going too far into the side of emotionalism is bad, destructive and leads to irrationality. This is dichotomy that I find to be nearly entirely false.

Emotion and rationality are not in contrast with each other but instead can be considered independently. One can be very emotional about something and consider the issue either rationally or irrationally. One can be very apathetic about something and likewise consider it either rationally or irrationally. The 'bad' entry in this matrix is when people are emotional but not irrational. It is easy to identify such examples in society when there is a perception of emotion trumping reason and this leads to the dichotomy that emotion is exclusive from reason - but this motivation doesn't mean it is true. The problem in that case isn't that emotion is present, or that emotion forces irrationality. It is that irrationality is also present, and when combined with emotion that is a potent combination.

I would submit that there are many cases when we should have quite a bit more emotion in society, provided we combine it with rational thinking. I believe we should be more emotionally involved in the plight of victims of war, poverty, bigotry, etc. Indeed, one of the great problems with politics in today's society is endemic apathy and emotionless disregard for the problems of our fellow humans. We do, of course, need to maintain rationality to determine the most effective policies to help people with the least negative consequences, but we also need the emotionality to have the impetus to help in the first place.

While they are certainly not diametrically opposed concepts, neither can they be entirely divorced from one another - it is just that the relationship doesn't work solely in one direction. For example, I have found many times that a rational understanding of a particular problem results in an emotional stirring towards the issue. Further, an emotional impetus often leads me to try and rationally understand a problem. For example, a small moment of empathy towards homelessness - against a backdrop of inculcated apathy I might have typically felt - prompted me to investigate, learn and attempt to understand this issue with much more clarity; in so doing, I now feel far more passionate and emotionally involved in the issue than before as well as having some rational ideas of the best ways to approach the problem. The combination of emotion and rationality is a powerful one, too often absent in society, and is minimized by a unilateral attack of emotion in politics and society.

There is also a thinly veiled undercurrent of sexism that sometimes runs through such sentiments. Emotion is often stereotyped as a feminine characteristic, rationality a male one, and people will view society through such female vs male lenses. Such a view is, of course, entirely wrong with all people - irrespective of gender - commonly exhibiting both traits despite the false stereotype of men being emotionless robots and females unable to overcome their emotional leanings.

Thoughts on this post? Comment below!

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deathbytrolley said...

Rationality would have nothing to operate on were it not for emotions. Emotions are the source of our value impulses. Moreover, they are integrally involved in unconscious processes of relevance realization. In any given situation, our cognitive system is bombarded by an infinite amount of information. The lion's share of relevance determination is unconscious and non-deliberative.

A rational calculation system needs inputs. Value and relevance judgments could not be made without emotional cognition.

(That's the cognitive science major in me speaking:))

Anonymous said...

One must also recognize that full rationality is an impossibility. We can not act fully independently of our emotional responses to a situation often intertwined with our prior held belief or perceptions. We absorb new information and rank it's importance in part based on our previous held emotional feelings concerning an action/idea/situation.

I think it is in acknowledging the limitations of rationality that we gain a greater humility.

bazie said...

I more or less agree with both of you. Perhaps the best way to say it is that emotion and rationality are certainly intertwined with each other and not diametrically opposed to each other, as the narrative might suggest. Regardless, one is neither capable of dismissing emotion as a determiner of our thoughts and actions nor should we be.

Anonymous said...

I don't believe it's a black and white issue, one side of the spectrum vs the other. Rather, it should be seen as a series of responses, those of which are almost always experienced in the wrong ways. Irrational thinking occurs when one hangs onto emotions for too long, instead of using the emotion as the fuel to execute a decision intellectually.

No decision can be made when having an emotional response. But, no intellectual response can be made without emotion.

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