Martha Nussbaum has been recently described as a “philosopher of feelings” and indeed, throughout her career, she has written on disgust, shame, desire, sex, patriotism, love, empathy, and most recently, anger. According to Nussbaum, there is ethical value in emotions, and we are wrong to ostracize them outside the sphere of philosophical relevance. Understanding our emotions helps us build a morally just society and relate to one another in a way that is deeply respectful and moral. It helps us extend our humanity toward people we have previously rejected as “the other,” and is a crucial part of building a healthy democracy.
Emotions are extremely significant to our efforts of living a good life. In Love’s Knowledge (1990), Nussbaum maintains that feelings have unrightfully been banished from philosophy under two equally false pretexts. Critics have either portrayed them as these blind, irrational impulses that have nothing to do with cognition and have to be strictly controlled by the reins of rationality, or maintained that if they do have any cognitive value and can indeed tell us something about the world, what they tell us is simply false. The first objection equates an emotion with an instinctual appetite, an animal need, a mere bodily function. Yet, Nussbaum argues, we can agree that grief, for instance, is very much different from hunger, and in fact due to developments in anthropology, cognitive science, and psychology, this view has become antiquated. Besides, we don’t need scientific evidence to acknowledge that grief cannot be compared to hunger, as grief is sustained by a variety of assumptions with epistemic value. Which leads us to the second set of objections.
Emotions do have cognitive value, so it should only follow logically that they must have some ethical value as well. To continue with the example of grief, the experience of the feeling presupposes the belief that someone has been lost, that the loss is irrevocable, that the person lost had tremendous and irreplaceable value, etc. To give another example, Nussbaum’s account of anger unfolds the various assumptions that underlie this emotion, amongst which the idea that there is some kind of cosmic balance that has been upset when a person has been wronged, and that directing his or her fury at the wrongdoer will somehow restore that balance.
Some emotions encompass beliefs about the world that upon scrutiny do indeed turn out to be wrong, but this is precisely why we need to take them seriously and subject them to careful investigation. It can be expected that upon discovering that certain emotions are unwarranted or unfounded, we will discard them, just as we do with beliefs when we discover they are false. Some emotions are indeed irrational, but so are a vast number of beliefs, yet it has never occurred to philosophers to banish beliefs from philosophy altogether. Furthermore, it is inconsistent, Nussbaum argues, to discredit emotions as insignificant and untrustworthy, while simultaneously recognizing that a change in one’s feelings also brings with it a change in one’s beliefs (see, for instance, the role emotions play in advertising or politics). We are wary of a political discourse suffused with emotions, as it can be much more effective than one that fully ignores our feelings. The Sophists, masters of rhetoric that they were, knew and fully embraced this, but Nussbaum points out that they weren’t the only ones. Pre-Socratic philosophers and poets were much more supportive of an entanglement between art, emotions, and philosophy, before Socrates/Plato came along and drew a dichotomy between them (pp. 14–15).
“Belief,” Nussbaum writes, “is sufficient for emotion, and emotion necessary for full belief” (p. 41). If a person believes that X was the most important person in her life, and X died, then that person will be affected by grief. If she doesn’t believe in the significance of X, she will not experience grief. Conversely, if a person maintains that she is a feminist, for instance, and witnesses an act of abuse against women and yet has no reaction (i.e., outrage), this would make us question the sincerity of that person’s convictions. We should admit, along with Aristotle—a philosopher Nussbaum reveres and draws significantly from—that emotions are “discriminating responses closely connected with beliefs about how things are and what is important” (ibid.). Sometimes, they might be even more reliable as our moral compasses than detached intellectual judgements, since they embody our most deeply rooted views about the world.
If emotions indeed have cognitive value, why do we still reject them? Nussbaum suggests that the main objection brought to emotions is that “they involve value judgements that attach great worth to uncontrolled things outside the agent; they are … acknowledgements of the finite and imperfectly controlled character of human life” (p. 42). To counter this vulnerability, Western philosophy has aspired to a kind of self-sufficiency, a belief that nothing bad will ever happen to those who do everything right.
In the uncertain world of ancient Greece, being human was seen as both supremely beautiful and fatally doomed. In a world governed by capricious gods, man felt subjected to tuche (fate or luck, or as Nussbaum explains it, that which just happens to a person as opposed to that which is her own doing). Many thus aspired to regain some form of control, some way to escape being at the mercy of tuche. This control came in the form of Platonic, rational self-sufficiency. Use your reason and you will be in touch with the divine forms. Nothing bad can happen to a good person. This rational self-sufficiency aspires to make “the goodness of a good human life safe from luck through the controlling power of reason” ( 2001, p. 3). At its roots lies Socrates’s claim that a good person cannot be harmed, as expressed by Plato in the Apology (41c-d).
Nussbaum urges us to recognize, along with the Greek tragic poets, that mankind is fragile. In The Fragility of Goodness (id., p. 5), she writes that her position acknowledges
That I am an agent, but also a plant; that much that I did not make goes towards making me whatever I shall be praised or blamed for being; that I must constantly choose among competing and apparently incommensurable goods and that circumstances may force me to a position in which I cannot help being false to something or doing some wrong; that an event that simply happens to me may, without my consent, alter my life; that it is equally problematic to entrust one’s good to friends, lovers, or country and to try to have a good life without them—all these I take to be not just the material of tragedy, but everyday facts of lived practical reason.
These “everyday facts of lived practical reason” may be central to morality, but unfortunately, our lives are limited. Building on Aristotle’s views in his Rhetoric and Poetics, Nussbaum reminds us that “we have never lived enough” and that our experience is “too confined and too parochial” (1990, p. 47). Fortunately, however, there is something that can compensate for the inevitable shortness of our lifespan and the limited breadth of human experience: literature.
