‘Go with your gut’? Reason and passion from the eighteenth century to the present day

By Madeleine Armstrong

If you’ve ever had to make a difficult choice, you’ll be familiar with the nauseating conflict between the head and the heart. You may have drawn a dozen pros-and-cons lists, only to go with the option that simply felt right. We are accustomed to seeing reason and passion in conflict, and always feel we need to choose one over the other. This is one of the reasons I, as a historian, am drawn to the eighteenth century: it is an era which appears caught in the crossfire between a ‘rational’ Enlightenment, and a cult of ‘sensibility’. But reason and passion were not always enemies. In the mid- to late-eighteenth century in Britain, many philosophers tried to bring the two together in harmony. The movement for ‘rational sentiment’ is an important and overlooked feature of the eighteenth century, and offers wisdom for our own time.

The idea that the eighteenth century was an ‘age of reason’, subsequently swept away by an age of Romantic feeling, is a myth. Most British philosophers believed it was a bad idea to rely on either reason or passion alone, and worried that both could be taken to dangerous extremes. This is because of a widespread aversion to ‘enthusiasm’, generally defined as a kind of madness produced by self-absorption.[1] In Britain at the end of the eighteenth century, enthusiasm was seen as one of the side-effects of the Rational Dissenting movement. An increasing number of Christians shunned the idea of divine revelation, and insisted that anyone could discover the ways of God and the universe by relying exclusively on their own understanding.[2] David Hume described this as ‘an unaccountable elevation and presumption’, which led people to worship nothing but their own minds. Self-worship could take the form of hyper-rationality, or a frenzy of passion.[3] Both involved a radical rejection of outer authority. In order to keep society from devolving into chaos, it was important to prevent people from being carried away with their own thoughts or feelings.

Many eighteenth-century writers tried to stop reason or passion from escalating to extremes by emphasising how the two were bound together. An Irish philosopher, Francis Hutcheson, argued in 1725 that people were too hasty to separate the ‘sensible’ from the ‘rational’, and that ‘we are seldom given any notion of rational pleasure’. He promoted the concept of a ‘moral sense’ – an instinctual understanding of right and wrong, in which both reason and passion were at play.[4] The Scottish philosopher and lawyer, Lord Kames, supported a similar notion of ‘intuitive certainty’.[5] Edmund Burke, the famous Irish politician and orator, also argued that it was important to consider ‘the rationale of our passions’, and to ‘affect them upon solid and sure principles’.[6] Pure reason, and pure passion, were both shaky guides to virtue and truth. It was unnatural for people to be governed by calculations, but they should also not be left to the mercy of animalistic impulses. Burke believed, like many of his contemporaries, that the best way forward was to keep the head and the heart in close partnership.

But there was an even greater guide to goodness and truth that went beyond human understanding. This was broadly known as ‘taste’. Burke in particular was convinced that our ‘Creator’ had designed us to be ‘animated’ toward everything that was right and virtuous through our taste. Humans were programmed to find morality beautiful, and to be drawn to it. He argued ‘it is the bias the mind takes, and not any rules or maxims of moral behaviour, that give shape and colour to our lives’.[7] But Burke was not suggesting that we abandon reason altogether, and simply ‘go with our gut’. Emotions, in his view, were valuable because they were an expression of some deeper reasoning. The passions did not always line up with conscious reasoning, but were based on rational principles, and on the laws of God and the universe, which existed beyond human knowledge and awareness.

There was no ‘age of reason’ or ‘age of feeling’ in Britain in the eighteenth century. In the minds of philosophers like Burke, Hutcheson, and Hume, reason and passion were inseparable. Basing decisions on pure logic, or on wild impulses, was a recipe for disaster. Most importantly, these philosophers encouraged people to accept a degree of uncertainty, and to trust their inbuilt ‘moral sense’ of right and wrong, even if they couldn’t quite explain it or it ran counter to their strongest desires. In eighteenth-century Britain, making important moral decisions did not come down to pros-and-cons lists versus ‘going with your gut’. There was no question of choosing between the head and the heart, because both had to work in harmony as a guide to virtue and truth.


[1] John Pocock, ‘Clergy and Commerce: The Conservative Enlightenment in England’, unpublished draft, written for the meeting of the Western Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, San Marino, California (February 18, 1984), pp. 3-5.

[2] Knud Haakonssen (ed.), Enlightenment and Religion: Rational Dissent in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Cambridge, 1996), p. 9.

[3] David Hume, Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects (Originally published 1777; London 1889 ed.), p. 60.

[4] Francis Hutcheson, An Inquiry into the Original of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue (Indianapolis, 2004), p. 25.

[5] Henry Home, Lord Kames, Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion, ed. Catherine Moran (Indianapolis, 2005), pp. 49-53.

[6] Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry in the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757), p. 88.

[7] Paddy Bullard, Edmund Burke and the Art of Rhetoric (Cambridge, 2011), p. 200.

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