What does the author mean by "base passions" in this sentence? Following sentence is from book "Brain Rules for Baby by John Medina"

Philosophy titans such as David Hume thought that base passions powered moral decisions.

Collins dictionary directed me to a page with a number of definitions of base, noun, which might be relevant here:

2A conceptual structure or entity on which something draws or depends
2.1A foundation or starting point for further work
4A main or important element or ingredient to which other things are added

Way down at the bottom, after entries for the verb, for phrases, for rhymes, for the etymology, and after an advertisement, I eventually discovered definitions for base, adjective:

1 Without moral principles; ignoble
2 archaic Denoting or befitting a person of low social class

I cannot tell which of these meanings is intended.

  • 1
    base (adj): oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/base_3 -useful? – Maulik V Dec 23 '15 at 11:59
  • base passions = the most rudimentary desires/animal motives – Tᴚoɯɐuo Dec 23 '15 at 12:04
  • 1
    When you asked this question on ELU, you were asked to do two things: (1) Consider if this question would be better on ELL (which you did), and (2) include the research you have done (which you still have not done). Please read through the Details, please, post, along with the answers below it. There, we explain why at the very least this question should include a couple definitions from an online dictionary. Then, the question could be reopened. – J.R. Dec 23 '15 at 12:04
  • 1
    I think these two words, base and passions, could prove to be quite elusive for a person not from a western culture. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Dec 23 '15 at 12:06
  • 2
    @MaulikV It unquestionably is an adjective there: 'base passions' is very nearly a fixed phrase in English, one of the few places where adjectival base survives in everyday spoken English. – StoneyB on hiatus Dec 23 '15 at 12:41

"base passions" is one of those idioms that you won't really get the meaning of by combining the dictionary definitions of the individual terms. Base passions are the wants of the body: hunger, lust, fear, etc. as opposed to the wants of the mind or the soul: beauty, justice, love.

  • Thanks you very much for the answer :) I was not able to find its meaning anywhere. – Ankit Dec 23 '15 at 13:18
  • 1
    I disagree. You won't get it from the ordinary usage of "base", perhaps, but it's still a "dictionary definition". – Tim Pederick Dec 23 '15 at 13:38
  • You can cobble together something of an idea from the individual definitions, if you can figure out which combinations apply, but the phrase "base passions" has a long history in western thought going back to Greek and Christian ideas, with a fair bit of social snobbery thrown in. Which passions are base and why? You won't get what Hume is talking about in full without some knowledge of that history. – user10365 Dec 23 '15 at 14:53

Base here is the adjective, with the meaning "low, ignoble".

Passions is used in the sense of "desires, emotions"; the word is etymologically related to passive and originally expressed the notion that our desires are somehow separate from our "true selves": they're not under our control, they're forces outside us which compel us to do what we do. (Emotion has a similar sense: an emotion is etymologically something which moves us.) In most classical philosophies passion is opposed to reason: the passions are the urges of our "lower", ignoble, animal selves, while reason is the "higher", truly human instrument for dealing with the world.

So the author is claiming that Hume said people do not base their moral decisions on rational considerations but on the irrational promptings of their desires—hunger, greed, sex, fear, and the like.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.