Universities should try and teach wisdom, not just knowledge

Students celebrating the festival of Holi at Visva Bharati in Santiniketan – the university set up by the poet Rabindranath Tagore in India.

Should a university provide a moral or spiritual education to its students? The idea seems ridiculous in the age of the mega-university. Universities today are enormous corporations, employing tens of thousands of academics and staff, with anything from 5000 to 30000 undergraduates studying there at any one time. The university is a microcosm of our multi-cultural society – there can be no one over-riding ethos in the ‘multi-university’.

Yet, while few believe universities should teach values, it’s increasingly accepted that they have an obligation to support students’ emotional well-being. Indeed, students now demand better counselling services in return for their tuition fees – demand for student counselling has gone up 50% in the last five years. There’s no sense that students’ emotions might be connected to their values, or that the so-called ‘well-being crisis’ on our campuses is in any sense a crisis of values. But I think that’s what it is. And it’s a microcosm of a wider crisis of values and meaning in our society.

It’s worth remembering that, for most of universities’ existence in the West, they had an explicitly Christian mission to shape the values of their students. ‘Wisdom’s special workshop’ was how Pope Gregory IX described universities in the early 13th century. The life of a student was, until the late 19th century, morally regulated – there was compulsory chapel, time given over each day for prayer and scripture, and a fairly strict moral code students were expected to adhere to. And it was quite easy for the university to act ‘in loco parentis’, because, until the 20th century, there would only be a few hundred students in a university at any one time.

In the mid-19th century, German universities began to develop the research-based university that we know today, with highly-trained specialists working on their particular area of research through departments, seminars and post-graduate doctorates. There was less of an emphasis on Christian dogma, and more on a commitment to scientific truth. But there was still a Romantic emphasis on ‘bildung’, or character-formation. As the German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte rhapsodized in 1810: ‘The University is the institution…where each generation hands on its highest intellectual education to succeeding generations…[so that] the divine may appear in the human in fresh clearness’.

Through the influence of German academia, American and British universities became less explicitly Christian in the 19th century, but they retained the liberal Protestant idea that universities should try to develop virtuous citizens. This would take place not necessarily through prayer and theology, but rather through courses in moral philosophy or Great Books. There was a liberal faith that universities’ two principle aims – the pursuit of scientific truth and the development of good character – were in harmony, not conflict.

After the First World War, faith in both Christianity and scientific humanism took a battering. There was no longer an optimism that scientific progress necessarily led to moral progress or Christian faith. So to which of these did academics owe their allegiance?

The sociologist Max Weber, in a lecture of 1919 on ‘science as a vocation’, insisted that the proper allegiance of academia is to science, not religion or morality. He told undergraduates: ‘It is not the gift of grace of seers and prophets dispensing sacred values and revelations, nor does it partake of the contemplation of sages and philosophers about the meaning of the universe’.

The good academic, says Weber, should never impose their own view-point, ethical, religious or political, from the lectern. They should not be ‘petty prophets of the lecture-room’. They should not even try to be moral leaders. Instead, academic research and teaching should be utterly value-free, except for the supreme values of scientific rigour and intellectual integrity. Scientific research won’t necessarily improve general well-being – who thinks science leads to happiness apart from ‘big children in university chairs’? – but it will contribute to the great work of our time, namely the rationalization and disenchantment of modern society.

Here one notices a glaring inconsistency in Weber’s lecture, or should I say sermon. After insisting that academics should never impose their own moral view-point from the lectern, that is precisely what he does. The ‘fate of our times’ is disenchantment, he says, and those ‘who cannot bare the fate of our times’ should collapse ‘silently’ into ‘the arms of the old churches’ and leave the battlefield to the brave, like him.

In other words, the culture of modern academia is not really neutral and value-free. On the contrary, it is explicitly disenchanted, naturalist, positivist, materialist, and, in fact, atheist – the perspective of faith or religious experience is denigrated or excluded.

