Intellect or Affect?

Most people contend that the education system, as it manifests itself in many western countries, is inadequate and even pernicious. This general discontent should not be ignored; on the contrary, it should sensitize us to the problems that we are confronted with in our attempt to become educated citizens and, most importantly, individuals. But what does it mean to become individuals?

Becoming individuals certainly means striving for a holistic, humanistic education, liberated from the constraints imposed by western civilization. It means individualizing the approaches and methods on which western education is based; considering the needs of our students and adjusting our behaviour and goals accordingly. It means a lot of things; the most crucial is trying to develop, in a holistic, unfragmented way, all aspects of human personality—cognitive or intellectual, emotional or affective. “Instead of denying the relationship between intellect and affect, it is time we made good use of it” (A. Papaconstantinou, 1997:42). 

The reason why I have referred to “western education” is that I want to make the distinction between western and eastern civilization. Education should not be viewed merely as an institution whose aim is to transform uneducated, uncouth people into a kind of intelligentsia. Rather it should be regarded as the decantation of human thought, whether this has to do with cognition, experience, or emotion. It is a repository of ideas and theories that have hitherto concerned philosophers, scientists, laymen […], and as such it is influenced by the moral, philosophical and scientific outlook on life prevailing in each place. For example, the educational systems in Europe and America are markedly different from those in Asia or India, primarily because the religious concepts and theories underlying and permeating these two civilizations, eastern and western, have distinct orientations. In light of this, we refer to western thought as rational, absolute and abstract, placing a great deal of importance on reason and the intellect; and eastern thought as intuitive, mystical and concrescent, laying emphasis on spiritual harmony, on the ways to develop a sound personality or, rather, individuality. Personality and individuality have always been treated as synonymous in western thought, which is wrong. The former has to do with the self-image that we want to project and deploy in relation to our environment and others; the latter with our inner strength and capacities that form the core of our existence and usually give us impetus to act. It is individuality that characterized the lives of many legendary figures in history. Consider Peter the Great and Alexander the Great, whose immense wit transformed the world and is etched on our memories.

No doubt, western thought, with its undue emphasis on reason and cognition, has contrived to exacerbate problems, leading to human oppression and misery. Even though it has helped improve our standard of living and has ushered us in a new, promising dimension and era, it has nevertheless transformed us into a self-destructive mass baying for its own blood! On the other hand, eastern thought, with its emphasis on inner harmony and equilibrium that can lead to spiritual elevation, has definitely provided the disillusioned westerner with a lot of answers and solutions to his / her problems and predicaments. 

Yet, eastern thought and religions have received an onslaught of criticism on the grounds that they are kept separate from everyday life and cannot be a valid and feasible modus vivendi, as shown in the vast relevant literature, with the innumerable accounts of westerners’ harrowing experiences in Buddhist monasteries etc. Not all people can have their hair cut or eat rice and vegetables for months or even years, living in desolate huts and praying to Gods they know nothing about. However, it is all these small creature comforts that have led to the separation between the East and the West. A Westerner takes so many things for granted; he has so many dreams and aspirations, but these have always to do with social identity and status, success and bank accounts. He uses the telephone and television to communicate with others; he has a beautiful house and a fast car; he is concerned with how he looks and what people think of him; he is always torn between desire and duty, love and hate. That is why he cannot bring himself to renounce luxury and security. He engages in a ruthless struggle for survival and ends up being an animal under the thin veneer of civilization. It is only on the brink of destruction and disillusion that she decides to turn over a new leaf and go through the “harrowing experiences” of living in a different, disciplined and illuminating way; to discover the true meaning of life and acquaint herself with “what the Buddha never taught,” as Timothy Ward insightfully remarks in his book. 


It is against this background of western corruption that the educational system is called on to function. On the face of it, it seems to function properly and effectively, producing highly-motivated people who are determined to succeed in their field; individuals who claim to work towards their goals and the betterment of society. History, though, has recorded wars and destruction, oppression and evil. In the same vein, western education has produced cold hedonists who live in an ivory tower, bereft of feeling, concerned only with their own success, to the detriment of other people. Western education has focused mainly on knowledge and learning, without offering insights into how individuals can learn to learn. Its aim has been to teach students certain facts in a mechanistic way, paying no attention to feeling—a significant aspect of our essence. “It is feeling that generates action and until we (teachers or students) feel strongly about something, we will take little action” (A. Papaconstantinou, 1997:45). Modern education is, to a greater or lesser extent, concerned with today’s needs, in terms of manpower and scientific advances. It does not probe into the human psyche so as to discover those powers and resources that can shed some light on our problems and prepare us not only for today but also for tomorrow or the next ten millennia. It has only managed to create a society that complacently scoffs at its problems and keeps on incurring its ruin. 

Nevertheless, despite the fact that eastern and western civilizations evince distinct characteristics and qualities, they are meant to be a unifying force, a wealth of knowledge and experience that we should all tap into. As Professor A. Papaconstantinou claims, “cognition and affect must be regarded as complementary, and not opposing forces” (1997:45). Students should be encouraged to tackle knowledge in their own, individual, holistic way; they should be allowed to read, write and listen as well as to touch, smell and feel. Modern psychotherapy and neuro-psychology, in conjunction with old eastern and western theories of learning, have stressed children’s need for play and the fundamental role the latter plays in knowledge acquisition. The human mind is a wonderful yet untapped mystery that can spring serendipitous surprises. Science is certainly beginning to unravel its mysteries and education must try to train it. Both right and left brain capacities should be developed. The distinction between the right- and left-hemisphere of the brain, known as lateralization, is no excuse for adhering strictly to reason and cognition, i.e., the realm of the left hemisphere. The right hemisphere, which has been grossly neglected—perhaps severely damaged—by the westerner, has a vital contribution to make. We can find out how important it is if we try to engage in meditation; and in doing so, we can also find out the extent to which our left brain or “logical mind” tends to control the right brain or “intuitive mind.” 

Intellect or affect? one may ask. Certainly both. We should not view them as two forces vying with each other, but as the ends on a continuum that is called self-awareness and spiritual elevation. Actually, these are not really a continuum but rather a continuous process, whereby intellect and affect mingle together to form the basis of new knowledge and experience. Man is a tripartite entity, comprising the body, the mind, and the soul or spirit. Let us not lose sight of this unity. 



  • Μουράβιεφ, Μ. (1982) Γνώση: Κύκλος Εσωτερικός, Αθήνα: Πύρινος Κόσμος

  • Papaconstantinou, A. (1997) Creating The Whole Person in New Age, Athens: Kardamitsa Element Books Limited


Source: Dr. Dimitris Thanasoulas