“Upheaval of Thought”, Martha Nussbaum: Emotion’s Intelligence

book cover for upheaval of thought by martha nussbaumEmotion occupies a privileged yet vulnerable place in human life. We treasure it, bathe in it, and let it make decisions for us. Yet at times we scorn it or disparage its worth, blaming it for poor decisions and questioning its judgement. Likewise, in the field of philosophy, emotion has been given more attention and consideration than, say, facial hair, yet it has often been dismissed and pilloried by all-too-rational philosophers who thought they knew best.

Enter Martha Nussbaum’s Upheavals of Thought. The thesis of this bulky work is that emotions have more value and more intelligence than philosophy traditionally associates with them. Supplanting the binary of thoughts/feelings, or rationality/emotions, Nussbaum argues that, when it comes pursuing the good life, emotion is at least as valuable as thinking.

Nussbaum suggests that emotions have a eudaimonistic significance. That is, that emotions are a guide to what will enable human flourishing. Emotions are what allow us to discern what we care about, the intensity of grief, or love, or joy, an internal compass directing us to what is important for our own flourishing. “Emotions,” writes Nussbaum,

are forms of evaluative judgement that ascribe to certain things and persons outside a person’s own control great importance for the person’s own flourishing. Emotions are thus, in effect, acknowledgments of neediness and lack of self sufficiency.

Without emotion, we would be like one Elliot described in the work, whose lack of emotion left him without a stake even in his own life.

He was always controlled, always describing scenes as a dispassionate, uninvolved spectator. Nowhere was there a sense of his own suffering, even though he was the protagonist… He seemed to approach life on the same neutral note.

In defending emotion, Upheavals of Thought can change how we live our lives. Our emotions tell us, in a way that verbal thoughts can’t, what matters. A friend once suggested to me that consequential decisions that thwart the rational mind can be explored simply by taking the time to imagine each alternative and its implications and to note how you feel and how your body responds in each scenario, giving your emotions a chance to let you know how you feel. This more humanistic and empathetic view of the role of emotion can also make us more understanding when facing the strong emotions of others. Instead of offering false comfort with remonstrations to “be rational”, we might honour the expression of emotion and its unique way of revealing what is in fact valued.

Now, leaving Upheavals of Thought beside for a moment, these ideas about emotion sit comfortably alongside another provocative take on emotion, that articulated by Brené Brown in a TED talk on “the power of vulnerability”.

Brown describes a research project which began with investigating connection, then looked into shame, then self-worth, then vulnerability. After years and years of work and thousands of interviews Brown discerned that roughly, people either felt a sense of love and belonging or they didn’t. What was true of the people who felt a sense of love and belonging, who felt worthy of love and belonging, was that they “fully embraced vulnerability”. These people had the “courage to be imperfect”. In order for people to connect, they have to be real with one another, and because these “whole-hearted” people “were willing to let go of who they thought they should be in order to be who they were”, they felt more connected.

Both Nussbaum and Brown note that we live in a world in which we are dependent on things outside our control. Nussbaum calls this the “object world”, and calls emotions, “acknowledgments of neediness and lack of self sufficiency”. Brown describes it as a “vulnerable world”, noting how dependency, sickness, relationships, misfortunes, so readily make us feel vulnerable.

Brown notes the tendency to numb this vulnerability, to, so to speak, harden the fuck up. And she cannot bear it: “You cannot selectively numb emotion”. If we are to ascend the most glorious heights of love, happiness, or the sublime, we must be willing to trudge through the depths of grief, embarrassment, and isolation. If we are to connect meaningfully with other humans we must be ready to be vulnerable, and this starts by being vulnerable with ourselves – deciding to fully experience painful emotions.

The final chapter of Nussbaum’s Upheavals of Thought uses Joyce’s Ulysses to propose that human love is most eudaimonistic when it is involved in the gravel of everyday things, that, instead of idealising love and stripping away its untidy elements, we should accept its inclusion of the everyday, the prosaic, the mundane. Brown’s presentation corresponds neatly, suggesting that in the case of the myriad of human emotion, it isn’t possible to have the epic without the tragedy, the maestoso without the mesto. That while vulnerability may never be welcome, it is a necessity. Emotion is not an infant run amok, demanding discipline from the rationality parent, but the very currency of human relationships.

Emotion, like the rhino, is a homely beast. At times it may feel like “a cauldron of corrosive liquid”, and its positive highs can undermine rationality in frightening and bewildering ways. Yet, Nussbaum’s Upheaval of Thought argues that without emotion things wouldn’t matter. There wouldn’t be anything at stake. Nussbaum articulates an acceptance of the vagaries of emotion as the trifling downside to the privilege of being able to discern value, to live richly, and to flourish.

One Response to ““Upheaval of Thought”, Martha Nussbaum: Emotion’s Intelligence”

  1. Absolutely agree with role that emotions play in judgements and actions.
    I have found over the years that it always pays to ‘follow your instincts” which I take to be an expression of emotion.

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