On a Genealogy of the Emotions from a Rhetorical Perspective
We have been witnessing in recent decades a renewed and substantial interest in the (study of) emotions from a variety of different and diverse perspectives. This surging and exploding interest obviously makes a long overdue correction to what had been an otherwise unquestioned status quo or neglect --in which the emotions only rarely, if at all, figured in their own right as serious and worthwhile objects of inquiry --philosophical, scientific, or otherwise, from a new and fresh perspective. It was not long ago that whenever they were mentioned they were dismissed or brushed aside in the same breath in favor of reason and rationality, the presumed distinctive and essential feature of human nature. Alternatively, and in line with age-old traditional perspectives going back to Plato and the Stoics, they were viewed as 'disruptive,' 'a kind of excess,' or invariably as a 'source of irrationality' to be tamed and controlled.
Nowadays however, hardly a week goes by in the academic world without reading or hearing about a colloquium, a conference, or workshop being organized on one aspect or other, on one theory or another of the emotions.1 A quick search of the literature on the subject and related matters would quickly bring up hundreds and perhaps thousands of references. The sheer quantity of inquiries within and across different fields (e.g., in literary studies, intellectual history, philosophy, anthropology, and psychology, not to mention the neurosciences) and even across different cultural and philosophical traditions (e.g., East vs. West)2 certainly bodes well for the better understanding of the emotions and a more sophisticated appreciation of their place and role in our individual and collective lives. This dramatic surge in interest and attention does not however preclude the persistence of certain widespread misconceptions based on questionable assumptions and methodologies. In other words, it does not guarantee that we will develop the proper and most useful conception, or even come to understand them fully in their diversity and complexity.
Daniel Gross's book, A Secret History of Emotion (2006), is however a welcome and important new addition to the growing literature on the subject on emotions. It is an ambitious attempt to undertake a genealogy of the emotions from a rhetorical perspective. Its aims as its title indicates is to bring out a hidden, obscured or covered up history, stretching back from Aristotle through early and late Modern philosophy and literature, to contemporary neurophysiology and political liberalism. He contends that such a genealogy is bound to change our misguided views, put to rest our misconceptions, and possibly point us in the right direction, or at least in a more fruitful and promising one. Rather than seeking to understand the emotions in their biological, psycho-physiological and evolutionary underpinning and significance, or even in terms of their relationship to reason and rationality or cognition, we are better off focusing on their socio-historical-cultural construction. That is to say, on how the emotions are constructed differently at different times in history, differently for different individuals or groups, and in different social and cultural contexts.
I do not know how 'secret' is the history that Gross seeks to disclose. It seems to me that some inquirers were already in on it, at least in part, but perhaps not with the kind of deliberate focus and sustained critical assessment of its implications that Gross displays. My aim in this review is to bring out the main thrust of his analysis, and evaluate briefly its contribution.
First, however, it would be helpful to address a number of preliminary questions in order to take a measure of the motivating force behind his project.
--Why have 'emotions' emerged in recent times as a subject of importance in a diverse range of fields and traditions?
Could it be, at least in part, because our inquiries into their nature, their place and role promise access to a domain of "proto-reason." That is, to "a different kind of reason" (as in Pascal's well-known statement "the heart has its reasons that Reason itself cannot comprehend"). Such a "reason" is nowadays, we must admit, more widely recognized, and as a result, emotions are not viewed as necessarily or always the antithesis or antipode of reason and rationality -- or even cognition and knowledge itself.
Could it be, at least in part, because we would thereby gain a better understanding of what motivates and moves us morally and politically? Such a domain was obviously obscured or viewed as somehow beyond access for most of our history, Gross believes, because of long and widely held dubious assumptions and questionable methodologies which have been perpetuated well into modern and contemporary philosophy, science, the humanities at large and the human sciences in particular. He points, for example, to rational-choice theory in the latter and linguistic analysis in the former.
