Feeling vs Thinking

The English 18th century author and politician Horace Walpole once wrote: “The world is a comedy to those that think; a tragedy to those that feel.” Feelings are conscious experiences, generated from mental thoughts, a learned response to an emotional trigger. They are not necessary and how to react to an event is, in some sense at least, a choice. There is nothing inevitable with a certain response even if the underlying emotion can make perfect sense, and to look at the state of the world and have a sense of sadness or disgust, even anger or fear about it is not surprising, perhaps even reasonable. It is possible to be happy or joyful about it of course, but that would rather be the minority position. To get caught up in the feelings these emotions trigger, however, is to remain in an impotent state of frustration, irritation, bitterness, worry, anxiety, hatred, etc., the effects of which are seen on social media, in political debates and conversations in general. To interpret something as tragedy is never mandatory, it is not a required stance. Some things are generally considered tragic nevertheless, such as genocide or natural disasters. But it is not necessary to take this as proof that the world as a whole is tragic. It is a decision which is possible to make or not to make, and not determined by any underlying emotion.

To assume a thinking position, on the other hand, is to realise the transitory nature of being by detaching from the immediate, to accept the contingency of things by putting them into perspective. A recent popular expression reads “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention”. To be angry at injustice is normal, but to believe that you are obliged to feel outraged, that it somehow shows responsibility, is to confuse strong feelings with moral worth. Yet rage naturally lends itself to conflict and violence and it, like any strong feeling, inhibits thinking and makes us assume a state of sad passion. Sad passions, as Spinoza says, are necessary for the exercise of power on behalf of the state. Passions are either determined by joy or sadness, of which joy increases and sadness decreases the power of acting. Deleuze replaced judgment with affect as the movement of thought: every concept is an affective experience, a becoming, and becomings are always composites of joyful and sad passions. Capitalism, for instance, could not exist if it did not also inspire happiness, love or courage, which could lead to industriousness and entrepreneurship. To create sad passions, then, is a way to subdue people, or indeed oneself, and to stop them from taking action, since sad and angry people rather react than act.

Thinking (as opposed to worrying) requires distance, a detachment from the object of reflection where a priori judgments are suspended and no attitude is forbidden for the sake of propriety. Thinking is free, not constricted by preordained boundaries or rules – except possibly for the rule of reason – and does not prohibit from seeing for instance the comedic aspect of mankind: “la comédie humaine” to quote Balzac. However, to laugh in the face of absurdity is seen as frivolous, as not taking the state of the world seriously enough. In a sense this is correct: laughing instead of crying is to refuse the heavy sense of drama which tends to accompany “serious” matters. But seeing it as comedy rather than tragedy is also a choice to not get dragged down into impotent despair, to take the necessary distance needed for reflection as opposed to immediate reaction.

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