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Tang Chun-I Visiting Professorship Public Lecture: Emotion East and West


Chinese thought places far more importance on emotion than is typical in the West. Western languages talk about “mind” or its equivalents, whereas Far Eastern languages like Korean, Chinese, and Japanese speak about heart-mind, and the talk of mind presupposes that thinking can occur in the absence of any emotion, whereas the idea of heart-mind assumes no such thing. The Far Eastern understanding is more accurate to our psychology because it can be shown that every cognitive function of the mind requires believing something, and belief turns out to involve emotion.

If our functioning psychology requires emotion, then many Western ideas about ethics prove to be mistaken. Kant and other more recent rationalists assume that moral knowledge and motivation based on such knowledge can occur in the absence of emotion. If, as I argue, that is a mistake, then ethical rationalism is ruled out as an ethical option. Interestingly, though, Chinese thought has never supported any kind of (pure) ethical rationalism. At most, reason plays a role alongside emotion in the Confucian understanding of moral virtue. Moreover, at least one Chinese thinker, Mencius, is a pure moral sentimentalist. His four sprouts or beginnings are emotional reactions that he supposes constitute the basis for moral virtue. In the West David Hume and certain others had a similar view of the foundations of morality, so if rationalism is ruled out, the real question is whether pure sentimentalism or some mixture of emotional and rational factors should be seen as the proper basis for moral thinking and moral virtue. In the lecture, I briefly sketch an argument for the former, Mencian/Humean option.