It is worth pointing out that very few scholars in either the human sciences or the humanities have adequately focused on the rhetorical tradition for insights into the emotions, and this despite the fact, duly noted by Gross, that "rhetoric was the first, and remains the richest, resource for such an inquiry" .
--What does Gross mean by 'rhetoric(s)'? What advantages or benefits accrue to his approach from being thusly focused?
To paraphrase Cicero (in De Oratore), one could say that for Gross, "rhetoric" is certainly an endeavor far broader and far richer than is commonly thought. It is sustained by all sorts of social, cultural, and political considerations, institutional facts, discursive practices, and activities, and as such, it implies a broader and more comprehensive perspective that can only be achieved through a synthesis of some sort. Like other classical terms, it refers to a concrete practice, a practitioner, a theory, and a discursive quality. It is at once (a) an embedded cultural practice and (b) an inventive attitude, which enables us to reflect critically upon those very same cultural practices . In its distinctly modern vein, it is critically reflexive with respect to its own historical situation, and can serve to characterize "how things might be otherwise" . In other words, historical rhetorics reminds us that, however consequential and real they might be, the institutions and practices that help shape us and, as Foucault would say, constitute us as individuals, and as members of different communities, are ultimately of our own making, and therefore subject to change.
Generally speaking, then, one could say that rhetoric always represents the possibility that things might be otherwise -- despite being embedded in relatively stable institutions and practices -- at least for a time. In Gross's view, it even carries with it the potential for theory and education. It is not surprising therefore that some philosophers interested in heeding Marx's injunction in transforming the world (rather than merely continuing to interpret it ad nauseatum) have stated, in a rather non-Marxian way, that we must begin by changing our language, the language in which we describe and talk about our world and ourselves. For Gross, "rhetoric is an inventive attitude toward language and the world, where 'emotion' names one important way in which language and the world connect" . In this sense, it is diametrically opposed to the entire philosophical tradition that posits language as a mirror of nature -- to use an expression in the title of Rorty's groundbreaking book, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979).
--What does Gross mean by "emotions"? Is his working definition tenable?
For Gross, emotions are best understood as defining "the contours of a dynamic social field manifest in what is imagined and forgotten, praised and blamed, sanctioned or silenced, etc" . Though they are obviously materialized in brains, faces, bodies, and even objects and architecture (e.g., tombstones, amusement parks), emotions clearly exceed the merely ideal. But neither are they essentially material, he believes. Instead, taking his cues from Heidegger's commentary on Aristotle's Rhetoric, he contends, quite rightly, I believe, that the most appropriate way to approach emotions is phenomenologically --that is, by starting with the concrete manifestations of emotions in a meaningful world, as opposed to a world of mere matter. In such an endeavor, Gross claims, rhetorics would obviously come to occupy a leading place, over and beyond the practices of the 'hard sciences' that are focused on matter and biology.
--Is 'emotion' however a coherent or useful category?
For one thing, we must recognize that 'fear' differs from 'jealousy' not only in terms of its physiology, its place in evolutionary biology, but in terms of its purpose. For another, the term 'emotions' may contribute to obscuring particular histories of particular emotions, such as shame, guilt, melancholy, love, humility, apathy, pride, etc. Gross is aware of some important and relatively strong arguments to this effect (by literary and cultural historians as well as neuroscientists), but he chooses to disregard them and use anyway the generic term of 'emotion' (and its relative, 'passion') primarily in contrast with reason. As he notes (2n2), he uses the terms 'emotion' and 'passion' without invoking a strict distinction. However, the more familiar term 'emotion' signals in general a contemporary perspective, while that of 'passion' indicates a more historical and antiquated perspective, or alternatively, vehemence and excessiveness in the expression of one's emotions. In his discussion of the 'emotion-reason topos' [55-65], Gross argues that giving up the category of 'emotion' completely would make some important theoretical work and even some historical work impossible. He may be right in this regard --despite the well-taken points raised previously.
