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Can We Know When to Trust Our Emotions in the Pursuit of Knowledge? Consider History and One Other Area of Knowledge.

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Can we know when to trust our emotions in the pursuit of knowledge? Consider history and one other area of knowledge.

Candidate Name: Nastassja Isabelle
Session Number: 002636-063
School Name: Binus International School Simprug
Session: May 2013
Word Count: 1598

“The sign of an intelligent people is their ability to control their emotions by the application of reason”, American author, Marya Mannes once said. Emotion is defined as a strong feeling deriving from one’s circumstances, mood, or relationships with others. In the pursuit of knowledge, there are times when emotion could be involved in order to gain a better understanding of a certain aspect. However, relying on emotions too much could also cloud our judgment, for it is a very subjective way of knowing. This essay will discuss how reliable our emotion is in the pursuit of knowledge in two areas of knowledge; history and the arts. To start with, emotion plays a big part in judging historical figures and events that were immortalized through history books. The question is, would it be accurate enough to judge them solely based on our emotions? Take Richard III for example. He is known as an evil deformed hunchback in history. Shakespeare had popularized Richard III’s ‘deformed hunchback’ image by his famous historical tragedy titled “Richard III” where he was portrayed as a king who ruthlessly lies, murders, and manipulates, so many people had viewed Richard III like that. Shakespeare’s “Richard III” was one of the plays I had to study in my Literature and Performance class, so I knew the character of Richard well enough to judge him. From the play, I perceived Richard III as a heartless evil monster which has greatly affected my judgment to his figure as a king. I learned from the play that he had done countless evil misconducts during his reign, which made me feel pity for the people who were treated unfairly by Richard as well as anger towards the persona of Richard. My emotions and how I reacted to his evil deeds made me judge that Richard was not a decent ruler. However, reasoning should also be considered in the pursuit of knowledge. Is it enough to base our knowledge purely on our emotions? Or is reasoning needed as well? Last year, after studying the play Richard III thoroughly, we were assigned to do further research about the play. I was assigned to research how Shakespeare portrayed him in the play. The results from my research clouded my initial judgment on Richard. I found out that Shakespeare got his sources on Richard from historians that disliked Richard, including Sir Thomas Moore. Moore was born in 1478, so he was too young to remember anything accurately. He spent his childhood in the home of Dr. John Morton, one of Richard III’s archenemies. Moore’s writing on Richard III might have been greatly influenced by the negative stories he had heard from the point of view of Dr. John Morton, so all that he wrote might be biased. I also learned that Shakespeare did not aim to give a history lesson to his audiences through the tragedy of Richard III even though he used historical characters. The play was, in fact, a Tudor propaganda with the intention of promoting the “Tudor myth”. Shakespeare’s monarch, Queen Elizabeth I, was a Tudor and the granddaughter of Richard’s replacement, King Henry VII. It is obvious that there was a lot of bias going on. However, since Shakespeare is the world’s greatest playwright, the image of Richard III he portrayed in his play stayed in many hearts of the audiences even though the portrayal is highly biased. “Shakespeare’s stage version of Richard has erased the history of the real king, who was, by comparison, a model of probity”, said Ian Mckellen. Thus, emotions and reasoning need to come hand-in-hand in gaining knowledge in history. The fact that most history has been written subjectively has huge implications. People tend to write and view history based on their personal experience, in which emotions were involved heavily. What I found interesting with Indonesia’s history with Dutch is my grandmother’s perspective on those supposedly ‘hard’ times. When I learned about the Indonesian history in elementary, I learned that the invasion of the Dutch had caused terrible hardships to the people of Indonesia. However, according to my grandmother, the Dutch were really nice to her family as they were given cheese, milk, bread, etc. How history is written is deeply affected by who wrote the history and their personal experiences with the events, which means there would be different views on historical events. Which one is reliable enough? If we base our pursuit of history purely on emotions, we could end up gaining inaccurate knowledge since we viewed it subjectively.
Figure 1: “Two Sides of Melissa”
Figure 1: “Two Sides of Melissa”
In the world of art, emotions should not be trusted completely in the pursuit of knowledge either. When examining an artwork, our emotions tend to lead us to our own interpretation according to how we perceive it. The interpretations might not be accurate since it is highly subjective. I am an art student, and there were times when people false interpreted my artworks. For example when I made an artwork on two-faced personality. The drawing was the face of a ballet dancer with two different personalities (See Fig. 1). When my mother first saw it, she thought that I made the artwork because I loved to do ballet as a child, when the real meaning of it is actually about the theme of two-faced personalities. It is really hard trying to interpret an artwork and the intended meaning behind a work of art. To be able to understand an artwork completely, again, reasoning is needed. We need to understand the context, the year, etc, to be able to grasp the meaning of the artwork correctly.
The counterclaim for the argument above is the fact that art really is subjective and emotions are needed to be able to grasp and experience an artwork fully. Art is created to trigger creative ideas and interpretations from the viewers, so it doesn’t necessarily have to be precisely correct. What is the fun of examining an artwork if we are not given the opportunity to guess what it means, whom it is for, or why the artist made it? Artists make use of art as a way to express their emotions. An example would be Frida Kahlo’s The Little Deer (See Fig. 2). The first time I saw that painting during art lecture, I was immediately touched by it. It shows Frida Kahlo’s face on a body of a deer being wounded by many arrows. With emotion, I was able to feel how the artist was feeling when producing the painting. Without emotion, the artwork would appear meaningless as it is actually just a painting.

