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Mixed Emotions

Keeping Them In and Getting Them Out

THE FEELING OF WHAT HAPPENS, Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness By Antonio R. Damasio; Harcourt Brace: 386 pp., $28

THE SUBTLETY OF EMOTIONS By Aaron Ben-Ze'ev; A Bradford Book / The MIT Press: 612 pp., $34.95

ON THE EMOTIONS By Richard Wollheim; Yale University Press: 264 pp., $25

HOW EMOTIONS WORK By Jack Katz; University of Chicago Press: 304 pp., $27.50

THE FEELING OF WHAT HAPPENS; Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness by Antonio Damasio, Harcourt Brace: 386 pp., $28

ON THE EMOTIONS by Richard Wollheim; Yale University Press: 264 pp., $225

HOW EMOTIONS WORK by Jack Katz, University of Chicago Press: 304 pp., $27.50

THE SUBTLETY OF EMOTIONS by Aaron Ben-Ze'ev; A Bradford Book / The MIT Press; 612pp., $34.95

May 07, 2000|JONATHAN REE | Jonathan Ree is the author of "I See a Voice: A Philosophical History of Deafness, Language and the Senses" (Metropolitan Books). He teaches philosophy at Middlesex University in England

The weather was beautiful last Sunday--springtime touched with summer warmth. I got up early and sat outside by the budding magnolia, laptop on my knees, gliding through an assignment that had been baffling me for weeks. I felt I deserved my sociable lunch followed by a trip to a plant nursery to buy old-fashioned wallflowers. Later I would look over my morning's work and make final adjustments. A perfect day.

In the evening I switched the computer back on. In a moment I was reeling back as if a fist had come out of the screen and clocked me. My work was not there. I tried again; I reeled again. The morning's paragraphs had not been saved; like unrepentant sinners they were eternally lost. I rocked and groaned; I thumped the desk to mask the cramps, the nausea, the chill. Paragraphs lost! I vainly tried to calm myself with a joke. But then my best friend called: "I'm beside myself at present," I said, "but I'll be OK in the morning." And of course I was.

The paradox of emotions is that we can detach ourselves from them even while we feel overwhelmed. We can observe them obliquely while they sweep us off our feet, and we always know that, like hangovers or toothaches, they will not last. They may bewilder us, but we have plenty of words--rage, hope, terror, jealousy, excitement--to describe them. Moreover the very language of emotions counsels us to be wary of them: Its metaphors advise us to prefer equanimity to agitation, openness to bottling things up and to keep our cool while all around are losing theirs. Our words, as Wittgenstein said, provide us with pictures of the world, and that includes diagrams of our inner lives, models of emotions, itineraries for feelings, and even schemes to live by.

Probably the ideal of calm moral strength is encrypted in all the languages of the world, but it has been worked out with special persistence by the Western philosophical tradition. For the ancient Greeks, wisdom was a matter of character as much as intellect. It meant withstanding the sirens who would lure us into dissipation, indulgence or vice, and mastering the disruptive forces of appetite, anger, fear, bumptiousness, envy, joy, love, hatred, longing and pity. But though the sources of moral errancy were miscellaneous, the Greeks had one word for them all: pathe, or sufferings. The idea was that pathe attacked our moral well-being just as physical illnesses assaulted our bodily health and that we needed regular workouts in the philosophical gym to build up our moral muscles.

The Greek concept of pathe was translated by several Latin words, notably passiones, which emphasized our supposed passivity, and perturbationes, which brought out their restless agitation. And as Susan James has shown in her marvelously lucid "Passion and Action: The Emotions in Seventeenth-Century Philosophy" (1997), the metaphorical complexity grew yet more bewildering when the pathe became the passions, perturbations, sentiments and affections of modern European languages.

Then there was the rise of scientific medicine. If our bodily infections could be brought within the scope of physical laws, then perhaps our mental affections could as well. The word "emotion" (which originally referred to civil unrest) was recruited to the cause of science and, with a little help from Charles Darwin and William James, pathe became a theme for physiologists and psychologists rather than moral philosophers.

But the scientific study of emotions was never going to be straightforward. After all, the phenomena of emotion were originally grouped together for purposes of morality rather than science. Ambrose Bierce may have described emotion as "a prostrating disease," but his explanation--"a determination of the heart to the head"--was evaluative and metaphorical rather than literally medical. And just as natural science has no use for the gardener's distinction between crops and weeds or the theologian's between saints and sinners, so you might expect it to set aside the moralistic folk-concept of emotional agitation and replace it with something more measurable, descriptive and value-free.

The content of emotions adds to the implausibility of trying to explain them scientifically. With their various cocktails of self-esteem, shame and indignation, they are more like echoes of what Nietzsche called "soul-superstitions" than physical effects of natural causes. Jean-Paul Sartre drove the Nietzschean argument home in 1939 with his "Sketch for a Theory of the Emotions," claiming that emotions are deluded rituals of omnipotence which we enact in the hope of smothering our awareness of cosmic helplessness. When danger threatens, for instance, we cover our eyes as if we thought we could make it disappear. The follies of emotion, according to Sartre, call for existential analysis rather than naturalistic explanation.

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