Literature extends our life and our experience, “making us reflect and feel about what might otherwise be too distant for feeling” (ibid.) One of the main points of literary art is to present us with moments where “habit is cut through by the unexpected” (p. 43), testing our aspirations to live a good life through events outside of our control. This way of reading becomes a way of moral learning, a way of training ourselves to recognize the important features in a moral situation. No prefabricated principle can help us here, but we can only learn experientially, step by step, guided by the novel.
Nussbaum describes moralities that are exclusively based on general and universal principles as “ethically crude” (p. 37) and instead proposes the view influenced by Aristotle, which focuses on practical wisdom. General principles can only help us so much, and, following Aristotle’s analogy between ethical judgement and the arts of a navigator, there will always be the “unexpected” to face, our version of the Greek tuche, and inevitably, principles will prove insufficient. Here is where perception will prove more useful, defined as the ethical ability to discern the important features of one’s particular situation. Perceptions, in combination with a healthy dose of moral responsibility, are the ethical antidote to principles. We should bear in mind that “perception without responsibility is dangerously free-floating, even as duty without perception is blunt and blind” (p. 155).
Literature widens our experience and expands our moral imagination. It gives us the opportunity to vicariously explore seemingly infinite instances of lived practical reason. In her essay “Finely Aware and Richly Responsible,” Nussbaum makes the case for the novel as a “paradigm of moral activity” (p. 148). It gives us the uniquely privileged position from which we can explore situations deeply, but from afar. It allows us to be emotionally involved while also maintaining neutrality. In this sense, we inhabit a place that is “both like and unlike the position we occupy in life” (p. 48), perfect for awakening ourselves to moral perceptions. Much like a rehearsal before the live show, novels give their readers the opportunity to explore ethically demanding situations from a place of safety.
James’s novel The Golden Bowl serves as an example of a literary piece that provides the reader with moral perceptions, those nuanced insights into some of the infinitely varied instances of human existence. Because of the privileged position that the literary form of the novel offers, “Most of us can read James better than we can read ourselves’’ (p. 162). It is only once we’re aware of these fine complexities and reach a state of “perceptive equilibrium” that we can hope to act morally. To ignore the particularities, the contingencies and the “context-embeddedness” (1990, p. 38) of human experience is to be morally blind. “By themselves, trusted for and in themselves, the standing terms are a recipe for obtuseness” (p. 156). Instead, to respond with the right emotions “at the right times, with reference to the right objects, toward the right people, with the right aim, and in the right way, is what is appropriate and best, and this is characteristic of excellence” (Aristotle EN 1106b21-23, quoted in Nussbaum, 1990, 156). Analyzing The Golden Bowl, Nussbaum puts forth the two main characters of the novel as two moral agents, two people who managed to act altruistically toward each other without relying on rules and concepts of duty, but instead “improvised” with the particulars given to them. Perceptions assume priority over rules, and the particulars of a situation over general principles.
Artistic narratives are sometimes the only possible way of rendering life in an accurate fashion:
Certain truths about human life can only be fittingly and accurately stated in the language and forms characteristic of the narrative artist. With respect to certain elements of human life, the terms of the novelist’s art are alert winged creatures, perceiving where the blunt terms of ordinary speech, or of abstract theoretical discourse are blind, acute where they are obtuse, winged where they are dull and heavy. (1990, p. 5)
Nussbaum invites us to suppose, along with Proust, that ‘The most important truths about human psychology cannot be communicated or grasped by intellectual activity alone: powerful emotions have an irreducibly important cognitive role to play” (p. 7). If we combine this with the assumption that there is an organic connection between form and content, then novels emerge as a unique medium for truth-telling. Style is not incidental to the content it aims to convey, Nussbaum suggests, but rather the adequate fit between form and content is almost absolute, in the sense that once something is appropriately conveyed in a rich artistic form, it cannot be expressed equally well in, for instance, rigid academic terms. Paraphrasing in a completely different style will fail.
If we accept all of the above, is there anything left for the philosopher to do? Should Nussbaum herself not have written the 400-page Love’s Knowledge because the novels she writes about speak for themselves?
Firstly, it was necessary to explain—philosophically—why not taking novels seriously would be a great loss to philosophy. But secondly, and perhaps more importantly, once again inspired by Aristotle, Nussbaum does advocate a philosophical style that, while different from the expressiveness typical of literary texts, can also be “their natural ally” (p. 18). While the critical skills proper to philosophy can be substantially helpful, it is imperative that philosophy assumes a much more modest role.
Philosophical commentary should only gesture toward concrete particulars, nudging us toward responsible perceptions, providing a mere “sketch” or “outline” of the “salient features of our moral life” (p. 161). The awareness that such an outline does not contain life itself, but can only “quote life” as it were from the literary text, places philosophical commentary in a “posture of sufficient humility” (ibid.).
It will be interesting to see if more philosophers embrace this newly defined role. Given the reaffirmed importance of emotions in our ethical lives, and the significance of artistic narratives, the philosophical style, as reimagined by Nussbaum, is presented with new requirements. It must clarify in a way that is enriching, explain without being oppressive, and illuminate the fineness of human experience while still protecting its fascinating multiplicity. The readers of Love’s Knowledge will hopefully agree that in terms of style and philosophical commentary, Nussbaum herself has managed to live up to the standard that she so graciously elevated.
Ana Sandoiu is a writer, researcher & philosophy lover living in Brighton, UK. She also writes on her personal blog, On a Saturday Morning.