As mentioned earlier, Gross's genealogical-historical approach to the 'emotions' is anchored in rhetorics (his primary field of interest, training and expertise), and as such, it puts the question of politics (and therefore of power) at the forefront and squarely in the center of his inquiry . In so doing, it purports to remedy a deficit diagnosed in both the humanities and the human sciences that has so far been left unanswered in his view.
For this purpose, he seeks to reconstitute by way of a critical intellectual history a deeply nuanced, rhetorical understanding of emotion that he claims prevailed prior to the triumph and dominance of the psycho-physiological understanding and the liberal, humanist and universalist approach. He also wishes to show by way of literary and philosophical examples how this rhetorical perspective can help us read anew "the emotional complex of modernity" --whether early or late. In this sense, Gross's genealogy of the emotions constitutes in the final analysis a new critique of modernity, one that is bound to be enlightening and instructive for us today.
According to the story that Gross tells us, the Aristotelian political rhetoric on the emotions, which he believes to be on the right track for the most part, was rediscovered by early Modern authors in the 17th century (e.g., Hobbes). He locates the heyday of the explicit recognition of emotions as fundamentally psycho-social in the mid-17th century, and claims that a dramatic new possibility opened up for it when the ancient discipline of 'rhetorics' was adopted in Early modernity. It was in fact pursued later in different ways by different late Modern authors in the 18th century (e.g., Hume, Sarah Fielding, William Perfect, and Adam Smith). However, these authors' contributions have often been misinterpreted in the direction of a generalized psychology, and were subsequently lost again in the 19th century, during which rhetoric was largely reduced to the study of figures and tropes, or the art of persuasion. As a result, emotions (such as anger, apathy, vainglory, pride, and humility, compassion) that were once overtly rhetorical, socially construed and constructed, and therefore political, are now construed as natural, equally shared, and somehow best explained in psycho-physiological terms. This is the belief that has obviously been come to dominate in the 20th century up to the present. And we have tended to read back such a belief into Modern texts. The emotions, that once were treated as externalized forms of socio-political currency and worldly investments that are always already caught up in a given socio-historical-political matrix characterized by social differences, differential powers, and uneven distribution (i.e., "emotional injustice"), have been sucked into the brain and have come to be seen as hardwired to the human nature we all share equally.
The main targets of his criticism include: (1) the reductive psycho-physiological Cartesianism which has come to inform both [a] romantic expressivism and [b] latter-day sciences of the mind and brain; (2) liberal humanist theories of emotions and of universal human dignity (e.g., those of Richard Sorabji, Martha Nussbaum), as well as (3) neuro-scientific theories such as Joseph LeDoux's and Antonio Damasio's --to mention only two of the most prominent today. While the former is, as he shows, clearly situated within the problematic Cartesian framework, Gross contends that the latter is in fact also still trapped in a reductive neuro-physiological framework. And this, despite his diagnosis of Descartes' Error and explicitly looking up to Spinoza (or Looking for Spinoza) for an answer as to how to best characterize the mind-body relationship, or the nature, place and role of 'emotions' (or 'passions') in our mental, rational or social life.
For Gross, emotions are not simply constituted in the biology, nor even in the liberal humanist notion of human dignity all humans are supposed to share equally, but rather in relationships of inequity and differences in power. Following Aristotle's view, Gross contends that the emotions (including those that are more obviously social such as 'love' and 'jealousy' and those that are supposed to be hardwired such as 'fear' and 'disgust') require "a series of enabling conditions," which are commonly obscured by our widespread platitudes about biology and universal human dignity. These include: (a) a public stage --rather than private feelings, (b) asymmetrical power relations, (c) thoroughly psychosocial presumptions --rather than our familiar psychological, individual expressions of feelings. In other words, an emotion is not merely or most crucially the expression of an individual's opinion, as the Stoics and some contemporary philosophers have argued. And finally, it presumes (d) a contoured world of emotional investments where some people have significantly more liabilities than others [2-3]. Gross argues that the contours of our emotional world have been shaped by social practices and institutions that simply afford some people greater emotional range than others; and as such, they have nothing to do with the inherent value or dignity of each human being and everything to do with the "technologies of social recognition and blindness" . In a way that is clearly reminiscent of Foucault once again, he states that one of his aims is to study how these "technologies of emotion" work.
