Sentiments: the Introduction

by Peter

Allow me to assume that it is true that we can have right and wrong sentiments about things. CS Lewis does a very good job of arguing for this in his book The Abolition of Man, and since any chance of my doing better is in the category of the miraculous, I will rather only refer you to him. If you have not yet read The Abolition of Man, do. You could hardly spend a better couple of hours.

So, assuming that our sentiments (by sentiment I mean something like emotional reaction or interaction to/with something) can be right or wrong, my question is whether or not our sentiments can be right or wrong about all things or merely about some things?

Lewis’ primary example in his section on the sentiments, which I will borrow, is one that he borrowed from Coleridge. It recounts how that famous poet overheard two tourists describing the waterfall they were visiting. One called it “pretty” and the other called it “sublime.” Coleridge pronounced the former in error and the latter in the right.

I bring this up only because it seems like his pronouncement is one that is easy to agree with as it refers to something as obviously magnificent as a waterfall. When more obviously mundane objects come into question, however, the subject gets a little more difficult. Is it true of an apple as well as a waterfall that one may call it one thing or another and be right in the one case and wrong in the other?

Some implications: If it is not the case that one’s sentiments can be right or wrong in relation to all things, then it is incumbent upon us to discover how to distinguish between things in reaction to which we can err and things in reaction to which we cannot. If, on the other hand, one’s sentiments can be right or wrong in relation to all things, then it is incumbent upon us to find some way by which to discover what the proper sentiments toward the less obviously sentiment-inspiring things are. There are other implications as well… many other implications… but these seem to me to be the most general, and so it is with them that I will content myself for now.

Obviously the first task is to find some way to distinguish which theory is right and which is wrong. We will be able to proceed in following up the implications of that theory afterward.

So, a bit of theory: How does one, when presented with two plausible but contradictory theories, properly discern which is right and which is not? This is one of the most difficult, most important questions that could possibly be asked. For reason of that latter descriptor, I will address it. For reason of the former, I have little hope of answering it here and now. It, along with “What is the proper starting point for an exploration of knowledge? (i.e. what may properly serve as a premise?)” are, I believe, the first questions that any good philosopher must answer.

Thus, the questions to be answered are

1. What are the standards by which one properly chooses between two or more plausible theories? What tools should be used, what questions should be asked, what things ought to be examined in order to make a valid judgment?

2. Which theory is correct? (a) There is a proper and an improper sentiment for all things or (b) there is a proper and an improper sentiment for only some things.

3. If (a), then how does one discover what the proper sentiment is for things that are not evidently sentiment-inspiring? If (b), then how does one discover which things do and which do not have a proper sentimental response?

I will explore each of these questions, one at a time, in upcoming posts. Here ends the introduction. I am very much interested in responses as to whether anyone thinks that I have omitted any questions that must be answered in order for this to be a thorough matter. Look for three posts in the near future in exploration of the questions here introduced.