Martha Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. 751 pp. ?$

 

In my far-off, happy, schooldays there was always one thing above all of which you had not to stand guilty. This was lack of moral fiber. Intelligence and learning were a bonus, but moral fiber was an essential. It produced regular, strenuous boys ready to meet the kinds of ideal celebrated by our school poet, Sir Henry Newbolt. When the Gatling was jammed and the colonel dead, and the sands of the desert were sodden red, the voice of the schoolboy would be heard, calling on everyone to play up, play up, and play the game, so very like Tony Blair and George Bush do today, albeit keeping themselves at a safer distance from the sodden desert.

                  Because of moral fiber (also known as the right stuff) you deserved to be a leader of men—and women, of course. Words like hegemony had not been discovered, so instead we were being educated for leadership, the best kind of leadership, setting an example of lives infused by knowledge of the right and the good. Which brings us to Martha Nussbaum, whom I have long admired for having generous quantities of moral fiber. She is surely America’s most prolific and prominent public intellectual, with many causes to her credit, to all of which she brings extraordinary scholarly and liberal credentials. She has worked extensively on education, on the third world, on law, on homosexuality, and above all on the injustices of gender. She is serious and concerned, and as readers of this journal should remember, a dedicated opponent of all that is glitzy and trashy in modern culture. She brings to her causes a vast knowledge of the ancient world, and philosophy, and literature, along with a relentless sense of injustice and of the man-made obstacles to human dignity and human achievement (amongst which she is not afraid of numbering other philosophers, especially critics). She shines as an example of a life dedicated to the power of reason in the practical world. Such leadership requires energy, and she is energetic beyond measure. The present book weighs in at over seven hundred and fifty pages, and in it she references nine other full books of her own, several edited collections, and a forest of papers, yet there must be many others she hides under the bushel. If anyone can steady the ranks, surely she can.

                  In my young day a fellow with moral fiber had to avoid the emotions. Emotion was for sissies. A little moist fervor might be allowed when the school orchestra cranked the national anthem up to speed, but generally emotion was a furtive business, best concealed. Life was to be lived dry of eye and stiff of lip. More or less unconsciously, but following a dominant tradition of Western thought, people held that emotions were disruptive, irrational, alien and dangerous interferences with the smooth operation of reason and deliberation. That negative assessment is very much on the retreat in philosophy and psychology at present, and Nussbaum’s book is one of many celebrating that retreat. ‘Emotional intelligence’ is a catchphrase, quite apart from its association with the soggier parts of the therapeutical industry.

                  There are perhaps three major tributaries contributing to this stream of thought. Two are from popular science. First, in the tradition of William James, there is work from neurophysiology, most famously announced in Antonio Damasio’s best-seller Descartes’s Error. This work shows how totally dependent we are on the limbic system, or evolutionarily primitive parts of the brain responsible for arousal and emotion. Damasio presented patients, of whom the best-known is the unfortunate Phineas Gage, who have memory, verbal ability, perceptual ability, inferential capacities, and moral reasonings all perfectly intact, but whose capacity for living any kind of sensible life had vanished entirely. The reason seems to be that there is no longer any stable way in which their representations of possible states of affairs and actions bring about ‘affect’ or emotional arousal. Without that association, the decision-making landscape goes entirely flat, or seemingly contoured randomly, and deliberation becomes impossible. So we should be grateful for our mechanisms of emotional arousal. Without them we would not be paradigms of rational action, such as the emotionless Dr. Spock in Star Trek was presented as being, but hopeless flotsam incapable of rational agency.

A second scientific tributary has been work from evolutionary psychology, suggesting an adaptive role for many states of emotional arousal, including even those that tend to get a negative press from moralists. Basic emotions prime us for flight, or feeding, or mating, while more complex emotions act as essential social signals of hostility or cooperation. Even emotions we do not much esteem, like jealousy and fear, have this kind of function, and what such emotions sometimes lose in discrimination they gain in speed. It may be better to panic and run fast, too often, than to pause to make sure that what startled you is really dangerous.

A third contributor to the present climate is a rediscovery of eighteenth-century wisdom. In writers such as Hume, and even more notably Adam Smith, we find a ‘sentimental’ tradition of great insight and richness, but one that totally subverts any alleged distinction between acting from emotion and acting from reason. Even when we act from cool, calculated, self-advantage, our conception of where that advantage lies is shaped and sustained by our ‘passions’: sometimes passions of vanity, or of fear, or of how we stand in the eyes of others, sometimes deposits from memories of shameful failures or elating successes. This tradition provides a far richer account of motivation than classical rational choice theory, whose ‘economic man’ is too often a horrible caricature of actual human agency.

Although she pays attention to these currents of thought, Nussbaum’s defense of the emotions comes from a very different direction, so much so that it is not even clear that it is the emotions she is defending. Rather, she is grateful for our ability to make certain kinds of judgment, and emotions are identified with those judgments.

