The emotions accompanying our mental activities

It is time to put to rest the Platonic assumption that emotions are one kind of activity (or faculty) and reasoning another kind of activity (or faculty). They are not two forces vying against each other, and it is not that one is the ‘slave’ or the ‘master’ of the other: Hume holding that reason is the slave of the passions, Kant replying that passions had better be kept under watchful eye by our reason. This Platonic assumption concerning the divide between our reasons and our emotions has been carried forward into our conversations concerning ‘John’s being emotional’ or ‘Jane’s being quite cerebral.’ Granted, it may be that John has strong emotional responses to a range of things and it may also be that Jane’s responses tend to be more tempered, but neither has anything to do with a response’s being untethered to reasons.

Quite the contrary, believing a number of things is at least a prerequisite for emoting. For I cannot be angry with another unless I believe that this other has deliberately wronged me. And I can be angry with ‘the world’ only if the world consists of hostile people who are bound to harm me. In this, sadness is like anger: only if someone I value greatly has gone away can I feel sorrow. Even if I cannot verbalize this belief to others when the emotions comes on (and mostly we do not do so from a first-person perspective when we are experiencing anger or sorrow or whatever), still it does not follow that this belief is not a necessary condition for the possibility of experiencing this emotion. It is.

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Healing the sickly vs. trying to understand another’s character

Recall that this is the invalid and deleterious argument that I have sought to examine:

5.) Because the human mind, like the human body, tends to be sickly and ill, it seeks healing or cures.

In the past couple of posts, I have been trying to say some things that I believe to be accurate about minding. Chiefly, I am concerned with the question of how we are in the world because I want to understand myself and others better and because I am convinced that we have an erroneous view of ‘the’ mind. The idea that the mind is like the body has held us so transfixed that we have come to believe that minds, like bodies, can be sick or healthy. How strange! And this, in turn, leads us to help, diagnose, treat, manage, and cure. My view is that this picture is incorrect. In much bolder terms, Nietzsche would say that this picture supposes a world of weak persons and proposes a regimen that will only make us weaker.

Continue reading “Healing the sickly vs. trying to understand another’s character”

A brief review of the cognitive theory of emotions

From time to time, I return to Martha Nussbaum’s understanding of our emotional life as it is elaborated in her books The Therapy of Desire and Upheavals of Thought. I have had reason to do so again recently.

Diana Fritz Cates (see her book review: “Conceiving Emotions: Martha Nussbaum’s Upheavals of Thought,” The Journal of Religious Ethics 31.2 (Summer, 2003), 325-341)) helpfully summarizes Nussbaum’s cognitive theory of the emotions as involving two features. When I emote, there is the object I have in view or have imagined together with the evaluation of the importance of this object to my overall well-being (or to the well-being of those I care about). For Nussbaum, a certain kind of thought–specifically, a judgment–just is an emotion.

Gregory Johnson, in “Theories of Emotions,” which is accessible in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, elaborates further:

Nussbaum points out how the different beliefs are related to the emotion. She notes that, “each element of this set of beliefs is necessary in order for anger to be present: if I should discover that not x but y had done the damage, or that it was not done willingly, or that it was not serious, we could expect my anger to modify itself accordingly or recede” (2004, p. 188). Thus, a change in an individual’s beliefs—in his or her way of seeing the world—entails a different emotion, or none at all.

The quote is especially rich. What needs to be underscored in Nussbaum’s view is how we examine the web or network of beliefs that an individual may have. When I explore a conversation partner’s emotion in my philosophy practice, it is important for us to widen the aperture of our focus from a particular belief he may have to the conceptual net of beliefs that are necessary in order to bring on the emotion. Pointedly, a man who is often angry is taking a certain stance toward the world in which he is immanently injurable or, as it were, injured before he was born. Contrariwise, the woman who apologizes all the time takes herself to be in the way of others from the very beginning, as if she were harming them merely by existing.

On their own, negative emotions (e.g., anger, sadness, grief, etc.) are neither good nor bad but only become so within a particular context and within one’s general web of beliefs. Some negative emotions such as grief are significant in that they cue us into what we care–and perhaps ought to care–most about. Other negative emotions such as disappointment and dread suggest that we have a false picture of ourselves and the world, a picture that needs to be brought into question. How, through the loving practice of philosophy, will we come to view the ground we stand on, walk over, dance with as that which is made for giving?