Freya Möbus

Freya Moebus

Title : Emotions and appetites in the Socratic dialogues


Socrates acknowledges the existence of phenomena we conceive of as emotions, such as fear, anger, envy, and shame; he also acknowledges the existence of appetites, such as hunger, thirst, and sexual desire. However, interpreters disagree about what Socratic emotions and appetites are and which role they can play in the generation of actions. The disagreement arises because Socrates’ theoretical pre-commitments – in particular the doctrine that knowledge is sufficient for virtue – seem to limit possible interpretations of emotions and appetites. If knowledge is sufficient for virtue, what kind of states can emotions and appetites be?

In this paper, I will show that classifying emotions and appetites as ‘non-rational’ is misleading because this label has been used in many different ways (good-independent, belief-independent and not being responsive to beliefs, uncritical, reason-independent and not being responsive to reason). My main point will be that the Socratic doctrine that knowledge is sufficient for virtue does not require emotions and appetites to be belief-responsive nor motivationally inert.

I will critically discuss the three main interpretations of Socratic emotions and appetites: (1) there are two kinds of emotions and appetites in Socratic psychology. If emotions and appetites motivate actions, they arise out of deliberation about what is best to do overall, i.e., with respect to our real good, happiness. If they do not arise out of deliberation, they are mere itches and hankerings that function as motivationally inert pieces of information (Irwin, Penner, Reshotko). (2) Emotions and appetites are evaluative beliefs that come with a certain phenomenological experience. They are not concerned with the overall good; they are beliefs that do not arise out of deliberation but appearances (Singpurwalla, Carone). (3) Emotions and appetites are independent of deliberation about what is best to do overall. Emotions and appetites differ in the following way: appetites are feelings of pleasure or pain, emotions are beliefs brought about by appetites (Brickhouse & Smith).

Interpretation (1) and (2) rely on the following line of thought: if knowledge is sufficient for virtue, then knowledge has to be able to alter emotions and appetites. Emotions and appetites can be altered by knowledge if they are responsive to beliefs. They are responsive to beliefs, if they are themselves (partially) beliefs. I will reject this line of thought and argue instead that we have good textual evidence for Socrates believing that (a) emotions and appetites influence the beliefs upon which we act, and they do so as drives and urges and not like mere pieces of information; and that (b) emotions and appetites do not respond well to reason (see Callicles’ fear of death in the Gorgias), despite being (partially) beliefs (Apol. 29a-b; Euthyphro 12b-c; Laches 198b8-9). I reject interpretation (3) because we do not have to introduce appetites that are entirely belief-independent in order to explain that they are not reason-responsive. My hypothesis is that the Socratic doctrine that knowledge is sufficient for virtue is compatible with there being inclinations towards certain actions that are not reason-responsive.

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