Emotional Truth: The Search Starts Here

Many people would say their emotions only come when they will and not when they want.


[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 check.

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.

Solomon, R. C. (2003) Not Passion’s Slave. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Author: Dr Jeremy Dean

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.

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