What is anger? 1. Martha Nussbaum

Lebrun Colere

‘La Colère’ by Charles Le Brun

Thomas Dixon is Director of the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary University of London. His new research – part of the Living With Feeling project – explores the history, philosophy, and experience of anger.  In this, the first in an occasional series asking ‘What is anger?’, Thomas discusses the answer to that question offered by the classicist, philosopher and political theorist Martha Nussbaum in her most recent book. 

Before I get on with the main business of this blog post – namely explaining and discussing Martha Nussbaum’s ideas about anger – I want to ask you, dear sage-like reader, to think about the last time you got angry. If you are a calm and stoical sort who rarely loses their temper, then you might have to think back a long way. But if you are like me you’ll be able to think of several examples just from the last twenty-four hours. Whichever it is, try to conjure up in your mind that experience of getting angry – remember the thoughts, feelings, physiological changes, attitudes, and behaviours that it involved for you.

Now, hopefully that exercise already will illustrate for you how complex the experience of getting angry can be. We can get angry with inanimate objects, with other human beings, or with the world in general. Sometimes it’s a relatively calm moral indignation, sometimes a blind animalistic rage. Personally, I think that my paradigm experience of anger – the kind that gets me tense, pumped up, physically agitated and, shall we say, prone to behaviours and vocalisations of various kinds – is a quite impersonal sense of being thwarted by the world – often by some quite random inanimate thing (a slow internet connection, a broken glass) which happens to have provoked me at the end of a long string of frustrating events. I guess it’s a pretty infantile kind of rage…but enough about me.

Photography by Jeff Brown for The New Yorker.

Martha Nussbaum in 2016. Photograph  by Jeff Brown for The New Yorker.

Martha Nussbaum has been one of the world’s leading philosophers of emotions for the last thirty years. You can learn more about her extraordinarily original, prolific and influential writings and career in a fascinating profile of her by Rachel Aviv published in The New Yorker magazine this month, and an interview with her for this blog conducted by Jules Evans in 2012.

Nussbaum’s contributions to understanding human emotions have been many and various. At the heart of her approach is a revival of the ancient Stoic idea that emotions are forms of judgement or belief about the world (often, but not always, mistaken judgements). In other words, when we find ourselves gripped by an emotion, it is not merely a physiological thing, but it is our mind cognitively construing the world a certain way. So, disgust, fear, and envy, for instance, are forms of belief, construing their objects as dirty, dangerous, or desirable, respectively.

In her more recent works, Nussbaum has taken these ideas about emotion from classical philosophy and literature and applied them to political thought in articulating a liberal vision of the ideal place of emotions in a flourishing polity and society. That was her approach in Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice (2013) and also in her new book, Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, and Justice (2016).

So, for Martha Nussbaum, what is anger? She has written about anger several times before, notably in The Therapy of Desire (1994) and Upheavals of Thought (2001). In this blog post, however, I will concentrate on the account of anger at the heart of her new book, stating the essentials of her own position as succinctly as I can, and then setting out the conceptual and historical questions it raised for me.

Nussbaum angerAnger and Forgiveness is based on the Locke Lectures Martha Nussbaum delivered in Oxford in 2014.  As in all Nussbaum’s work, this book focuses mainly on the cognitive aspect of emotions. Although Nussbaum acknowledges that anger is ‘typically accompanied by a wide range of bodily changes and subjective feeling-states’ (p. 16), these changes and feelings do not figure prominently in her analysis. Indeed, since she rightly includes ‘the thoughts involved in anger’ as bodily changes themselves (on the grounds that thoughts are neuro-chemical changes in the brain), then there seems to be no particular kind of felt, visceral, physiological, or behavioural change that is required for a state to qualify as anger on Nussbaum’s account. It’s all about the thoughts.

Nussbaum’s starting point, and the theory she adopts herself with minor modifications, is the description of the passion of orgē set out by Aristotle in the Rhetoric (Book II), a description offered in that case for the benefit of orators wanting to arouse such a passion in their hearers. The ancient Greek term orgē is standardly translated as ‘anger’ in modern English, and Nussbaum follows in this tradition. The three key components of orgē-anger are as follows (this is my own summary of Nussbaum’s version of Aristotle’s theory):

  1. The belief that I, or someone in my ‘circle of concern’, have been injured or wronged (often including being ‘down-ranked’ in terms of status).
  2. A painful feeling accompanying this belief.
  3. A desire for the perpetrator of the wrong to suffer as punishment or ‘payback’.

