The shame of the philosophers

An intriguing new book about the philosophy of the emotions has just been published by Oxford University Press. It is not only a study of shame, but also a spirited defence of that emotion, co-authored by three philosophers: Julien DeonnaRaffaele Rodogno, and Fabrice Teroni. The book sets out to overthrow the received view of shame as a social but morally ugly emotion. The authors agreed to answer a few questions about shame as a feeling, an emotion, and an historical (or universal) phenomenon, for the History of Emotions blog.

Perhaps you could start by briefly explaining the two ‘dogmas’ about shame that you set you to refute in your new book, and why you think they are mistaken?

What we rather polemically call dogmas are two claims that structure much of the recent discussions on shame and that are very often taken for granted. First, there is the claim that shame is essentially a social emotion. One important consequence of this dogma is that shame is perceived as morally superficial because, in shame, one allegedly only reacts to how one appears to others. Second, there is the claim that the action tendencies associated with shame (hiding and aggression, for instance) or the emotional conditions that it is associated with (lack of empathy, depression) make it a morally ugly emotion we should try to get rid of. Now, these two dogmas form the contrastive background on which we build our own account of shame. In the process, however, we also try to reveal the grains of truth that these dogmas contain, even if they ultimately have to be rejected, for they foster wrong pictures of shame.

We argue, against the first dogma, that shame is not social in any substantial sense of the term. It is for instance not always elicited in the presence of real or merely imagined others. It is also wrong to think that shame exclusively targets a subset of the values to which we are attached, namely those linked to our image or reputation. One can be ashamed of appearing dishonest to someone, but one can also be ashamed of having behaved dishonestly, period. The grain of truth in the first dogma is that our reputation is a central value for most of us, and, for that reason, elicits shame when we perceive it as threatened. But it is only one value amongst many other values to which most of us are attached and that elicit shame when we perceive what we do or who we are as threatening them.

We criticize the second dogma linked to shame’s ugly action tendencies and associated conditions by arguing that the empirical data on which it is based are far from conclusive for a variety of reasons, such as the absence of distinctions between shame, shaming and humiliation, as well as between rational and irrational forms of shame. On the basis of these distinctions, we suggest that, while shame may sometimes connect with morally problematic action tendencies and emotional conditions, this is definitively not always the case. More generally, our view on shame is, against the dogmas, that shame is the guardian of our personal values and that, when everything goes well, it fosters behaviour which is in keeping with these values.

One of the questions that kept coming back to me when I was reading your book is whether there is really a distinctive feeling of shame. If you could be just dropped into the middle of the mental experience of someone feeling intense shame, but were not told anything cognitive or social about their situation, would you be able to say – ‘Ah, yes, this person is feeling intensely ashamed’? Or might you rather just identify their feeling as being ‘upset’ or ‘distressed’?

This is a very interesting and quite difficult question, for it is at the heart of many current debates in emotion theory. We do not address it directly in the book and the reason for this is that we take the answer to be more obvious than it probably is. The general issue is how rich the phenomenology of emotions is, and in fact whether it is rich enough to differentiate at least a substantial number of emotion types. Perhaps the relevant phenomenology is comparatively poor and suited only to differentiate very coarsely between those emotions that feel good and those that feel bad. Whatever one’s position on that issue in general, we tend to believe that the phenomenology of shame is very distinctive, all the more so if we consider intense episodes. Indeed, phenomenological reports of shame – by contrast with those of guilt for example – tend to converge on a set of basic features (feeling one’s face becoming hot, feeling of shrunken bodily posture, one’s gaze going away from what triggers shame, wanting to disappear, loss of control, etc.) many of which being subtended by very strong bodily changes (contrast again with guilt).

Moreover, and this is not a point we develop in the book either, we tend to think of the phenomenology of emotions to be very closely linked with their intentionality, i.e. with the way the world is made manifest to us when having the emotion. So that feeling shame is difficult to separate from “the cognitive and social” dimensions of the situation in which it is elicited and is, in and of itself, already a case of taking oneself to be worthless. All this favours the thought that if someone was dropped in the middle of a shame episode, and that, in addition, this person was used to reflecting on and classifying her emotions, she would have no difficulty in recognising it as shame.

Following on from this, I wondered whether there is an important difference between being ashamed and feeling ashamed. Perhaps shame is not primarily a recognisable feeling with distinctive associated expressions and actions, but rather a judgement about oneself. Can one be ashamed not only without having any particular feeling, but perhaps without experiencing any emotional feeling at all?

