A Note on Emotionalism

2 April 2009


Cooley aphorism

Both in Technical Ecstasy: Futurism and Dystopia and in Fear of the Future I addressed the dread of automatonism manifested in contemporary culture, especially in science fiction films and television. In the latter I suggested that the prevalence of apocalyptic themes suggests the overthrow of the socio-economic order that threatens the uniqueness of the individual through the pervasive regimentation of life.

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, Part II, Chap. XVIII, The Romantic Movement: "If anything in the country was admired by Rousseau's predecessors, it was a scene of fertility, with rich pastures and lowing kine."

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, Part II, Chap. XVIII, The Romantic Movement: "If anything in the country was admired by Rousseau's predecessors, it was a scene of fertility, with rich pastures and lowing kine."

I think that many people today, without explicitly thinking about it (or thinking deeply about it), tend to self-identify with their inner emotional lives. Part of this may be an historical hangover from the romantic era of the nineteenth century, which in some ways is still very much with us. Bertrand Russell in his A History of Western Philosophy cites as an example the interest in dramatic scenery such as mountains or storms at sea. Prior to the romantic era, he claimed, scenic interest (say, during the Enlightenment) was primarily a picturesque concern with landscape and its quaintness or its rural economic character. And indeed we find that in the eighteenth century there is a great interest in the aesthetic of the picturesque. Several aesthetic treatises of the time were devoted to the picturesque.

Title page of the first edition of Uvedale Price's An Essay on the Picturesque, one of these wonderful Enlightenment era treatises on aesthetic taste.

Title page of the first edition of Uvedale Price's An Essay on the Picturesque, one of these wonderful Enlightenment era treatises on aesthetic taste.

Another possible source of self-identification with inner emotional life may simply be the impoverishment of public philosophical discourse in our time. Again, during the Enlightenment, educated men could have cited many theories of personal identity and may well have had an opinion as to which they thought best described their own experience. The superficial intellectual culture of our day has eliminated this sort of thing from the public sphere, so people simply don’t have any idea as to what they might be other than the sum total of their strong emotional reactions to the world around them. The pervasive mid-twentieth century influence of Freud also plays into this.

A few years ago when Margaret Boden, a philosopher of artificial intelligence, came to Oregon for a lecture series (I believe she appeared as part of Portland Arts and Lectures series, though I saw her talk in Astoria at the performing arts center for Clatsop Community College), one member of the audience, after hearing the presentation, asked what role the emotions have in her scheme of mind, she responded with a thoroughly reductivist account that might have come straight out of 1950s logical positivism. One could hear in the discontented murmur of the crowd the collective disbelief that such an account could be adequate. And the crowd, at least this time, was right. A reductivist account of the emotions that makes them epiphenomenal to human experience is inadequate; but an inflated account of emotion that makes it the central feature of human experience is also inadequate. However, most people today do not know how to express this inadequacy, and don’t know the possible alternative positions.

As a result of the over-estimation of and exclusive focus on emotion in human experience, I can think of times when, in observing the behavior of others, I have had the clear impression that the person I was observing was pretending to be emotional with the intent of producing a particular intended result. And I don’t think that it is usual for people to pretend to feel particular feelings for purely rational and self-interested reasons. I recall that when I was in South America in 1993 and I had problems with my travel arrangements, I was told by someone assisting me to “put on my face.” I honestly did not understand until later that I was being asked to pretend that I was very angry so that my problem would be given the appropriate attention.

No one wants to be thought of as predictable, and no one wants to be thought of as following some kind of formula in life (whether that be the pursuit of self-interest or anything else); no one wants to be a robot or a zombie, without emotion or awareness. Authentic emotion does possess the quality of spontaneity, and so those wishing to appear emotional and therefore spontaneous will calculate an outburst that seems believably emotional.

To have one’s behavior summed up in another’s formula intended to pigeonhole us is to have social expectations of us reduced to the identity that others ascribe to us. To assert our emotional lives in the social sphere is to insist upon a self-ascribed identity, and in this way to insist upon one’s autonomy, one’s freedom, one’s liberty — especially in the face of the dehumanizing and depersonalizing forces of industrialized society.

It is not uncommon when people today first encounter the idea of homo economicus in an economics textbook or maybe a humanism survey course that they strongly reject the very idea. This is partially the fault of those presenting the idea, who usually fail to give a proper appreciation for abstract thought and its need for models that capture some aspects of the world while completely neglecting other aspects, but it is also the result of people objecting to the possibility of their predictability according to an overly simplistic formula.

In my experience, when I have heard people insist upon their emotional motives and describe their lives in non-economic terms I can appreciate the superficial plausibility of their self-interpretation of their life. But, at the same time, I can also interpret their lives according to the classic model of homo economicus, as someone seeking their own interests to the best of their abilities. There is no reason that a single life might not have more than one interpretation, and that each interpretation might have a certain validity (even if not an absolute validity).

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