 

II

 

In the Introduction, Nussbaum explains what she takes an emotion to be. Apparently following the Greek Stoics, she holds that

 

emotions are appraisals or value judgements, which ascribe to things and persons outside the person’s own control great importance for that person’s own flourishing.

 

 This is the core of what she calls a “cognitive/evaluative” view of the emotions, or as it might better be called, a “cognitive/evaluative/egocentric” view. Cognitive, because emotions are ways of representing the world, or seeing things in one way or another. Evaluative, because in emotion things are seen as good or bad. Egocentric, because it is the subject herself for whom they are good or bad. Emotions are judgments about our own flourishing, or eudaimonia. Of course, it is then not difficult to defend emotions, since it is obviously a good thing that we can make judgments of this sort. Nor is it difficult to prosecute Nussbaum’s main agenda, which is to say that the emotions are important to ethics. For if emotions are value judgments, then it goes without saying that they are important to ethics, since value judgments make up ethics.

We should notice, also, that even the Stoics should have had no quarrel with the ability to make this kind of judgment. The Stoic’s light laugh at the foot of the gallows coexists with his recognizing his imminent loss of flourishing. It is just that he accords that flourishing the importance it deserves in the scheme of things, which is next to nothing. What the Stoics dumped on was getting worked up about things, including one’s own flourishing.

Once we get this far, questions crowd in. At first sight, an upheaval of thought is no more a thought than the upset of an apple-cart is an apple-cart. If I report that today’s meeting on environmental policy was too emotional to get anywhere, do I really mean only that people were appraising things outside their own control as having great importance for them? That is probably what the meeting was supposed to be doing, after all. But where in such a description are the high feelings, the red faces and clenched fists, the raised voices and pounding pulses, that derailed the discussion? Next, what about the element of things being outside one’s control? If I feel compassion for the bleeding child in front of me, am I taking her injury to be beyond my control, even while I set about tending to it? Finally, is it true that my own flourishing is always so dear to me? If my heart goes out to the people in the World Trade Center, am I just ascribing to their agony great negative importance for my own flourishing? Does the self intrude so centrally, even as the sense of horror wells up?  At first sight the proposal looks to be a typical example of a philosopher shoehorning things of one category into another, and therefore a non-starter.

Nevertheless, the rest of Nussbaum’s book is devoted to countering such objections, and to modifying and developing the original formula into something rounder and richer, which she calls a neo-Stoic view. This might sound like a dry, and an uphill, agenda. In old-fashioned analytical writings, counterexamples like the ones I have just sketched would come along, the view would be tweaked a little, then more counterexamples to the tweaked view, until a battered final version would lurch toward the finishing line, with sticking-plasters and bandages all over it testifying to the obstacles it had met on the road.

This is not Nussbaum’s way. Hers is a wide-angle lens. Instead of concentrating upon the details of the account, she takes us on a synoptic tour of different emotional landscapes. We are told much of her grief at the death of her mother, and of the emotions of one of her mentor’s dogs, of infantile omnipotence and need, of ambivalence and tragedy and compassion in public life, of emotion and music, and then in a kind of book within the book, for three hundred pages she ruminates on the ladders of love in the Christian and Platonic tradition. Here, coyly casting herself as Virgil in the Divina Commedia, Nussbaum imagines herself conducting a pupil, Proust’s Albertine no less, on a sentimental education. Leaving behind her beach and bicycle and unsatisfactory grapplings with Marcel, Albertine is introduced to the usual climbing guides: Diotima, Augustine, Spinoza, and Dante. Perhaps predictably, Albertine is taught that her love for Marcel was selfish and passive, but by becoming a lover of the good and the beautiful she can obtain escape from bondage, transcend her finitude, and ascend to a “love that is purified of the obstacles that stand between it and a beneficent concern for all humanity”.

Although the overall plot of ascent and triumph and redemption is intoxicating enough, Nussbaum remains level-headed. Indeed, having lugged Albertine safely to the top, she goes on to commend various Romantic critiques of the Christian ascent: Emily Bronte, Mahler, Walt Whitman, and James Joyce. Illustrating a rather sunny tendency to think that the well-tuned individual can have it all, personal attachments and projects alongside universal love, she ends by endorsing a “tender mockery” of Albertine’s education, quoting the marvelous send-up from Joyce:

 

…And there came a voice out of heaven, calling Elijah! Elijah! And he answered with a main cry: Abba! Adonai!. And they beheld Him even Him, ben Bloom Elijah, amid clouds of angels ascend to the glory of the brightness at an angle of fortyfive degrees over Donohoe’s in Little Green Street like a shot off a shovel.