Given our answer to your last question, you may predict at least part of our answer to this one. First of all and again, contrast shame with guilt in this respect. While it makes perfect sense to say “I am guilty, but I don’t feel guilty”, it is very strange to say “I am ashamed, but I do not feel ashamed”. This is because the locution “I am ashamed” is typically used to report on one’s present emotional condition; not so when I say “I am guilty”. This being said, while the said locution typically reports on one’s present emotion, it does not always do so. Part of the answer then consists in distinguishing between attributions of shame as a disposition as opposed to an episode. It makes perfect sense, for example, to think of someone as being ashamed of his background while not feeling ashamed of it right now – indeed he might be fast asleep. But this is one of the rare senses, we contend, in which it is possible to be ashamed without feeling ashamed and of course it constitutes no objection to the idea that shame is essentially felt. Another kind of case involves using the phrase just as a move in a language game. “I am ashamed but I forgot to send the letter” may just mean “sorry” and its function is perfectly well performed although one does not feel anything. This again should not be viewed as an objection to the idea that shame is essentially felt.

It is perhaps interesting to add that the literature is in quite broad agreement on this issue, and unless one believes of all emotions that their phenomenology greatly underdetermine their nature/identity (a common position in emotion theory) one will think of shame as phenomenologically rich and distinctive. This is again in sharp contrast with guilt, which has been claimed by some (e.g., Ortony 1987) not to be an emotion at all precisely because it has no salient and distinctive phenomenology and associated expression or display. Finally, it is worth emphasising that all these points about the felt character of shame are compatible with your idea that shame is essentially a judgement. While thinking of emotions as judgements is perhaps to over-intellectualise them, we agree that emotions are essentially evaluative attitude we take towards objects. In our next book on the nature of emotions generally – which will come out in March – we try to explain the way in which emotions are essentially felt evaluative attitudes.

Great – another book to look forward to in March! So, what do you think the difference is between shame and embarrassment? Is this difference important for your argument?

Shame and embarrassment are, it is true, often elicited in the same circumstances, and we sometimes oscillate between these two emotions. Still, that does not mean that they do not differ along important dimensions. Once we start thinking about it, embarrassment appears to be much shallower than shame. Moreover, it is also important to emphasize that, while shame can be felt in private, this seems not to be the case for embarrassment. These two aspects of embarrassment – its relative shallowness and its social character – can be argued, as we do in the book, to reflect the fact that, in embarrassment, one perceives oneself as appearing – that is, merely appearing – in a given way to a given audience or as being cast in a public role that one does not know how to play. This focus on appearances only explains why embarrassment is shallow: it is so because one does not perceive one’s action as revealing anything about who one is, i.e. as someone incapable of discharging the personal values to which one is attached – which would be the case in shame.  This characterization of embarrassment is quite important for our discussion, and more specifically for our attempt at criticizing some widespread arguments against shame that target its superficiality and on this basis conclude that it cannot play any substantial moral role (this is the first dogma above). In a nutshell, these arguments miss their target because they do not distinguish shame from embarrassment. While shame may also connect with appearances, we argue that it always affects the self in a much more dramatic way. If one were to feel shame rather than embarrassment because, say, one has committed a faux-pas, this is because one perceives this faux-pas as projecting more than merely an undesired image to a given audience; it has for instance to be perceived as reflecting badly on the type of person one is. This deeper relation to the self and its values is, we believe, a fundamental aspect of shame.

Finally, could I ask you what thoughts you have about the relationship between the philosophy of emotion and the history of emotions? Is there room for fruitful scholarly cooperation, and if so, of what kind?

A brief overview of the role and importance of shame in history is part of what has triggered our curiosity for this topic. As we ask in our Introduction, why is it that thinkers such as Aristotle and Hume thought quite highly of shame while we, today, think it shallow and even ugly? We also tend to believe that our account of shame – which does not draw at all on the historical aspects of this emotion – is particularly amenable to fruitful collaborations with historians. One of the main points of the book is that we should refrain from thinking that shame is consubstantially linked to any one type of value or family of values. While shame always occurs when we severely undermine values to which we are personally attached and always involves apprehending ourselves as worthless, the range and type of values involved and the particular pieces of behaviour and traits that count as breaching these values varies immensely from one historical period and context to the next. It has been claimed that shame is fundamentally tied with sex, with dignity, with integrity or with the judging gaze of others, etc. While the evidence in favour of some of these claims may look more or less impressive if and when focusing on one historical period rather than on another, it is in fact just a mistake to look into the past for evidence pertaining to the nature of shame. Looking at the specific ways this emotion is culturally shaped and the various sorts of values to which it is sensitive in different historical settings is crucial not so much for our understanding of the nature of shame, but insofar as it constitutes an invaluable entry into the kind behaviour and traits that were thought to be degrading, and thus, more generally, the ways our more or less distant relatives conceived of themselves, their identity. To study the history of shame is thus to study the changing boundaries of what qualifies as a decent relationship with one’s values, as well as the various values that may be prevalent in different historical contexts. And there are reasons to think that such a history will have to be nuanced and complex. Our conception of shame, for instance, clearly goes against the idea that the prevalence of this emotion is a characteristic of primitive, less than morally fully developed societies (here, albeit for different reasons, we concur with Bernard Williams’ seminal discussion of shame in Ancient Greece). And while different societies at different times have surely put emphasis on different values, people have shown a much more constant attachment to some of them than many historians used to think (Duerr’s criticism of Elias’ understanding of pudor and shame is in this respect very instructive).

