Emotions, Metaphors and Reality


An alder leaf, loosened by wind, is drifting out with the tide. As it drifts, it bumps into the slender leg of a great blue heron staring intently through the rippled surface, then drifts on. The heron raises one leg out of the water and replaces it, a single step. As I watch I, too, am drawn into the spread of silence. Slowly, a bank of clouds approaches, slipping its bulged and billowing texture over the earth, folding the heron and the alder trees and my gazing body into the depths of a vast breathing being, enfolding us all within a common flesh, a common story now bursting with rain.

       David Abram

David Abram, in his much celebrated book The Spell of the Sensuous, seems to summarize the latent ideas present in Lyall’s book Intellect, the Emotions and the Moral Nature. For Lyall human beings are part of the world in as much as they too like the rest of “what is” participate in Being. The intellect, being the eternal principle, connects us with God but is separated from Nature. The emotions, on the other hand, put us in touch, through phenomenal reality, with Being which is another name for God, at least in what concerns Lyall. Lyall was, first and foremost a religious person and it is only natural to find him talking about God and praising him, here and there, throughout the Intellect, the Emotions and the Moral Nature. However, besides connecting with God through grace we can see God in His works. Regarding this alternative, Lyall, in the inaugural lecture at Free Church College, on the philosophy of mind, reminds us:

Perhaps, we are too apt to forget the claims of God in Nature, because of the superior manifestations of him in Grace. There is too great a tendency to disparage the one, because of the more overwhelming demonstrations of the other. It was not thus with the Psalmist. He looked up to the heavens which God made, to the moon and the stars which he had ordained, and he learned his lesson of piety from these. He rejoined in the poetic beauties of creation: and made them express his feelings of devotion and utter the language of the most spiritual experiences. And we believe the more scientific our acquaintance with God works, we shall see God more in them, we shall be brought more into immediate contact with the Divine Being - not with a law, or a principle, but with a personal God - we shall behold more to admire […] God is obviously recognized both in nature and in grace. (1853, 13)

Lyall recognized the importance of seeing God through His works, in Nature. Here I have not been concerned with the other possibility of connecting with God through grace but rather with trying to make the most out of what is left, namely Nature. This is why I think that David Abram’s ideas are most useful, as he offers us an insight that comes from the phenomenological tradition, imbued with considerations about language and participation in a world where human beings are neither subordinated to, nor above Nature. Thus, I will make use of the conclusions reached in the previous chapters in order to show that Lyall intuited avant la date the importance of being a human being in a more-than-human world. Looking back to Lyall’s considerations on the imaginative state, we can see that is the place where he brings together both the intellect and the emotions. In the imaginative state we are able to commune with Nature because in this particular state we perceive analogies, we see beyond what is out there as an object, we “personify nature”, we do not limit ourselves to just describing reality but we re-describe it through an extensive use of metaphorical language. Moreover, Lyall would say that we empathize with Nature through our emotions, by grasping its concreteness and unity, in much the same way Abram does:

From the magician’s, or phenomenologist’s, perspective that which we call imagination is from the first an attribute of the senses themselves; imagination is not a separate mental faculty (as we often assume) but is rather a way the senses themselves have of throwing themselves beyond what is immediately given, in order to make tentative contact with the other sides of things that we do not sense directly, with the hidden or invisible aspects of the sensible. (Abram 1997, 58)

