Culture Philosophy

Feeling is the Elephant in Mind’s Living Room

Among the most famous lines in philosophy is Descartes’s claim that he had proven his own existence because he thinks: Je pense, donc je suis. It is referred to as the cogito because we remember it best from a later publication, in Latin. The English translation reads–surprise!–I think, therefore I am. But does it matter which translation we use when interpreting the sentence? The slipperiness of the vocabulary used to describe “mental functions” seems to suggest so. Perusing the dictionaries, a series of related terms arise–we cogitate, dream, imagine, use our brains, act intelligently, figure out, ponder, and ruminate. Each of these phrases has its own connotations, its own polysemy; and picking any two out will never reveal perfect synonymy between them. We aren’t quite sure what we are talking about when we talk about thinking.

The answer to the question whether it’s important which translation we choose: actually not, at least in terms of how the word thought is used in Descartes’ argument. He could have made his point with any of the words in the list above. The philosopher himself uses an example which evinces this point: he chooses a term much farther semantically from the term to think: for he also doubts therefore he is. He could have used any of the terms in the list, many of them having connotations of “feeling” to a greater degree than does Descartes’ own choice of doubt. For it is not in thinking alone that we know we exist, but in feeling, since thinking is a kind of feeling.

We could go much further. There’s a fun pun on the sentence in a song Brigitte Bardot once performed: “Je danse, donc je suis,” she proclaims, “I dance, therefore I am.” The sexy, frivolous, hedonism of her beach music and artistic persona provides a perfect guise for what is actually an earnest call to contemplation: Descartes certainly would never have written the sentence. He was a thinker by profession and not a dancer, so his thinking is what proved his existence! But dancing is also proof of being, since dancing is feeling. When we talk about trees “dancing” in the wind, we are using a metaphor. Trees, having no sentience, cannot dance; dance is a form of pleasure for the dancer–at least in its prototypical form (contrasted by the competitive rigor of classical dance, which seeks to contort the body to please an audience). It’s not the “cogitation” which makes thinking essential to what we are, it’s that in “thinking,” like in “dancing”, we exercize our capacity for feeling as such.

Why should we see ourselves as feelers rather than thinkers? The reason is that any decent theory of morality must refer to the treatment of others as sentient beings. A popular and flawed moral theory, the “Golden Rule”–treat other as you wish to be treated–doesn’t work out because we all get a kick out of different things. The sexually submissive person, for example, may like having hot wax dripped on his bare skin, or being peed on. This doesn’t mean that he ought to go around dripping hot wax or peeing on, say, homeless people he encounters sleeping in the streets!

Modifying the “Golden Rule” a bit so that it requires treating others as you believe they would wish to be treated fixes it up nicely. Both versions refer directly to the feelings of other, though. If we looked at moral views from a statistical perspective, I think we would find overwhelming support for the claim that acts of gratuitous cruelty are wrong. The deeds we most despise–murder, rape, torture–we despise because of the great suffering they cause to their victims and to their victims’ loved ones. Causing reasonless suffering is wrong in any decent moral system, and suffering is feeling.

There’s another reason that Descartes chooses thinking as the basis for his ontology: we human beings tend to define ourselves by our species, and to define this species by its capacity for thought. Hence the name, Homo sapiens sapiens–term with a silly redundancy underlining how important (overly important!) we find our cognitive abilities.

The problem with defining ourselves as the “wise, sapient” is that it is much too exclusive. These two terms are slippery like the related term thought–having facets of knowledge, intelligence, cunning, but also ethics or spirituality. Still the dominant facet of their meaning is intelligence.

If we are the thinkers, remember that, when we were infants, we were quite dumb. Back then, we weren’t members of the sapient, which implies the falsehood that babies aren’t human. Likewise, at the end of life, we tend to lose our brute cognitive faculties, and may even lose the more spiritually-centered quality called wisdom, as we succumb to cynicism as death nears. Beyond this, defining ourselves as the smart ones, we exclude those who suffer from cognitive diseases like Down Syndrome. We may even exclude, to some degree, all of those who have less intelligence than ourselves, creating a hierarchy in which the Harvard Professor is more “human” than the grad students he advises, in turn more human than the janitor who mops the halls. We exclude animals and make idiotic claims that we may abuse them however we see fit. (I forget the name of a philosophy professor who argued that torturing animals was not immoral except that it upset humans. How someone like that could get tenure at a university upsets me).


If we define ourselves as feelers, we are in much broader company. We find ourselves among animals, among infants and the elderly, among the genius and the fool, the sick and the well, the sane and insane and partially sane.

There are different capacities for feeling, perhaps, just as there are different capacities for thought, but this difference feels much less likely to cause exclusion from our membership in the group. This is because we can’t quantify emotional capacity as we claim to do when we refer to IQ. We also don’t know that this capacity is fixed, or that it follows a general curve during a lifespan, or even that more is necessarily better or necessarily worse.

When we think of ourselves as feelers, we do exclude robots from membership of our kind, assuming we take the mainstream position that computers do not have sentience. It’s a hot debate whether computers can actually “play chess.” How can you play without the desire to win, or awareness of the concepts of play or competition, or the sadness or relief of winning or losing, which are all lacking in the computer?

Nonetheless, let’s entertain the popular view that computers do play chess, and do so better than humans.

If computers play chess better than humans, aren’t they more sapient, and therefore more human than we are, if we define our humanness by our intelligence? If computers are intelligences without sentience, and we humans and animals have less intelligence than they, but are highly sentient, then shouldn’t we define ourselves by what is exclusively ours, which is feeling? We ought to see ourselves as feelers–human or animal–and not as computers. Humans can compute, doing long division, solving linear equations, and whatnot, but the proper reasons to engage in these activities are their enjoyment, or their utility to ourselves and other sentient beings.

Descartes claimed that animals–even dogs–have no souls. He got this wrong (as does the forgotten professor, mentioned above, who thinks animal torture is wrong, but not because the animals suffer by it). Regardless of our personal views on the nature or existence of souls–whether they are eternal or immaterial–we should see ourselves, not as beyond them because of our greater cognitive faculties, but as among their kind as feelers of pain and joy, and especially, of love and grief. The biographical fact that Brigitte Bardot dedicated her work to animal rights after her career in the media fits a woman who, when she was young, sung that she dances therefore she is.


The elephant in the title of this post suggests that our theories of mind tend to focus on cognition–as distinct from feeling–when we really ought to be talking about sentience (emotion, feeling, sensation), which is the more definitive quality of mind. Beyond this, that we should think of ourselves as feelers more than thinkers, because it’s more inclusive and egalitarian to think of ourselves as feelers, rather than thinkers, and that self-definition as a feeler among other feelers fits our ethics well.

Lack of empathy may not be sufficient for the most horrendous crimes, but it’s always necessary. The parties involved in organizing the Shoah, for example, would not or could not imagine the suffering they were causing; otherwise, they never could have stomached it, would have found some way out at any cost. When reading about evil–as in reports on the leaders of the Nazi party–our impression is often of an unsettling absence, a void where we expect to find something monstrous, like boundless sadism, but find only negative space. Is this void anything other than the lack of empathy and empathetic imagination? Fear or power lust may bring about this space of total objectification. Most of us must have witnessed it, the black hole in which only objects exist.

My dearest concern is: to what extent do how many of our scientists, politicians, or business people, live in such a black hole? We, the feelers, are concerned about the harm such persons may cause.

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