We've Lost that 'Thinking' Feeling


When I first begin a new semester of teaching Philosophy, I always begin by asking students for their opinions on certain moral and social questions. In almost all cases the student's response begins with: "I feel that..."

These three little words are indicative, I think, of why there is so much confusion in our society. As stated in a previous article, [1] an area of concern for the Western World is what Pope Benedict XVI calls "the eclipse of reason." Simply put, the concept of objective truth has been abandoned and replaced with subjective truth, namely – "truth for me". No longer is something "true" in itself but it is "true for me". This leads to the fragmentation of truth so that I have my truth, you have your truth, and we are both right because that's what's true "for you".

This state of affairs has had two consequences. First, truth has become highly personalized. Since it is my truth, I identify myself with it. It is not something that is somehow separate from whom I am. Secondly, since it is so personalized any critique of my truth is a critique of me. It is a personal assault. If you join these two consequences to the increased narcissism in Western society, we can begin to understand the phenomena of people saying, "I feel that …" We are seeing the consequences of David Hume's position that reason is the slave of the passions, not the master of them. [2]

As a result I spend a great deal of time in the first few weeks trying to break my students of this habit of leading with their feelings. I make it clear that I'm not interested in how they feel; I want to know what they think! If they begin a statement with, "I feel that…" I stop them and have them start again with "I think that…" This does two things. First of all, it focuses their attention away from the heart and to the mind. Now, maybe I'm strange – okay, I am strange, I teach philosophy after all! – but try the following experiment and let me know if I'm making this up:

Say the words: I FEEL THAT…  Where is your self awareness focused on? Did it not center on your torso, in the area of your heart? Are you not preparing to justify your feelings, with your mind being at the service of your heart? Is there not a sense of intimate connection with whatever you are feeling?

Now say the words: I THINK THAT…  Is your self awareness not focused on your head? Is there not a distance created between your identity and your ideas? Is there not a sense that you can change what you're thinking and it isn't so personal, that it doesn't require an almost tantamount change in personal identity?

Secondly, it facilitates productive debate. Now, I don't claim any expertise in psychology or whatever "ology" would cover something like this, but I have noticed that as soon as students begin to emotionally detach themselves from their opinions, to examine them in the light of reason and not feeling, there results a great deal more clear discussion and a great deal less heated "emoting".  They are also more open to personal change as well, and some of them have told me so.

Ideas Have Consequences

Human beings are not robots; we have emotions and desires. No one can live a coldly logical existence divorced from our feelings. We are not Mr. Spock.[3]  Yet at the same time we also recognize that all too often we are consumed by our passions and desires. The Catholic faith attributes this to the consequence of Original Sin, where reason and passions which were meant to be in harmony are now disharmonious.

Socrates said that "the unexamined life is not worth living." If we are to examine our lives, it must be with the awareness that it is examined in the light of truth, not of personal sentiments, and to metaphysical principles, not simply base desires.

We also recognize that David Hume's (as well as Rousseau and Freud's) position – that Reason is the slave of desire – has resulted in a society that sees reason only as a tool for "rationalizing" and fulfilling our desires. This idea has also reduced morality to simply weighing pros and cons for any action, what is called 'utility' (more on that later in Ethics) and has focused a great deal of time, energy, intellect and resources into finding ways to by-pass the natural consequences of our uncontrolled desires, such as artificial contraceptives and divorce courts.

However, if we accept the reality that human beings are rational creatures, then we must understand what that means and apply it to our lives. Socrates said that "the unexamined life is not worth living." If we are to examine our lives, it must be with the awareness that it is examined in the light of truth, not of personal sentiments, and to metaphysical principles, not simply base desires.

This awareness also means that if we do not live a life guided by reason, then somehow we are not living up to our nature. We recognize that a life, lived irrationally and compelled only by base desires, is somehow less than dignified, less than worthy of the term 'human.' Indeed, we often describe such people as "living (or acting) like animals". We also recognize that, sooner or later, we will have to deal with the consequences of living in a way that contradicts reason and truth.

We can conclude the following then:

  1. All human beings, from the moment of conception, are endowed with the capacity to reason, though at first it exists only in potency. Whether in potency or in actuality, reason is intrinsic to all human beings.

  2. All human beings grow in their ability to reason as they age, but also to the extent that they are taught how to reason correctly.

  3. All human beings should exercise the capacity to reason, to the best of their ability, so that they participate as fully as possible in what is intrinsic to human nature.

  4. That if human beings do not exercise the capacity to reason it is either a result of illness or disability, or a deliberate volitional failure to do so.

I would not be alone in stating that much of our Post-Christian, Western society now faces tremendous difficulties, because for too long we have lost sight of reality as it truly is, and in so doing have lost sight of who we are as human beings. The so-called "Age of Reason" [4] that was so optimistically proclaimed in the 17th and 18th Centuries has turned into an 'Eclipse of Reason'. We are making choices that are not only detrimental to ourselves individually, but also collectively, as can be seen in the atrocity of abortion. Those who claim to be "pro-choice" embody well the insanity that results from casting Reason from its proper place so that it now becomes the slave of our desires.

Our society has to rediscover that "thinking" feeling again because, for good or for ill, we do make choices based on what we either know or feel … and that reveals to us another aspect of human nature – volition, the capacity to choose what we wish to believe and how we wish to act. This characteristic of human nature we will examine next time.


  1. The Eclipse of Reason.
  2. Human Nature: Reality or Fantasy.
    Another consequence of this subjectivism is the decline in civil debate. If someone attacks my opinion then they must be intolerant, judgmental and mean. Hence the name-calling, shouting down, physical and verbal intimidation that is evidenced in many meetings, rallies and protests. We are no longer dealing with ideas of right or wrong, it's personal!
  3. For those unfamiliar with Star Trek please go here.
  4. The Age of Reason.





Dennis Buonafede. "We've Lost that 'Thinking' Feeling." The Integrated Catholic Life (June 24, 2011).

Reprinted with permission of the author and The Integrated Catholic Life.

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Dennis Buonafede has been teaching High School Religion and Philosophy in Ontario, Canada for the past 10 years. Dennis completed his B.A. in Philosophy at St. Peter's Seminary at the University of Western Ontario, his M.Div. as a lay student at St. Augustine's Seminary at the University of Toronto and his Bachelor of Education degree at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Prior to transferring to St. Augustine's, he studied at Holy Apostles Seminary in Connecticut from 1990-1992. Dennis has been married to Teresa for 15 years and they have two children aged 12 and 14. Dennis co-developed a leadership program for the K of C sponsored Ontario Catholic Youth Leadership Camp and was the camp director for 3 years. He is currently a Civilian Instructor with Air Cadet 242 Squadron where his son is a Sergeant.

Dennis is a voracious reader, likes to ride motorcycles and enjoys fishing. He follows hockey (Toronto Maple Leafs), football (Chicago Bears) and NASCAR (Dale Jr.). His family agrees that he makes THE best home made pizza ever!

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