Friday, July 21, 2006


On the intelligence of our emotions:

Emotions and reason have always represented a duality in human nature of much interest to thinkers of any colour. In the ancient world, philosophers maintained that emotions involved judgment, response and value. According to Martha Nussbaum, the Stoics, walking in the footsteps of these philosophers, went even further and stabilized this quivering formula by identifying an emotion as a judgment of value. Positing emotion as a judgment of value, it is then distinguished from reason by the stoics as an unstable and unreliable source of ethical thought. Emotions are undependable instructors to a moral order. Children and animals have no emotions. Nussbaum agrees with one part of the Stoic account of emotion, the part where it is characterized as a judgment of value. She disputes however the Stoic argument that these judgments are all false, and goes on to prove that children and animals do have emotions, as we all know albeit an only partly developed sense of judgment.

Since emotions in Stoic ethics were so false, the stoics consistently focused on how to contain and control them, so as to allow reason, a superior value, to maintain its own truthful evaluations of the good life. Nussbaum wishes to persuade us that reason and emotion are not as incompatible as the stoics believed. Neo-stoicism is an elaboration upon stoic way of thinking that includes our modern day understanding of emotions. Her ultimate goal is for us to recognize the intelligent elements in our emotions because they can and must serve as guides to ethical judgment.

She means two things: one, an emotion “involves judgments about important things”. Two, value judgments are transformed into emotion at the very nexus of the emoter’s perception and neediness. We may recognize empirical knowledge as important and valuable, but its importance and value will only affect us emotionally if we are personally impacted by it. Nussbaum is at some pains to point out that this fact alone is not a statement on man’s basic selfishness, although it can mean that as well. Ego-centrism is essential to all the emotions, and it is a futile exercise to urge against that fact.

She says:

“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. They may be loved for their own sake, and their good sought for its own sake . . .. [Nonetheless], 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.”

Nussbaum wants us to develop finer tools for figuring out, or unraveling, our own emotional upheavals. By managing a better understanding we create a certain ironic distance from the turmoil. We thus gain a needed clarity about what these emotional upheavals tell us about our relationship with the world. For Nussbaum, emotions are a form, so to speak, of smart thinking:

“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.

Reason and emotion are of a piece. They are not separate units of cognition within the psyche but rather interpenetrating constituents of the units that are the building blocks of our human essence, our responsive capabilities. As constituents, the two elements grow and contract, according to individual cases. Emotions are intelligent and intelligence can be emotional. The intelligence in human emotions has memory, memory being what I earlier called empirical knowledge. The emotional component impacts the reason, the intellect, but the reason eventually guides the emotion in a truly ethical human being.

Quotes are cited from: Upheavals of thought


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