Friday, June 08, 2012

On Anger (with apologies to Seneca): Part 1

Although emotions punctuate almost all the significant events in our lives, the nature, causes, and consequences of the emotions are among the least understood aspects of human experience. It is easier to express emotions than to describe them and harder, again, to analyze them.—Aaron Ben-Ze’ev

This is the first in a series of several posts in which I’ll attempt to introduce the “hot” emotion or “vehement” passion of anger from philosophical and moral psychological perspectives found in several different worldviews. I was moved to explore these historically prominent views on anger in light of an earlier comment thread at the ReligiousLeftLaw blog prompted by Michael Perry’s post on a panel discussion, “Peace Within,” at the Newark Peace Education Summit in May of last year.

The first approach we’ll examine (in our next post) is best termed “Aristotelian,” although some of the philosophers discussed under this heading are not avowedly Aristotelian qua philosophers, yet they may generally endorse or subscribe to the Aristotelian (or something close to the Aristotelian) position on anger (orgē). At the very least, they differ markedly from the Stoic and Buddhist approaches to anger, the other two worldviews that will complete our treatment of this particular emotion. The Stoic and Buddhist positions on anger are fairly “radical,” at least insofar as they are correctly characterized as counterintuitive and uncommon, although similar perspectives can be found in Judaism, Christianity (especially Catholicism), and Hinduism. I’ve chosen the Stoic and Buddhist treatments because they provide the clearest and starkest contrast to the Aristotelian model.

As both a prelude and propaedeutic to our comparative discussion, I want to outline a few conceptual, analytical, and phenomenological assumptions and propositions about the emotions generally. As throughout this series, I’ll be relying on the philosophical labors of others. In other words, I’m not attempting to proffer anything original or creative from my end, although I won’t hesitate to state where I stand vis-à-vis the competing views under examination. And while we’ll draw primarily upon philosophy in what follows, I agree with Jon Elster that, at least “with respect to an important subset of the emotions, we can learn more from the moralist, novelists and playwrights than from the cumulative findings of scientific psychology.” Elster further notes that “Although there is no clear boundary line between the moralists and the moral philosophers…their concern is more with moral psychology rather than with morality as such.” This is certainly true of moral philosophy after Hume in the West, but early Greek philosophers, from Plato and Aristotle to the Hellenistic philosophical schools in Greece and Rome: Peripatetic, Neo-Platonic, Skeptic, Epicurean, and Stoic, did not neglect moral psychology, indeed, it was an integral and often prominent part of these moral and ethical philosophies, as it is in Buddhism. And I think we can appreciate this on its own terms even if we believe in the necessity (with regard to conceptual clarity) of the cognitive and professional division of labor that today exists between philosophy and psychology, a division of labor that becomes pernicious when moral psychology fall between the cracks.

In his oft-cited work on the emotions, Alchemies of the Mind: Rationality and the Emotions (1999), Elster looks at the emotions in terms of six features: 1) bodily arousal; 2) physiological expression; 3) cognitive antecedents; 4) intentional objects; 5) valence (pleasure-pain); and 6) action tendencies. In what follows I’ll largely ignore the first two items in the list, and although the other features will be important, the results will be far from the analytic perspicuity, sophistication, and detail with regard to these elements that mark Elster’s work. The late Robert C. Solomon wrote that “we live in and through our emotions,” a perhaps banal observation to some, but I suspect we have yet to adequately appreciate the existential and psychological truths incarnate in that statement. Solomon elaborates:

“[Emotions] are sometimes, perhaps even often, strategies for getting along in the world. They are a means of motivating, guiding, influencing, and sometimes manipulating our own actions and attitudes as well as influencing and manipulating the actions and attitudes of others. [Wollheim argues that motivation is, strictly speaking, the prerogative of desire, as an emotion will lead us to form desires, and these desires, conjoined with beliefs, are what cause us to act.] [….] [Moreover], we are to a significant extent responsible for our emotions, something we often deny for the most self-serving of reasons, to make excuses for ourselves. [….]

The idea that our emotions are strategies suggests that the perspective in which we learn the most about emotions is in the second person, in personal interaction and exchange. Thus anger (and other emotions) is (are) not so much in the mind (nor just in the body or brain) so much as they are out there in social and interpersonal space. Anger, and most of our emotions, usually arises with and in reaction to other people. Ronald de Sousa has captured this social learning aspect of emotions in a provocative and fertile phrase, ‘paradigm scenarios.’ We learn to be angry, whatever the underlying neurological and hormonal machinery, in social interaction. And what we learn has a lot to do with the seeming appropriateness of the circumstances.”

Without getting into the “internalist/externalist” debate and other contentious issues in the philosophy of mind, I want to qualify what Solomon says above insofar as I think he comes close to assuming or making something like a genetic argument here (which, to be sure, need not be fallacious): the fact that we learn about anger in “social and interpersonal space” (one reason Peter Goldie speaks of making sense of emotional experience only by way of its ‘embeddedness’ in ‘narratives’) does not preclude the possibility that anger still is, in several and very important respects, a matter of what is, so to speak, “on” or “in” our minds (indeed, some—especially Wittgensteinian-inspired—theories of ‘the mind’ encompass in large measure this social dimension). We therefore, and rightly, speak of “internalizing” what we have learned. And we need only think of how we learn to moderate our expressions of anger or overcome predilection for same: this typically involves self-examination, personal reflection, and a “therapy of desire” in the Buddhist or Stoic sense (in Wollheim’s words, ‘emotion rides into our lives on the back of desire’), in other words, mental exercises or a therapeutic regimen of some sort (what the Buddhists term ‘mind-training’). To be sure, such exercises or therapies will be tested in the crucible of everyday life, but the primary focus is on the mind as such. In short, how we learn to be angry or about anger is not necessarily determinative or indicative of the nature of anger as an (often volatile) emotion. As Solomon himself would say, emotions like anger structure the way we perceive, conceive, and evaluate things in our world, and these are by definition mental (or ‘intentional’) activities, however much they are of or about objects in our external and internal worlds: a thing, person, event, action, or state of affairs (as in nos. 3, 4, and 6 of Elster’s list above), objects, furthermore, that may or may not exist in the conventional sense (e.g., a Kleinian phantasy). The morally and psychologically salient aspects of the emotions require a keen understanding of the nature of mental states and mental dispositions (the latter underlying the former), of the meaning, makeup, and roles of beliefs and desires, of knowledge, imagination, memories, inhibitions, habits, virtues and vices: sundry cognitive, affective, and volitional powers and skills. Richard Wollheim has explained in some detail just how such general properties as intentionality, subjectivity, and grades (or levels, states, forms) of consciousness qualify these mental phenomena.

