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Tuesday, 9 December 2008

The problem of dualism and how it relates to emotions

It may sound odd blaming Socrates for many of the world's ills, and more than a little unfair. However the wily old fellow may have inadvertently had a hand in more than he bargained for.

Plato first described a dualism between body and mind/soul and attributed it to Socrates in Phaedo. The idea was that these two concepts were fundamentally distinct. In many ways it became something of a truth held as self evident and it served mankind's progress down through the centuries.

Indeed in the Christian era of the West and in Islam, this split has been reinforced by philosophers, influencing everything from science to ethics.

In recent years science has finally challenged this notion, advancing ideas on the nature of consciousness that suggest even without the unprovable notion of a soul, consciousness and the mind are products of the entirely physical brain.

However, even if one were to set aside such arguments about consciousness, one does not need science to challenge the dualism of body and mind. Eastern philosophy has often emphasised the unity of all things. As a distinction the dualism serves a purpose but has blinded us to other truths. Dualism is at best a metaphor, not a fact. And metaphors are not an exclusive description of that which they seek to describe.

How does this impact upon the subject of this blog, the History of Emotions? Simply so - that the distinction between body and mind quickly took on moral force as the Greeks and their intellectual and spiritual descendants sought to eulogize reason and damn their passions. And in damning the passions, so millenia of tension between that which need not be at opposed combined with religion to create ethical systems that doomed mankind to failure in its attempts to be 'good'.

For example, systems of dualism were the philosophical tools that allowed the passions to be used to demean women as sources of baseness and therefore sin, and creating or exacerbating envy, jealous and fear in our relationships. Men in seeking dominance over women blamed them for what lay in them both and which a system of dualism taught them was base and impure and therefore sinful.

Then in Victorian era, women were put one a false pedestal as angels of virtue, as man sought to control his own passions and keep women in check by binding them with chains of modesty and passivity.

This is not to say dualism was the sole root of all our problems, nor that those feelings described as passions were fine until trammeled in a dualism. But as a system, it was a flawed attempt to understand our humanity and as such stopped us from creating something wiser.

Is this my attempt to reclaim the passions as inherently natural or good? No, rather something else.

As reason has been reduced to maths to describe in a value free way the logic it claims to represent, the truth of Socrates mistake lies bare. Our communication is never in pure maths, be it written or verbal.

The very notion of distinct reason and passion is flawed. Whilst useful in describing some situations, they miss out on the full nature of our reality, just as Newtonian physics failed to understand the quantum world.

Emotions have judgement, like reason. What one person finds repugnant, another may find joyous. Emotions are bound up in what we consider reason. Otherwise reason can be used to justify the most abhorrent acts. I have always loved Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon for this reason - it exposes the inhumanity of reason in all its utilitarian brutality. Emotion can and does on occasion restrain reason!

By carving the mind/body dualism into stone we placed a terrible and flawed moral judgement on our emotions which binds us still.


Indigo said...

Makes a Buddhist view of being at one with yourself and the universe make sense. Besides I've always thought a guy was more likely to think with a certain object of his body than to use his intelligence for emotionally closure. Perhaps there are a few gentlemen left in the world, or it could simply be age that makes them more sage. (Hugs)Indigo

scot in exile said...

I'm not sure if age makes us more sage, though i hope so...

Anonymous said...

Anger hate different colors,lover smile to all colors,,,remember,the deeper you meditation,the less you will be dictated by dualistic mind