Two Souls: Emotion and Intellect

Intellect and emotion.  These two “souls” rule my existence and concept of self.

 On the one hand, I am an intellectual person.  I am earning my masters degree in Divinity and I have a bachelor’s degree in Religion and Social Justice from a prestigious college (where I graduated cum laude).  These accolades are not to suggest that my sense of self is unduly inflated by these degrees or aspirations, but they are two visible pieces evidence that a considerable portion of my life consists in what some may consider an “intellectual” world.

 On the other hand, I am an emotional person.  So many of my daily interactions with people are begun and structured along emotional lines: I say “hello” to someone not because I understand an intellectual necessity to acknowledge their presence, but because I feel an emotional warmth toward them that comes out as a smile and a wave.  Alternately, I feel surges of emotion that are not intellectually explicable: seeing a Life Flight helicopter landing at my University’s Hospital last week, I teared up at the prospect that someone in this world is dying, and I might have just witnessed the underside of the helicopter that arrived just moments too late (despite the intellectual assertion that people die every day, and that that person would have died whether I saw this helicopter or not).

 All this is to say that I’m not so sure where the emotional and the intellectual connect and where they diverge.  Certainly, when I write a paper, I am not of necessity emotionally connected to it (but I do know from experience that my best papers were written specifically because of emotional need or interest).  An intellectual conversation is made richer through emotional investment.  Conversely, my most confusing and confounding emotions are those that I cannot rationally understand or those that leave me in such a stupor that I cannot even begin to identify the causes of my emotion.  This is not to say that I seek to rationalize every emotional encounter, rather that my most rewarding emotional experiences are those that I can dig into and understand intellectually as well.

 It struck me today that the very way we speak about “intellect” and “emotion” establish the terms as two personae in our beings that we set in opposition to one another, and consequently, into which we divide our beings.  “Intellect” stands against “Emotion” in a struggle for proprietary rights over a personality, so that at the end of the day, someone may be called either “intellectual” (to the detriment of ones emotion) or “emotional” (to the detriment of ones intellect).  This is by no means a new construction; for centuries philosophers and theologians have set “reason” above emotion, or have held the intellectual above what they considered to be merely bodily.  Not surprisingly, this same dichotomy has served to buttress essentialized gender difference: men were/are thought superior to women because they “naturally” exhibit the higher rational nature while women were/are thought to be inferior because they “naturally” exhibit the lower emotional or carnal nature.  To be emotionally intellectual, or to have intelligent emotion almost sound oxymoronic by these terms.  When applied to gender in these ways, such queering of types is, to many people, almost anathema.

 For my own selfish purposes, I hope that we can find a way to perceive and live through both of these parts of ourselves; to understand our being as not made up of competing souls, but of fully developed natures seeking a larger understanding of personal wholeness.  As someone who has often felt her “emotion” suppressed for the sake of her “intellect,” and for someone who has also felt that her expressed “emotion” has undermined her expressed “intellect,” I say that we would benefit ourselves and those we love by resisting dichotomizing these two facets.  Here an intentional bastardization of the Chalcedonian formula* is in order, that we may realize ourselves as “fully intelligent, fully emotional.”  Whatever that may come to in practice is an ideal yet to be realized.


*The council of Chalcedon in 451 affirmed, among other things, the full humanity and full divinity of Jesus in an attempt to resolve earlier controversies that stated that Jesus’ human nature amounted to nothing with respect to his salvific role (that is, controversies that held Jesus’ divine nature to be of primary or sole importance in our salvation).  One effect of this council is that “orthodox” christianity lives with the paradoxical notion that something can be both fully human and fully divine, yet affirms this paradoxical relationship as central to what Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection affect for humanity.  In my opinion, this formulation (like the doctrine of the Trinity) is meant to be confounding and to defy simplistic appropriation of either of Jesus’ natures; it is this very formulation that first lead me to question my belief in Jesus at a young age, yet it is this very formulation that gives me comfort today.

One Reply to “Two Souls: Emotion and Intellect”

  1. Intellect is built up by learning. But we don’t learn every single thing we’re exposed to. (We’d be completely overwhelmed if we did.) We only learn a very limited subset of the things we could learn. So, that means we have to select what we learn, i.e. what direction to develop our intellects from among the essentially infinitely number of directions we could learn in. This selection occurs both willfully at a high level (you chose to pursue theology instead of learning astronomy) as well as automatically at a low level (your visual subsystem naturally focuses on relevant details of your visual environment). If we didn’t select what we learn, or if we selected poorly, we would have extremely weak intellects. If you had decided that it was more important to learn how many blades of grass are in your front yard than it was to go to grad school and learn about divinity, you’d be in trouble! :-) I think that intellect is ineffectual or useless without some pre-existing value system to guide every step of its growth and use.

    It also seems that our emotions are our most direct view into our own value systems. If someone gave me a logical “proof” that something was morally wrong, and yet my emotions told me it was right, then surely we would say that the proof was expressing an external value system and than my emotions were expressing my own personal value system.

    I think that at the heart of each of our intellectual beliefs is a qualitative “feel” or experiential “sense.” Try asking yourself why you believe the very mundane things that everyone believes. For instance, why do you believe that 1+1=2? Probably because you can imagine seeing a thing with another thing and that seeing them together, they’re two things. That’s an “intellectual” belief, but we believe it for visual or tactile, qualitative, “feel”-based reasons. I think all beliefs are the same when we look closely enough at them. I think they have to all be made of “feels” ultimately, because feels are how we experience our value system, and our value-system is the mud from which the bricks of our intellect are fashioned.

    We only have one soul and I think it’s built out of one stuff which we experience as intellect and emotion. Some philosophers like Descartes (and probably others before him) have tried to rip that soul/self into a “mind” part and a “body” part. Sadly, the feels and emotions and drives and values ended up going with the “body” leaving a sterile, intellectual “mind” behind in their opinion. I think they’re wrong. We are whole.


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