 

After this, I felt rather sorry for Albertine, left behind on her pinnacle, beaming compassion in all directions. Still, I suppose almost anything would be an improvement on Marcel.

 

III

 

An austere critic might think the work to be a kettle of very different fish: not quite confessional, not quite empirical psychology, not quite psychoanalysis, not quite political theory, not quite musical or literary criticism, not quite theology, and not quite philosophy. A more generous appraisal would say that it is all of these, each casting light on the rest. The different exercises are designed as case studies for the cognitive/evaluative/egocentric view showing not only that it is far from the dry-eyed, stiff upper-lipped account that it might seem to be, but that it alone accounts for the teeming diversity and complexity of emotional life.

The view that emotions are not simply sensations, but involve representations of situations, is orthodox in philosophy. I fear the dog because I see it as dangerous; I am angry because I took your gesture as insulting. If I learn that the dog is not dangerous, or the gesture is a polite greeting in your part of the world, the emotions ought to evaporate, although often they do not. Emotions are directed, or in the jargon, they have intentionality. A feeling with no object, such as perhaps a diffuse feeling of anxiety or joy, is often counted not as an emotion but a mood, although, again, there is an element of legislation in that. Yet while this intentionality is universally acknowledged, few philosophers, and fewer psychologists, have been drawn to a purely cognitive account of emotion. It seems obvious that as well as thoughts about situations, emotions involve feelings towards them. When the emotional temperature rises, and feelings run high, it is not that a lot of thinking or appraising is going on. Emotions are often manifested by disruptions of thought and appraisal, as in my imagined environmental meeting.

Nussbaum knows this, of course. She takes it into account mainly by introducing a developmental dimension. On her view, when our emotions seem to overwhelm us, and to get in the way of calm appraisal, it is because “the past wells up in us, in ways that surprise the deliberately intending self”. The present object is associated with some past object of great importance, ultimately traced back to childhood experiences of shame or love or need. So although I may calmly assess a situation as safe and friendly, my developmental history may tell me otherwise: cues of which I may not even be aware can prompt fear or anxiety. This developmental dimension accounts for our feeling of helplessness in the face of many emotions. It also allows Nussbaum a generous sympathy with humanity’s difficulties: we cannot change our emotional natures without long, patient, and careful work, whose eventual success may always be in doubt. Unlike many classically inspired moral philosophers, she rejects not only the Stoics, but even Aristotle himself, as “excessively violent toward human complexity and frailty”. 

All this is important and well said, although I doubt whether it fits quite as well with the purely cognitive account as it is supposed to do. For of course, it is metaphorical to say that the past wells up in us. What wells up are things like fear, anxiety, grief, joy, anger, or love. No doubt, like everything else, they do so because of some combination of nature and nurture. But when they do, it does not seem as if one judgment I make is simply coming into conflict with a different judgment I make. That description makes it sound as though we have only an inconsistency of thoughts, not one of feelings. And clashes of thought can be as calm as we like: we assess the evidence on way, and assess the evidence the other, and suspend judgment or opt for one side. Such episodes may be quite unemotional. 

Nussbaum writes as if there is only one kind of rival to the cognitive account: a view that simply adds sensations or bodily feelings onto the cognitive appraisal. On such a view, a rush of jealousy, for example, might not be just an appraisal of a threat to oneself from the direction of one’s partner’s attention. It would be that appraisal together with a pounding in the head or a sweaty sensation, or a clenching in the stomach. She has little trouble dismissing such suggestions. While such sensations may indeed accompany an episode of jealousy, they are surely optional, and play no role in defining the emotion. Similarly the jealousy may be expressed in any of a variety of ways, depending on peculiarities of personal or cultural history. It may even not get expressed at all.

Should we conclude that there is nothing to the jealousy but the appraisal? Surely not: after all, one might notice the threat to one’s relationship, but take it resignedly or even amusedly, ruefully or excitedly. To be jealous involves taking it in a particular way: as painful, or hurtful, unbearable, or tormenting. These words describe how one feels about the threat. They do not confine their contribution to the fact that one has noticed the threat. Similarly, if I am flushed with pride about my achievement, then it is not just that I think I have done rather well. It is also that I take pleasure in having done so, perhaps want my achievement to be noticed, feel inclined to bask a little, and so on. All these descriptions register my feelings towards things.

Nussbaum is severe on what she calls non-cognitive theories. According to her they are condemned to thinking of feeling as something like twinges or jabs: episodes that she often calls unintelligent, impulsive, and thoughtless. By contrast, the neo-Stoic theory makes emotions intelligent, susceptible of justification, and even, since they are nothing but judgments, true or false (that should give us pause). This is a disappointingly cavalier way of drawing up the options, especially from one who has studied eighteenth-century moral philosophy. For feelings are not like twinges. A rush of feeling is an episode in which attitudes and stances manifest themselves. Feelings in turn are not always impulsive, they do not always display themselves in consciousness, and they are by no means thoughtless: they respond with limitless sensitivity to our perceptions, memories, and imaginings. Furthermore, recognizing the dimension of feeling in no way undermines Nussbaum’s moral agenda, which is to see the emotions as permeable to reason and criticism, and hence to education and development. The directions of our feelings as well as their intensity, expression, and duration are all more or less responsive to discursive pressure. As we all know, it is good when people feel the generous emotions, worse when they feel the destructive ones.

