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IB Diploma Programme
Theory of Knowledge Essay

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

Candidate Name: Akanksha Vardhan
Candidate Number: 002602-064
School Name: BD Somani International School
School Number: 002602
Word Count: 1597

Can we know when to trust our emotions in the pursuit of knowledge? Consider history and one other area of knowledge.
Bertrand Russell, the 20th century British philosopher, once said, “Man is a credulous animal, and must believe something; in the absence of good grounds for belief, he will be satisfied with bad ones.” [1]In our daily conquest to acquire “justified true belief”, [2]it is important that we are aware of the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ influences that contribute to the experience, the pursuit of knowledge, in a way that we are able to consciously weigh the validity of our knowledge claims.

Many romantic writers and poets in the early nineteenth century emphasized the importance of emotion in making sense of the world. John Keats once said, “Axioms in philosophy are not axioms until they are proved upon by our pulses” [3] referring to the superiority of our core emotions (happiness, fear, anger, surprise or even disgust) - the strong feelings deriving from our moods, circumstances or relationships with others[4], in gaining an accurate picture of the truth.

However, is it possible that the ‘truth’ itself is more complex and what we know via our emotions is only half the story? Can we always rely on our emotions to provide us with certainty? In my opinion, emotions may motivate us to acquire knowledge and provide insights regarding our likes and dislikes, but given the subjective nature of emotional instincts, we cannot know when to trust emotions as one of our primary sources of knowledge about the world. Other ways of knowing, such as reason, language, perception and intuition should be equally applied to understand reality. To illustrate this, I will take examples from two areas of knowledge, history and ethics, and refer to my own experiences as a knower.

In order to discern when we should and should not trust our emotions in the pursuit of knowledge, let us first consider History as an area of knowledge. The study of history is the study of the past. History is also an extended way of knowing as “we all try to make sense of the past by weaving the various episodes of our lives into a meaningful narrative.”[5] Indeed, from past experiences, records and the consequences of certain events, we can see patterns of when emotions have been ‘trustworthy’ in providing the accurate truth, often as a result of later confirmation (or dismissal) by our senses, reason or language.

While today’s world finds itself in grips of an emotional frenzy in the wake of repeated terrorist attacks, communal riots, and outbreaks of juvenile violence, it is worth considering German dictator, Adolf Hitler’s use of propaganda to emotionally beguile the German populace in the 1990’s. In the onset of the economic collapse in Germany and the humiliations heaped upon the its people after being universally blamed for the outbreak of the first World War, Hitler was able to arouse emotions of anger, fear and resentment in the public and ultimately, to lead his people into a terrible and destructive second world war. Using his demagogic skills of oratory to appeal to the patriotism of the German people, Hitler promised to break free of the restrictions of the Treaty of Versailles, a peace settlement intended to end the state of war between Germany and the Allied Powers.

Hitler used emotion as a kind of “gateway” into the more suggestible regions of the human heart and mind. Events were staged and phony stories planted in order to fire the German people’s emotions in the direction that the government wanted to go.[6] Six million European Jews and millions of other non-Aryans were heedlessly murdered in a program implemented by Hitler. By the end of the war the European economy had collapsed, millions of people were homeless and much of global industry had been destroyed.

Hitler’s power-driven propaganda and its negative repercussions on the German people and the world is, till today, regarded as one of the most disastrous historical events the world has seen. It presents a situation wherein one should have not trusted one’s emotions in the pursuit of knowledge. With emotions turned off, people could have possibly escaped the negative influence of Hitler’s command and have turned to reason or verbal correspondence to more objectively analyze the causes, effects and solutions to the problems facing them.

As natural as emotions are, they are easily manipulated by external forces and can be used to control our perception and reason. Strong emotions can lead to biased perception, a phenomenon known as emotional coloring, whereby we are made aware of some aspects of realty to the exclusion of others. Biased perception, consequently, leads to fallacious reasoning as in hold of a particular emotional attitude towards something; we may manufacture bad reason in order to justify it.[7]

That a tyrant like Hitler was aware of and actively used emotion to suit his own cause and direct action should in itself act as a determent to be willing to trust our emotions in the pursuit of knowledge.

It can be counter argued, however, that from the perspective of Hitler or other authoritarian leaders, people have been just in trusting their emotions in the pursuit of knowledge. Perhaps by appealing to the emotions, Hitler wished to infuse in his people a sort of passion and national pride that would motivate them to transform the face of an economically downtrodden Germany. Indeed, Hitler’s motivations could be perceived by his followers to be no less in nobility than those of say Dr. Martin Luther King, who like Hitler, also used emotional “gateways” to inspire people in his fight against racial discrimination in the Americas, but unlike Hitler, is widely considered a hero.

