The Thomistic account of emotions

A number of commentators (e.g., Lyons, 1980, 1992) have argued that the Thomistic account of emotions is essentially a non-cognitive one. In fact, Aquinas himself proposes that passions, and therefore emotions, are seated in what he terms the orectic rather than in the cognitive part of the soul (Summa Theologica 1a, 2ae, Q. 22, Art. 2). In contrast we would like to suggest that the Thomistic model has cognitive elements without being a fully fledged cognitive theory in the Aristotelian vein.

It is useful to reiterate briefly the main points of Aristotle's theory of emotions. Aristotle seems to be saying that, in our tried and trusted example, when Susan sees a bear coming towards her she appraises the situation as one of danger and it is this appraisal that causes the emotion of fear. Fear includes physiological sensations and a propensity for action, such as running away. In contrast to this, Aquinas suggests that there is an initial non-cognitive impulse to approach or avoid an object and that this impulse has an accompanying physiological tone: "every emotion is an approach to or a recoil from good or bad ..." (Summa Theologica 1a, 2ae, Q. 23, Art. 4). Impulses are referred to by Aquinas as primary emotions. Subsequent to the initial impulse, a secondary cognitive process comes into play in which the object of the primary impulse is evaluated, thus giving rise to a secondary emotion such as fear or sorrow. So, in the Thomistic model, Susan perceives the bear and this gives rise to an impulse to avoid the bear with an accompanying physiological reaction. The bear is then further evaluated as something that is difficult to avoid and this gives rise to the emotion of fear. The Thomistic scheme for fear is illustrated in Figure 2.3.

The difficulties for this type of account lie in the non-cognitive nature of the initial impulse or primary emotion. On what basis do certain objects give rise to an impulse to approach or to avoid? And on what basis do some objects lead to impulses and other objects lead to no response at all? This is a similar brick wall to the one with which the behavioural accounts collided, namely the event problem, and the Thomistic model offers no new answers.

Although Aquinas saw himself as someone who built upon and elaborated Aristotle's work, one could argue that the Thomistic account of emotions is

EXCITING

IMPULSE

COGNITION

OBJECT

e.g., bear

e.g., avoid

e.g., bear Is difficult to avoid

PHYSIOLOGICAL

TONE

Figure 2.3 Thomistic account of the emotion of fear.

EMOTION e.g., fear considerably weaker than the Aristotelian original. As Lyons (1992, p. 298) points out about Aquinas: "Aristotle has not merely been Platonised but, in the area of emotion, de-cognitized as well."

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