Passions (philosophy)  

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Are passions, then, the pagans of the soul?
Reason alone baptiz'd ? --Edward Young, Night-Thoughts

Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” --A Treatise of Human Nature (1738) by Hume

Designs by French artist Charles Le Brun, from Méthode pour apprendre à dessiner les passions (1698), a book about the physiognomy of the 'passions'.
Designs by French artist Charles Le Brun, from Méthode pour apprendre à dessiner les passions (1698), a book about the physiognomy of the 'passions'.

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Passion, or the passions, is a philosophical concept. It is different from popular connotations of passion, which are associated with notions of romance, and which is generally seen as a positive emotion. The philosophical notion, in contrast, is identified with an innate or biologically driven emotional state such as anger, greed, lust, or other deadly sins. In the philosophical sense, the passions can lead to social or spiritual ills, such as punishment from God in Abrahamic faiths, the brutal state of nature presented by Hobbes, or the recurrence of karma in dharmic faith. The passions are often used as foils to advocate the pursuit of virtue, the use of reason, dedication to the principles of a faith or other idealistic principles. Different philosophies approach the passions in a number of ways, from the full indulgence of hedonism and nihilism to the forms of moderation found in philosophies like Epicureanism and conventional religions, to the strict abnegation or rejection espoused by Stoicism, Cynicism, and many types of religious monasticism, especially in certain forms of Buddhism, Gnosticism and Jainism. Contemporary philosopher Roberto Mangabeira Unger has developed a view of the passions that disassociates them from human nature, and instead gives them a formless life that serve in our noninstrumental dealings with each other. Rather than the guiding force behind our relations with the world, they organize and are organized around the need and danger that is at the heart of our relations with each other. In this way, Unger rejects the traditional view of the passions as something counter to reason and which are associated with certain expressions, rather he sees them at the service of reason and their expression formed within certain contexts.


The subject of the passions has long been a consideration in Western philosophy. According to European philosopher Michel Meyer they have aroused harsh judgments as the representation of a force of excess and lawlessness in humanity that produces troubling, confusing paradoxes. Meyers sees philosophers has having treated the passions as a given expression of human nature, leaving the question of whether the passions "torture people because it blinds them, or, on the contrary, does it permit them to apprehend who and what we really are?"


The seventeenth century Dutch philosopher Spinoza contrasted "action" with "passion," as well as the state of being "active" with the state of being "passive." A passion, in his view, happened when external events affect us partially such that we have confused ideas about these events and their causes. A "passive" state is when we experience an emotion which Spinoza regarded as a "passivity of the soul." The body's power is increased or diminished. Emotions are bodily changes plus ideas about these changes which can help or hurt a human. It happens when the bodily changes we experience are caused primarily by external forces or by a mix of external and internal forces. Spinoza argued that it was much better for the individual himself to be the only adequate cause of bodily changes, and to act based on an adequate understanding of causes-and-effects with ideas of these changes logically related to each other and to reality. When this happened the person is "active," and Spinoza described the ideas as adequate. But most of the time, this does not happen, and Spinoza, along with Freud, saw emotions as more powerful than reason. Spinoza tried to live the life of reason which he advocated.

See also

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