Feelings vs Sentiments vs Emotions vs Sensations Icon

May 26, 2020

While simplifying Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, I had to think a lot whether to change ‘sentiments’ into ‘feelings’ especially since the latter is nowadays more commonly used than the former.

Sad woman

Feelings vs Sentiments

‘Sentiment’ is Latin for feeling.

‘Feeling’ is Old English for the ability of the heart to perceive, as opposed to:

  • ‘sight’, the ability of the eye
  • ’think’, the ability of the brain
  • ‘hearing’, the ability of the ear

Thus, ‘sentiment’, being Latin, is merely more formal and scientific than ‘feelings’. This is probably why Smith named his work as such, instead of as ‘Theory of Moral Feelings’.

Feelings vs Emotions

‘Emotion’ is Latin for ex-movere (motion from outside). It is the effect on the self after it has been moved by feelings from the heart.

If ‘happy’ is a feeling (i.e. happy feelings), then ‘happiness’ is the emotion or the effect of being hit by ‘happy’. Thus, emotion can be thought of as a resultant state.

Feelings are broad and happen in real-time as natural events. Emotions, on the other hand, can be studied, made granular as artificial constructs.

For example, a man who is angry will only have one feeling called ‘anger’ at the time when he is angry. After he calms down, then he can look back at his anger and analyze it to reveal many emotions hidden behind such anger, like frustration, jealousy, irritability, loss of self control, etc. An angry man will shout ‘I’m feeling angry!’, but never ‘I’m having an emotion of anger!’ since the latter requires more mental focus, which is absent during an emotional burst.

Emotional is the tendency of the mind to fall into different states of feelings, as emotions.

Feelings are waves, Emotions are particles

Feelings are more raw than emotions because they are waves while the latter are particles.

Feelings are like music, while emotions are like the musical notes of that music. When you listen to music, it manifests as one entity. But if you intellectualize it, you can parse the music into individual notes. However, the downside of intellectualizing it is that it loses its original nature. No matter how hard you recreate the music from notes, it will never be the same as the original music.

Likewise, for an angry man to shout ‘I’m having an emotion of anger!’ requires him to divert some feeling-energy from his heart into thinking-energy in his brain, which would then instantly reduce the angry feeling and so it he shouts ‘I’m angry!’ instead to preserve the feeling-energy.

Feelings vs Sensations

Sensation is Latin for perceiving. While emotions are feelings or perceptions from the heart as re-constructed by the brain in a state, sensations are feelings from the body. Examples are hunger, lust, fatigue, which are all feelings, but not emotions. Unlike feelings which are metaphysical, sens-ations are physical, transmitted by the senses through the nervous system.