Figure 2: “The Little Deer”, Frida Kahlo
Figure 2: “The Little Deer”, Frida Kahlo

Lastly, in performing arts, emotions are crucial for actors to get into their characters and portray their characters on stage. Last October 2012, my Literature and Performance class held a Shakespearean play called A Midsummer Night’s Dream at one of Jakarta’s most prestigious theatres. I had gotten the role of Titania, the fairy queen who fell in love with a man with a donkey head under the spell of a love juice. In order to understand the character Titania, I had to read the script over and over again and involve my emotions. I had to understand her emotions well scene after scene so that I could transform them into the stage by my acting. Words are just words without the addition of emotions. Without emotion, I would probably just read the lines of Titania flatly without any expression or movements; hence the audience would not be able to comprehend the character of Titania. However, there are different interpretations of the character of Titania in many different adaptations of A Midsummer Night’s Dream plays. As I researched the role of Titania, I found many different versions of how queen Titania was portrayed into the stage. It does not mean that any of it is an incorrect portrayal. Like fine arts, how a character is portrayed into the stage is also highly subjective. Similarly, as an art appreciator, it is also essential to always make sure that my reasoning and emotions work simultaneously. When I watched Les Miserables, there was a particular scene where the character Eponine felt heart-broken because the man she loved, Marius, was in love with another woman. By the help of reasoning, I could figure out that Eponine’s love to Marius was one-sided. With emotions, I could understand why she was feeling sad and weary when she started to sing the hit song ‘On My Own’. Thus, with both reasoning and emotion, I could understand the scene and grasp how the character was feeling and the cause of her feeling. The implication of trusting our emotions in the pursuit of art is different than in the pursuit of history. Emotions are needed to be able to comprehend an artwork or a play fully. It helps us to get the expression of the artists through their artwork and understand how characters are feeling in certain points of a play. If emotion is absent, we would not be able to experience the greatness of the art wholly. In conclusion, the role and reliability of emotions in the pursuit of knowledge differs from one area of knowledge to another. In history, emotions tend to cloud our judgment on certain historical figures and events. On the other hand, using emotions in gaining knowledge in art is less risky than it is in history. Emotions are essential in order to gain knowledge in the world of art, as it helps us to use our imaginations to grip the meaning of an artwork or a play even if the interpretations might be incorrect.


1. Dombrowski, Eileen, Lena Rotenberg, Mimi Bick, and Richard Van De. Lagemaat. Theory of Knowledge: Course Companion. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007. Print.

1. "Emotion." Definition of (British & World English). N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Dec. 2012. <>
2. "Frida Kahlo- The Little Deer - Charlie Ambler." Frida Kahlo- The Little Deer - Charlie Ambler. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Dec. 2012.
3. Kosir, Beth Marie. "Richard III Society: Shakespeare, Richard III." Richard III Society - American Branch. Web. 13 Nov. 2011. <>.
4."Richard III." Shmoop. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Jan. 2013. <>
5. "Speech Analysis: Richard III." Shakespeare Resource Center. Web. 13 Nov. 2011. <>.
6. "The Richard III and Yorkist History Server." The Richard III and Yorkist History Server. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Jan. 2013. <>

[ 1 ]. "Emotion." Definition of (British & World English). N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Dec. 2012.
[ 2 ]. "Speech Analysis: Richard III." Shakespeare Resource Center. Web. 13 Nov. 2011. .
[ 3 ]. Tudor myth: the idea that the Tudor reign ushered in a harmonious golden age of peace and prosperity in England. ("Richard III." Shmoop. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Jan. 2013.)
[ 4 ]. "The Richard III and Yorkist History Server." The Richard III and Yorkist History Server. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Jan. 2013.

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