12 - The passionate scientist: emotion in scientific cognition  pp. 235-250

By Paul Thagard

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This chapter discusses the cognitive contributions that emotions make to scientific inquiry, including the justification as well as the discovery of hypotheses. James Watson's description of how he and Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA illustrates how positive and negative emotions contribute to scientific thinking. I conclude that emotions are an essential part of scientific cognition.


Since Plato, most philosophers have drawn a sharp line between reason and emotion, assuming that emotions interfere with rationality and have nothing to contribute to good reasoning. In his dialogue the Phaedrus, Plato compared the rational part of the soul to a charioteer who must control his steeds, which correspond to the emotional parts of the soul (Plato, 1961, p. 499). Today, scientists are often taken as the paragons of rationality, and scientific thought is generally assumed to be independent of emotional thinking.

Current research in cognitive science is increasingly challenging the view that emotions and reason are antagonistic to each other, however. Evidence is accumulating in cognitive psychology and neuroscience that emotions and rational thinking are closely intertwined (see, for example: Damasio, 1994; Kahneman, 1999; Panksepp, 1999). My aim in this chapter is to extend that work and describe the role of the emotions in scientific thinking. If even scientific thinking is legitimately emotional, then the traditional division between reason and emotion becomes totally unsupportable.

My chapter begins with a historical case study.