Do Emotions Distort Knowledge Pt. 1

When we communicate with one another, we wish by nature to do so in a manner that is not subject to distortion. We desire to attain an exact image of another person’s thoughts, just as they exist in his mind. Not only do we intend to understand the other person’s intellectual workings, we also wish to be fully receptive to the emotive aspects of his message.After all, sway of the heart may play just as crucial a role in a message as does sway of the mind. The active communicator often melds these two components together to form a complete idea. The receptive communicator ought to receive both the intellectual and the emotive aspects of the idea, or else the idea would be left essentially incomplete. What would the Psalms of David be without the characteristic desperation, paranoia, and subsequent joy of deliverance? What would the admonitions of Malachi be without the dread of impending doom? What would Christ’s denunciation of the Pharisees be without the glow of divine wrath? Clearly, we cannot discard the temperamental aspects of any idea that we receive. Does that mean, then, that we are to subject our faculties of reception to any emotional caprice that arises in our hearts while others communicate ideas to us? Absolutely not, if both participants in the exchange are human beings.

If both agents are mortal persons, then only the intellect of the active and receptive communicators would correspond with each other, and not the emotions. Given that the two persons are of equal intellectual competence and that no error of comprehension occurs, the idea conveyed by the speaker is imprinted on the intellect of the listener exactly as it exists in the intellect of the speaker when communication takes place. For instance, when the first person says that trees live a long life, the intellect of the second person is always capable of grasping the truth that the first is making an affirmative statement about the longevity of trees. The second may disagree with that proposition or approach it with different emotions from the first, but the second is nonetheless disagreeing with and emotionally assessing the same idea as the first. Isolated from error and temperamentality, ideas necessarily correspond in the minds of the active and receptive communicators.

But because the temperamentality of each person is influenced by very different internal and external factors, the feelings of the speaker and of the listener are not guaranteed to be aligned with each other as intellectual ideas are. For example, while Stephen the Protomartyr was overcome by a divine peace as he gave his last sermon, the crowd around him was roused into a murderous rage. The potent reactionary emotions in his executioners made them unreceptive to the temperamental portion of the saint’s message, rendering them incapable of attaining a complete image of Stephen’s thoughts. When they heard him preaching, their intellects were imprinted with same words that he spoke. However, they were not imprinted with his “Spirit,” which is expressed through the emotive portion of his message. [Acts 6:10 ESV]  Not only did the anger of his Jewish audience put them in disagreement with Stephen, it prevented them from even understanding the complete essence of the idea he was trying to communicate. Just as the Psalms are irreparably incomplete without its pathos, the preaching of the saint was also all but incomprehensible because his words were not complemented with an image of his divinely-induced emotive experience when they entered the minds of the crowd. In this case, emotions are in fact capable of distorting knowledge. When preexisting feelings affect the receptive mind while it receives ideas, it may fail to receive the emotions that the active mind is trying to convey. [Part 2 will be published two weeks from today]

By He Li, Class of ’17 History Major in TD


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