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Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions

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  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2003-04-14
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press

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Emotions shape the landscape of our mental and social lives. Like geological upheavals in a landscape, they mark our lives as uneven, uncertain and prone to reversal. Are they simply, as some have claimed, animal energies or impulses with no connection to our thoughts? Or are they rather suffused with intelligence and discernment, and thus a source of deep awareness and understanding? In this compelling book, Martha C. Nussbaum presents a powerful argument for treating emotions not as alien forces but as highly discriminating responses to what is of value and importance. She explores and illuminates the structure of a wide range of emotions, in particular compassion and love, showing that there can be no adequate ethical theory without an adequate theory of the emotions. This involves understanding their cultural sources, their history in infancy and childhood, and their sometimes unpredictable and disorderly operations in our daily lives.

Author Biography

Martha C. Nussbaum is Ernst Freund Distinguished Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, appointed in the Philosophy Department, the Law School, the Divinity School, and the College. She is an Associate in the Classics Department, an Affiliate of the Committee for Southern Asian Studies, and a member of the Board of the Committee on Gender Studies

Table of Contents

Part I. Need and Recognition: 1. Emotions as judgments of value
2. Humans and other animals: the neo-stoic view revised
3. Emotions and human societies
4. Emotions and infancy
interlude: 'things such as might happen'
5. Music and emotion
Part II. Compassion: 6. Tragic predicaments
7. Compassion: the philosophical debate
8. Compassion and public life
Part III. Ascents of Love: 9. Ladders of love: an introduction
10. Contemplative creativity: Plato, Spinoza, Proust
11. The Christian ascent: Augustine
12. The Christian ascent: Dante
13. The Romantic ascent: Emily Brontë
14. The Romantic ascent: Mahler
15. Democratic desire: Walt Whitman
16. The transfiguration of everyday life: Joyce.

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It is almost impossible to understand the extent to which this upheaval agitated, and by that very fact had temporarily enriched, the mind of M. de Charlus. Love in this way produces real geological upheavals of thought. In the mind of M. de Charlus, which only several days before resembled a plane so flat that even from a good vantage point one could not have discerned an idea sticking up above the ground, a mountain range had abruptly thrust itself into view, hard as rock -- but mountains sculpted as if an artist, instead of taking the marble away, had worked it on the spot, and where there twisted about one another, in giant and swollen groupings, Rage, Jealousy, Curiosity, Envy, Hate, Suffering, Pride, Astonishment, and Love.

Marcel Proust,

Remembrance of Things Past

Thus, by being born we have made the step from an absolutely self-sufficient narcissism to the perception of a changing external world and the beginnings of the discovery of objects. And with this is associated the fact that we cannot endure the new state of things for long, that we periodically revert from it, in our sleep, to our former condition of absence of stimulation and avoidance of objects.

Sigmund Freud,

Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego


Emotions shape the landscape of our mental and social lives. Like the "geological upheavals" a traveler might discover in a landscape where recently only a flat plane could be seen, they mark our lives as uneven, uncertain, and prone to reversal. Why and how? Is it because emotions are animal energies or impulses that have no connection with our thoughts, imaginings, and appraisals? Proust denies this, calling the emotions "geological upheavals of thought." In other words, what changes the Baron's mind from a flat plane into a mountain range is not some subterranean jolt, but the thoughts he has about Charlie Morel, a person who has suddenly become central to his well-being, and whom he sees as inscrutable, undependable, and utterly beyond his control. It is these thoughts about value and importance that make his mind project outward like a mountain range, rather than sitting inert in self-satisfied ease.

    A lot is at stake in the decision to view emotions in this way, as intelligent responses to the perception of value. If emotions are suffused with intelligence and discernment, and if they contain in themselves an awareness of value or importance, they cannot, for example, easily be sidelined in accounts of ethical judgment, as so often they have been in the history of philosophy. Instead of viewing morality as a system of principles to be grasped by the detached intellect, and emotions as motivations that either support or subvert our choice to act according to principle, we will have to consider emotions as part and parcel of the system of ethical reasoning. We cannot plausibly omit them, once we acknowledge that emotions include in their content judgments that can be true or false, and good or bad guides to ethical choice. We will have to grapple with the messy material of grief and love, anger and fear, and the role these tumultuous experiences play in thought about the good and the just.

    To say that emotions should form a prominent part of the subject matter of moral philosophy is not to say that moral philosophy should give emotions a privileged place of trust, or regard them as immune from rational criticism: for they may be no more reliable than any other set of entrenched beliefs. There may even be special reasons for regarding them with suspicion, given their specific content and the nature of their history. It does mean, however, that we cannot ignore them, as so often moral philosophy has done. It means that a central part of developing an adequate ethical theory will be to develop an adequate theory of the emotions, including their cultural sources, their history in infancy and childhood, and their sometimes unpredictable and disoderly operation in the daily life of human beings who are attached to things outside themselves.

    Proust's account of the Baron's mind issues a challenge to conventional ethical thought in yet another way. It tells us something about what texts we need to turn to if we are to arrive at an adequate account of the emotions. If emotions involve judgments about the salience for our well-being of uncontrolled external objects, judgments in which the mind of the judge is projected unstably outward into a world of objects, we will need to be able to imagine those attachments, their delight and their terror, their intense and even obsessive focusing on their object, if we are ever to talk well about love, or fear, or anger. But then it seems that we will have reason to turn to texts such as Proust's novel, which encourage us in such imaginings, deepening and refining our grasp of upheavals of thought in our own lives. If Proust is right, we will not understand ourselves well enough to talk good sense in ethics unless we do subject ourselves to the painful self-examination a text such as his can produce.