In his view, the last point above (d) can serve to establish a direct link from Aristotle to early Modern psychologists, such as Hobbes, late Modern authors such as Hume, Sarah Fielding, William Perfect, Adam Smith, and even all the way to a contemporary philosopher such as Judith Butler. He recognizes, however, that brilliant tough they were, Aristotelian rhetoric and Hume's elitist theory of emotions, for example, were not "right" in some metaphysical sense. Nevertheless, they have characterized the emotions in terms of a "political economy" based on 'scarcity' rather 'excess,' and marked fundamentally by an uneven distribution. In so doing, he claims, they did provide us with a lucid critique of power that reminds us that "the democratization of emotion"  over the past two centuries or so is still incomplete at best, and distracting at worst.
For this reason, Gross undertakes to look at the rhetoric of uneven distribution in a number of cases, stretching from Ancient times to the Enlightenment and beyond. They include Aristotle's angry King or apathetic slave, Seneca's angry tyrant, Hobbes' resentful preacher, the virtues of passivity during the English Civil War, Hume's proud property owner or humble woman, Sarah Fielding's humble hero, William Perfect's insane patients, and Adam Smith's compassionate spectator. He hopes thereby to recover a critical tool that has been obscured by the science of emotion, and that, he believes, is still underdeveloped in literary studies.
As suggested earlier, and by his own admission, Gross's approach bears some obvious affinities to the genealogical work of Foucault. But it also seeks to extend and go beyond it --by showing how early Modern theories of emotions in the Aristotelian vein (esp., Hume's) can inform Judith Butler's project seeking to integrate politics and psychoanalysis in an effort, as he puts it, "to think a theory of power together with a theory of the psyche" .
What conclusions or lessons does Gross draw in the end from his genealogical-historical analysis? Though Aristotle and like-minded psychologists of early Modernity (17th century), such as Hobbes and Hume, have demonstrated how emotions are strategic, always already caught up in a differentiated socio-political-cultural context, they have all failed (except for Sarah Fielding) to theorize properly how emotions can be turned against the powerful. Nevertheless, he contends that their unblinking critique of power has made this last step much easier.
For one thing, he argues, Hume's theory for example can help us do what Judith Butler's project (The Psychic Life of Power) urges, namely, as I pointed out above, "to think a theory of power together with a theory of the psyche," and inform thereby "our most suggestive psychoanalytic theory of emotion." In Gross's view, both Hume and Butler challenge the notion of "autonomous free-will" and "psychological universalism." They ask instead "what losses are compelled by culturally prevalent prohibitions (notably for Hume, patriarchy, and for Butler, hetero-normativity) and what culturally prevalent forms of psyche result" . How does this affect undoubtedly the emotional life of individuals and communities?
In any case, Gross believes that the work of modern rhetoricians makes it much easier to take the last desirable step than the alternative and competing approaches: those of the brain sciences as well as those of "liberal, humanist, universalist theories of human dignity." In both cases, he detects an "evasion of rhetoric" that calls for a deconstructive approach. That is why he subjects the work of Antonio Damasio (as a prominent representative of the former approach) and that of Richard Sorabji and Martha Nussbaum (prominent representatives of the latter approach) to a severe, and possibly at times unfair and excessive, deconstructive critique.
