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True to Our FeelingsReview - True to Our Feelings
What Our Emotions Are Really Telling Us
by Robert C. Solomon
Oxford University Press, 2007
Review by Tom Cochrane, Ph.D.
Jul 10th 2007 (Volume 11, Issue 28)

Robert Solomon died suddenly in Zurich airport on January 2nd 2007. He was one of the most influential philosophers of emotions in the last 30 years, and instrumental in bringing the issue into mainstream analytic philosophy. Written for a general audience, and presuming no prior knowledge of the subject, this posthumously published book is a recap of the themes that have preoccupied Solomon throughout his career. Of these the most important is his insistence that emotions are purposive and meaningful and accordingly, that they are something for which we should take responsibility. Solomon is known for his dictum that essentially, emotions are judgments. He defends this view again here, but in this book we see him equally ready to assert that emotions are strategies, that is, ways in which we engage with the world and other people to maintain our well-being.

In the first part of the book, this theme is developed in a series of chapters that deal with specific emotional states such as anger, fear, and love. There are also chapters that loosely group emotions together under headings like 'extreme' emotions (grief, laughter, happiness) or 'nasty' emotions (envy, spite, jealousy, resentment and vengeance). Discussion is provided of the ways these emotions exist to serve our ends (though these ends need not be narrowly selfish, and are typically habitual rather than explicitly intended). Anger for instance, is a means by which we re-assert our superiority after being hurt or offended. Love is not so much a particular feeling as an "interpersonal emotional dance" (p. 54) in which we redefine our sense of self.

The strategy of taking time to discuss specific emotions in turn is a good one. We should be wary of over generalizing something as various and complex as our emotional lives. Solomon is particularly skeptical of dividing emotions into simple categories like 'positive' and 'negative', or 'basic' and 'higher' (though he admits that some emotions are universal to the human condition). Rather each emotion is potentially complex, long-lasting, often involving a variety of judgments and being more or less appropriate to the situation or one's long term goals.

In the second part of the book, Solomon attacks several 'myths' about emotions, such as the notion that they are passive or stupid. The issue of whether emotions are passive reactions to the world is a controversial one. Some philosophers (e.g. Prinz 2004) argue that passivity is a defining feature of emotions in that their purpose is to accurately track certain features of the world (e.g. fear tells us whether the world is dangerous or not). Moreover, it seems that we are often in the grip of our emotions with little ability to overrule them with more reasoned attitudes (consider phobias for instance). Solomon argues however that there are several ways in which we can control our emotional states, particularly in the long term. He notes that not only do we habitually get ourselves into situations which we know are likely to arouse certain emotions, but also that we can usefully ignore or reflect upon our emotional states. The case of interpreting a feeling as love, and as a result seeking to nurture a relationship is a good example here. However, without spelling out exactly how reflecting upon our emotions can lead to control, these methods seem rather indirect. We can equally direct our perceptual activities (by choosing to attend to something) without being able to control in any fundamental way what it is that we perceive.

A seemingly more direct method that Solomon mentions is given by William James (1884) who endorses altering one's bodily behavior in order to change one's emotional state (e.g. faking cheerful behavior in order to become genuinely cheerful). However this method is not so congenial to Solomon's claim that emotions are judgments rather than a set of bodily changes. Yet due to the gradual refining of his views over the years, exactly what Solomon now means by judgment is a little unclear. Evidently Solomon holds that judgments are about the world and how we stand within it. Yet Solomon is ambivalent about whether this requires conceptual content or not. In one place, Solomon compares emotional judgments to 'kinesthetic' judgments (such as judging the height of the stairs one is walking down, p. 206). Yet this kind of intelligent behavior could be sufficiently captured by bodily changes which drive certain behaviors such as attacking or running away.

This is not to deny that our conceptual interpretations and judgments may not be part of the emotions when they occur. Yet regardless of whether most emotions involve sophisticated judgments or appraisals, we should not regard them as essential to emotions unless they can be universally applied to each state we regard as a paradigmatic emotion. Solomon is plainly aware of the empirical evidence against him here, citing as he does Joseph LeDoux's discovery that cases of fear can be triggered prior to engaging areas of the brain capable of more sophisticated cognition. His response here is to argue that it is not an emotion until it is properly focused on the outside world. Yet it is unclear why bodily behavioral reactions are not sufficiently focused on the world.

Solomon also points out that he is less interested in emotions that occur over a period of seconds that he is in the kinds of emotions that can last days or months or even a lifetime. These he argues do not essentially involve bodily feelings or even the disposition to have certain bodily feelings under certain circumstances. There is a difference for instance, between being disposed to fear snakes whenever they are near, and having an abiding resentment towards one's boss over many years. We may truly say of this latter case that the subject resents their boss the entire time, without being constantly perturbed by bodily feelings. Rather what persists is the judgment that their boss is to blame. However, should we really say that the emotion has persisted rather than the belief about what emotion is warranted by one's situation? The emotion itself may still be a matter of very frequently having certain bodily feelings whenever confronted (actually or imaginatively) by that situation.

In the final section of the book, Solomon provides his positive account of the ethical role of emotions including the way that different cultures encourage or sublimate certain emotions and the extent to which emotions determine our self-identity. For example he endorses the view that sympathy is the cornerstone of ethics, and disparages the Western notion of happiness as an individualistic goal. He finishes by promoting the idea of emotional integrity (being true to one's feelings). It is a little unclear what emotional integrity amounts to other than having a well-rounded emotional life although it is reminiscent of the kind of coherent hierarchy of drives that Nietzsche talks about. For instance he says, "A happy life with emotional integrity is not a life without conflict but a life in which one wisely manages emotional conflicts in conjunction with one's most heartfelt values" (p. 268).

Overall Solomon's book is clear and enjoyable to read, with a definite sense that thoughtful reflection about emotional states has a vital role to play in the good life. His tone is discursive rather than didactic, pausing frequently for asides, particularly on the political or ethical consequences of his ideas. Solomon is clearly a master of this issue, well acquainted with the history of thinking about emotions ranging from the Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome to recent developments in the cognitive sciences (though there is a healthy dose of skepticism regarding the emphasis of this research). I did find some of his discussions a little too brief (such as his introduction to phenomenology and existentialism p. 153-155) and for the serious reader there is a sense whilst the arguments are there, they are not pressed particularly hard. It is certain that many thinkers in this area will take up the task of justifying his central claims about the judgemental and strategic nature of emotions in the future.

 

Works Cited

James, W. (1884). 'What is an Emotion?' Mind, 9: 188-205.

LeDoux, J. (1998). The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life. Simon Schuster, New York.

Prinz, J. (2004). Gut Reactions. A Perceptual theory of Emotions. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

 

 

© 2007 Tom Cochrane

 

Tom Cochrane recently completed his PhD entitled 'Shared Emotions in Music' at Nottingham University. He is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Swiss Centre for Affective Sciences in Geneva, exploring the connections between art and emotions, in particular the sublime. His thesis (and accompanying music) can be found here: http://www.su.nottingham.ac.uk/~patterns/thesis/

 


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