    Furthermore, if emotions are as Proust describes them, they have a complicated cognitive structure that is in part narrative in form, involving a story of our relation to cherished objects that extends over time. Ultimately, we cannot understand the Baron's love, for example, without knowing a great deal about the history of patterns of attachment that extend back into his childhood. Past loves shadow present attachments, and take up residence within them. This, in turn, suggests that in order to talk well about them we will need to turn to texts that contain a narrative dimension, thus deepening and refining our grasp of ourselves as beings with a complicated temporal history. It is for this reason that Proust's narrator comes to believe that certain truths about the human being can be told only in literary form. If we accept his view of what emotions are, we should agree, to the extent of making a place for literature (and other works of art) within moral philosophy, alongside more conventional philosophical texts. Once again: an account of human reasoning based only upon abstract texts such as are conventional in moral philosophy is likely to prove too simple to offer us the type of self-understanding we need.

    Some of these claims might be maintained even by people who think of emotions as totally noncognitive: even such people might think that we need to understand human psychology better than we often do in order to write well about ethics. But if a cognitive/evaluative theory of emotions is correct, these claims have a particular salience: for what they mean is that not just a psychological adjunct to emotional thought, but a part of ethical thought itself will be omitted with the omission of emotions. Emotions are not just the fuel that powers the psychological mechanism of a reasoning creature, they are parts, highly complex and messy parts, of this creature's reasoning itself.

    Thus a theoretical account of emotions is not only that: it has large consequences for the theory of practical reason, for normative ethics, and for the relationship between ethics and aesthetics. Such an account has consequences for political thought as well: for understanding the relationship between emotions and various conceptions of the human good will inform our deliberations as we ask how politics might support human flourishing. If we think of emotions as essential elements of human intelligence, rather than just as supports or props for intelligence, this gives us especially strong reasons to promote the conditions of emotional well-being in a political culture: for this view entails that without emotional development, a part of our reasoning capacity as political creatures will be missing.

In the first part of the book I shall develop a conception of the emotions that fleshes out the insight expressed in Proust's description, suggesting that diverse phenomena of our emotional life are well explained by a view that has its antecedents in the ideas of the ancient Greek Stoics. This view holds that emotions are appraisals or value judgments, which ascribe to things and persons outside the person's own control great importance for that person's own flourishing. It thus contains three salient ideas: the idea of a cognitive appraisal or evaluation ; the idea of one's own flourishing or one's important goals and projects; and the idea of the salience of external objects as elements in one's own scheme of goals . Emotions typically combine these ideas with information about events in the world; they are our ways of registering how things are with respect to the external (i.e., uncontrolled) items that we view as salient for our well-being. Focusing on a complex example of grief involving the death of a parent (an example chosen because of its ubiquity, as an apt device for encouraging readers to mine their own experiences of grief), I shall show how this particular type of cognitive account does justice to our experiences of emotion.

    My strategy is to state the view initially in a relatively simple form, providing it with a preliminary defense (Chapter 1). Once we have seen its general structure, we can then consider several modifications that it needs to undergo in order to become more adequate. These modifications were not made by the Stoics themselves (so far as we know from the fragments of their work on this topic that survive). The view undergoes refinement and reshaping in four distinct stages. By the time we are finished with it, a general core will remain, but it will be a lot more subtle than the view first announced. The view that emerges may justly be called neo-Stoic, and I shall often use this term. But it has an independent character, emphasizing, as it does, the commonality between humans and other animals, the role of social norms, and the complexities of an individual human history.

    To modify the view, we need, first, simply to elaborate it further, taking up issues the Stoics are not known to have addressed. We need to consider the role of imagination in emotions of various types. We need to make distinctions between general and particular emotions, and between "background" and "situational" emotions. We need to ask how the diminution of grief over time can be explained within a cognitive/evaluative theory. We need to ask carefully whether all the evaluations involved in emotion do indeed relate to uncontrolled "external goods," and whether the object of emotion is always valued for some relation it bears to one's own flourishing. And, finally, we need to devote a good deal of attention to the thorny question of whether there are elements other than cognitive attitudes that are involved in emotion: feelings, bodily movements, dense perceptions that are not exhausted by the emotion's propositional content. In the latter half of the first chapter, I begin the refinement of the Stoic view -- or, we might also say, the construction of a contemporary neo-Stoic view -- by mapping out these further distinctions and confronting these further questions.

    Second, any contemporary cognitive/evaluative view needs to advance a plausible account of the relationship between human emotions and the emotions of other animals. The original Stoics had an implausible account: they simply denied that nonhuman animals had emotions. This denial has led some thinkers to reject their view. But we need not take this course, since we may, instead, reject their low estimate of the intelligence of animals. At this point we need to turn to modern work in ethology and cognitive psychology, asking what forms of cognitive appraisal it is plausible to ascribe to animals of various types. I argue in Chapter 2 that we can give an adequate account of animal emotion in the general spirit of the Stoic view; but we need to broaden the Stoic account of evaluative cognition, focusing less on language and the acceptance of linguistically formulable propositions and more on the general ability to see X as Y, where Y involves a notion of salience or importance for the creature's own well-being. At this point I also focus on some general issues of emotional content, addressing the connection between animal emotions and the perception of helplessness, arguing that emotional health requires the belief that one's own voluntary actions will make a significant difference to one's most important goals and projects.

    At this point in the argument, we are also in a position to discuss three important distinctions that help us to map further the geography of the emotional life: distinctions between emotions and appetites, between emotions and moods, and between emotions and motives for action. Showing that the view can provide an adequate account of these distinctions helps to strengthen our claim that the view provides a good account of emotional experience. These discussions conclude Chapter 2.

    But a contemporary cognitive/evaluative account also needs an adequate account of the role of diverse social norms in constructing a society's emotional repertory. The original Stoics gave an important place to social norms in their accounts of emotion, but they said nothing about how variations in norms entail variations in emotion. The third major modification we must make in the simple view first advanced is, then, to pursue this issue, offering a sensible account of the role of "social construction" in the emotional life. Anthropological studies of emotion have yielded rich material on emotional variety, which I draw on in the third chapter in order to pursue these issues. The simple view is transformed yet again: and yet its main features (its emphasis on appraisal and on the role of important goals and projects) remain constant.

