In Defense of “I feel…”—Philosophy is Not Merely, “I believe…”

How do you feel? –What did I just ask you? “Feel” is like many/most words, i.e., we usually use it without thinking and its meanings are many and varied. I might ask you how you feel in regard to your physical health—the answer, “I feel good; the pain in my ankle has gone away.” I might ask how you feel in regard to life/mental health—the answer, “I feel kind of down these days; I can’t quite place it.” I might ask how you feel when facing a particular challenge—the answer, “I feel a little intimidated, but I believe I can do it.” Or I might ask how you feel about a particular idea—the answer, “I feel like that’s a good idea; I think we should do it.”

I want to focus on the last example of feeling. I remember being at the University of Georgia, working on my BA in philosophy, when I heard for the first time someone say something to the effect: “Don’t say ‘I feel…’ but rather ‘I think’ or ‘I believe.’” The context was a discussion of writing philosophy papers. So, instead of saying something like, “I feel Descartesdualism is problematic,” one should say, “I think/believe Descartes’ dualism is problematic.”

The specific reasons given have more or less been forgotten, but I vaguely recollect the problem was either or both of the following: a) Saying “I feel” is somehow noncommittal or not as firm as saying, for example, “I believe”; b) Saying “I feel” is to automatically cut oneself off from the space of reason giving, leaving one merely with one’s subjective feeling. Let’s look at each of these in turn.

Regarding a), perhaps this is a straw man that I’m fighting, but I don’t really see how “I feel” implies less commitment or firmness. If I say, “I feel that Trump’s lack of concern for evidence and the truth is one of the most dangerous things facing the world today,” am I less committed than if I had said, “I believe/think…”? I don’t see how. But moreover, I can imagine, “I feel” expressing more commitment than mere belief or thought, for the person who feels thus and so feels something; it is important enough to affect them affectively. Hell, if somebody said, “I think Hitler was one of the most terrible people in history,” yet they felt absolutely nothing in connection with that thought/belief, I would question their sincerity.

Regarding b), I suspect the concern that saying, “I feel” implies a disconnect with the space of reason giving rests on an unquestioned assumption regarding the purported fact/value dichotomy. That is, facts and truth are things for which we can give reasons, defending assertions regarding them. Facts are in the world and objective. By contrast, feeling, affect, emotion are subjective; they do not concern objective truth, nor do they submit to reason. This dichotomy runs deep, and even infects our traditional gender divisions: women are emotional and thus irrational; men are unemotional and thus rational, capable of understanding the world of fact.

This is not the time to mount a full on assault on the fact/value dichotomy—many others have done so already, for example, see Hilary Putnam‘s The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy and Other Essays. In lieu of that, let us consider a few points regarding emotion, feeling, and judgment. It is certainly true that our emotions can get the better of us; hence, the legal distinction between, say, straight up murder and a crime of passion resulting in someone’s death. However, we should not let that fact blind us to the rationality of emotion. While no theory of emotion is going to be uncontroversial, and while I do not think Robert C. Solomon’s theory of emotions as judgments is unproblematically correct, I do think his defense of the centrality of judgment to emotion is important. For example, we might think that to be angry means merely to feel something, i.e., anger, toward someone/thing. However, we should note that there are easy examples in which a person is angry over a span of many years, even though they seldom actually feel angry. Instead of cashing out emotions in terms of raw feels, Solomon sees judgments as their heart and life. That is, when I am angry at someone, that anger is most centrally the judgment that that person has wronged me. I may hold this judgment over many years, even when I’m not thinking about the person or how I was wronged. But it disposes me to respond in certain ways when I do think of them, i.e., to respond in ways that we would describe as anger. The point of this is not to say that emotions do not involve feels, but rather to push back against the idea that emotions are nothing but phenomenological feels, ones that are disconnected from the space of reasons.

Thus, with this basic idea about judgments in mind, and we should note that we don’t have to think that emotions are judgments to endorse the idea that they centrally involve judgments, we can look at such claims as, “I feel that Descartes’ dualism is problematic,” in a new light. While it is quite possible that a person who says, “I feel” does not actually have any reasons, that possibility does not imply that merely saying, “I feel,” banishes one from the space of reasons. Saying, “I feel that Descartes’ dualism is problematic,” is to express a judgement, namely, the judgment that Descartes’ dualism is somehow inadequate. When someone says, “I am angry with you,” we do not take that to cut off the possibility of asking why. We might well ask, and well expect an answer, about their reasons. While anger may make us irrational, it is certainly uncharitable, not to mention untrue, to claim that anger is never rational.

Perhaps the following is part of the problem. While we expect a particular feeling to accompany expressions of anger, and we are familiar with such feelings, we are perhaps not so accustomed to thinking about what it feels like phenomenologically to hold something as problematic. We take the feeling to be more an expression, not of some actual feeling, but rather a kind of “disliking.” And this liking/disliking space is not taken to be anything more than the giving of a preference, as if one is saying, “I like chocolate ice cream, but not vanilla.” And, again, it’s quite possible that someone, like an undergraduate who is not yet well-versed in philosophy, might say, “I feel…” in just that problematic way, i.e., to express a dislike and not a judgment. But I suspect that people are far too quick to dismiss, “I feel” along those lines.

Alternatively, and much more charitably, and much more accurate to actual phenomenology, would be to read, “I feel…” as an expression of judgment, as explained above, and one that has an affective, felt component. What does one feel when one judges that Descartes’s dualism is problematic? Perhaps there is a distinct feeling of “problematic.” And/or that problematic feeling is composed of a number of other feels. But the thing is this: to judge that things are thus and so usually means to feel something, unless one is, perhaps, a sociopath. If I judge that Descartes’ dualism is misleading and ultimately dangerous even, then that is going to feel a certain way. And one way I may express this is by saying, “I feel that Descartes’s dualism is problematic.” Or, perhaps, my concern for the truth is such that when I judge something as false I get a kind of knot in my stomach. In such a case, if I judge Descartes’ position to be false, then that is going to have a particular feel that accompanies my judgment. But that feeling does not negate my reasons or otherwise imply that I cannot have any.

My impression is that the people who insist upon disparaging, “I feel,” and lauding/recommending, “I believe” or “I think,” conceive of the rational person as a kind of Vulcan, and one that endorses the fact/value dichotomy. Thus any phenomenological feels are necessarily going to be besides the point if not an active danger. Instead, if we are willing to listen, then someone’s telling us that they feel something to be problematic or spot on may actually tell us much more than a mere, “I believe/think….” Enough with the flat-footed, un-nuanced, un-finessed division of reason and emotion!—— I feel that that would be best.

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