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IN this essay, I will approach the phenomenon of shame from five different perspectives: the anthropological perspective, the sociological perspective, the ethical perspective, the psychological perspective, and, finally, the historical perspective. All five approaches will be philosophical: I will not rely on field research, statistics, clinical research, or interviews but rather on the philosophical tradition and, incidentally, on works of art. My reflections are thus supported by previous reflections and experience, not by empirical evidence; except for the first, the sequence of the approaches is contingent. 1. The Anthropological Approach We all recognize elementary shame when we see it. Looking at Masaccio’s fresco Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (1424-1428), we see Adam bowing his head; Adam and Eve averting their gaze while covering their nakedness in shame. This description of the manifestation or expression of shame has been taken as self-evident by philosophers who have rarely paid attention to the fact that the phenomenon of shame is empirically universal. The manifestation or expression of shame is also empirically universal— blushing face, cast down eyes, bowed head, and so on. It is common in all human cultures for it somehow inheres in Homo sapiens. Charles Darwin, who during his voyages made comparaSOCIAL RESEARCH, Vol. 70, No. 4 (Winter 2003) Five Approaches to the Phenomenon of Shame AGNES HELLER tive observations about expressive behavior among different tribes, offered inductive evidence for its empirical universality. Shame is a feeling and elementary shame is an expressive feeling . Shame involves the whole person—the psyche or soul and the body. Thus shame is normally ranked together with similar elementary feelings. Elementary means “unmixed and simple.” It is presumed that elementary feelings are innate. If a person neither feels nor manifests shame even in childhood, this person is presumed incapacitated, just as if he lacks some cognitive ability. To use an Aristotelian expression, this is a kind of steresis. The same is true when the person neither feels nor manifests anger, sadness, joy, fear, or disgust. All philosophers who have worked with the feelings enumerate this list of elementary feelings. Immanuel Kant places them into a separate faculty of the mind that he terms “the faculty of pleasure and displeasure” in order to distinguish them categorically from other feelings related to elementary drives like hunger, thirst, and sex, which he places in the lower faculty of desire. From Aristotle to René Descartes, the drive for knowledge or curiosity is also considered elementary, but not “low.” This cluster of elementary feelings can also be called emotions, yet this is of no theoretical importance. I will call them “affects.” There are other feelings, such as bodily pain and pleasure that Ludwig Wittgenstein groups in the same family, although they are not affects; we could also add laughing and crying to this family. Let me enumerate the simple feelings that I call the affects: fear, shame, disgust, anger or rage, joy, and sadness. According to Darwin, these affects are instinct remnants resulting from the demolition of instinct by the domestication of the self. Arnold Gehlens and Dieter Claessens identify the affects as the remnants of the last phase of instinct development: consummatory action or consummatory behavior. Obviously, most affects can also be found among other mammals, although they are empirically universal in the human species. Shame, however, can occur only 1016 SOCIAL RESEARCH among the socialized and domesticated since it is a social affect that has no natural “trigger.” What are the common features of affects? As pure affects, they are always reactive. Kant uses the term “reflective”: they are feelings that answer to something, that is, to a stimulus. One reacts or reflects on something that is immediately present. Whenever affects are triggered by something absent, be it a future expectation or a past memory, they are “impure.” Affects are impure when cognitive elements such as assessment and interpretation of the situation inhere in the affect. In such cases, affects are transformed into emotions. In the case of emotions, there are no generically universal expressions, only idiosyncratic ones. Affects are expressive feelings. Their expression is mostly total, involving the whole body that trembles, cowers, shakes, flushes, shrinks, and so on. We recognize the feelings...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-768X
Print ISSN
0037-783X
Pages
pp. 1015-1030
Launched on MUSE
2015-04-01
Open Access
No
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