    The Greek and Roman Stoics had no apparent interest in childhood, nor did they ever ask how early experiences shape the mature emotional life. Indeed, they appear to have had the implausible view that children, like animals, do not have emotions. We can see that this was an error -- that the "geological upheavals of thought" that constitute the adult experience of emotion involve foundations laid down much earlier in life, experiences of attachment, need, delight, and anger. Early memories shadow later perceptions of objects, adult attachment relations bear the traces of infantile love and hate. Although this narrative dimension is a ubiquitous part of adult emotional experience, and in that sense should be a part of the analysis from the beginning, it could not be adequately described before we had elaborated the second chapter's flexible account of cognition and the third chapter's account of social variation. At this point, however, we can ask how the human infant's combination of extreme neediness and cognitive maturity, of intense attachment and nascent separateness, shapes, for better or for worse, the geography of the emotional life. On these questions, rarely treated by philosophers and almost never treated well, a philosopher needs to turn to psychology and to literature for help. Recently there has been an unprecedented degree of convergence and even cooperation between cognitive psychologists and psychoanalysts, especially those in the object-relations tradition, where some of these issues are concerned. I draw on this material -- but also, and centrally, on Proust, in some ways the most profound object-relations psychoanalyst of all. The simple view thus undergoes yet one more stage of modification -- this one being perhaps the most dramatic.

    My account of childhood emotions focuses on the role of the imagination in promoting a good outcome to early emotional crises. My later accounts of compassion and love develop this insight, focusing on the role of the arts in cultivating these emotions. The Interlude and Chapter 5 therefore turn to experiences of emotion we have in connection with works of art. The Interlude develops a general framework for thinking about emotions directed toward works of art. Chapter 5 then focuses on music, since this case is much more difficult to treat than the case of literature, and yet crucial if we are to satisfy ourselves that the account we are developing is on the right track. Music is an especially rich source of emotional experiences and has frequently been taken to offer us insight into the nature of the emotional life. Many cognitive/evaluative views of emotion have difficulty explaining these phenomena; I argue that mine does not, because of its flexible nonlinguistic account of cognition. Indeed, it enables us to cut through a dilemma that has vexed analysts of musical experience. Mahler's music, and his remarkably perceptive statements about his music, are my guides here, and I offer interpretations of two songs from the Kinder-totelieder to show what the view can make of a complex case of the musical expression of grief, love, guilt, and helplessness.

    Thus Part I ends: with a far more complicated version of the view first mapped out in Chapter 1 -- incorporating nonlinguistic cognitions, social norms, and individual history -- and with an example of the way that such a view can go to work explaining a harrowing and yet subtle experience.

It will be evident that Part I focuses on some emotions more than others. Grief plays an especially prominent role in all of the chapters, as do the closely related emotions of fear and hope. (The focus broadens in Chapter 4, when shame, disgust, envy, and anger all become prominent.) And yet, despite this focus on certain cases, it is also clear that my project is to construct an analytical framework for thinking about emotions in general. This procedure requires comment, because some would claim that there is no interesting common ground among such a wide range of phenomena. One can only defeat that kind of skepticism by forging ahead and proposing an account that is illuminating, and yet does not neglect significant differences among the emotions. Differences are repeatedly confronted by the fact that the account does draw on an increasingly wide range of cases as it goes along. Starting with a detailed mapping of a single type of emotion, it eventually includes analyses of many others. Parts II and III expand the range still further. I agree with the skeptical critic to the extent that I think any adequate account of emotions needs to go into complex details about the specific content of particular emotions; little of interest can be said without that. Nonetheless, when we do get into the analysis of particular emotions, we find that there are close relationships among them, both conceptual and causal, that we need to trace if we are to have a good understanding even of the specific varieties.

    We will find, too, that the common ground within the class of emotions is actually greater than we might suppose if we simply looked at our casual and frequently loose use of words such as "feeling," "emotion," and "passion." Although, as I shall describe shortly, I do rely on people's ability to classify pretty reliably experiences of a particular type of emotion, even here my methodology makes room for error that will ultimately be corrected in dialogue with a theoretical account. Where large generic categories are concerned, ordinary use seems to me far less precise and thus less reliable than it is with the particular categories; so I will not take it for granted, for example, that every use of a term such as "feeling" designates a single phenomenon. There are multiple ambiguities in use, and a theory ought to be prepared to point this out. Such a critical theory can nonetheless arrive at an interesting unified account of a core group of phenomena that do have significant commonalities. The reader must judge whether the theory has sufficient flexibility to explore differences among the different emotions, and among different experiences of a given emotion, while retaining enough definiteness to illuminate the diverse phenomena.

    What, then, is the starting point of the investigation? It is plain that it must be experience. Moreover, even when, as here, the results of scientific investigations are prominently consulted, the terrain of the explanandum has to be identified in some way that is, at least initially, independent of the explanatory theories scientists bring forward. Thus scientists who investigate the emotions typically rely on their subjects' (and their readers') ability to identify experientially instances of a given emotion, and to name them pretty reliably. The whole enterprise is one of establishing correlations -- between a neural phenomenon, say, and the emotion of grief. So instances of grief have to be identified in some other way, usually by self-report. It is difficult to see how even the most parsimonious scientist could proceed otherwise: without experiential classification and the subsequent correlation, we would have simply a description of neural activity, and it would not hook onto any question that scientists typically ask. In a similar way, my own account assumes the general ability of readers to identify and classify instances of emotions such as grief, fear, and envy; intuitive judgments about these cases are consulted throughout, along with the results of philosophical and scientific investigations.