The idea that in imagination we “make contact with other sides of things” is similar to what Lyall thinks when he says that emotions and especially the emotion of love, “see” beyond particularities, beyond what is accidental and changeable, toward Being itself. Ultimately, for Lyall as well as for Abram, “both the perceiving and the perceived being are of the same stuff […] the perceiver and the perceived are interdependent and in some sense even reversible aspects of a common animate element, or Flesh, that is at once both sensible and sensitive” (Abram Ibid., 67). Abram takes Flesh to mean what Merleau-Ponty meant when he used this term in his work The Visible and the Invisible. The Flesh is “the reciprocal presence of the sentient in the sensible and of the sensible in the sentient”. It is the interconnectedness of the perceiver and of the perceivable world. These two cannot exist independently of each other because we can only sense our surroundings from a particular perspective which implies that we extend our sentience in the surroundings. Moreover, it would be impossible to imagine a sentient subject completely separated from a “field of sensed phenomena”. For Lyall, as we saw before, when he talked about love, he considered that “every object, every being, shares in its exercise: it has selected no object for its exercise; but every object receives a part of its regard as it comes within its sphere. In its most absolute character, being is its object” (Lyall 1855, 408). The same interconnectedness between us as sentient beings and the sensible surroundings is present here. We are capable of love and we love Being, regardless of the particularities in which it is expressed or of the changes which it might endure. Through love we are in touch with “what is”, we ourselves, being part of it. Thus, Lyall’s thought is not exclusively centered on God and man since this connection is established by the intellect alone. But we are only whole when the intellect and the emotions work together. Through emotions, however, we take a detour and see God expressed in personified Nature. Through imagination where the intellect and emotions meet, we have the opportunity to discover new ways of relating to Nature, by making it more complex and fuller. For St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), for example, Nature was almost void of any significance since he is said to have travelled across the most beautiful landscapes without even noticing them as he was concerned exclusively with thoughts about his soul and God. For Lyall, Nature cannot be avoided because we are part of it as it is part of us. Even though Lyall’s work exhibits idealist features, he detaches himself from the general understanding of idealism, as he does not follow, for example, either Berkeley’s or Hegel’s ideas. This however, did not compel him to embrace a materialist point of view. He knew that the idealist tries to dissolve the tension between the I and the world by explaining the world as a mere projection of the mind, whereas the materialist submerges the I into the vast sea of matter. So Lyall took a more balanced stance, asserting that both the I and the world exist but that they are connected by our emotions through which we are able to see nature as animate and as “full of life”. However, Lyall does not see the world as Sartre, for example, saw it, when we are under the spell of emotions. Sartre, even though he emphasized the difference between the I and the world, stressed the tension that exists between the two, the tension that springs when the I tries to appropriate the world which, in its turn, opposes resistance. Thus, the I tries to make its own something that still remains “strange” and distant. Lyall avoids this “deception” because for him emotions grasp what is beyond the particular characteristics of the world: emotions grasp Being itself. Ernst Breisach in his Introduction to Modern Existentialism writes about similar existentialist views on this matter:

Neither a denial of the reality of the world (idealist position) nor the denial of the uniqueness of man (materialist position), nor a set of benevolent laws of nature nor Divine Providence can eliminate the fundamental fact of the human condition, that no miraculous harmony exists in the world and that to resolve the enormous tension between man and his world is beyond human power. What becomes audible in this tension is the echo of man’s questions reflected from ‘somewhere’, and human life at its best is this sounding of the depths. (1962, 203)

We can see now that Lyall’s position differs from Sartre’s in that he does not regard the relationship between human beings and the world as being under the sign of an unsurpassable tension. For him, both we and the world are part of Being. Emotions make this similarity visible to us. Now, this relationship can and should be developed by augmenting and improving our language as well which gives us the chance to discover in the world something that could not be previously described. This is where Ricoeur’s theory of metaphor is useful. Ricoeur does not consider metaphor to be just an ornament as it was traditionally understood. Au contraire, he talks about a metaphorical statement which implies that metaphors can be true, that they can refer to reality. In order to show that metaphors have the capability to reach reality, he had to reassess the issue of reference. There is a metaphorical reference, beside literal reference, Ricoeur considers, as there is a metaphorical interpretation beside literal interpretation. The reality to which metaphors refer is a richer reality. Ricoeur also had to distinguish between two types of imagination and stress the importance of the productive imagination. Imagination, for Ricoeur, produces an unexplored vision of reality. Finally, he had to draw on different ways in which the emotional element complements the metaphorical process. Imagination is always accompanied by an emotional element which represents a way of “finding ourselves” in the world, of “being there”. These themes from Ricoeur are common to Lyall even though admittedly Lyall does not develop a theory of metaphor. However, he makes extensive use of metaphorical constructions and discusses the intricate work of imagination although he does not produce an explanation or a thorough analysis of imagination which involves both the emotions and the intellect. Where Lyall was mistaken was in considering the intellect to be separated from reality. Ricoeur showed that this should not be the case because metaphors, which are creations of our intellect, do not merely describe reality. Instead, metaphors re-describe it. They make it more diverse and fuller and thus they improve our relationship with it. Something similar is expressed by Abram when he writes: “Only by overlooking the sensuous, evocative dimension of human discourse, and attending solely to the denotative and conventional aspect of verbal communication, can we hold ourselves apart from, and outside of, the rest of animate nature”(Ibid., 79). Thus, we are constantly under the “spell of the sensuous” because we ourselves are sensuous beings. The intellect is not, as Lyall believed, divorced from reality, from Nature. As Abram puts it: our senses disclose to us a wild-flowering proliferation of entities and elements, in which humans are thoroughly immersed. While this diversity of sensuous forms certainly displays some sort of reckless order, we find ourselves in the midst of, rather than on top of, this order…Does the human intellect, or ‘reason’, really spring us free from our inherence in the depths of this wild proliferation of forms? Or on the contrary, is the human intellect rooted in, and secretly borne by, our forgotten contact with the multiple nonhuman shapes that surround us?. (Ibid., 48-49)

