Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Polanyi and Tolstoy on Emotion and Truth

A current area of increasing interest and usefulness for me, personally and professionally, is the role emotions play in our perception of and ability to encounter reality and relationships. In my reading this week I came across two quotes from very different authors in very different books that both give expression to the reality distorting potential of emotion. (I think there is also a reality revealing potential to emotion but that is for another time) And then I found another good one as a searched for a source for the Tolstoy quote. Suffice to say I am increasingly convinced that theology, epistemology, pastoral praxis and even exegesis that doesn't take a full (and yes I mean more than cursory) appreciation of emotional factors is only doing half the job. Let me know what you think. :-)


I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives.
Leo Tolstoy, What is Art? opening to ch 14, 
Translation from: What Is Art and Essays on Art 
(OUP, 1930, trans. Aylmer Maude)
This is the characteristic structure of what I shall call a dynamo-objective coupling. Alleged scientific assertions, which are accepted as such because they satisfy moral passions, will excite these passions further, and thus lend increased convincing power to the scientific affirmations in question - and so on, indefinitely. Moreover, such a dynamo-objective coupling is also potent in its own defence. any criticism of its scientific part is rebutted by the moral passions behind it, while any moral objectives are coldly brushed aside by invoking the inexorable verdict of its scientific findings. Each of the two components, the dynamic and the objective, takes it in turn to draw attention away from the other when it is under attack.
Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, pp229-230

The way scientists try to convince people is hopeless because they present evidence, figures, tables, arguments, and so on. But that’s not how to convince people. People aren’t convinced by arguments, they don’t believe conclusions because they believe in the arguments that they read in favour of them. They’re convinced because they read or hear the conclusions from people they trust. You trust someone and you believe what they say. That’s how ideas are communicated. The arguments come later.


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