With Robert C. Roberts, we’ll make the assumption that emotions are directly and indirectly implicated in the “the ‘moral’ character of our lives” in a manner that is “pervasive and deep.” Emotions are capable of determining the identity of our actions, given their intrinsic connections to action, character, and relationships. A set of basic propositions about the emotions drawn largely from Roberts’ Emotions: An Essay in Aid of Moral Psychology (2003), and Michael Stocker’s Valuing Emotions (1996), but gleaned also from a few other philosophers, will serve as a conceptual backdrop by way of fundamental assumptions and premises for our study:
  1. “The role of emotion is to provide the…person with an orientation, or attitude to the world.” (Wollheim)
  2. [E]motions can aid in the discovery of value. (Stocker)
  3. “[P]eople’s characters and their values can be revealed by emotions.” (Stocker)
  4. “[E]motions reveal not just our values and evaluations but much of our interior and exterior worlds….” (Stocker)
  5. “Emotions may show valuings rather than value: how a person values something, not the value something has or the value the person takes it to have. Sometimes people have emotions that contain and reveal valuings, not values; and sometimes people have emotions that reveal a lack of valuing, even in the face of acknowledged value.” (Stocker)
  6.  “Some emotions involve…fantasy valuings; and, inspired by the Philebus, false valuings,” hence such emotions are called “fantasy or false emotions.” Stocker uses the example of Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich to illustrate how false or fantasy emotions can render large portions of a life, or even an entire life, “inauthentic.” This enables us to better understand Ilyich’s “disquiet” about his life, “about the truth and falsity of his leading values and emotions.”
  7. “Emotions can be evaluatively accurate and informative, and indeed more accurate and informative than reason and belief….” (Stocker)
  8. Emotions help motivate us. (Stocker)
  9.  “Life like ours would be impossible without emotions.” (Stocker)
  10. “Emotions are paradigmatically felt, but emotions may occur independently of the corresponding feeling, and the feeling of an emotion can [as in no. 5 above] be nonveridical, illusory.” (Roberts)
  11. “Paradigm cases of adult human emotions take ‘objects.’” (Roberts)
  12. “Emotional objects are typically situational or composite, with unequal and shifting focus on the various elements of the situational object.” (Roberts)
  13. “It is possible to have emotions without being able to articulate (all of) their content; some of the content may be nonpropositional.” (Roberts)
  14. “Many types of emotion are motivational in the sense that they involve a desire to perform characteristic types of actions, but not all emotions are motivational in this sense.” (Roberts)
  15. “Emotions come in degrees of intensity.” (Roberts)
  16. “Expression of an emotion in behavior and action sometimes causes an emotion to subside, but sometimes expression intensifies and/or prolongs the emotion.” (Roberts)
  17. “Emotions, like actions, are subject to moral praise and blame.” (Roberts)
  18. “Emotions do typically ‘assert something about a situation, about its character (what kind of situation it is), and about its importance to the subject. But what the emotion ‘says’ is not always agreed to by the subject of the emotion, and it is that agreement would be required for the emotion to be a judgment of the subject. Speaking metaphorically, we might say that the emotion makes a judgment (a proposal about reality); but this ‘judgment’ is just the appearance or phantasia.”
  19. “Emotional pretense can take two basic forms: veil and mask, that is, hiding an emotion one feels and showing an emotion one does not feel.” (Ben-Ze’ev)
  20. “Nothing is more immediate to us than our own emotions, but nothing about us is more prone to self-deception, suppression, lack of recognition, and even straightforward denial than our emotions.” (Solomon)
  21. “[W]e cannot fully make sense of the emotional experience without taking into account the larger narrative of which it is a part,” [including traits of character]. (Goldie)
  22. “[O]ur emotions can be educated.” (Goldie)
  23. “[O]ur capabilities for emotional experience are significantly developmentally open or plastic (a notion which comes in degrees). To be developmentally open is to be open (to some degree) to moulding by culture and the environment. I put this forward as an alternative to a view which I call the avocado pear conception of the emotions: the view that what is evolved in human emotional capabilities is, in some sense, ‘hard-wired,’ and that it is only the ‘softer’ outer element which is culturally influenced.” (Goldie)
  24. “[N]either the sciences nor cross-cultural diversity need threaten our concepts of emotions and emotion-evoking features [as we have come to understand these in ‘commonsense’ or folk psychology]. The fact that these concepts are, unlike scientific concepts, interest-relative, need not undermine our confidence in them, nor need it imply any sort of relativism about the truth of claims we might make about our emotions or about emotion-invoking features of things in our environment.” (Goldie)
  25. “[I]magination can induce a particular emotional state in someone who does not have the emotional disposition that that state would ordinarily manifest.” (Wollheim)
[A list of ‘references and further reading’ will be appended to the final post in the series.]


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