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Emotions vs. Feelings

Matthew Elliot has some helfpul discussion of the difference between emotions and feelings. For Elliot, “emotions” are what I mean when I talk about “affections,” and “feelings” are what I mean when I talke about physical passions. Here’s an excerpt:

My major point is that emotions are about our thoughts, our minds, our thinking process.  They are not based or centered in our body or nerves as many early psychologists taught.  See Faithful Feelings for a review of the history of this.  If emotions were based in our body, we could never know the difference between being sick because of the flu and being sick out of being nervous – for example.  The attachment to thinking is what makes the nervous emotional.

We could also look at it like the classic question, “What came first, the chicken or the egg.”  We affirm, the thinking – conscious or unconscious – came first.  Anything else is logically impossible – again see Faithful Feelings.  Feelings, in a strict sense, is what we feel in our bodies and these come after the emotion, are caused by the emotion.  So we laugh at something because we THINK it is funny, we feel butterflies because we THINK something or someone is lovable.  Emotions produce physical feelings in out bodies much of the time – sometimes they do not but most of the time they do.  Yes, sometimes you need to think, “hmm, do I have this stomach thing because of that extra piece of cheesecake or because I am about the propose to my girl?”  If we think about it a bit and give it some time, usually we can figure that out without too much trouble.

Elliot’s book, Faithful Feelings, is really very helpful.

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

2 Responses to Emotions vs. Feelings

  1. Scott, a quick thought: when it comes to theology there is a final court of appeal (Scripture), but when it comes to the meaning of words—"feeling," "affection," "emotion"—things aren't so clear. Usage determines their meaning, of course, but it appears that a lot of people want to go further. They want to define what emotions ARE, what feelings ARE—not just what people mean when they use those respective words. They talk as if there is some Platonic ideal world in which the eternal forms "emotion" and "feeling" have some sort of definite existence. So they cut sharp distinctions between "emotion," "feeling," "passion," and "affection."

    The Bible simply doesn't do that for English words—or even for Greek or Hebrew ones. I'm not denying that there is a useful distinction to be made between bodily perturbations and internal emotional states; I'm just suggesting that we not try too hard to name each of these with "feeling" and "emotion" and then insist that others follow suit.

    I'm not at all saying you're doing this in your opener to this post. In fact, you made it clear that this is Elliot's construct ("For Elliot…"). Your words just gave me occasion to express my growing thoughts on this issue.

  2. I appreciate what you're saying, Mark. Word meaning does change over time, and words may mean different things to different people.

    I'm not so concerned about exactly what terms people use, although it would be nice if people agreed on meanings. What I am concerned about is that people do make distinctions between kinds of emotions. The idea that emotion is emotion is emotion is naive.

    That's why, although I sometimes cringe when people talk about "passion" for God, I realize that they probably are not referring to what Edwards, for instance, was referring to. They probably just mean an earnestness for him.

    But again, I do with we could agree on some terms to help with the discussion. That's why I use the Edwards distinctions and ancient Greek anotomical distinctions. These distinctions/terms were used for centuries with great value, during, I might add, the writing of the NT.

    I appreciate your insights here. Thanks for stopping by.

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