    Two qualifications, however, must be firmly entered at this point. First, relying on people's ability to classify instances of emotion does not mean relying on people's theories about what emotions are. Consider field linguists: they rely on the ability of their subjects to identify more or less correctly instances of proper and improper use. They do not rely on their ability to construct a correct theory of the language in question, and of course it would be ludicrous to rely on that. Most people have no idea how to write the grammar of their language, although it is to their competence that any grammar must be accountable. Consider, again, the career of Socrates. His procedure, as Plato records it, relied on the ability of his interlocutors to identify, more or less correctly, instances of a given virtue. Candidate definitions of courage, or justice, are standardly attacked by discovering what both Socrates and the interlocutor consider to be a genuine case of the virtue, not covered by the definition -- or else by finding that the definition covers phenomena that neither Socrates nor the interlocutor is prepared to count as a genuine case of the virtue. What his procedure reveals is that people are more reliable when they are grouping instances than when they are trying to give them a theoretical explanation. That is not surprising, because the identification of instances is a ubiquitous part of their lives, part of being a competent speaker of that language and participant in that culture -- whereas theory construction is usually something to which they have devoted no sustained thought at all. My procedure, then, is Socratic: it relies on the ability of readers to identify the instances that constitute the range of the explanandum , but it does not rely on them to produce good explanations. Indeed, my own explanation seems quite counterintuitive to start with, just as do many Socratic definitions. My hope is that it will ultimately seem convincing as a valuable explanatory theory.

    Second, relying on people's ability to be generally correct in classifying phenomena does not mean assuming that they are always correct. If I am searching for a scientific definition of water, I will have to begin somewhere: presumably, with instances of water identified by competent speakers of the language. But once I get the definition, in terms of a chemical analysis of water, the phenomena will need to be regrouped: if the speakers didn't know that ice was an instance of the same chemical compound, their classifications will have to be corrected. A core range of phenomena will have to remain, or else we will wonder whether the explanation is really explaining the thing that we began to investigate. But it is only natural -- given that people, as I've said, are often less than thoughtful about their classifications -- that they will not draw all the boundaries in the right places, and that this error will be revealed by a correct account.

    In this way, I will start from instances of emotion as people identify them in daily life, but I will ultimately argue that we should admit other instances that are not always correctly identified: an ongoing fear of death, for example, that persists unnoticed in the fabric of one's life, explaining many actions and reactions; a submerged anger at a loved one, which is not acknowledged as such, but emerges in the form of depression -- a depression that seems like an objectless mood, but that turns out, on inspection, to be the legacy of a childhood loss. In such cases, I do believe that we need to return, at the end, to people and their judgments: we need to be able to show people that positing a fear of death is a good way of unifying diverse experiences in the given case, and explaining actions that otherwise would not be so well explained. If we do not come back to the phenomena with a sense of new illumination, then our own explanatory account is in trouble. Nonetheless, we should insist that philosophy may, indeed should, be responsive to human experience and yet critical of the defective thinking it sometimes contains.

Part I says little about normative questions. Establishing that the emotions have rich cognitive/intentional content helps dispel one objection to them as elements in deliberation, namely the objection that they are blind forces that have no selectivity or intelligence about them. But this is hardly the only objection that one might make. Seeing the emotions as forms of evaluative thought shows us that the question about their role in a good human life is part and parcel of a general inquiry into the good human life. One cannot, then, say what role emotions should play in morality (or in the nonmoral aspects of a good life) without defending an overall normative view. To defend such an overall view is beyond the scope of this project. It also goes against its spirit, which is to show what emotions may offer to views of a number of different types.

    Nonetheless, it still seems right to ask whether there is anything about emotions as such that makes them subversive of morality (or, in other ways, of human flourishing). If lack of discrimination or intelligence is not a fair complaint, are there other general complaints against emotions that should trouble us? In answering this question I make some assumptions about what an adequate normative view should be like. In particular, I assume that an adequate view should make room for mutual respect and reciprocity; that it should treat people as ends rather than as means, and as agents rather than simply as passive recipients of benefit; that it should include an adequate measure of concern for the needs of others, including those who live at a distance; and that it should make room for attachments to particular people, and for seeing them as qualitatively distinct from one another. These characteristics are left deliberately vague and general, in order to show that they can be exemplified by a number of different normative theories, and also (a separate point) that they can be further specified in many different ways.

    To someone with these concerns (which a philosopher could associate either with a liberal brand of Aristotelianism or with a flexible virtue-oriented type of Kantianism), the emotions as I characterize them in Part I pose three problems. First, insofar as they involve acknowledgment of neediness and lack of self-sufficiency, emotions reveal us as vulnerable to events that we do not control; and one might hold that including a large measure of uncontrol in one's conception of a good life compromises too deeply the dignity of one's own agency. This is the reason why the original Stoics linked their extremely shrewd analysis of the emotions, which I follow here, to a radical normative thesis, that it is best to extirpate the emotions completely from human life. I do not accept that normative thesis here. I proceed on the assumption that at least some things and persons outside one's own control have real worth. But the Stoic challenge, drawing as it does on an attractive picture of agency and its integrity, raises questions that must be answered, in connection with any normative thesis that one does defend.

    Second, emotions focus on our own goals, and they represent the world from the point of view of those goals and projects, rather than from a strictly impartial viewpoint. Moreover, they develop in connection with extremely close and intimate attachments, and my historical account suggests that these early, very particular attachments shadow later object relations. So the emotions seem to be too partial or unbalanced, and one might suppose that we could do better with the guidance of more detached forms of reasoning. Again, this issue will be handled differently by different normative theories; but it is one that any theory meeting my thin constraints needs to worry about, since we do want to provide a basis for respect for the dignity of agency and for concern about human need.

    Third, emotions seem to be characterized by ambivalence toward their objects. In the very nature of our early object relations, I argue in Chapter 4, there lurks a morally subversive combination of love and resentment, which springs directly from the thought that we need others to survive and flourish, but do not at all control their movements. If love is in this way always, or even commonly, mixed up with hatred, then, once again, this might offer us some reasons not to trust to the emotions at all in the moral life, but rather to the more impersonal guidance of rules of duty. Chapter 4 also offers some preliminary reflections about how these problems might be overcome, developing a tentative account of psychological health that involves a willingness to live in interdependence with others. But this norm remains fragile and elusive; and to that extent the role of emotions in the good ethical life remains unclear.