The cognitive view needs more than an equation between feelings towards things on the one hand, and judgments of value on the other. It also requires that the judgments of value are themselves pure cognitions, representing aspects of the world. And this is highly dubitable, since a judgment of value is itself an expression of attitudes, stances, and feelings towards things. In other words, even if my horror at the World Trade Center atrocity is equated with the judgment that it was a wholly bad thing, the next question we have to ask which way that equation is to be taken. Nussbaum wants it to make the emotion cognitive; others such as myself would read it as making the apparent cognition really emotional. It is an old battle, but unfortunately one that is not joined here. 

The final element of the neo-Stoic view is the egocentricity. So we must ask: is the self always in the center of the picture? The emotion of compassion is the obvious counterexample, where it is your flourishing, rather than my own, that is the object of my attention and feeling. Or, if we are cynical about the selflessness of love, we can consider Joseph Butler’s eighteenth-century example of the man who runs upon certain ruin in order to revenge himself on an enemy. Here his own flourishing is very far from his mind; indeed for one in the grip of the passion for vengeance, it gets entirely neglected. Faced with such examples, Nussbaum complicates her view into something quite hard to grasp. Thus, early in the book she considers the obvious problem that animal emotion seems to be over-described by her neo-Stoic formula. For although most of us think that animals have emotions, few of us are prepared to see them as self-conscious, and hence capable of assessing things as good or bad for their own flourishing. They just go ahead and feel, we might say, without any such critical self-consciousness entering into the picture. Nussbaum certainly wants to provide a place for animal emotion. In some of the discussion she says that animals can attain the complex thoughts, including thoughts about themselves, that she describes. Talking of two dogs, she says:

 

They showed a dejection when the men were temporarily absent, and a boisterous joy when they returned home, that showed that they had put these two men into their lives in a much more than instrumental way—still eudaimonistic, in the sense that the men were central to their scheme of goals and projects, but not simply survival-linked in the way of many of the eudaimonistic emotions of animals.

 

I have no difficult with the boisterous joy that dogs can show, but I do have a lot of trouble with the dewy-eyed belief in ‘their scheme of goals and projects’, and I certainly do not know how that scheme could be described as eudaimonistic unless the animals were thinking in terms of their own flourishing, a feat that is surely beyond them. Of course, dogs, like much lesser life forms, act in accordance with their own needs, but that is a far cry from having goals and projects conceptualized in terms of meeting those needs. A sunflower turns towards the light it needs, but has no goals or projects, in spite of Samuel Butler’ view that even a potato in a dark cellar had a kind of low cunning that stands it in excellent stead.

In other places Nussbaum simply admits that a creature can have emotion without reflexive self-consiousness. But she nowhere explains how you can appraise something as good or bad for your own flourishing without such self-consciousness, so that at such points it is easy to suspect that the neo-Stoic view is a hindrance that is best forgotten. Indeed, although Nussbaum is far too subtle to fall directly for the old fallacy of inferring that an emotion has the self as its object just because it is an emotion owned by a self, there is a distinct whiff of a parallel fallacy in the offing. This is to infer that because our emotional repertoire is formed from infantile self-monitoring, as the needs of the self are met or frustrated, we can never get beyond such concern. Nussbaum certainly does not believe this officially, but it is hard not to feel that it structures the egocentric element in the view.

 

IV

 

A recent Chronicle of Higher Education profile of Martha Nussbaum paid full tribute to the qualities I have already praised. It also said that she often seems alarmingly collected, and there is something cold about the neo-Stoic view. It reminds me of a performance of Euripides I once witnessed at a distinguished lady’s college. A line of coiffed and gowned young maidens stood stock still and elegantly raised their hands first to one side and then the other: “Here we come,” they fluted in cut-glass accents, “In Bacchic frenzy”. But Upheavals of Thought is aware that these young ladies are capable of tearing King Pentheus in pieces. It is aware of the shattering and the unbidden, the destructive and the transfiguring power of emotions in human life. I found myself reading it as a kind of apologia for much of the classical tradition of moral philosophy: an exercise in insisting that you can be a good deal of an Aristotelian or even a Stoic, but human as well. As such, for those with enough stamina, and enough moral fiber, it is a brave and civilized book. At a time when we need above all an understanding of political emotions, whether our own or those of others, its topic could not be more welcome.

 

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