Wednesday, September 29, 2010

give the emotions some love

I’ve been reading Martha Nussbaum for a number of years now. Among the several books and articles she has written, one recent book stands out to me:

Upheavals of Thought: the intelligence of the emotions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

In this incredibly insightful book, Nussbaum is trying to restore balance to the age-old war between “the mind” and “the heart.”

Much of the blame for this war rests squarely on the standard stories we tell ourselves about the ancient Greek philosophers and many of the medievals who really gave emotion a hard time. According to this standard story, they called emotion “the passions” or “pathos,” and the idea was that these are wild, undirected, inherently unreliable, and often destructive. The real problem they had with emotion however, was its power to overpower reason.

There is great insight in the ancient Greek philosophers across a range of subjects, including the inherent hazards of the emotions. What could be more obvious? The emotions and passions are powerful and potentially destructive. But then again, so is reason.

This isn’t really the main tactic, however, that Nussbaum pursues. Rather, her main argument suggests that the entire “mind” versus “heart” is fundamentally an inadequate and unrealistic way of understanding human nature.

She argues that the emotions are actually “forms of judgment” with rationally assessable content. Her claim is that how we perceive the world (e.g., our relationships, values, politics, aesthetics, religion, etc.) is fundamentally a function of our emotional experiences.

To put it another way, it’s more what we feel rather than just what we know that primarily influences our behavior and beliefs across the entire range of important subjects.

The response to the Greek concern is to note that the Greeks had the analysis of emotion all wrong. Emotion is not merely wild and undirected. Because they are “forms of judgment,” emotions are actually evaluative forms of appraisal that can be assessed. They are not merely reactive, criterion-less responses.

This strikes me as a much more realistic view of the relation between cognitive, conative, and emotional lived experience.

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