Emotional contagion and rational argument in philosophical texts

Last week I returned to blogging with some reflections on reading and the written word more generally. Originally, I was aiming to write a response to Roger Schank’s stance that “reading is no way to learn”, but I wandered off on too many tangents for an a single post or for a coherent argument. The tangent that I left for this post is the role of emotion and personality in philosophical texts.

In my last entry, I focused on the medium independent aspects of Schank’s argument, and identified two dimensions along which a piece of media and our engagement with it can vary: (1) passive consumption versus active participation, and (2) the level of personalization. The first continuum has a clearly better end on the side of more active engagement. If we are comparing mediums then we should prefer ones that foster more active engagement from the participants. The second dimension is more ambiguous: sometimes a more general piece of media is better than a bespoke piece. What is better becomes particularly ambiguous when being forced to adapt a general approach to your special circumstances encourages more active engagement.

In this post, I will shift focus from comparing mediums to a particular aspect of text and arguments: emotional engagement. Of course, this also shows up in other mediums, but my goal this time is not to argue across mediums.

Let’s start with Socrates. The reason he was so effective as a teacher was not only because of the content of his thought, or that he pushed his pupils to ask questions they might not have otherwise, but because he served as a mentor to his pupils. He was a moral exemplar and forged a personal bond with his students. The direct personal connection with his students allowed his lessons to register not only on the rational level but also at a basic emotional level.

It is one thing to know something, it is another thing to feel it. It can take great patience and training to align your feeling with your thinking. Your desires with the good.

Plato highlights the importance of the connection between mentor and pupil in his texts. It is clear that Euthyphro will ignore Socrates’ lesson. He will continue into the court to prosecute his father; still convinced that he knows piety. Socrates and Euthyphro have no personal bond, and although Socrates’ exposition is much like his other dialogues, it falls on deaf ears. In contrast, Crito and Phaedo, have a deep friendship with Socrates, and it is clear that they are deeply moved and convinced by Socrates’ lessons on the immortality of the soul as he awaits to drink his hemlock. In fact, friendship seems to be central to the Socratic dialectic. Consider for example in Meno when the interlocutor asks Socrates how he would answer a person that knew neither forms nor colors. Socrates replies that he always has a responsibility to truth, but between friends he has an extra duty to “make use of premisses which the person interrogated would be willing to admit” (75d). A lesson from a friend or mentor, instead of just a teacher, carries much more weight and increases engagement from both parties. It is more likely that such a dialogue will become a dialectic pursuit of truth instead of a performative argument.

Of course, a flesh-and-blood mentor can reach only so many people directly. For broader reach, we need to turn to text. The beauty of literature is that we do not need to have lived in Athens during the Peloponnesian war to get to know Socrates and form an emotional connection with him. Plato’s dramatic sense and the hints at Socrates having been a real person — not just a fictional character — combine to bring Socrates to life for the reader. I had read countless secondary expository sources on Socrates and Plato, many from very skilled writers like Bertrand Russell. However, it was only when Julian Xue forced me to actually read (translations of) Plato’s original texts that I really developed an emotional sense of and attachment to Socrates. Plato’s writing allowed me to ignore more than two thousand years of separation and form a bond with the character. This bond allows me to benefit from an increase in engagement due to a sense of mentorship while reading a static text. A text might lack the personalization of interactivity, but it does not have to lack the personalization of personality. It can benefit from both boosts to engagement — having to adapt a general solution to a particular case and being emotionally driven by the mentor — something that no anonymous panel of experts can do.

Of course, it is possible that the emotional engagement of Crito or Phaedo with Socrates is not useful for their learning. Emotions require us to work harder, but if the work is simply to overcome them and ignore them then it is useless work. If we could only not feel and instead engage rationally then our task of learning about ourselves or the world around us would be more easily achieved. Worse yet, emotions might drive us to do counter-productive work; to defend indefensible positions for no good reason. It certainly feels this way when Phaedo pledges to defend the immortal soul and the afterlife regardless of the opposition he faces after Socrates’ passing. I am personally torn on this subject, it is definitely possible to cloud one’s judgement with emotion. If your mentor is willing to abandon their commitment to truth just to make you a devote disciple then they can exploit this aspect of emotion. However, if you select your mentors appropriately then the same emotions can make seeing and continuing the arguments easier.

Unfortunately, most of the modern philosophical texts that I read do not seem to take advantage of an emotional connection to heighten their arguments. They have elevated rational argument above emotional contagion, prizing the former and deriding the latter as mere rhetoric. In fact, some philosophers — like Olly of Philosophy Tube — go as far as identifying philosophy with critical thinking; a position that I already expressed my concern about last year. The only vestige of emotional engagement that I notice today is the provocative thought experiment, especially common in the artificial dilemmas of moral philosophy. This seems like a particularly awkward use of emotion, since to consider such manufactured scenarios as informative, we have to buy into the purely rational framework; but for the dilemmas to have any effect on us, they have to push us back outside this framework by tugging at our heart strings. I feel that this analytic avoidance of emotion — or awkward partial engagement — often results in a rational acceptance of an argument without a true internalization of its conclusion. A big sacrifice, but not without reasons for the modern philosopher.

Purposefully sacrificing emotional contagion raises the great flexibility of text: allowing the author to escape (more of) the implicit judgments of authority. It is upto the author to decide how much they reveal about themselves or their characters. They can even have the best of both worlds, disguising aspects of themselves, while building emotional contagion through their characters. They can choose to disguise (or emphasize) instant cues like age, gender, race, and accent if they want to avoid (or trigger) implicit, or explicit, biases from their readers. They can choose to allow the argument to rest on its own merit, instead of the authority of the speaker. They can use ambiguity to their advantage to allow the reader to project themselves in ways that neither the author nor an interactive panel of experts could predict. Often in ways that the reader cannot even put into words. As an active reader you are invited and encouraged to make the author or characters your own in ways that few other mediums allow. Unfortunately, due to my lack of experience with literature, I cannot make more meaningful comments on more indirect ways of sharing one’s philosophy through the actions and settings of the character.

In the end, I expect that the balance between emotional contagion and rational argument that a philosophical text strikes should depend on the field or purpose. Some philosophy is simply to know the world but some is to shape your character. It seems that texts in moral philosophy lean towards the latter. More than anything reading and writing serve to me as a certain kind of therapy, as does philosophy more generally. So this post, dear reader, is primarily a return to my chaise longue. In such a setting it certainly seems like a little bit of emotion can be a useful addition.


About Artem Kaznatcheev
From the Department of Computer Science at Oxford University and Department of Translational Hematology & Oncology Research at Cleveland Clinic, I marvel at the world through algorithmic lenses. My mind is drawn to evolutionary dynamics, theoretical computer science, mathematical oncology, computational learning theory, and philosophy of science. Previously I was at the Department of Integrated Mathematical Oncology at Moffitt Cancer Center, and the School of Computer Science and Department of Psychology at McGill University. In a past life, I worried about quantum queries at the Institute for Quantum Computing and Department of Combinatorics & Optimization at University of Waterloo and as a visitor to the Centre for Quantum Technologies at National University of Singapore. Meander with me on Google+ and Twitter.

One Response to Emotional contagion and rational argument in philosophical texts

  1. Pingback: Cataloging a year of blogging | Theory, Evolution, and Games Group

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