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Reason and Passion

Course Times & Enrolment

This course is currently unavailable.

Course Summary

Are we controlled by reason? Does passion dictate our motives and actions? What is the relation between the two – complimentary aspects of the self or warring faculties? This course examines these questions and others through engagement with the Western philosophical tradition. Through close readings of primary texts we will discuss the ways in which conceptions of reason and passion have shaped descriptions of morality, freedom, identity and selfhood in the past and present.

Course Details

Pre-requisites for enrolment

No prior knowledge required.

Content of Course

1. Introduction – Reason and Passion: What’s at stake?

Key themes of the course will be introduced and we will begin to articulate some of the central questions and problems related to the debate. We will be lead to consider why one might choose reason over passion, or passion over reason.

2. Plato.

The allegory of the cave will be discussed and we will examine Plato’s notion of reason and its ability to overcome our bodily, passionate natures as he describes the necessary foundation for morality and, ultimately, civic society.

3. Aquinas.

Addressing questions of passion, reason, will and habit, Aquinas calls attention to the various facets which constitute the self. We will discuss whether Aquinas views these features of our natures as competing or complimentary.

4. Montaigne.

Can there be any sure foundation for truth? Would this be found in reason or in passion? For Montaigne the answer is neither, thus reintroducing classical Greek and Roman scepticism and laying the foundation for the turn to modernity.

5. Descartes. 

Modern philosophy begins with Descartes’ famous pronouncement: Cogito ergo sumI think therefore I am. We will discuss the ultimate elevation of reason which Descartes advances and explore the costs at which such a coronation comes.

6. Voltaire.

Known for his satirical criticisms of established authorities, Voltaire held that morality was based in our natural dispositions and passions. Eschewing the vaunted claims of reason, he articulate an alternative view of human nature which had significant and last consequences.

7. Hume.

“Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions...” With one simple statement, Hume challenged the pre-eminence of reason and dismantled the sceptical argument. In having a positive role for passion in directing morals, Hume dared us to consider the driving forces behind our actions. This debate remains as relevant today as when Hume first raised it.

8. Kant.

Examining Kant’s critical turn, for which Hume was the catalyst, we will examine his attempts to overcome the sceptical challenge through the promotion of reason.

9. Hamann.

A fascinating and influential thinker, although largely unknown today, Hamann challenged the rationalism of the Enlightenment and called for a passionate, embodied philosophical perspective.

10. Contemporary Concerns. 

In our final week we will offer a summary of our findings and discuss recent discoveries in genetics and biology which are shaping our understanding of the self. These developments are challenging the traditional division between reason and passion.

Learning outcomes

By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  • Describe the key features of the debate between reason and passion;

  • Articulate the problems encountered when one is promoted at the expense of the other;

  • Understand the historical development of Western philosophy;

  • Evaluate the relevance of past debates to the problems facing the contemporary world.


Core Readings


Key readings for the course will be excerpts from the following primary sources, distributed in class for the following week. There is no required reading in advance of week 1:

  • Plato – The Republic

  • Aquinas – Summa Theologiae

  • Montaigne – The Essays

  • Descartes – Meditations on First Philosophy

  • Voltaire – Philosophical Dictionary

  • Hume – Treatise of Human Nature

  • Kant – Critique of Pure Reason

  • Hamann – Aesthetica in Nuce

Class Handouts

Excerpts of key texts will be provided in advance of each class; lecture summaries will also be made available.


If you have questions regarding the course or enrolment, please contact COL Reception at Paterson's Land by email or by phone 0131 650 4400.

Student support

If you have a disability, learning difficulty or health condition which may affect your studies, please let us know by ticking the 'specific support needs' box on your course application form. This will allow us to make appropriate adjustments in advance and in accordance with your rights under the Equality Act 2010. For more information please visit the Student Support section of our website.