- Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of the Emotions
We often think of emotions as climate-like internal events; as non-rational, discrete, inchoate interior "states." Such "states" might provide an environment for thought, might somehow connect with, incline, propel or shape thought in certain directions, but we tend to assume that emotion and thought, "feeling" and "rationality," are contrastive terms. Hence Hume's memorable image of reason as "the slave of the passions." Not so, argues Martha Nussbaum in her monumental study of the emotions, Upheavals of Thought. The title is from Proust—"Love in this way produces real geological upheavals of thought"—the idea being that even love has cognitive-evaluative dimensions. In one of many variant formulations, Nussbaum contends: "emotions are suffused with intelligence and discernment . . . and contain in themselves an awareness of value or importance" (1). This "awareness of value" means that ethical discourse must take account of the emotions; that "morality" cannot be reduced to "a system of principles to be grasped by the detached intellect" (1). Thus "a central part of developing an adequate ethical theory will be to develop an adequate theory of the emotions" (2).
Upheavals of Thought is a vast work of interdisciplinary inquiry and synthesis: ethics, epistemology, object-relations psychology, anthropology, jurisprudence, theology, education, liberal social theory, studies of animal behavior, musicology, feminism, neurology, autobiography, literary criticism—all play their parts. The literary critical aspect constitutes the book's most sustained excursion into extra-philosophical terrain. Nussbaum argues that, inter alia, the emotions must be approached in a "narrative dimension" (3). In part, this is because the emotions are "eudaimonistic" in character: they take their cues from the person's conceptions of flourishing, which includes her or his "scheme of ends" (33), "plans" (33), "goals" (33), and so on. Such projective envisioning requires narrative articulation. So too does the agent's history of attachment—to others, to values, to the world of objects in general. Hence Nussbaum's choice of a title from a masterwork of literary narrative. She argues that philosophy needs literature's help to understand how emotions operate in particular lives. Proust's novel can promote particularistic "imaginings, deepening and [End Page 156] refining our grasp of upheavals of thought in our own"—and, by extension—in other peoples "lives" (2).
The emphasis on one's own life is no mere gesture. Like some of her earlier books, especially Love's Knowledge (1990), Upheavals of Thought features an autobiographical dimension. Its account of the emotions begins with grief; specifically, the grief Nussbaum feels at the death of her beloved mother, Betty, in 1992. With unflinching directness and considerable expressive power, Nussbaum focuses on the experience of grief as she herself knows it: "It seemed to me as if a nail from the world had entered my insides; it also felt as if life had suddenly a large rip or tear in it, a gaping hole. I saw, as well, her wonderful face—both as tremendously loved and as forever cut off from me" (39). Death is a confiscation; it is also the quintessential expression of the contingent—a reminder of how unpredictable and uncontrollable human life is. Yet however emotionally primitive her grief may seem, Nussbaum believes that it too is eudaimonistic: it has a "propositional content" which centrally includes evaluative and eudaimonistic acknowledgments of her mother's "enormous importance, both in herself and as an element in my life" (39). The sense of human fragility, chanciness that informs her classic The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy (1986) is everywhere apparent in this latest book, not least in its discussions of literature.
Nussbaum characterizes her account of the emotions as "neo-Stoic" (4). This Greek version of cognitivism holds that "emotions are appraisals or value judgments, which ascribe to things and persons outside the person's own control great importance for that person's own flourishing" (4). Nussbaum seeks to amend and elaborate this picture in several ways: she wants, for instance, to provide a detailed account of the role...