Friday, July 21, 2006

Do You Have a Heart?

Of course you have an organ that pumps blood. The question is, do you have a heart in the sense often intended in everyday talk about the mind, in phrases like "he has a good heart" and "in my heart, I know that...", a heart in the Romantic sense of having a private emotional life that one can choose to show or to hide, be true or false to?

Maybe it's better to put the question less ontologically. Is the concept of a "heart" useful for philosophy? It certainly hasn't had much play in philosophy of mind!

We contrast the "heart" and the "mind". Your heart might tell you one thing; your mind another. Now of course, in the broad philosophical sense of "mind", the heart is just part of the mind. The heart/mind distinction, if it works, is meant only to capture a difference between judgments, values, or decisions that have some inchoate emotional basis and those that are more explicitly rational. Is this distinction useful?

Antonio Damasio and Nomy Arpaly might say no. Damasio suggests that emotion plays a crucial role in even seemingly "cool" reasoning. Arpaly suggests that the phenomenology of "cool-headedness" often masks what really is emotional and irrational. Maybe the "heart", then, deserves to be dead and buried; it's really just the mind. Yet something still pulls me toward the idea of the heart, maybe not as distinguished from the mind exactly, but as the metaphorical (and sometimes phenomenological?) locus of a certain kind of deep apprehension, a kind of "gut feeling", that's importantly different from abstract, explicit reasoning.

Mencius doesn't mean what we mean by "heart" -- as David Wong and Kwong-loi Shun suggest, he brings together our concepts of the heart and the mind -- but when Mencius says that something in our hearts is troubled by evil and pleased by good, I want to carry that forward into something more like the contemporary notion of the heart. Though we may at an explicit, conscious level, find nothing wrong in our evil actions -- the Nazi may have what seems to him perfectly rational reasons for exterminating the Jews, the professor may have an excellent defense of his abhorrent treatment of his graduate students in mind -- something deep in their hearts, as it were, still rebels.

I want to be able to say that. I think something in the idea of the "heart" is useful here. There's some emotional knowledge of good and evil that persists under our rationalizations. But Damasio and Arpaly worry me. So also does a strand in my own thinking that takes our actions, and our dispositions to act, as the most fundamental facts about our beliefs and values -- a strand in my thinking that wants to keep things on the surface, as it were, to say the man is his actions and the "inner heart" is a sham....


Anonymous said...

I have generally read "heart" as "ethical intuitions". Thus if someone has a "big heart" it means that they have strong ethical intuitions / their behavior is greatly influenced by their ethical intuitions. If someone doesn't have a heart it means that they have no ethical intuitions, or simply ignores them (perhaps in favor of rational thought). This sort of sounds like a mixture of both points, although I would hesitate to dismiss our ethical intuitions so readily, since they may reflect real and useful ethical rules. (In fact I would tend to believe that they must reflect useful rules, since it seems likely that societal evolution / pressures would favor intuitions that were useful over those that were random.)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comment, Peter! I like the idea of seeing the heart as ethical intuitions -- this is probably close to Mencius's view (or at least, it's the aspect of the heart that he emphasizes).

But there seem to be related uses that go beyond ethical intuitions, at least in the narrow sense: "I love her with all my heart", "he has an evil heart", "in my heart, I know that that objection is fatal to my argument". I'd suggest that what these have in common is a connection to emotion -- emotional intuitions, perhaps. (Even the last. I can't hear it without interpreting the person as emotionally involved in the argument.) And, conversely, if there are ethical intuitions that are not emotionally grounded, I'm not sure I'd think of them as "in the heart".

What do you think?

Anonymous said...

I see. So from these examples we should conclude that heart is better read as “emotional impulses”, of which ethical intuitions are for the most part a subset. Thus “he has a big heart” becomes “his behavior is dominated by his feelings”, which in turn often means “his ethical intuitions have a strong influence on his decisions / behavior”. I think I could buy into that.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

That's about what I'm thinking. I might say "he has a big heart" means he has magnanimous emotional impulses (/intuitions/something like that) -- which of course would relate to the moral virtue of magnanimity.