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Knowing and Feeling: An Epistemic Model of the Stoic View of Emotions

Sosseh Assaturian

University of Texas at Austin

One of the most famous Ancient Stoic doctrines is that the ideal life requires the elimination of all emotions or passions (pathē) that could impede the attainment of a perfectly rational state of mind. So famous is this doctrine that in modern usage, the term “stoic” refers to a state of complete freedom from the passions. However, it is now generally recognized that the Stoic philosophy of emotions is more robust than this caricature represents. The Stoics in fact deployed a wide range of “affective” notions in their philosophy. For example, we now accept that the Stoics advocated that the perfectly rational individual experiences not only preliminaries to passions (propatheiai or pre-passions), but also so-called eupatheiai, or dispassions. The related (and mysterious) notions of selection (eklogē) and disselection (apeklogē) have also received scholarly attention.

The Stoics seemed to have conceived of a number of differences between these affective notions. Their approach trades heavily on their philosophy of mind and action, which places the individual as an epistemic agent at the fore. Inwood (1985) and Brennan (2003, 2005)—advocates of what I call the Standard Model—reconstruct the Stoic model of the passions as a taxonomy of impulse (hormē). Impulses are roughly actions that arise from the agent assenting, or taking as true, the proposition (or the complete lekton) presented by states of affairs or impressions (i.e. sense data). On the Standard Model, each impulse corresponds to an epistemic state. Accordingly, advocates of the Standard Model take passions to be impulses that arise from false beliefs, dispassions to be impulses that arise from knowledge, and selections to be impulses that arise from kataleptic (or reliably true) beliefs.

In this paper, I resist the Standard Model by carving out what I take to be the true Stoic distinctions between the following five affective notions: passions, dispassions, pre-passions, selections, and disselections. I argue that there are three problems with the Standard Model and that while selections are not affective impulses, pre-passions are.

First, the Standard Model fails to take into account that selections are semantically and structurally distinct from passions and dispassions. The term eklogē lacks the “path-” root that is common to both pathē and eupathieiai. Additionally, where the species of passions [appetite (epithumia), fear (phobos), pleasure (hēdonē), and pain (lupē)] have corresponding, corrected dispassions [wish (boulēsis), caution (eulabeia), and joy (chara)], the same is not true of selections. Passions and dispassions have one another as their foil. Selections have as their foil apeklogē—disselections. Second, on the Standard Model does not account for pre-passions.

Finally, I argue that the distinction between knowledge and true belief invoked by proponents of the Standard Model to describe the epistemic difference between dispassions and selections is founded on a misguided construal of what part of the Stoic psychology of action is kataleptic. Based on a testimony from Sextus Empiricus (Against the professors 7.141-3) proponents of the Standard Model argue that the belief is kataleptic. However, I propose that the kataleptic part of the psychology of action is not the belief, but the impression. This is to say that all of our impressions are kataleptic, but the beliefs we have about those impressions are not themselves always kataleptic. I read Sextus as attributing to the Stoics the position that if our beliefs about kataleptic impressions are true, we have knowledge. If they are false, we have opinions. Returning to the Stoic theory of emotions, then, we have a picture where dispassions are impulses that result from kataleptic beliefs, passions are impulses that result from false beliefs, and pre-passions are impulses that result from beliefs that are pre-cognitive. Based on this, against the Standard Model, I argue that selections and disselections are not separate classes of affective impulses, but impulses that figure into the mode of “picking” what objects are to be preferred or dispreferred by the agent who has knowledge.

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The Philosophical Life

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