Useful Concepts – #11 – Feelings Have Thoughts Too!

Philosophers have not gained a reputation for being greatly in touch with their feelings. “Being philosophical” about something means rationally processing it without getting too swayed by emotions.

But amongst the philosophers, it is the Stoics who are particularly thought to be unemotional. They are sometimes seem as not quite human, somewhat robotic, in their  ambition to maintain equanimity in the face of events that would, in normal people, cause great emotion, positive or negative.

And indeed the Stoics taught that things like riches or poverty, health or illness, our relationships with loved ones, even life or death, are outside of our control and so we shouldn’t consider them to be too important. They are merely indifferent items. The only things that matter are our inner qualities or our virtuous character. For the kind of calm state of mind that could be achieved by applying that kind of thinking to life, they have the image of the flat undisturbed sea on a windless day (“galene” in Ancient Greek).

So it may come as a surprise that Martha Nussbaum – with her 57 honorary degrees and 18 academic awards and prizes a rockstar of the philosophical world – has revived the Stoic teachings on emotions to create a highly persuasive account of what emotions are, and, of course, a very useful concept. That account also smashes the traditional way of thinking of thought and feeling as diametrically opposed.

Unlike some philosophical writing, which can be technical, dry and removed from life as we know it, Martha Nussbaum’s book about the emotions starts with a heart-rending biographical account of how she heard of the death of her mother and the days that followed. It also manages to deal with some things that most people contemplate quietly within themselves, such as why she and her sister grieved in different ways, and so on. All in the service of making philosophical points.

The basic point of Nussbaum’s so-called neo-Stoic account of the emotions is that emotions are basically judgements we make about things that are important to our own well-being, or flourishing. In evaluating external things, things outside of our control, as important to our well-being we also acknowledge our lack of self-sufficiency.

The idea that emotions may actually be evaluative judgements seems at first glance unlikely for a number of reasons:

1.) Emotions have urgency and “heat” to them, unlike the rational thought processes that more normally lead to judgements.

2.) Emotions tend to overcome us. We are passive with regard to them, rather than actively pursuing a thought process that would lead to a judgement.

3.) The ability of emotions to “dismember the self” (in Nussbaum’s words) when thoughts are normally thought to be (more or less) under our control.

Let’s take these objections in turn with Nussbaum’s explanation:

1.) Urgency and heat: Emotions feel urgent because they are judgements about things we think are important to our wellbeing and flourishing. They are not just any kind of judgment, but judgements that are central to our most valued attachments, projects and goals. Fear is the emotion where we judge something central to our wellbeing to be threatened. Sadness is the emotion where we judge something central to our wellbeing to be lost. Joy is the emotion where we judge it to be available. And so on. Because of their connection to our view of what would be a good life for us, they create urgency.

2.) Our passivity regarding emotions: This comes from the fact that emotions are judgements about objects in which we are invested but which are outside of our control. (There are echoes here of the Stoic view that nothing apart from our character is under our control.) Things happen. We can’t help but notice that they happen and make the relevant judgements about how they affect our flourishing.

3.) The self being torn apart: Quoting Nussbaum:

“the reason why in some emotional experiences the self feels torn apart (and in happier experiences filled with a marvellous sense of wholeness) is, once again, that these are transactions with a world about which we care deeply, a world that can complete us or tear us apart. No view that makes the emotion like a physical object hitting us can do justice to the way the world enters into the self in emotion, with enormous power to wound or to heal. For it enters in a cognitive way, in our perceptions and beliefs about what matters. Not just an arm or a leg, but a sense of life, gets  the shock or grief.

Insofar then, as we might sometimes be more affected or more aware of the emotions we are feeling than the judgements we are making, emotions then – in this neo-Stoic view – can also serve as a guide to a greater understanding of our thought processes and our conception of the good life for ourselves. It is a rewarding exercise, in times when we feel emotional, to try to unearth the evaluative judgement about our sense of flourishing and wellbeing at the core of the emotion. Stopping to ask “what judgement about my wellbeing am I making that is inherent in feeling happy, sad, fearful, confident right now?” may seem a bit overly Stoic, but it works and can be useful.

As a postscript for those who enjoyed the examples of (mis-)adventures of intellectuals commenting on tennis players in my previous post about Roger Federer, in researching this post, I found another great example from Martha Nussbaum:

“Two night ago, I went to bed thinking that Todd Martin had been knocked out of the U. S. Open (since he had lost the first two sets to a tough opponent.) I felt a little sad. When I woke up, I found out that he had won in five sets. I saw him on TV dancing around the court, and I felt a surge of joy. But of course it was a trivial sorrow and a trivial joy. While one watches a tennis match, one is intensely focused on the athlete one likes, and so an emotion can develop as one temporarily comes to think the match very important – and perhaps also identifies with the aging Martin, with his graying temples, so like one’s own if one did not dye one’s hair. But when normal life resumes, the evaluation resumes its normal low level. Todd Martin just isn’t a very important part of my life.

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