We can now deem that history provides us with a way of knowing about the past. However, we must be sure to make a distinction between the past and our knowledge of the past: We can only know the past by reconstructing it on the basis of evidence that exists in the present. Due to emotional prejudices, a historian may select or consider only that evidence which resonates his or her own interests, expectations or culture. A German patriot, for example, may provide a different account of Germany’s role in the world war(s) than a Russian or French national. Further biases may creep in when pen is put to paper. While a historian may exaggerate or describe some events in emotional language, others may be down played or ignored[8], showing emotions to be inherently unreliable in the pursuit of gaining historical knowledge.

Ethics, conversely, is an area of knowledge wherein emotions are considered infallible in influencing moral decisions: decisions that are consistent with the accepted norms of the community in large. [9]Indeed, we use emotions like guilt, sorrow or integrity, amongst others, to judge the righteousness of our actions. However, as established previously, emotions are subjective in nature given that they may differ from person to person, from situation to situation. Thus, if our emotions about situations differ, how do we know which one is more ‘trustworthy’ in justifying our moral decisions?

I became personally aware of a phenomenon known as cultural relativism when I read about a Thai actress who aborted her child to maintain her hourglass figure. As an Indian following the religion of Hinduism, I have been ingrained with values of ahimsa that regard abortion as immoral in the view that any form of life is sacred and that to abort a developing fetus is to deny it the opportunity of human existence and salvation. Thus, my initial reaction towards the abortion was one of anger and repugnance towards the actress whose decision I considered unethical. Strong emotional reactions such as mine, however, indicate that certain knowledge may have challenged one’s core beliefs and thereby promote reflection on one’s biases and assumptions, which in turn, can lead to improved self-knowledge.

After further research on the issue, I realized that the power that our initial emotional reactions hold in such a situation does not take into consideration the cultural rational surrounding the issue.[10] In Thai culture and society, how a person is perceived is based more on their physical appearance than on their actions and responsibilities. The justification of the Thai actress’ actions would therefore be acceptable within Thai society but unacceptable within a traditionally Hindu, Indian society. This suggests that in making ethical decisions, reason is superior to emotion, as the initial emotional response of a person can be altered by one’s reasoning, which is directly influenced by one’s belief system. Therefore to justify our moral decisions more accurately, we should attempt to identify the reasons behind our emotional reactions.

Yet, if we consider the media, which by using “shocking images” and “loaded language” to instigate emotional responses, chooses to prioritize emotions over reason in convincing viewers to buy a product or support a certain cause, perhaps emotions are more important in justifying a decision. Nevertheless, if emotions are so easily swayed and ranging across different cultures, as we saw in the case of the Thai actress, would it be rational to base our moral decisions on them? [11]

As a knower and critical thinker, I have come to conclude that we can never know when to trust emotions as although they may provide energy and motivation for the pursuit of knowledge (self knowledge in particular), they may also cloud our reason and perception- as in the case of Hitler who used emotionally-laded language to manipulate his people and their actions. Finally, I discussed that emotions vary across different situations and cultures, and therefore fail to provide universal truths, making them inherently unreliable as a way of knowing.


1. van de Lagemaat, Richard, Theory of Knowledge for IB Diploma, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2011.

2. Oxford dictionaries. Last accessed: 28th January

3. Rick Smith, Propaganda for the Masses Reflections on Hitler’s use of Emotions in Order to Manipulate Reason and Public Opinion. Part One. Last accessed: 29th January 2013.

4. Bratton, Virginia Kim, "Affective Morality: The Role of Emotions in the Ethical Decision-Making Process" (2004). Electronic Theses, Treatises and Dissertations. Paper 3097. Last accessed: 28th January 2013.

5. “Are reason and emotion equally important in justifying moral decisions?” Last accessed: 29th January 2013

[1] Bertrand Russell- van de Lagemaat, Richard, Theory of Knowledge for IB Diploma, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2011, p. 23
[2] van de Lagemaat, Richard, Theory of Knowledge for IB Diploma, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2011, p. 24
[3] John Keats- van de Lagemaat, Richard, Theory of Knowledge for IB Diploma, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2011, p. 145

[4] Oxford dictionaries. Last accessed: 28th January 2013. [5] van de Lagemaat, Richard, Theory of Knowledge for IB Diploma, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2011, p. 301

[6] Rick Smith, Propaganda for the Masses Reflections on Hitler’s use of Emotions in Order to Manipulate Reason and Public Opinion. Part One. Last accessed: 29th January 2013. [7] van de Lagemaat, Richard, Theory of Knowledge for IB Diploma, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2011, p. 153
[8] van de Lagemaat, Richard, Theory of Knowledge for IB Diploma, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2011, p. 309
[9] Bratton, Virginia Kim, "Affective Morality: The Role of Emotions in the Ethical Decision-Making Process" (2004). Electronic Theses,
Treatises and Dissertations. Paper 3097. Last accessed: 28th January 2013. [10] “Are reason and emotion equally important in justifying moral decisions?” Last accessed: 29th January 2013 [11] ibid



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