Wednesday, December 17, 2008

True to Our Feelings

Emotions seem to lie in that vague and mysterious part of our lives that we experience all the time but have a difficult time putting into words. The recently deceased philosopher Robert C. Solomon explored this land extensively over the course of his academic career, and one of his last summations of his thought is found in True to Our Feelings: What Our Emotions Are Really Telling Us.

Solomon tries to answer the question, "How can we get what I now call emotional integrity? How can we enjoy and thrive with rather than be plagued or haunted by our passions" (x)? As he develops his argument, he wants to "defend a distinctively ethical view of our emotions" (1). He also "wants to contend that we are not merely passive victims of our emotions but quite active in cultivating and constituting them...Furthermore, I want to argue that emotions are not only intelligent but also purposive in a surprisingly robust sense...Accordingly, we are to a significant extent responsible for our emotions, something that we often deny for the most self-serving of reasons, to make excuses for ourselves" (3).

Solomon pursues his inquiry in three phases. Part I explores an existentialist perspective on emotional strategies. And in fact, Solomon sees emotions as exactly that - strategies, or ways of engaging the world. He does this by looking at anger, fear, love, compassion, grief, happiness, guilt, shame, pride, envy, spite, resentment, and vengeance.

Part II builds off of these explorations of specific emotions toward a general theory of emotions. He says that an emotion theory should help us to understand why people have the emotions that they have, which helps us both to understand ourselves and to respond to other people appropriately. But in order to get to this kind of a theory, he wants to eliminate several myths about emotions. These myths are "excuses, misinterpretations, or one-sided understandings" which enable us to "evade both responsibility and understanding" (127). These are the myths he challenges:

1. Emotions are ineffable. Rather, he says, although emotional experience is very complex, it can be articulated, analyzed, and refined.

2. Emotions are feelings. "Feeling," Solomon argues, is a much broader term than "emotion." Feeling is anything which registers in the consciousness. Emotion, on the other hand, always has an "aboutness" or intentionality.

3. Emotions are like hydraulics, "a psychic fluid filling up the mind or the body." This outdated mechanical metaphor, Solomon says, is inadequate to explain the desires and processes of emtional experience.

4. Emotions are "in" the mind. Solomon blames this way of thinking on Cartesian dualism. Instead, he says we should reclaim what Aristotle and the Stoics already knew so long ago - that our emotions are in the world in social space.

5. Emotions are stupid (i.e. have no intelligence). Emotions are actually engagements in and with the world. They require knowledge and evaluation, Solomon argues.

6. Emotions are either positive or negative, good or bad. Instead, any given emotion can be good or bad, positive or negative according to the situation.

7. Emotions are irrational. By challenging this myth Solomon wants to argue against the idea that emotions are nonrational. He is not claiming that they cannot be irrational in terms of seriously missing their target. They can be irrational in the sense of being poor strategies for engaging the world. However, they always involve judgments.

8. Emotions happen to us (they are "passions"). Solomon believes that emotions are always our doing to some extent, and not merely something that happens to us. He says that this is especially the case when we consider that the most significant emotions are processes over time. There are choices involved, often multitudes of choices. We can best deal with our emotions by taking responsibility for them.

Part III crowns Solomon's quest for emotional integrity with a discussion of the ethics of emotions. Since emotions are constituted by evaluative judgments (which is not the same thing as saying that they are always deliberative), they are value laden. They are thus ethically significant. Our emotional experiences, Solomon says, are intricately complex, involving sensations, our awareness of the world, of ourselves, and of our intentions, as well as thoughts and reflections on our emotions. Because emotions are structured by evaluative judgments, it is very difficult to assert that there are properly basic emotions common to all people. An emotion is basic if it is central to a certain way of life. So, an emotion such as anger might be more basic to some societies than to others. But even in this emotions differ between societies because particular circumstances call for differing evaluation, which structure the emotions differently.

Solomon's closing chapter applies the perspective he has laid out in the book to ultimate issues: happiness, spirituality, and emotional integrity. He averrs that "a happy life with emotional integrity is...a life in which one wisely manages emotional conflicts in conjunction with one's most heartfelt values" (268). This is a kind of existentialist authenticity. But happiness applies only on an personal level, so Solomon moves up to the "meta-emotion" spirituality. This, to him, is "the thoughtful love of life" (269). This requires gratitude, the philosophical emotion of appreciating the bigger picture and having a chance to play a role in it. It is "expanding one's that one comes to appreciate the beauty of the whole as well as be absorbed in our own limited projects and passions. That is spirituality. It is, perhaps, the ultimate happiness, and it is an ideal expression of emotional integrity" (270).

