Clarifying the philosophical meaning of emotion has been one of the more significant trends in moral theory for the past twenty-five years. Martha Nussbaum, Robert Solomon, Robert Roberts, and others have argued that, in contrast to dominant trends both in ancient thought (e.g., Stoicism) and in modern ethical theory (e.g., Kant), we are not duped by our emotions—at least not completely. Emotions disclose our being-in-the-world more reliably than the theoretical attitudes prized by the great Western rationalisms. Emotions key us into a stratum of normative value, so the argument goes, inaccessible to reflection alone. Not that emotions are strictly opposed to reflection; on the contrary, an important part of the argument of scholars like Nussbaum—and Furtak is included here as well—is that emotions are already cognitive engagements with reality, already forms of a richer type of rational judgment (Furtak calls them “perceptions of significance”), and therefore ought not to be simply opposed to theoretical insight. In effect, the emotions are enlisted in the service of overcoming the dualisms that have bedeviled Western thought between, for example, reason and passion, the intelligible and the sensible, and the theoretical and the practical.
Wisdom in Love rests firmly within this line of theorizing emotion. Although Kierkegaard is at the center of Furtak’s study, the larger theoretical interest of the book is to develop a philosophy “according to which the emotions can be understood as embodying a kind of authentic insight—even, perhaps, enabling us to attain a uniquely truthful way of seeing the world” (xii). As is the case with many contemporary theorists of emotion, the primary critical target of this book is “stoic virtue,” a state of emotional detachment [End Page 717] (apatheia), which regards emotional states as the origin of erroneous judgments. Stoic “happiness” lies in rooting out from the structure of our desire any exposure or vulnerability to what lies beyond our control. Furtak summarizes the Stoic critique of emotion in this way: “the passions are categorically wrong about value, because they one and all endorse the tacit premise that something external to our moral control is of value—and this premise, according to the Stoics, is false” (91). To overthrow this understanding of reality is the primary aim of this book.
Yet why, one may ask, does Stoicism become the object of critique? Who are these contemporary Stoics, peddling their apatheia, whom thinking needs critically to encounter today? One might think it would be someone like Kant, who grounds moral judgments in the faculty of practical reason alone, yet Kant barely makes an appearance in the book. Rather, with a certain sleight of hand, Furtak reinscribes Stoic apatheia as modern nihilism: Stoic detachment is, perhaps anachronistically, linked with modern moods of detachment and indifference. Within such an analogy, the critique of Stoicism becomes a kind of proxy battle against modern nihilism. Wisdom in Love is an effort to show how subjects are, through their emotional lives, already linked into a stratum of normative value and meaning. To reaccess our emotional lives is to reaccess meaning, value, orientation, and grounding. This is where Kierkegaard’s Works of Love is enlisted to do the conceptual work of clarifying love as the ground of human existence.
Furtak develops Kierkegaard’s account of love in a twofold direction. On the one hand, love signifies “the power that gives meaning to human existence” (96), the “sacred ground of being” (119) that grants human existence its reality and endows our perceptions with significance. In this sense, love implies that the ontological structure of the human person rests, not in its power to retain control over itself, as certain idealist theories of the subject would indicate, but in its “ultimate givenness” in a source other than itself. Grounded in love, the person is simultaneously open to the world beyond himself or herself and, thereby, exposed to it, since “every bond of love is a bond to a possible sorrow” (109). On the other hand, love indicates the decisive task...