Do you believe, then, that there is an unchanging essence of shame (perhaps having a red face, averting your eyes, feeling small, and believing yourself to have fallen short of your own values) that has always existed, but has been given different names, and been hooked up with different value systems, in different historical cultures? If so, is this something that you think is a biological given? Or am I over-stating your essentialism here?

We are not (too) ashamed to say you are not far off the mark in the way you describe our essentialism here – shame is indeed characterised by the bodily feelings you mention and these feelings contribute in a holistic fashion to the subject taking some disvaluable fact as manifesting her worthlessness. In subscribing to this sort of essentialism, we agree with psychologists who, after due empirical research, by and large agree with the idea that shame, as they would put it, is a “pan-human” emotion. Two things should be kept in mind, however. The first is well acknowledged in the way you ask the question. Our conception of shame is abstract to a degree that makes it apt to account for the many different ways in which this emotion has been triggered and expressed through the ages. Second, and as we make clear in the book, nothing in our essentialism implies that shame has always been the same, i.e. prevents it from having evolved from an emotion (proto-shame for example) whose logic and function within the communities formed by some of our distant ancestors were simpler and different than those of shame as we know it today. It is sensible to claim that shame has evolved to be this pan-human emotion that we try and cash out in our book.

In Defence of Shame: The Faces of an Emotion is published by Oxford University Press.

6 thoughts on “The shame of the philosophers

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  4. Greetings. I am a Pharmacist, interested in your discussions, and fascinated by the discourse on shame. Regarding the discussion phenomenology of shame, it seems that what you discuss as the physical manifestations of shame are actually those embarrassment (blushing, shrinking physicality etc.). These may immediately accompany or be succeeded by feelings of shame. Because the physical traits and the shame coincide, they are indistinguishable and perhaps inseparable, but the physical traits, or at least their magnitude, may require a present social context. Everyone has experienced the embarrassment and shame of being corrected or made to realize that their behaviour is not in line with values held by the immediate social group. Most would say that this is a result of a forgotten manner or procedure or stated behaviour preference being transgressed and publicly restated by another. The magnitude of the embarrassment is likely proportional to the correcting individual’s enthusiasm for the correction (volume of voice, physical contact, chosen words, present company) and as a result the receiving individual’s reaction may range (many factors including threshold for embarrassment, perceived trust in correcting individual). The magnitude of the shame will vary based on many factors as well. I believe embarrassment’s physical manifestations and shame are inextricable, and may be experienced in private much later when the correcting individual becomes yourself. For example as a young man I held certain values (or did not hold them) that led me to certain behaviours and incidents. When many years later I realized my errors due to gradual acquisition of a different value set, I was suddenly embarrassed at myself (cue physical manifestations of embarrassment) , and the shame of those behaviours and incidents lingers. Whether the values are suddenly reiterated in a social situation or acquired over time perhaps diminishes the magnitude of the embarrassment which would require a more public humiliation, the shame remains. It could be argued that the shame is less because I did not suffer the public humiliation; I did not suffer doubly due to a sudden calling out of my behaviour; so the magnitude of embarrassment may contribute to the magnitude of shame.


    Dom Kelly.

  5. Regards the first point that the writers wish to refute (that shame is a social construct) could it not be said that tho one may feel real shame, and not only shame regarding another person’s opinion of their action, the situations in which we feel shame are socially constructed? For example if an alcoholic feels ashamed for having drunk alcohol, is this not for the reason that being an alcoholic is shameful in society’s view, and thus perhaps in his own personal view? In a society where being drunk is ok (or at least socially acceptable and seen as a “fondeness” for drink rather than alcoholism) he may react differently. In the example given by the authors they say that one may be ashamed of appearing dishonest but also of actually being dishonest: is this not because society values honesty?

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