Emotions and Human Nature

Spinoza took emotions more seriously than any philosopher before him.

“Most of those who have written about the Affects, and men’s way of living, seem to treat, not of natural things, which follow the common laws of nature, but of things which are outside nature. Indeed they seem to conceive man in nature as a dominion within a dominion. For they believe that man disturbs, rather than follows, the order of nature, that he has absolute power over his actions, and that he is determined only by himself. And they attribute the cause of human impotence, not to the common power of nature, but to I know not what vice of human nature, which they therefore bewail, or laugh at, or disdain, or (as usually happens) curse. And he who knows how to censure more eloquently and cunningly the weakness of the human Mind is held to be Godly.”

“…To them it will doubtless seem strange that I should undertake to treat men’s vices and absurdities in the Geometric style….”

“But my reason is this: nothing happens in nature that can be attributed to any defect in it, for nature is always the same….”

“The Affects, therefore, of hate, anger, envy, etc., considered in themselves, follow from the same necessity and force of nature as the other singular things. And therefore they acknowledge certain causes, through which they are understood, and have certain properties, as worthy of our knowledge as the properties of any other thing” (Ethics, book III, preface, Collected Works vol. 1, Curley trans., pp. 491-492).

“By affect I understand affections of the Body by which the Body’s power of acting is increased or diminished, aided or restrained, and at the same time, the ideas of these affections” (book III, definition 3, p. 493).

“[I]nsofar as it has adequate ideas, [our Mind] necessarily does certain things, and insofar as it has inadequate ideas, it necessarily undergoes certain things” (book III, proposition 1, ibid).

“[T]he Mind and the Body are one and the same thing, which is considered now under the attribute of Thought, now under the attribute of Extension” (book III, proposition 2, scholium, p. 494).

“The Mind, as far as it can, strives to imagine those things that increase or aid the Body’s power of acting” (book III, proposition 12, p. 502).

“Love is nothing but Joy with the accompanying idea of an external cause, and Hate is nothing but Sadness with the accompanying idea of an external cause” (book III, proposition 13, scholium, ibid).

(By no means would I suggest that this is the last word on love; it seems to apply mainly to a lowest common denominator usage of “love” that is not what I normally mean when I use the word.)

“Apart from the Joy and Desire that are passions, there are other affects of Joy and Desire that are related to us insofar as we act” (book III, proposition 58, p. 529).

“Among all the affects that are related to the mind insofar as it acts, there are none that are not related to Joy or Desire” (book III, proposition 59, ibid).

Based on these and similar principles, he develops a sort of physics of the emotions, which on the whole yields surprisingly plausible qualitative predictions of how people will behave in various conditions.


Our ethical development, or what Aristotle would call our ethos — our piece of Hegelian Spirit, as it were — builds on our emotional development. A relatively harmonious emotional constitution will be naturally open to the influence of ethical development grounded in mutual recognition.

It seems to me that this is already enough for a fully rich account of a human being. If we have ethos, then things like will, ego, intellectual soul, and mind-as-container seem superfluous.

Apperception, Identity

If personal identity is mainly emotional, while reason is at root trans-individual, it should make perfect sense that a Kantian unity of apperception or rational “I” would be quite different from a personal identity. In my view, there is no such thing as rational personal identity. There is emotional personal identity, there is rational coherence of thoughts, and there are various ways in which these may be interwoven. (See also Ethos, Hexis; Soul, Self; Empirical-Transcendental Doublet; Ego; What Is “I”; Psyche, Subjectivity; Individuation; Mind Without Mentalism; Subject.)

Soul, Self

At the risk of some repetition, and putting it very simply this time, my own view is that common-sense personal identity is centered in the emotions, and in what Brandom would call our sentience, and Aristotle and Averroes would have called our soul. Reason, on the other hand, while it does in one aspect get secondarily folded back into the individuality of our Aristotelian soul, is at root trans-individual and social. (See also Ethos, Hexis; Parts of the Soul; What Is “I”; Psyche, Subjectivity; Individuation; Subject; Mind Without Mentalism; Ego.)


Martha Nussbaum wrote a book on the therapeutic intent of Hellenistic philosophy with respect to emotions. This was a particular extension of the broader ancient idea that philosophy was not just a theory of the world, but the way to the good life for a rational animal.

It actually seems to me that there could be such a thing as clinical philosophy. (To the partial extent that I think I understand Lacanian psychoanalysis, that seems to me to be a significant part of what Lacan was doing. He would have disagreed, because he claimed to have a point of view superior to that of the philosopher, but what makes his work interesting to me is the philosophical content and the way it is related to the clinical context.)

Ultimately, I think it is hard to separate ethics from something like therapy. Aristotle did not think this way. He in effect considered ethical discourse to be for the happy few who really don’t need therapy. But if we push ethics in a more democratic direction, then we do need therapy.