Emotional Rescue

Leonard_Nimoy_Spock_1966As I mentioned in my welcome post, I haven’t encountered a satisfactory philosophical investigation of emotion during my readings. Martha Nussbaum, who I have read, has a few books on the subject (as Jim pointed out). So I did a little cheap reading on the subject starting with whatever I could get online for free. I do have Nussbaum’s book in my shopping cart at Amazon.

From what I have gathered, study of the subject of late has been within the context of standard analytic philosophy of mind. Nussbaum takes emotions to be reducible to judgments, which is as good a theory as any. As a topic of study, it falls within the scope of intentionality one way or another. Issues such as whether an emotion must have an object or not are central. Classing and defining the various types of emotions as well as making distinctions between mood and emotion are all covered.

All this is very interesting as far as it goes. The following quote from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is revealing:

What, in the end, are emotions? What do they ultimately consist in? A variety of possible answers to this “ontological” question suggest themselves… They might be physiological processes, or perceptions of physiological processes, or neuro-psychological states, or adaptive dispositions, or evaluative judgments, or computational states, or even social facts or dynamical processes. In fact most philosophers would assent to most of these descriptions while regarding all as partial. In view of the acknowledged complexity of emotional functions, it seems wise to rephrase the question not in terms of ontology, but in terms of levels of explanation.

There’s a sneaky move there from the ontological question to a collection of explanations. Explanations, or objective analysis of the underlying causes of phenomena does not reveal anything about the the ontology of emotion. Some of the theories mentioned may be enlightened by philosophical examination, but for the most part the effort is more akin to psychological/neurological investigation. This is a common problem with philosophy in recent history. I believe the temptation to be seen as a more “legitimate” science has a strong pull. The relevance of the discipline to the academy or society at large has always been a bit suspect, but even more so given the overwhelming success of the “hard sciences” over the past century.

Suppose however we substitute another theory for the underlying cause of mental states. Rather than c-fibers and neurons let’s imagine that scientists have instead discovered through rigorous scientific investigation that the brain is just a lump of fatty tissue that fills the cavity behind our face. And instead of neurons and c-fibers, these scientists tell us that the physical basis of mental activity is not located in the brain, but is distributed through the body by symbiotic parasites in the blood. X-ray machines demonstrate clearly that when subjects are exposed to various stimuli, the activity of the symbiotic parasites can be identified showing a clear correlation between the mental event and their activity in the bloodstream. Since laymen have no access to the tools of the trade, we rely on the expertise of the scientific community to provide us with a rational, coherent explanation of the unseen mysteries of the body.

Were this fanciful explanation true, what would it add to or subtract from an ontological investigation of a mental event or, more specifically, an emotion?

I would argue that it adds very little. It no doubt is critical to the diagnosis of disease, but it doesn’t get at the essence of the phenomena as experienced by real human beings. The investigation of such phenomena then is backwards it seems to me. The seeming familiarity we have with emotions, or with any mental event, belies the difficulty of properly analyzing how these phenomena are coordinated and integrated into a single unified self acting in the world.

It is perfectly understandable, and expected, that most first reactions to this suggestion will be negative. After all, why shouldn’t we expect science to answer these questions? We’re biological creatures of a kind with the many other varieties of creatures we observe on our little speck of a planet. Why should humans be treated any differently in terms of investigation than any other creature? This is particularly true of something as primitive as emotion given that other mammals clearly emote in ways analogous to us. What is the point of this phenomenological bullshit?

One can be completely in agreement with the value of scientific inquiry without committing oneself to it as the only absolute source of knowledge. This a dangerous view in many circles in that it invites worries about the introduction of immaterial “spooky stuff” as is found among religious adherents. But the issue is not about the validity of scientific inquiry; it is rather about its scope. If there is any utility to be had from “doing” philosophy, it must come from those areas of inquiry that transcend the scope of scientific inquiry while not contradicting what are considered valid theories about the material world.

My conclusion then, and suggestion, is that a more proper exercise of philosophical inquiry will be that which provides insight into the basic intelligibility of the phenomena at hand. Emotions are a central feature of the human identity. So we’re back to the original question: What are emotions? 

Of course I don’t have an answer at present, but we might begin by thinking about what a human being would be like without them. What would be lost or gained in the absence of these non-linguistic states? What value do emotions have in interpreting the world and our interaction with it? Is it possible that emotional states represent the full cash value of human existence in terms of satisfaction? Is physical pleasure/pain intelligible without a corresponding emotion? Suggestions, critiques or even attacks are welcome.


2 thoughts on “Emotional Rescue

  1. [In the quote from Erich Fromm which I have appended to my true account of my dialog with Nozick, Fromm – described as a “humanistic philosopher” in Wikipedia – asserts that emotions such as compassion, friendliness, and appreciation of beauty are a necessary part of a human being.]


    The scene: Buffalo, New York,
    late 1970s or early 1980s,
    the campus of Buffalo State College.

    The Philosophy Department sponsored a talk by Robert Nozick
    open to the general public
    and scheduled in the early evening.
    Three or four dozen people showed up, as I recall,
    including myself, a graduate student in a different discipline
    from a neighboring institution of higher learning.
    Nozick was wearing a blue wool blazer, a white turtleneck sweater, and blue jeans.

    During the question period, I asked,
    “You’ve mentioned two ways of examining the morality of an action –
    whether it corresponds to a received code of conduct,
    and what its effect will be on those who are the object of the action.
    But what about its effect on the person who DOES the action?”

    Nozick thought for a minute before replying
    (an actual minute – I don’t mean 10 seconds that felt like a minute),
    said, “I need to consider that more”,
    and went on to another question.

    How did I feel? Triumphant, in having shut up the famous author? Amused? Heartbroken?

    As I recall, I was saddened.

    In my current view, the problem that Nozick had in answering my question
    comes from the fact that, in his tradition, all the heavy lifting is done by the intellect,
    and life’s persistent questions are treated as academic exercises.

    The last two paragraphs of Erich Fromm’s The Heart of Man are relevant here:

    Man’s heart can harden;
    it can become inhuman, yet never nonhuman.
    It always remains man’s heart.
    We are all determined by the fact that we have been born human,
    and hence by the never-ending task of having to make choices.
    We must choose the means together with the aims.
    We must not rely on anyone’s saving us,
    but be very aware of the fact that wrong choices make us incapable of saving ourselves.

    Indeed, we must become aware in order to choose the good —
    but no awareness will help us if we have lost the capacity to be moved
    by the distress of another human being,
    by the friendly gaze of another person,
    by the song of a bird, by the greenness of grass.

    If man becomes indifferent to life there is no longer any hope that he can choose the good.
    Then, indeed, his heart will have so hardened that his “life” will be ended.
    If this should happen to the entire human race or to its most powerful members,
    the the life of mankind may be extinguished at the very moment of its greatest promise.


    • In my current view, the problem that Nozick had in answering my question
      comes from the fact that, in his tradition, all the heavy lifting is done by the intellect,
      and life’s persistent questions are treated as academic exercises.

      You’ve shared an amazing anecdote there. Thank you.

      I’m pondering the question myself. A thoughtful answer might be worthy of an entire post.

      I don’t have a problem with academic exercises per se, but I am interested in trying to figure out what is missing from the analysis, which seems to be an adequate account of the intelligibility of human existence.

      Hopefully I will get around to reading Nozick closely and try to answer his critique of anarchism.


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