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  • Feeling Our Feelings: What Philosophers Think and People Know
  • Suzanne Smith
Feeling Our Feelings: What Philosophers Think and People Know, by Eva Brann; 550 pp. Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, $35.00.

The very title of Eva Brann's book suggests the extent to which "our feelings" is a topic at once familiar and unknown. The title could have been "Feeling Your Feelings" or simply "Feeling Feelings," but she seems to have wanted to stress the fact that the feelings she is concerned with belong to "us." At stake is not the possibility of one feeling shared by all but the many feelings we feel on our own, and occasionally, with others. Still, there is some sense of commonality implied by the use of "our" in Feeling Our Feelings, although not perhaps the sort of anxious sense of commonality that one might feel if one were to read a book called Spending Our Money. Whatever tentative impression of a community of readers (and feelers, as it were) that we might have gleaned from the first part of the title is qualified in the second part, which suggests a distinction between how philosophers and people perceive the feelings. Philosophers think about feelings; people know them. If knowing is the object of thinking, it would seem that the philosophers are not quite people, but that they are aspiring to be more like us in thinking. But if knowing—or thinking that one knows—prevents one from rightly perceiving that one should attempt to know more by thinking, then perhaps it ought be the other way around.

Later on it emerges that what the philosophers are thinking about in thinking about the feelings is "what people know" about them. Philosophers are thinking about what people know, but do people, in turn, know what philosophers think? It would seem not. The relationship between people (as knowers of a sort) and philosophers (as thinkers)—which is an important underlying theme that runs throughout the book—is not a closed loop, in which one party contemplates the other's thoughts about itself. People's knowledge is not a pristine, unhandled object of thought, but a product of prior shaping: "philosophers think about what people know, sometimes to confirm, sometimes to subvert common knowledge." This suggests that the substance of "what people know" about the feelings at any given time is itself partially the result of earlier confirmations and subversions from outside, as it were.

Part of thinking about what we know about our feelings, then, entails thinking about how philosophers have shaped our knowledge. Eva Brann aids us in this task by considering the passions "as they appear in a grand philosophical framework." She invites us to think along with the philosophers, and her tone and style make it possible for us to relinquish whatever hesitation we might have about grandeur (the root of which hesitation may be that we do not think ourselves sufficiently grand enough for it) and to accept that invitation with pleasure. Feeling Our Feelings is open to people who want to be prompted to think about what they don't know (which category includes potential [End Page 263] philosophers), people who want to think primarily about what they do know, and philosophers as well.

Eva Brann's ostensibly modest "effort at inquiry" is most obviously informed by her profound engagement with Plato (for further evidence of which readers should consult another one of her books, The Music of the Republic), but also by her readings of Aristotle, Cicero, Aquinas, Descartes, Spinoza, Hume, Kierkegaard, and Heidegger (among others). The book presupposes "that the passions are more vividly illuminated when sited within philosophical wholes;" hence, her "particular intention" is "to attend to those texts on the passions that are in themselves substantial and are embedded in full-fledged philosophical systems," as opposed, one gathers, to accounts of the passions that don't even aspire to give an account of the larger whole of which the passions are one aspect. Indeed, she argues that "there isn't much to be said about the essence of passion without calling on the notion of a soul, meaning an entity both unconscious . . . and conscious, unaware and...


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pp. 263-265
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