While Aristotle believes that orgē always includes the belief one has been slighted (or ‘down-ranked’, in Nussbaum’s language), Nussbaum suggests that anger only sometimes, rather than always, involves a belief about harm to one’s social status. Nussbaum correctly notes that one of the surprising things about ancient accounts of orgē, as we find them in Aristotle and the Stoics, is that this passion is normally defined not, as one might expect, as a feeling directed towards a present or past wrong (i.e. the slight or injury committed), but rather as a state that ‘looks forward to a future good’, namely the pleasure that will arise from the taking of revenge on the perpetrator of the injury (p. 21).

The examples Nussbaum uses to illustrate her theory tend to be responses to complex moral and political situations (rather than the more brutish kind of day-to-day experience of frustration I alluded to at the outset). For instance, she describes an imagined case of a woman, Angela, whose friend Rebecca has been raped by an offender, labelled ‘O.’ Nussbaum works through a series of examples of Angela’s possible reactions to this rape of her friend, teasing out which of these responses contain the elements required to qualify as anger (in her orgē sense of the word). In the first case, Angela feels pain for Rebecca, and compassion and concern but does not think much about O. In the second case, Angela feels pain and concern, and thinks about O, but only in as much as she thinks about what social measures might prevent similar future crimes by O. and others like him. Nussbuam does not detect anger in either of these cases, but then moves on to the third case, in which anger does arise:

Case 3. Angela feels pain, etc., as in Cases 1 and 2. As in Case 2, she focuses on the wrongfulness of O’s act, and she may campaign for general measures to prevent that sort of damage in future. But she also focuses, this time, on O. She seeks to mend the damage by making the offender suffer. Because her circle of concern is damaged, she wants something to happen to O (whether through legal or extralegal means). Here we finally seem to have arrived at anger, as the philosophical tradition understands it: a retaliatory and hopeful outward movement that seeks the pain of the offender because of and as a way of assuaging or compensating for one’s own pain.’ (p. 24).

So, for Nussbaum, the presence of anger is something to be determined primarily by conceptual analysis. If the mental state has the logical structure set out here – the three key components of perceived injury, pain, and desire for revenge – then it is a state of ‘anger’, and otherwise not, regardless of whether the person thinks they are angry or not, and regardless of whether they behave angrily or not.

Vending machine

Image: www.memecentre.com

Obviously Nussbaum is very well aware of cases that many of us would label ‘anger’ that seem not to fit this pattern, and she discusses them, including anger directed at loved ones, especially children, where one might hope or believe the desire for revenge was absent, or rages directed at inanimate objects, as in the example she discusses of ‘vending machine rage’. The latter phenomenon, Nussbaum records, was the subject of a study published in 1988 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which reported on fifteen injuries, three of them fatal, caused by angry men kicking or rocking vending machines that had taken their money and failed to dispense any goods (p. 18). Vending machine rage, Nussbaum argues, still fits her Aristotelian model, as these angry men were behaving as if the machine were a person who had failed to treat them with respect, and were seeking their revenge. They had been dissed by the vending machine.

This last example illustrates another general feature of Nussbaum’s account, namely her characterisation of anger– more Stoic than Aristotelian – as an irrational and counter-productive kind of ‘magical thinking’ that clouds the judgement and stains the character of the person who is subject to it (p. 24). It is the desire for payback that is the main focus of Nussbaum’s critique of anger, since, in almost all cases, she suggests, harsh punishment of the offender will do nothing objectively to repair the damage or improve the sufferer’s situation. And although Nussbaum can see some actual potential benefit to a status-obsessed person in achieving a kind of payback that lowers the offender’s status relative to theirs, she disapproves of such an attachment to status. Summarising the normative part of her account of anger, then, Nussbaum writes:

I am saying something very radical: that in a sane and not excessively anxious and status-focused person, anger’s idea of retribution or payback is a brief dream or cloud, soon dispelled by saner thoughts of personal and social welfare. So anger (if we understand it to involve, internally, a wish for retributive suffering) quickly puts itself out of business, in that even the residual focus on punishing the offender is soon seen as part of a set of projects for improving both offenders and society – and the emotion that has this goal is not so easy to see as anger. It looks more like compassionate hope (pp. 30-31).