    Part II and Part III investigate these three objections, but they do not do so in a linear way. Instead, using the account of emotions in Part I as a basis, they focus on two emotions that seem particularly pertinent in crafting a reply: compassion and love. There would be indefinitely many ways of investigating connections between emotions and morality; and a general discussion of this question could easily come to lack the kind of specificity and detail that would make such an account valuable. So my choice has been to narrow my scope, both by focusing on these two emotions (although others, such as shame and disgust, also play an important role in my account), and by talking about them in a way that is sometimes indirect and unsystematic, focusing on the analysis of historical debates and the interpretation of texts.

    Compassion is an emotion that has often been relied on to hook our imaginations to the good of others and to make them the object of our intense care. In Chapter 6 I investigate the structure of that emotion, asking what prospects and problems it contains for morality. In Chapter 7 I turn to historical texts, tracing the ways in which all of my three objections have been raised in debates about the social role of compassion. I discuss arguments favorable and unfavorable to that emotion made by thinkers including Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Adam Smith, Rousseau, Kant, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche. I then assess the historical debate, examining each of the three objections in turn and concluding with a complex and highly qualified defense of that emotions' social role. Despite its potential for unevenness and partiality, I argue, compassion can be an invaluable way of extending our ethical awareness and of understanding the human meaning of events and policies. In Chapter 8 I propose some roles that compassion, in partnership with an adequate ethical theory, can play in the political life.

But defending compassion from the moral point of view is a relatively straightforward task. Far harder is the defense of the more intense and ambivalent emotions of the personal life, which are more thoroughly shaped by early object relations, with their intense delight and terror, their jealousy and frustration. Personal love has typically been thought too wonderful to remove from human life; but it has also been seen (not only by philosophers) as a source of great moral danger because of its partiality and the extreme form of vulnerability it involves, which make a connection with jealousy and anger virtually inevitable. There are indefinitely many ways in which a philosophical project might investigate this issue. I have chosen to focus on accounts of the "ascent" or "ladder" of love within highly restricted portions of the Western philosophical/literary traditions, asking which reforms in the structure of love seem to promise solutions to these problems, and whether, in solving the problems, they still leave in place the elements of life that I have said an adequate account must include. These attempts can be divided into three families: Platonic, Christian, and Romantic. Each family makes proposals of real merit, and yet all of them, in some ways, climb so high above real life that there are real doubts about whether they actually include, as they claim to do, everything that has genuine worth. Moreover, as we shall see, some of their proposals actually reinforce elements in the history of childhood emotion that (as I argue earlier) are especially dangerous to morality: in particular, shame at the limitations of the body and envy of others who control what we wish to control but don't. In that sense they make things worse rather than better. In the last two chapters, I therefore turn to two attempts to surmount shame and envy, and to propose, in the process, an inversion of the canonical "ladder," restoring our love and attention to the phenomena of daily life.

    In Part III, I develop this argument through a focus on particular texts, some of them philosophical/religious (Plato, Augustine, Dante, Spinoza) but others literary (Proust, Emily Brontë, Whitman, Joyce) or even musical (Mahler) -- although my way of addressing the literary and musical texts is to focus on the conversation they have (in both form and content) with the philosophical/religious tradition. Running through the concrete textual investigations, however, and connecting them, are my own questions about the role of emotions in the good life, as generated by the account in Part I. In that sense, Part III is less an exhaustive account of the texts than a philosophical meditation on them, with my own normative questions in mind. The turn to literature and music is significant in the light of the role played by the imagination in the account of childhood development and the account of compassion: any program for the ascent of love that is likely to prove valuable will involve cultivating this faculty, as well as the capacity for argument.

All the normative material in Parts II and III presupposes the analysis of Part I, and assumes, for purposes of the normative debate, that some such story about emotions and their development is true. The idea is to show that understanding the emotions (their relation to judgment, their evaluative dimensions, their childhood history) in this way raises a definite group of normative questions and problems, and also offers a set of resources for their solution. A different analysis of the emotions might leave some of the normative arguments of Parts II and III unchanged, but most of them would have to be heavily revised. (If we thought of the emotions as innate bodily processes, for example, proposals to modify them by altering our perceptions of objects would not seem feasible.) In that sense, the analysis of emotions does moral work: we see clearly what problems we do and don't have on our hands, we adopt plausible rather than implausible pictures of ethical change, and we understand (in connection with our normative arguments) what it might mean for a political community to extend to its citizens the social bases of imaginative and emotional health.

It is sometimes supposed that cognitive views of emotion are "Apollinian," leaving out what is messy and ungovernable in the life of the passions. I hope to show that this criticism is misguided -- or at least that it would not be correct to aim it at my view. As the passage from Proust indicates, thinking of emotions as thoughts hardly leaves out what is sometimes unsettling, indeed excruciating, about them. Indeed, I suspect that the criticism should be aimed the other way around. If we really were to think of emotions as like bodily tugs or stabs or flashes, then we would precisely leave out what is most disturbing about them. How simple life would be, if grief were only a pain in the leg, or jealousy but a very bad backache. Jealousy and grief torment us mentally; it is the thoughts we have about objects that are the source of agony -- and, in other cases, delight. Even the grief and love of animals, as I shall argue, is a function of their capacity for thoughts about objects that they see as important to their well-being. But the peculiar depth and the potentially terrifying character of the human emotions derives from the especially complicated thoughts that humans are likely to form about their own need for objects, and about their imperfect control over them.

    As Freud writes, in my second epigraph, the story of human birth is the story of the emergence of a sentient being from the womb of secure narcissism to the sharp perception that it is cast adrift in a world of objects, a world that it has not made and does not control. In that world, the infant is aware of being an unusually weak and helpless being. Bodily pain is nothing by contrast to the terrifying awareness of helplessness, close to unendurable without the shelter of a womblike sleep. When we wake up, we have to figure out how to live in that world of objects. Without the intelligence of the emotions, we have little hope of confronting that problem well.

Chapter One



Emotions, I shall argue, involve judgments about important things, judgments in which, appraising an external object as salient for our own well-being, we acknowledge our own neediness and incompleteness before parts of the world that we do not fully control. I therefore begin with a story of such evaluations, a story involving fear, and hope, and grief, and anger, and love.


