13 June 2005

Emotions and Subjectivity

Anything that David Konstan writes, I read with great interest. He has a review now in BMCR of Simo Knuuttila, Emotions in Ancient and Medieval Philosophy (Oxford, 2004): see it here. Konstan's general judgment is that, for classical and medieval thought, Knuuttila's book is now the most thorough and comprehensive handbook on the emotions. But Konstan finds the book weak on analysis and, especially, he thinks that Knuuttila is insufficiently sensitive to deep discontinuities of thought which might underlie superficial or verbal agreement. For instance:

There is no doubt that mediaeval Christian thinkers were deeply indebted to classical discussions of the soul and its faculties, and K. sets out the lines of descent clearly, including the role of Avicenna and other Arab scholars in transmitting ancient views. Perhaps the greatest question concerning the continuity of the ancient and mediaeval traditions, however, derives from the Christian focus on sin. From this perspective, appetites are like any other impulse, whether pleasures and pains or love for our fellow creatures, that distract a person from the love of God. Thus, K. writes of Augustine: "Augustine's description of the different philosophical theories of the emotions is not very satisfactory... Augustine's own view is compatible with the Platonic distinction between an emotional and a rational part of the soul, but he is more interested in conceptualizing emotional matters by means of the concept of will, which was also central in his theology of sin" (160). K. observes that the role of the will is new in Augustine, although he adds: "The tasks of the will are not, however, very different from that given to the dominant part of the soul by later Platonists" (168). But the connection with sin invites a radically new approach to the whole question of the emotions, which may not lend itself so easily to a chronological survey.

Augustine introduces specifically Christian affects, such as love of God, that pertain to the highest part of the soul. K. explains that "The feelings which are immediately associated with these attitudes differ from the movements which Augustine calls passions," and he adds that, besides these religious emotions, "Christians can have non-standard mystical experiences and feelings" (161). Here again, I found myself wondering whether, despite some terminological overlap, we are really in the same world as classical theories of the emotions, even if there are reminiscences here and there of Plotinus.

But here is a difficulty for Konstan's concern. Either sin exists, or it does not. Either human nature exists, or it does not. Suppose human nature exists, but sin does not exist. Then whether Augustine or others believed that there was such a thing as sin, would make no difference to what the emotions in fact are, or to what emotions were for Augustine (how they arose within him, how they affected him). The best approach to interpreting Augustine, then, would be to take him to be describing and talking about the same emotions that everyone else has and which those who don't believe in sin were trying to describe.


Anonymous said...

". . .whether Augustine or others believed that there was such a thing as sin, would make no difference . . . how they affected him."

That is ridiculous on its face.

Anonymous said...

"...whether Augustine or others believed that there was such a thing as sin, would make no difference...to what emotions were for Augustine (how they arose within him, how they affected him)."

The 'phenomenology' of emotion, narrowly conceived, would presumably be the same whether or not one believed in sin; but I'm not convinced that belief in sin might not have a serious impact on one's concept of an emotion. Partly this would depend on what other commitments would have to go along with believing in sin. Certainly what went along with it for Augustine made it possible -- and arguably necessary -- for him and many other Christians to conceive of an emotion as (eg) something like a sign sent from God, or as a prompting from a demon. It's not too much of a stretch to say that such people have a slightly different concept of an emotion.

Anonymous said...

Emotions are weird subjects of analysis, because it seems possible to conceive of them under three headings. One, as emotion pure and simple, 'raw feels' of a sort. We can do this fairly easily with a very 'gut' level emotion like fear, for instance. But we can't do it too much without running into the second heading of emotions as conceptualized in ordinary language. We get here quickly in any consideration of emotions because conceptualization comes into play almost at the moment that we label emotions (or, on some theories of language, I suppose, it occurs precisely then). So we might draw all sorts of various distinctions among emotions, such as fear and dread or jealousy and envy. And I for one see the force of the argument that the way we conceptualize emotions does have an effect on the way that we experience them, especially on the way that they figure in our lives over time. And here enters the third heading, which is theory. A distinction between ordinary conceptualization of the emotions and a more or less developed theory of emotions makes sense when we think about the difference between, say, the way we think and talk about our emotions before and after we spend a few years submitting ourselves to psychoanalysis, which provides us with a fully-fledged (if flawed) theory of them. But of course, the theory will tend to change the way that we conceive of our emotions on the every day level, too, and it is arguably due to the fact that psychoanalysis does have an effect on how people experience their emotions that it was ever given any theoretical respect. But likewise, psychoanalysis does not begin with 'brute,' unconceptualized emotions, but with emotions as conceptualized in a particular way by a particular group of people in a particular time and place (early 20th century middle and upper class western Europe and America). So, though these three 'headings' all run into one another, I think they are roughly identifiable in themselves, enough to qualify for theoretical distinction of the sort that I'm trying to make.

This is relevant because what we try to do in textual analysis seems to depend on which of these levels we're working at. Thus MP suggests that Augustine's belief in sin would have made no difference to how emotions affected him. As a response to Konstan's review, this seems to miss the point; Konstan is, I think, merely describing the 'world' of particular theories of the emotions when he writes that Christian thought seems to take us into a different world from classical theories. He does not, that is, mean to suggest anything in particular about whether or not the emotions were in any sense the same. MP, on the other hand, says plainly enough that they were (under the hypothesis of human nature) the same, but that Augustine worked with a different theory. If I am right about Konstan, then MP's point makes little sense as a response except as a suggestion about a better way to proceed. But the anonymous response to MP, that it is ridiculous to claim that belief in sin would have no effect on a person's experience of the emotions, raises the more interesting question about how our ways of conceiving of emotions affect our experiences of them.

In short, I suspect that Konstan's review assumes the standpoint of historical, rather than more overtly philosophical, analysis. Whether or not pre- and post-Christian theories of emotion are wildly different is one question; whether or not it's because of the concept of 'sin' that the latter begins with is an interesting part of that question. But it is a separate question whether or not pre- and post-Christian thinkers felt the same emotions or were affected by them in the same ways.