This line of thought leads Nussbaum to introduce the term ‘Transition-Anger’ to refer to this kind of acceptable and healthy anger – a future-directed and rational emotion directed towards achieving change and social welfare, but free of irrational thoughts of payback. As ever, Nussbaum anticipates potential criticisms of her idea – in this case the obvious thought that this calm and rational reformist sentiment doesn’t sound much like anger. Here is her response:

Is Transition-Anger a species of anger? I really don’t care how we answer this question. Such borderline cases are rarely handled well by conceptual analysis. It’s certainly an emotion: the person really is upset. And it appears distinct, though subtly, from compassionate hope, since the focus is on outrage. The person says, ‘How outrageous,” not “How sad,” and entertains forward-looking projects focused on diminishing or preventing wrongful acts. (p. 36)

Ethically and politically I share Nussbaum’s wish to live in a society in which angry desires for vengeance are transmuted into a zeal for social reform. I am not so sure, however, that her account, either of garden-variety anger or of ‘Transition-Anger’, picks out or describes successfully what I (and I believe some other English-speakers) mean when they talk about experiencing ‘anger’.

Take the case of Angela who is said to be in a state of anger by virtue of wishing to see her friend’s rapist suffer. Although Nussbaum describes Angela’s state as one of emotional pain, the ascription of the term ‘anger’ seems to have been made on primarily logical grounds, without any requirement that Angela be agitated or upset, that she have any kind of bodily arousal (general or specific), nor that she behave in any kind of angrily emotional way (e.g. shouting, arguing, fighting, swearing, or knocking over a vending machine).

Nussbaum’s favoured state of ‘Transition-Anger’ (which she admits may not even be a kind of anger as it is usually conceived) seems to be an even cooler state of mind, expressing itself in acts of political advocacy and social reform rather than, say, throwing a plate across the room or starting a riot.

As ever (for me, at least) this comes back both to language and history. First there is the question of whether Nussbaum’s uses of the terms ‘anger’ and ‘emotion’ refer to the same things in the world as you or I imagine they do. This is ultimately a philosophical question about language and metaphysics as well as conceptual analysis, and in my own future research I want to look much more carefully at the semantic and historical relationships between the Greek term orgē, the Latin ira, and modern terms in English and other languages. I want to do as much as I can to look for evidence that these terms do not share a stable referent, and that there is no corresponding universal emotion that is picked out by any of them.

But to keep it simple, less ambitious, and relatively superficial, let me end by reiterating some thoughts about what counts as ‘anger’ with reference to the body and to politics.  As I have said, I can easily imagine a person who fulfils all Nussbaum’s criteria for someone experiencing anger (i.e. who feels pain about an injury and wants revenge) but who is not really upset or emotional about it. This applies also to ‘Transition-Anger’, in which the sense of injury is harnessed not to vengefulness but a hopeful spirit of reform. So, for instance, when Nick Clegg wrote after the Brexit vote about all the people he was angry with (in an article I discussed briefly in a previous post), I think he was wishing to apportion blame for a perceived injury to himself, his concerns, and his country, and he would have said the ‘Leave’ campaign was outrageous, but he could very well have thought and believed all those things without being in an emotional state of ‘anger’ (at least as psychologists would define it).

Perhaps the tension I am drawing attention to here arises from some basic differences in worldview between ancient philosophy and modern psychology. Nussbaum’s account of orgē-anger clashes to some extent with my own post-Darwinian assumptions about the nature of anger and emotion. For Aristotle and most other classical writers on the passions, the main focus was on adult humans as they operated in social and, especially, political life. Nussbaum follows these thinkers in acknowledging that infants and non-human animals cannot have fully-fledged emotions such as anger, since such states depend on making relatively articulate moral judgements.

Snarling dog

A snarling dog, illustrating the expression of anger in animals, in Darwin’s 1872 book on expression.