In April 1992 I was lecturing at Trinity College, Dublin. Because my mother was in the hospital convalescing after a serious but routine operation, I phoned at regular intervals to get reports on her progress. One of these phone calls brought the news that she had had a serious complication during the night, a rupture of the surgical incision between her esophagus and her stomach. She had developed a massive internal infection and a fever, and, though she was receiving the best care in a fine hospital, her life was in jeopardy. This news felt like a nail suddenly driven into my stomach. With the help of my hosts I arranged to return on the next flight, which was not until the next day. That evening I delivered my scheduled lecture, on the subject of the emotions -- a blueprint for the series of lectures on which this book is based. I was not the exuberant self-sufficient philosopher delivering a lecture -- or rather, not only that -- but at the same time a person invaded by the world, barely containing tears. That night I had a dream in which my mother appeared in my room in Trinity College, in her hospital bed, very emaciated and curled into a fetal position. I looked at her with a surge of tremendous love and said, "Beautiful Mommy." Suddenly she stood up, looking young and beautiful as in old photographs from the time when I was two or three. She smiled at me with her characteristically embracing wit, and said that others might call her wonderful, but she very much preferred to be called beautiful. I woke up and wept, knowing that things were not so.

    During the transatlantic flight the next day, I saw, with hope, that image of health before me. But I also saw, more frequently, the image of her death, and my body wanted to interpose itself before that image, to negate it. With shaking hands I typed out paragraphs of a lecture on mercy, and the narrative understanding of criminal offenders. And I felt, all the while, a vague and powerful anger -- at the doctors, for allowing this crisis to occur, at the flight attendants, for smiling as if everything were normal, above all at myself, for not having been able to stop this event from happening, or for not having been there with her when it did.

    Arriving in Philadelphia I called the hospital's intensive care unit and was told by the nurse that my mother had died twenty minutes earlier. My sister, who lived there, had been with her and had told her that I was on my way. The nurse invited me to come over and see her laid out. I ran through the littered downtown streets as if something could be done. At the end of a maze of corridors, beyond the cafeteria where hospital workers were laughing and talking, I found the surgical intensive care unit. There, ushered in by a nurse, I saw, behind a curtain, my mother in bed, lying on her back, as so often I had seen her lying asleep at home. She was dressed in her best robe, the one with the lace collar. Her makeup was impeccable. (The nurses, who were very fond of her, told me that they knew how important it had been to her always to have her lipstick on straight.) A barely visible tube went into her nose, but it was not hooked up to anything. I wept incontrollably, while the nurses brought me glasses of water. An hour later I was on my way to my hotel in a hospital van, carrying her red overnight bag, with her clothes and the books I had given her to read in the hospital -- strange relics that seemed to me not to belong in the world any more, as if they should have vanished with her life.

    In the weeks that followed, I had periods of agonized weeping; whole days of crushing fatigue; nightmares in which I felt altogether unprotected and alone, and seemed to feel a strange animal walking across my bed. I felt, again, anger -- at the nurses for not prolonging her life until I arrived, although I knew that they were following her written instructions not to take "extraordinary measures"; at the doctors for letting a routine operation lead to catastrophe, although I had no reason to suspect malpractice; at people who phoned on business as if everything were normal, even though I knew they had no way of knowing otherwise. For it seemed appropriate to be angry, and not possible to be angry at mortality itself. Above all, I felt anger at myself for not being with her on account of my busy career and my unswerving determination to work, which had always caused me to see her less frequently than my sister had. And though I told myself that I had in fact seen her often in recent months and had checked her condition carefully with the doctors before going to Ireland, I blamed myself still, for all the inattentiveness and the anger and all the deficiencies in love that I could find in my history with her, and some that I may possibly have invented. As I completed my lecture about mercy and forgiveness, I blamed myself most acutely.

    I did, however, complete my lecture, and delivered it shortly after traveling with my daughter to the funeral. And I noticed this: that the ongoing structure of daily life with my daughter, with my work, with friends and colleagues and people I love, the relatively unaltered structure of my expectations as to what would happen in that daily life the next day and the next, made the grief less chaotic for me than it was for my sister, who had lived close to my mother and seen her almost every day. Although I believe we loved her equally, there was an asymmetry in the way life dealt with that love, and this brought about an apparent asymmetry in emotional duration. On the other hand, although my present life was less disrupted I had the odd sensation of having been robbed of a history, of being no longer a person who had a family history. For this reason the sight of my ex-husband, arriving at the funeral, filled me with joy, because I could recognize in him twenty years of life with my mother, and knew that he could recognize it in me, and prove that it had existed. At the funeral the speeches of many whose lives she had helped also gave me joy, since they proved the continuity of her influence in the world. And the exertion of something like my usual professional activity, as I gave a speech on behalf of the family, made me feel less helpless, although I viewed this very fact with suspicion, as a possible sign of deficiency in love.

In this story we see several features of the emotions that it will be the business of my argument to try to explain: their urgency and heat; their tendency to take over the personality and to move it to action with overwhelming force; their connection with important attachments, in terms of which a person defines her life; the person's sense of passivity before them; their apparently adversarial relation to "rationality" in the sense of cool calculation or cost-benefit analysis; their close connections with one another, as hope alternates uneasily with fear, as a single event transforms hope into grief, as grief, looking about for a cause, expresses itself as anger, as all of these can be the vehicles of an underlying love.

    In the light of all these features, it might seem very strange to suggest that emotions are forms of judgment. And yet it is something close to this thesis that I shall defend. I shall argue that all of these features not only are compatible with, but actually are best explained by, a modified version of the ancient Greek Stoic view, according to which emotions are forms of evaluative judgment that ascribe to certain things and persons outside a person's own control great importance for the person's own flourishing. Emotions are thus, in effect, acknowledgments of neediness and lack of self-sufficiency. My aim in Part I is to examine this view and the arguments that support it, adding some further distinctions and arguments to the original view.