Having summarized Solomon's work, what is my evaluative judgment about it? How could a Christian benefit from his ruminations? Without going into too much detail, let me just note a few opportunities for engaging the world that this book offered me.

As a Christian, I feel glad for one central theme of the book - emotions are ethical judgments for which we are responsible. This is certainly in keeping with God's revelation. For one thing, it helps us to see how culpable we are as sinners before God. For another, it helps us to see how radical the transforming work of the Spirit is in sanctification.

As a Christian, I also feel enriched by the expansive view of the emotions observed and described in the book. This is helpful as I apply the Bible. Many times we circumscribe the meaning of the Scripture according to our preconceived notions, and so we struggle with how to apply it to our lives. For example, have you ever wondered if it is hypocritical to do what is right even when you don't feel like it? Any pastor who deals with the souls of men is likely to find his thinking challenged to look at the Scripture with fresh eyes after reading this book.

Finally, as a Christian, I feel sad for one central failing of this book, and, apparently, of the life of the author. Repeatedly in his quest for emotional integrity, Solomon begins tracking down paths that should lead him to acknowledge that he is "fearfully and wonderfully made" (Ps 139:14). This, of course, ought to lead him to say, "Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well." In other words, Solomon (what an irony that this is his name!) is such an astute observer of mankind that he cannot help but be confronted with the One whose image man bears. And, in fact, he is.

Solomon closes his book, and his quest for emtional integrity, by coming face to face with the reality that he ought to be grateful to God. Yet he turns his face away. Here are his words.

Thus it is all the more important to feel gratitude for what is most valuable to most of us, namely, our lives....But one of the questions that has always intrigued me about such cosmic gratitude, and it certainly bothered Nietzsche as well, is to whom one should feel this gratitude. As an emotion, gratitude is defined, at least in part, by its "object," namely the reception of a gift of some kind....To whom should one be grateful for one's life? (269-70)

Solomon acknowledges that Christians have no problem with this question. "But I do," he honestly states. He continues:

Being grateful "to the universe" is a limp way out of this quandary....But does it make sense to be grateful to the universe? I can image Dr. Roberts [a Christian philosopher] saying, Isn't this really being grateful to God without admitting it?

Perhaps one could avoid God by claiming to be thankful "to chance," or perhaps "to luck"....But again the effort seems limp. The to whom question gets begged again....Are we stuck with being ungrateful about the single gift that matters most?

Clearly Solomon feels the tension of the position he is in. He feels in his bones that cosmic gratitude is essential to emotional integrity and a meaningful existence. And he is too honest of a philosopher to duck the questions that spring out of this conviction. Yet apparently he feels even more deeply, so deep it is at the core of his being, that he cannot acknowledge God. How does he try to get out of the bind?

I think the "to whom" question is misplaced here....I think that there is another solution, more radical in that it severs gratitude for one's life altogether from the interpersonal emotions...."Opening one's heart to the universe" is not so much personifying the universe as reflecting on as well as feeling and expressing a cosmic gratitude, that is, expanding one's perspective, as the Stoics insisted, so that one comes to appreciate the beauty of the whole as well as be absorbed in our own limited projects and passions. That is spirituality (270).

With this last ditch effort to avoid God Solomon has just undone his whole project, for there is no way to have both an impersonal, irrational universe and personal, rational emotions as he has painstakingly described throughout his book. With his willingness to "sever" gratitude from interpersonal emotions, he has just admitted that there is a gaping chasm in his whole philosophy. But he would rather have that than admit that he lives and moves and has his being in the God of the Bible. Unwittingly, Solomon has become a perfect illustration of Romans 1:21, "For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him...."

So, I feel sad. An exploration of emotional integrity that could have ended in the enrapturing worship of the Triune God, ended by denying the very Source of joy. What makes all of this even sadder is that before this book was even officially published, Robert C. Solomon died. He was not true to what his emotions should have told him.

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