The Relationship between Reason and Emotions in Descartes, Spinoza and Hume’s Classical Theories

Essay, 2018

4 Pages, Grade: 1


In philosophical and psychological fields, emotion is referred to as subjective and conscious experience that is primarily characterized by psycho-physiological expressions, mental states and biological reactions. It is mostly associated and deemed jointly influential with mood, personality, temperament, motivation and disposition (Colombetti & Thompson, 2007). Over the years, emotion theory has, therefore, been illustrated by a dichotomy involving the body and head. In the 1960s and 1970s (cognitivism golden years), this theory focused on cognitive emotion antecedents, the so-termed as appraisal processes, with some philosophers perceiving bodily events as by-products of cognition, and as highly unspecific to contribute to emotion experience variety. In other words, they conceptualized cognition as an abstract and intellectual process that is detached from bodily events. Cognitivism legacy perseveres in treating bodily and cognitive events as separate emotion components, even though the present emotion theory has moved past this disembodied position by conceiving of emotions as comprising the two processes; cognitive processes like perception and attention, and bodily event such as behavior and arousal (Colombetti & Thompson, 2007). However, it is evident that the body already highly contributed to the theories of emotion of Descartes, Spinoza and Hume since their arguments never implied that they denied other emotion aspects like cognition and evaluation. Rather, these three classical theorists considered emotions as psychosomatic states, each focusing on distinct emotion aspects as per their theories, but showing an intimate connection between the body and emotions that leads to a relationship between reason and emotions. Therefore, the purpose of this essay is to demonstrate the relation between reason and emotions by presenting the views of classical (pre-Jamesian) theories of Descartes, Spinoza and Hume.

Unlike most of the recent cognitivism theories of emotion, the classical emotion accounts remained thoroughly psychosomatic; acknowledging that emotions contain both bodily and cognitive elements. For example, Rene Descartes believed that passions are mental processes or states that are caused, maintained and even fortified by the human body (Solomon, 2003). Descartes believed that the body acts on the mind through an individual’s spirits movements, which reach the pineal gland. In one of his treatise on passions, Descartes claimed that this theory is accountable for the majority of humans’ emotional feeling, stating that every single movement of the spirits produces a certain impulse to the pineal gland, causing a certain feeling. For instance, Solomon (2003) notes “Love is an emotion of the soul caused by the movement of the spirits which incites it to join itself willingly to objects which appear to it to be agreeable” (p. 23). In this respect, Descartes outlined that the pineal gland brought the body’s activated sensations together with mental processing such that bodily agitation was rendered as surprise, fear, hope or other emotions.

In careful physiological descriptions, Descartes also provided definitions of emotions, which relate emotions to reason or cognition. For example, he argued that the realization that an individual possesses some good will cause joy, whereas the realization that one has some fault will cause sadness. Significantly, for Descartes, these definitions confirm that any bodily event is strictly linked to a mental event. Therefore, it is undeniably to note that emotions often depend on the relations of the mind and the body, a process that occurs in both directions; from the mind to the body and vice-versa. Notably, the account of Descartes on passions highly influenced Spinoza and Hume, whose theories have been classified as cognitive theories since they extensively explored emotions in relation to ideas. However, this categorization cannot be perceived to imply that the body does not play any role in emotion.

Therefore, one cannot disembody the theory of Benedict Spinoza due to its overall account of the relationship of the mind and the body. With respect to this, Spinoza believed that the mind and the body remain to be two of the infinite features from a similar divine body that is also, no other than nature (Colombetti & Thompson, 2007). Remarkably, although Spinoza rejected Descartes’ dualistic metaphysics, claiming that emotions have to be resisted as defective or imperfect thoughts of the world, it is evident that all emotions are a species of pleasure, pain or desire. Hence, it can be contemplated that the mind and the body are not two disconnected substances, which interact causally, but rather, they are harmonized properties of similar substance. Suffice to say, emotions can be defined as the modifications of these two attributes; the bodily affections by which the acting power of the body is either increased or decreased, hindered or helped as well as the ideas of such affections. Solomon (2003) states that “there are feelings, ‘affects’ if you like, critical to emotion, but they are not distinct from cognition or judgment, and they are not mere ‘readouts’ of processes going on in the body” (p. 192). According to scholars, as thinking is believed to change thoughts, only feelings can change emotions. Empirical evidence demonstrates that Spinoza was the first person to note that emotion is required to change another, as he posited that an emotion can neither be removed nor restrained, except by a stronger or opposed emotion (Solomon, 2003). Therefore, it is clearly believed that reason is rarely sufficient to change emotional responses that are automatic emergency-based. Significantly, instead of reasoning with emotion, a person has to transform the emotion through the assessment of another emotion.