    As I shall argue in Chapter 2, we need to substitute a broader and more capacious account of cognition for the original Stoic emphasis on the grasp of linguistically formulable propositions. This modification is necessary in order to give an adequate account of animal emotions, of the emotions of human infants, and also of many emotions of adult human beings. Other modifications will involve investigating the role of social norms in emotions (Chapter 3), and providing an account of the development of emotions in infancy and early childhood (Chapter 4). Nonetheless, I shall argue that emotions always involve thought of an object combined with thought of the object's salience or importance; in that sense, they always involve appraisal or evaluation. I shall therefore refer to my view as a type of "cognitive-evaluative" view, and sometimes, more briefly, as a type of "cognitive" view. But by "cognitive" I mean nothing more than "concerned with receiving and processing information." I do not mean to imply the presence of elaborate calculation, of computation, or even of reflexive self-awareness.

    My focus will be on developing an adequate philosophical account. But since any adequate account in this area must respond, I believe, not only to the data of one's own experience and to stories of the experience of others, but also to the best work done to systematize and account for emotional experience in the disciplines of psychology and anthropology, I shall turn, as well, to those disciplines, where it happens that views related to mine have recently been gaining the ascendancy -- in cognitive psychology, in work on helplessness and control, and on emotion as "appraisal" of that which pertains to a creature's "thriving"; in anthropology, in work on emotion as an evaluative "social construction"; and in psychoanalysis, in work on early object relations and their evaluative dimensions.

    Throughout, the explananda will be the genus of which some species are grief, fear, love, joy, hope, anger, gratitude, hatred, envy, jealousy, pity, guilt. The members of this family are, I shall argue in Chapter 2, importantly distinct both from bodily appetites such as hunger and thirst and from objectless moods such as irritation and endogenous depression. There are numerous internal distinctions among members of the family; but they have enough in common to be analyzed together; and a long tradition in Western philosophy, beginning with Aristotle, has so grouped them. Nor is this grouping a peculiarity of the Western tradition: similar, though not identical, classifications also occur in other traditions of thought. We also find this grouping in everyday experience, where we do treat emotions differently than we do moods, appetites, and desires, although we may not have a good theoretical account of why we do so. Therefore, we have at least a roughly demarcated category of phenomena before us that can be scrutinized to see what their common features might be, although we should be prepared, as well, to find that the boundaries of the class are not clear and that there are noncentral cases that share only some of the features of the central cases. It is not to be expected that any explanatory theory will preserve all the phenomena intact; but my assumption will be that a criterion of correctness for a theory on this topic is that it should preserve the truth of the "greatest number and the most basic" of these experiences, and that it should be able to provide a convincing explanation for any errors in classification that it eventually ascribes to experience.



The Stoic view of emotion has an adversary. It is the view that emotions are "non-reasoning movements," unthinking energies that simply push the person around, without being hooked up to the ways in which she perceives or thinks about the world. Like gusts of wind or the currents of the sea, they move, and move the person, but obtusely, without vision of an object or beliefs about it. In this sense they are "pushes" rather than "pulls." Sometimes this view is connected with the idea that emotions derive from an "animal" part of our nature, rather than from a specifically human part -- usually by thinkers who do not have a high regard for animal intelligence. (I shall be arguing that animals are capable of a great deal of thought and discrimination, and that we have to invoke these capacities to explain their emotions.) Sometimes, too, the adversary's view is connected with the idea that emotions are "bodily" rather than "mental," as if this were sufficient to make them unintelligent rather than intelligent. Although I believe that emotions are, like other mental processes, bodily, I also believe, and shall argue, that seeing them as in every case taking place in a living body does not give us reason to reduce their intentional/cognitive components to nonintentional bodily movements. We probably do not have reason even to include in the definition of a given emotion-type reference to any definite bodily state -- though this is a much more contentious point that will require further argument. Certainly we are not left with a choice between regarding emotions as ghostly spiritual energies and taking them to be obtuse nonseeing bodily movements, such as a leap of the heart, or the boiling of the blood. Living bodies are capable of intelligence and intentionality.

    The adversary's view is grossly inadequate, as we shall see. In that sense, it might seem to be a waste of time to consider it. The fact that it has until recently been very influential, both in empiricist-derived philosophy and in cognitive psychology -- and through both of these in fields such as law and public policy -- gives us somewhat more reason to spend time on it. An even stronger reason is given by the fact that the view, though inadequate, does capture some important aspects of emotional experience, aspects that need to figure in any adequate account. If we understand why the view has the power that it undeniably does, and then begin to see why and how further reflection moves us away from it, we will also understand what we must not ignore or efface in so moving away.

    Turning back, now, to my account of my mother's death, we find that the "unthinking movements" view does appear to capture at least some of what went on: my feeling of terrible tumultuousness, of being at the mercy of currents that swept over me without my consent or complete understanding; the feeling of being buffeted between hope and fear, as if between two warring winds; the feeling that very powerful forces were pulling the self apart, or tearing it limb from limb; in short -- the terrible power or urgency of the emotions, their problematic relationship to one's sense of self, the sense one has that one is passive or powerless before them. It comes as no surprise that even philosophers who argue for a cognitive view of emotion should speak of them this way: the Stoic philosopher Seneca, for example, is fond of comparisons of emotions to fire, to the currents of the sea, to fierce gales, to intruding forces that hurl the self about, cause it to explode, cut it up, tear it limb from limb. Such images, furthermore, are found in many cultural traditions, and thus cannot be explained away as idiosyncrasies of the Western tradition. It seems easy for the adversary's view to explain these phenomena: for if emotions are just unthinking forces that have no connection with our thoughts, evaluations, or plans, then they really are just like the invading currents of some ocean. And they really are, in a sense, nonself; and we really are passive before them. It seems easy, furthermore, for the adversary to explain their urgency: for once we imagine them as unthinking forces we can without difficulty imagine these forces as extremely strong.