If, like me, your core sense of what it is to be angry includes states participated in by animals and infants too, then perhaps you, like me, have been influenced by Charles Darwin and William James. Darwin wrote, in his 1872 book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, that most of our emotions ‘are so closely connected with their expression, that they hardly exist if the body remains passive’, adding that a man may hate someone else but ‘until his bodily frame is affected he cannot be said to be enraged’ (p. 74). Darwin had worked out a similar view in his early notebooks decades earlier, scribbling to himself, ‘without slight flush, acceleration of pulse, or rigidity of muscles – man cannot be said to be angry – he may have pain or pleasure but these are sensations.’ William James, in his famous 1884 article ‘What is an emotion?’ asked rhetorically:

Can one fancy the state of rage and picture no ebullition of it in the chest, no flushing of the face, no dilatation of the nostrils, no clenching of the teeth, no impulse to vigorous action, but in their stead limp muscles, calm breathing, and a placid face? The present writer, for one, certainly cannot. The rage is as completely evaporated as the sensation of its so-called manifestations, and the only thing that can possibly be supposed to take its place is some cold-blooded and dispassionate judicial sentence, confined entirely to the intellectual realm, to the effect that a certain person or persons merit chastisement for their sins.

There is not much flushing of the face or dilation of the nostrils in Nussbaum’s Anger and Forgiveness, but it is a sparkling, passionate, stimulating work. I’ve only written here about a few of the ideas in one chapter of the book, and my own initial response to them. I thoroughly recommend interested readers to get hold of a copy of the book themselves. And do please use the comments field at the bottom of this post to add your own thoughts and responses (and feel free to drop me an email to let me know of other things you think I should be reading or thinking about on this topic). This is just the beginning of my thinking about anger and I am looking forward to reading and learning very much more.

Follow Thomas Dixon on Twitter: @ThomasDixon2016

Learn more about the Living With Feeling project

Read more:

The New Yorker profile of Martha Nussbaum

Jules Evans’s Interview with Martha Nussbaum

Jules Evans on what the neo-Stoic theory of emotions leaves out

Reflections on Brexit and emotions on the History of Emotions Blog

3 thoughts on “What is anger? 1. Martha Nussbaum

  1. Pingback: History of Emotions Blog Round-Up: January to July 2016 | The History of Emotions Blog

  2. Anger then as a response to a proposed (e.g. to non-EU or fizzy-popless) status change? The function of anger to either to forcefully resist the proposed change or to help facilitate the transition between states (which of those functions it ends up fulfilling rather depending on others’ (those feckless politicians, those vending-maching shutters) reaction to the outburst). Either way, it’s a response with some potential as a strategy and some evolutionary/functional clout.

  3. Recently I was on a selection panel for a teaching post. ‘What makes you angry’ was one question for candidates. Without exception the responses were instances of a ‘wrong’ done to students. Similarly, Nussbaum’s case study (Angela), as described in your blog entry, experiences anger on behalf of a friend. Is proxy anger an expectation in the Western world? Is the emotional body involved in proxy anger? Is self-anger a different experience?

    An observer form of anger is the typical experimental paradigm in Psychology. Participants watch, or read about, a scenario that the experimenter assumes will evoke anger. However, some neuroscientists are questioning this approach to the study of emotion in social contexts. Instead, they propose experiments where participants are directly involved in the social interaction so that the reciprocal nature of interacting with others, and the moment-by-moment changing nature of emotions, is experienced. Virtual agents replace vignettes and film clips, and participants are required to engage in the interaction. Emotion is investigated with a human body and a virtual body co-present in time and space. The expressive body and its manifestation as neural activations in the brain is the focus. It is a view of emotional interaction as embodied action.

    There are reasons to be for sceptical as to whether this methodology can provide meaningful knowledge about emotion. Linguistic ineptness is a characteristic of virtual agents. By contrast, the importance of language is highlighted by studies of emotion during remote interpersonal interactions. Increasingly we use a mobile device, or the internet, to interact with others from remote locations and asynchronously. Flaming, hostile and aggressive interpersonal communication, is more common in this context and anger more likely. Nevertheless, research has shown that human interactants can overcome the disadvantages of remote digitally mediated communication by using language and linguistic device to nuance emotion and manage social interaction.

    A question raised by proxy anger is whether the body is involved? Remote social interaction provides an important perspective on this question. In online social contexts an emotional body may respond yet it is unseen. Is the emotion of the other interactants in these contexts a proxy or a real experience? Critically, online social contexts highlight the important role for language, whether written or spoken, in our emotional life.

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