Against the theory of emotions proposed by Damasio in Looking for Spinoza (2003),3 his critique consists in pointing out the "evasion of rhetoric" that somehow writes itself into his scientific research, and the subsequent neglect of the irreducibility of the social and cultural dimensions of the emotions. He objects to the reductionism of his psycho-physiological approach, his questionable experimental assumptions, the dubious presumptions he makes about the social in its relation to the natural or the biological, about the ability of the neuro-physiological sciences to address in a satisfactory manner irreducibly social and cultural phenomena such as "ethic hatred," "gay pride," or "the anger of the white male," for example. Gross does not share Damasio's optimism in seeing someday anti-social emotions disappear like a tailbone. More specifically, he is not sure how Damasio can overcome what he calls "the paradox of the observer": "How can one adequately characterize an abnormal emotional brain when one's study might be designed within a sick culture or at least in a culture affected by maladaptive biases inherently unidentifiable and therefore uncontrollable from within the scientific study?" .
Though Gross recognizes the merits of Nussbaum's approach in seeking to break up the traditional dichotomy emotions vs. reason, and in recognizing "the intelligence of the emotions," as well as underscoring the social, cultural and even political dimensions of the emotions, he believes that she somehow missed an opportunity in her work (The Upheaval of Thought, 2001). In his view, such a failure is also due to "an evasion of rhetoric" in the liberal, humanist and universalist theory she favors and upholds, and that she believes could perhaps be supported and validated in some fashion by the results of the latest scientific results in the neuro-sciences. In other words, it seems to be committed to questionable (metaphysical) assumptions about human nature, human beings, and what human flourishing entails -- from the standpoint of "emotional justice."
Gross does have a valid point in seeking to undermine the undisputed and widely accepted, yet problematic universalist and humanist assumptions built into a number of approaches to the emotions. For this purpose, he emphasizes the social constructivist approach -- grounded in rhetorics -- that he favors, and that I have briefly characterized above. However, he seems at times to go perhaps a bit too far in his indictment and criticism of those instances of the approaches grounded in contrast either in biology or in liberal humanism. It should be clear to anyone who cares to make such assessment that the emotions must be apprehended in their various dimensions and from a variety of judiciously articulated and complimentary perspectives. These would include: the social, cultural, historical and biological perspectives, as well as that which is more properly speaking political, and which could even be articulated from the standpoint of a universalist, normative conception of "emotional justice." The political goals that Gross's approach can help us achieve can also be advanced in some other ways or rendered easier to attain by the potentially illuminating theories of emotions that could be put forth by both scientists and liberal humanists of different stripes and persuasions, whose work is underwritten by a normative, moral, universalist thrust. Our study of the emotions is bound to be advanced further by a broadly construed multi-disciplinary effort.
In the final analysis, however, one must recognize Gross's remarkable achievement --both in terms of the economy of language he displays and the scope of his argumentative thrust throughout his relatively small book comprising only five short and tightly woven chapters. His main argument is complex, weaving as it does several threads covering a long period of Western history, and taking aim at the respective construal of the emotions of several prominent protagonists (ancient, modern and contemporary) in a fairly succinct yet effective way. His text is judiciously referenced, and suggests a strong and nuanced command of the relevant literature. It is dense and qualified, and yet, it remains fairly easy to read. Its plot and structure, mirroring that of a good detective story, makes it even a page-turner, something that can hardly be said about most academic works today.
Gross is essentially raising the following crucial set of questions: Who has (or not), who can have (or not) which emotion(s)? When? Where? How? Under what conditions and why? In so doing, he is inviting us to consider why emotions are best understood as social phenomena through and through, over and beyond their psycho-physiological and biological underpinnings. He is also considering how things might be otherwise, or different from a rhetorical, and therefore political, point of view, and finally how the distribution of emotions could be done more judiciously with a little more equity. Though I am generally skeptical of works that propose to reveal a secret, I believe that his book brings out effectively a history that has been obscured and lost, and which therefore deserves our attention.
© 2007 Nader N. Chokr
Nader N. Chokr, Professor of Philosophy & Social Sciences, School of Philosophy and Social Development, Department of Philosophy, Shandong University, Jinan, CHINA. firstname.lastname@example.org / email@example.com.