    By contrast, my neo-Stoic view appears to be in trouble on all of these points. For if emotions are a kind of judgment or thought, it seems difficult to account for their urgency and heat; thoughts are usually imagined as detached and calm. It seems difficult, too, to find in them the passivity that we undoubtedly experience: for judgments seem to be things that we actively make or do, not things that we suffer. And their ability to dismember the self also seems to be omitted: for thoughts are paradigmatic, it would seem, of what we control, and of the most securely managed parts of our identity. Let us now see what would cause us to move away from the adversary's view. Later on we shall see how a neo-Stoic view responds to our worries.

    What, then, makes the emotions in my example unlike the thoughtless natural energies I have described? First of all, they are about something: they have an object. My fear, my hope, my ultimate grief, all are about my mother and directed at her and her life. A wind may hit against something, a current in the blood may pound against something: but they are not in the same way about the things they strike in their way. My fear's very identity as fear depends on its having some such object: take that away and it becomes a mere trembling or heart-leaping. The identity of the wind as wind does not in the same way depend on any particular object against which it may pound.

    Second, the object is an intentional object: that is, it figures in the emotion as it is seen or interpreted by the person whose emotion it is. Emotions are not about their objects merely in the sense of being pointed at them and let go, the way an arrow is released toward its target. Their aboutness is more internal, and embodies a way of seeing. My fear perceived my mother both as tremendously important and as threatened; my grief saw her as valuable and as irrevocably cut off from me. (Both, we might add -- beginning to approach the adversary's point about the self -- contained a corresponding perception of myself and my life -- as threatened in the one case, as bereft in the other.) This aboutness comes from my active ways of seeing and interpreting: it is not like being given a snapshot of the object, but requires looking at the object, so to speak, through one's own window. This perception might contain an accurate view of the object, or it might not. (And indeed it might take as its target a real and present object, or it might also be directed at an object that is no longer in existence, or that has never existed at all. In this way, too, intentionality is distinct from a more mechanical sort of directedness.) Once again, we should insist that aboutness is part of the emotions' identity. What distinguishes fear from hope, fear from grief, love from hate -- is not so much the identity of the object, which might not change, but the way in which the object is seen. In fear, one sees oneself or what one loves as seriously threatened. In hope, one sees oneself or what one loves as in some uncertainty but with a good chance for a good outcome. In grief, one sees an important object or person as lost; in love, as invested with a special sort of radiance. Again, the adversary's view proves unable to account either for the ways in which we actually identify and individuate emotions, or for a prominent feature of our experience of them.

    Third, these emotions embody not simply ways of seeing an object, but beliefs -- often very complex -- about the object. (It is not always easy, or even desirable, to distinguish an instance of seeing X as Y , such as I have described here, from having a belief that X is Y. I shall deal with this issue in the next chapter; for now I continue to use the language of belief.) In order to have fear -- as Aristotle already saw -- I must believe that bad events are impending; that they are not trivially, but seriously bad; and that I am not entirely in control of warding them off. In order to have anger, I must have an even more complex set of beliefs: that some damage has occurred to me or to something or someone close to me; that the damage is not trivial but significant; that it was done by someone; probably, that it was done willingly. It seems plausible to suppose that every member of this family of beliefs is necessary in order for anger to be present. If I should discover that not A but B 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 go away. My anger at the flight attendants who smiled was quickly dissipated by the thought that they had done so without any thought of disturbing me or giving me offense. Similarly, my fear would have turned to relief -- as it so often has -- had the medical news changed, or proved to be mistaken. Again, these beliefs are essential to the identity of the emotion: the feeling of agitation all by itself will not reveal to me whether what I am feeling is fear or grief or pity. Only an inspection of the thoughts discriminates. Nor is the thought purely a heuristic device that reveals what I am feeling, where feeling is understood as something without thought. For it seems necessary to put the thought into the definition of the emotion itself. Otherwise, we seem to have no good way of making the requisite discriminations among emotion types. Here again, then, the adversary's view is too simple: severing emotion from belief, it severs emotion from what is not only a necessary condition of itself, but also a part of its very identity.

    Finally, we notice something marked in the intentional perceptions and the beliefs characteristic of the emotions: they are concerned with value , they see their object as invested with value or importance. Suppose that I did not love my mother or consider her a person of great importance; suppose I considered her about as important as a branch on a tree next to my house. Then (unless I had invested the tree-branch itself with an unusual degree of value) I would not fear her death, or hope so passionately for her recovery. My experience records this in many ways -- not least in my dream, in which I saw her as beautiful and wonderful and, seeing her that way, wished her restored to health and wit. And of course in the grief itself there was the same perception -- of enormous significance, permanently removed. This indeed is why the sight of the dead body of someone one loves is so intolerable: because the same sight that is a reminder of value is also an evidence of irrevocable loss.

    The value perceived in the object appears to be of a particular sort. It appears to make reference to the person's own flourishing. The object of the emotion is seen as important for some role it plays in the person's own life. I do not go about fearing any and every catastrophe anywhere in the world, nor (so it seems) do I fear any and every catastrophe that I know to be bad in important ways. What inspires fear is the thought of damages impending that cut to the heart of my own cherished relationships and projects. What inspires grief is the death of someone beloved, someone who has been an important part of one's own life. This does not mean that the emotions view these objects simply as tools or instruments of the agent's own satisfaction: they may be invested with intrinsic worth or value, as indeed my mother surely was. They may be loved for their own sake, and their good sought for its own sake. But what makes the emotion center around this particular mother, among all the many wonderful people and mothers in the world, is that she is my mother, a part of my life. The emotions are in this sense localized: they take their stand in my own life, and focus on the transition between light and darkness there, rather than on the general distribution of light and darkness in the universe as a whole. Even when they are concerned with events that take place at a distance, or events in the past, that is, I think, because the person has managed to invest those events with a certain importance in her own scheme of ends and goals. The notion of loss that is central to grief itself has this double aspect: it alludes to the value of the person who has left or died, but it alludes as well to that person's relation to the perspective of the mourner.


Excerpted from UPHEAVALS OF THOUGHT by Martha C. Nussbaum. Copyright © 2001 by Martha C. Nussbaum. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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