The link of reason with reality goes deeper than Lyall considered. Even though he stressed the fact that our emotions have a cognitive value, that they represent the channel through which the intellect reaches the world, they are still not the only link. Abram for one recognizes that through language, the intellect finds itself in the midst of things because:

We […] learn our native language not mentally but bodily. We appropriate new words and phrases first through their expressive tonality and texture, through the way they feel in the mouth or roll off the tongue, and it is this direct, felt significance - the taste of a word or phrase, the way it influences or modulates the body - that provides the fertile, polyvalent source for all the more refined and rarefied meanings which that term may come to have for us… Language, then, cannot be genuinely studied or understood in isolation from the sensuous reverberation and resonance of active speech. (Ibid., 75)

But this reciprocity, this interdependence between language and the intellect, on the one hand, and perception and “sensuousness”, on the other hand, has a downside for Lyall. If we are to place ourselves in Lyall’s shoes we can see that he took the intellect to mean what it means in the Platonic tradition. It represents order and it is the eternal principle, and this forced him to define the surrounding world as a determinate set of objects to cut the conscious self off from the spontaneous life of Nature. “To define another being as an inert or passive object is to deny its ability to actively engage us and to provoke our senses; we thus block our perceptual reciprocity with that being” (Ibid., 56). Thus, by defining another being as a passive object, for the intellect the phenomenal world becomes just a world of shadows. Trying to avoid interacting with an inert world, Lyall sprinkled metaphors on the dry, abstract language that he used to explain this and that concept or idea. For the same purpose he needed the input of emotions which represent the only accessible path to the animateness of the world. Abram explains that: “If we wish to describe a particular phenomenon without repressing our direct experience, then we cannot avoid speaking of the phenomenon as an active, animate entity with which we find ourselves engaged … Only by affirming the animateness of perceived things do we allow our words to emerge directly from the depths of our ongoing reciprocity with the world”. (Abram, idem, p. 56)

Inasmuch as we are part of the world, inasmuch as we and the world are “of the same stuff”, we cannot simply disassociate from it, we cannot regard it from a purely objective perspective. Lyall intuited that we are emotionally involved in the world. Our emotions, Lyall considers, represent our extension in the world. Through them we discover ourselves as participants in the world. This idea is rightfully emphasized by Armour and Trott in their analysis of Lyall’s major work Intellect, the Emotions and the Moral Nature. The way Lyall understood the balanced relation between reason and emotions compels Armour and Trott to consider him a representative of Canadian philosophy. However, for them, his work seems to be more a patchwork quilt of foreign ideas. It was my goal here to show that Lyall’s contribution is more significant than Armour and Trott estimated. Indeed, emotions connect us with reality. But so does our intellect through its activity of creating metaphors which Lyall uses throughout his work even though he does not offer a study of metaphor as such. However, metaphors themselves are not purely intellectual constructions. There is an emotional element that enters into their constitution as well. Thus, the link between emotions and reason becomes more evident. Their balance in Lyall’s work is a strong example of the accommodationist use of reason.