“Slave to the Passions?”: Philosophy and the Emotions

What role do the emotions play in our intellectual and emotional life? Recent decades have seen significant advances in psychological understanding of the emotions and their influence on our behaviour and action. Philosophy has tried to follow suit, and this course is designed to apply some of the approaches philosophers have taken in trying to gain a better understanding of the emotions.


Course outline

  1. The Very Idea of an Emotion

Our starting point is an examination of what an emotion is. Some questions include: how can we distinguish an emotion from a non-emotion? How do the emotions differ from mere ‘feelings’ or desires? How do the emotions relate to the broader structure of human psychology?

  1. Case Study 1: Anger

Most of us think that anger is very much something to minimise. And yet there are many situations in which anger is an entirely appropriate emotion, and there is much to be angry about. How can we conceptualise and define anger? This session considers these issues.

  1. Case Study 2: Fear

Fear is essential to the human condition, and it also fulfils a vital biological function. On the other hand, fear by its very nature may arouse in us existential terror. How can the emotion of fear be properly analysed, given its apparently paradoxical status in human life?

  1. Case Study 3: Sorrow

There is much to regret in the world, and sorrow is the emotion by which we feel regret. But is sorrow inevitably self-regarding, and, if not, in what ways can we feel empathetic sorrow on behalf of another? What, if anything is the positive value of sorrow, in terms of our moral life? And how it is that sorrow is exhibited through our outward behaviour? 

  1. Emotion Regulation

Empirical research in psychology has demonstrated that human beings have the capacity to regulate their emotions, and are certainly more than passive exhibitors of them. Our last session will consider the question of how emotion regulation sheds light on the structure and content of our emotional life.

Learning outcomes

  • Understand how philosophical inquiry may be used to assess a range of human emotions.
  • Approach the analysis of conceptual problems using the tools of philosophical thought
  • Know something of the structure of the emotions as disclosed through contemporary empirical research

Who should attend?

Those who are looking for a lively introduction to the inquiry of philosophy; those with an interest in human psychology; and those who might be considering university-level study in the humanities in the future.


  • 5 x sessions, Tuesday 6 October - Tuesday 3 November, 6:30 - 8:30 pm
  • $155.00 incl. GST
  • The University of Auckland, City Campus
  • Presented by Thomas Harvey

Seminar presenter

Thomas Harvey

Thomas Harvey

BA PGDipArts MA PhD Auck

Thomas Harvey recently completed his PhD in Philosophy in the School of Humanities at The University of Auckland. He has been a Graduate Teaching Assistant for a range of courses at the University through his time as a graduate student. He has research interests in Philosophy of Religion, Metaphysics, Philosophy of Science and the History of Philosophy, and is currently working on a book on the Argument from Evil against the existence of God.

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