Brain vs Heart: a false dichotomy

Are your emotions valid?

Within Western thought, cognition and emotion have traditionally been conceived as adversaries. Thomas Dixon debunks this reason/feeling dichotomy and its historical connection with patriarchal ideas.


“Your emotions are valid”. So runs a popular slogan, often seen in mental-health memes and social media posts. I am never entirely sure what “valid” means in this context, but the word usually implies that something is reasonable, cogent, based in reality, or ethically valuable. Does that really apply to my emotions? All of them? And yours too? And the hateful emotions of racists, and misogynists? And the irrational terrors of painfully deluded conspiracy theorists? Surely not.

Of course, most people’s views about human emotions are more nuanced than just saying they are all “valid”. And the intention behind the slogan - helping people to accept their feelings rather than demonising or pathologising them - is a wholesome one. Nonetheless, in a world where social media and identity politics seem to be creating a new age of polarised emotionalism, it is worth pausing to think again about the relationship between thinking and feeling, reason and emotion.


We are too emotionally intelligent today to make what the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio dubbed “Descartes’s error”



We all know the difference, in our own lives and experience, between making a decision in the heat of the moment - in the grip of a powerful emotion such as rage, hatred, desire, or despair - and making a choice based on calm, detached reflection. That is a real distinction. Yet, we are probably also aware that psychology and cognitive science have demonstrated the deep connections between reason and emotion, between cognitive and affective processing, and between bodily sensations and intellectual thought. We are too emotionally intelligent today to make what the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio dubbed “Descartes’s error” (leaving aside for now the question of whether this phrase was fair to the French philosopher). 

So how can we square this conceptual circle, keeping a sense of the contrast between overheated and calm decision-making, while rejecting a simple dichotomy between reason and emotions? A look back at the history of ideas about feelings can help us with this question.

Marcus Aurelius SUGGESTED READING Marcus Aurelius – the Unemotional Stoic? By Massimo Pigliucci

One reason that the relationship between reason and emotion has been controversial is its historical connection with patriarchal ideas. Writers and philosophers historically made distinctions between thinking and feeling, the head and the heart, reason and the passions, intellect and emotion, often associating men more with the former and women with the latter. In the early 1980s, the Black feminist writer Audre Lorde commented that men were still being taught that their domain was understanding and knowledge, while they should “keep women around to do their feeling for them, like ants do aphids.” For Lorde, this segregation of thought and feeling was harmful both for women, who were thereby excluded from knowledge, understanding, and respect, and also for men, whose repressed feelings lead to pain, hostility, and violence.

There have been several different strategies in trying to overcome this stereotypical contrasting of female feeling with male rationality. In her writings in the 1790s, the English feminist Mary Wollstonecraft argued that women, like men, needed to be properly educated so that their powers of reason and understanding were fully developed, and were thus strong enough to control and guide their passions: women, like men, should be rational beings in command of their feelings. These kinds of approaches maintain a distinction between feeling and understanding, while trying to find new ways to reconnect and revalue the two poles of that contrast, exhorting women to develop their qualities of intellect, or urging men to get in touch with the supposedly feminine domain of feelings.


If our emotions are cognitive - that is they are felt, embodied beliefs about the world - then they are subject to the same tests of validity and rationality as all beliefs are.


Another strategy has been to consider ways in which emotions are themselves forms of thinking. Again Audre Lorde’s writings are instructive. She argued that both men and women needed to be fully in touch with their emotions, because “Our feelings are our most genuine paths to knowledge.” Lorde described her own “Black woman’s anger” as a molten pond, an electric thread, and a “boiling hot spring likely to erupt at any point, leaping out of my consciousness like a fire on the landscape”. Significantly, though, Lorde combined these images of heat and eruption with an appreciation of anger as something cognitive - an emotion that revealed a person’s beliefs and values. Anger, she said, was “loaded with information and energy”.

The American moral philosopher Martha Nussbaum has also been a prominent advocate of this more cognitive view in recent decades, according to which emotions are a kind of value judgement about the external world, infused with an intelligence and rationality of their own, depending on how accurately they represent the world to us. This cognitive view is sometimes called the “neo-Stoic” theory of emotions, since it draws on ideas about the passions going back to ancient Greek and Roman Stoic philosophers. On this view, passions and emotions are opinions or judgements about the world. For instance, rage is the belief I have been insulted and should take revenge, while a feeling of hatred towards immigrants could be the belief that outsiders are a threat to things we hold dear, or a feeling of patriotism is the belief that my country has a special place and value in the world. 

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If our emotions are cognitive - that is they are felt, embodied beliefs about the world - then they are subject to the same tests of validity and rationality as all beliefs are. This is important because it means that appealing to emotion is not a way to bypass rational debate but rather is a somewhat more heated and passionate way of engaging in such debate. If emotions are themselves beliefs, then they should be tested against the evidence, and have their ethical and strategic impact assessed, just like other beliefs. Not all beliefs are valid, and similarly neither are all emotions. Some are full of light, information, and energy, others are the fruits of error, delusion, or deceit.

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