David Hume on the other hand, in a treatise on the nature of human beings, defined passions as sensations that come from the body’s soul, but later ended up examining the passions in connection with ideas. In other words, Hume constructed a theory on emotion related to ethics just like Spinoza, claiming that direct emotions are simple sensations concerned with pleasure or pain, but indirect ones came from the mind in relation with ideas. Solomon (2003) maintains that it “is outrageous to common sense and trivializes the role of human emotions in human psychology, motivation and life….and they are processes” (p. 202). Besides, it has to be noted that Hume’s theory did not imply that emotions are disembodied, but rather, this theorist believed that the body’s activity occurring in emotional episodes will lead him astray from his major concerns in human nature treatise. Accordingly, it is believed that the reason has to rule the passions, with Hume once claiming that the reason is the slave of the passions. Scholars claim that reasoning does not have principles or power in the absence of guidance of the passions, arguing that the reason makes contact with the values of mankind only through the passions. In addition, it is argued that it is only a single form of reasoning; objective reasoning, which is not determined by individual values alongside passions, and it, occurs by the virtue of extensive effort but not by nature or logic (Solomon 2003). On the other side, even in logic, passions can never be cut off from reason and reflection; implying that only a few of individuals’ passion are reflective and wholly articulate.

However, the current philosophers were inclined in classifying the classical theories as either physiological or cognitive, claiming that these emotions accounts cannot acknowledge the fact that emotions are determined by what people discern and believe about the world (Colombetti & Thompson, 2007). Such critics described these theories as mere feeling theories; a mischaracterization assuming that such accounts only acknowledged emotions with feelings, neglecting other aspects of emotion, not to mention that feelings are epiphenomena. Cognitivists maintain that emotions are comprised of world-relatedness and meaningfulness, but in this framework, cognition has nothing to do with the body. According to them, cognition remains to be an abstract and intellectual body, which is not influenced by the body’s state (Colombetti & Thompson, 2007). On the contrary, different scholars have proved that there is no ultimate difference between reason and passion and that these two attributes both represent the means of constituting the world, not merely understanding it. Thus, this implies that understanding a passion is being in a position to change it; change of the mind processes.

In conclusion, in spite of the perceived diversity of views contending in the classical theories of the philosophy of emotions, it can be discerned that there is a high relation in terms of emotions and reason. It has been observed that in the three arguments of Descartes, Spinoza and Hume, emotions are typically conscious phenomena while dispositions manifesting certain types of emotions like irascibility are mostly unconscious. Again, emotions involve more pervasive manifestations of the body compared to other conscious states although they cannot be reliably judged only on physiological grounds. Emotions, though not always, are manifested in desires, are different from moods, but moods modify them, and are presumed to be rationality antagonists. Therefore, in any real sense, rational deliberation that does not have emotion (emotionless cognition) cannot be a productive option and can have destructive consequences.


Colombetti, G., & Thompson, E. (2007). The Feeling Body: Toward an Enactive Approach to Emotion. Retrieved from

Solomon, C. R. (2003). What is an emotion? : Classic and contemporary readings. New York, UK: Oxford University Press.


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The Relationship between Reason and Emotions in Descartes, Spinoza and Hume’s Classical Theories
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Patrick Kimuyu (Author), 2018, The Relationship between Reason and Emotions in Descartes, Spinoza and Hume’s Classical Theories, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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