Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Culture of Emotion

We speak not strictly and philosophically, when we talk of the combat of passion and of reason. Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them. [David Hume, Of the Passions]

This well-known passage by Hume (1711-1776) should be read in its full context to bring out its full bouquet. That context may be perused here, but I will try to give the highlights. As Hume understands emotions, they are basic and prior to reasoning. They are produced by the prospect of pain or pleasure; they are comprehensive intuitions of the totality of a situation in which reasoning is summoned only to illuminate causes and effects. “A passion is an original existence,” as he puts it, thus not a concept; it is akin to facts like feeling thirsty, sick, or being more than five feet high. Reasoning, by contrast, rests on concepts; these Hume considers as mere representations, “copies” of authentic reality—like (as we might say) photographs rather than flesh and blood. Let me sharpen this. Hume arranges reality in such a fashion that conscious reasoning becomes a secondary activity, subservient to raw reality. The last, the raw, he considers authentic. After a lengthy elaboration of this point, he concludes this passage by saying:

In short, a passion must be accompanied with some false judgment, in order to its being unreasonable; and even then, ’tis not the passion, properly speaking,which is unreasonable, but the judgment.

Welcome to Modernity. I discovered the quotations cited, and read the richer context in which they are embedded, in trying to understand what may be the roots of our modern “culture of emotion.” I have something of an aversion to the Enlightenment and have not studied its luminaries, least not Hobbes and Hume, but one is sometimes obliged to look. I came this way because, in another context, I was again reminded of pop culture’s favorite question, especially when it wishes to signal sensitivity. That question is “How do you feel about that.” Feeling is authentic. Thought and feeling are opposed. And the implication of the question, almost always, is that in some way the gruffy hero, doing his usual insensitive rampaging, is not “in touch with his feelings” and needs to be—gently—reminded.

As I encountered Hume’s views on passion, I thought: Well, well, well! Wouldn’t you know it! What philosophers scribble gradually soaks into the soil and becomes reflexive wisdom two, three hundred years later. Not surprisingly, the entry on “Emotion” I found in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, while it mentions Plato’s and Aristotle’s views (barely), relies entirely on figures from the Enlightenment—and their modern elaborators. Not a single prominent thinker of Christendom is so much as mentioned. These are the experiences which cause me to agree with writers like Pitirim Sorokin and, more generally, with the cyclic historians.

Not that, mind you, the modern analysis of emotion is “all wrong,” or anything like that. This is a vast and complex subject, almost permanently vexing because the body-soul duality is so effectively resistant to conceptual parsing. My point here is cultural. In spiritual (ideational) periods, the higher aspects of soul-function are stressed, in materialistic (sensate) times those closer to the physical and sensuous get the nod. If the two were absolute equals, this wouldn’t matter, but if a hierarchical order places one above the other, demoting the higher will have tangible consequences for social well-being.

But the most ironic and meaningful aspect of this modern tendency—this emphasis on emotions—is that in many, many cases the motive behind this invocation of emotions in popular art is nobler than its expression. It has become impossible to appeal to the spiritual ranges in humanity; the impulse to do so, however, is still present. Therefore a word like “feelings” is used to point at something that really transcends mere feelings. Conversely, in media commentary we also encounter frequently characterizations of events or performances as “spiritual” when, in actuality, they are just emotional. My sense of discomfort arises, I think, because I’d just as soon hear a spade called a spade.

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