In the 20th century, universities went from being explicitly Christian institutions to being cultures in which there was an established culture of non-belief. Academics are far more likely to be atheist than the general public (see this, on faith among scientists). As the historian George Marsden has argued – perspectives of religious faith or religious experience are now largely excluded from the positivist culture of academic discourse. The 19th hegemony of Protestant rational religion in academia has turned into the contemporary hegemony of positivism.

Re-incorporating experience and wisdom

But something of the old moral mission still exists in American universities, particularly in the form of freshman courses in the ‘science of happiness’ or Positive Psychology. There are freshman courses in the science of happiness at Harvard (where it’s the most popular course in the history of the university); at Rutgers; at Berkeley; at NYU and elsewhere. Anthony Seldon, the new vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham, has even launched a new plan to make Positive Psychology classes compulsory for all students, as part of a whole-university initiative called ‘the positive university’.

I really applaud these sorts of courses in Positive Psychology, but they’re not perfect. They tend to be quite scientistic – they insist that empirical evidence is sufficient for moral formation, that you can measure everything important, from happiness to meaning, and anything you can’t measure (like, say, closeness to God) can be safely ignored.  Positive Psychology also often ignores the role of ethics and debate, for example around such questions as ‘when is flow bad for you?’ or ‘what meanings in life are good meanings?’ and so on.

For example, I’ve just read U Thrive: How To Succeed in College (and Life), a new book by Daniel Lerner and Alan Schlechter, who teach a popular course on the science of happiness at NYU. It doesn’t mention ethics once! The closest it gets is talking about the dangers of ‘obsessive passion’ or ‘junk flow’. And it lacks self-criticism – the authors never question their own perspective, they just relentlessly hype it, which is quite typical of Positive Psychology’s boosterism. It feels spiritually thin – the book is about thriving in life, but doesn’t mention death, or God, or politics. Far from inspiriing difficult life-questions, the book closes them down with pat answers.

Another approach to wisdom in higher education is through mindfulness and ‘contemplative studies‘.There are contemplative studies centres at several universities in the US and elsewhere, and mindfulness centres at the majority of American medical colleges.

Like Positive Psychology, contemplative studies balances research and practice, encouraging students to try out the methods it teaches for well-being. Like Positive Psychology, it incorporates first-person subjective perspectives (how does it feel, what is it like?). But like Positive Psychology, contemplative science can sometimes be rather scientistic, instrumental and lacking in ethical reflection. They also tend to focus exclusively on secular Buddhist contemplation, ignoring other rich traditions. However, the better contemplative studies centres – Brown, Virginia – are genuinely interdisciplinary and include perspectives from the humanities.

University of Virginia’s contemplative studies centre balances research and practice, humanities and sciences

There are also universities trying to explore and promote the practice of wisdom from the perspective of the humanities, particularly philosophy. There is the ‘centre for practical wisdom’ at Chicago, which also has a famous Great Books programme; there are courses in Confucian wisdom and Aristotelian philosophy at Harvard; there is the Art of Living course at Stanford. There is also the ‘modern Stoicism’ project I’m involved with, which tries to marries theory and practice, science and humanities, empiricism and ethics.

And then there are whole universities which take a more holistic approach to well-being and flourishing. There are Catholic universities in the US which still embrace a Thomistic or Aristotelian view that the goal of education is eudaimonia, or flourishing. General courses in philosophy and ethics are a standard part of the curricula in these institutions. There are also some graduate colleges dedicated to a spiritual view of education, such as Naropa College in Colorado, or Schumacher College in Dartington, or Santiniketan University in Bengal.

I think British universities should follow American colleges’ lead, and start to offer courses in wisdom and flourishing, which are open to any undergraduates who want to attend, and which are also videoed. I would like to see courses that combine the empirical science around happiness with more open humanistic ethical discussions around questions like ‘what do we mean by flourishing exactly?’ These courses shouldn’t be outsourced to boring and not-very-smart well-being coaches, they should involve the best and brightest academics in the university.

Well-being and flourishing shouldn’t be something at the periphery of students’ learning journey – something you only think about if you break down. It should be at the heart of the learning journey.

American universities seem much better than British counterparts at offering courses in happiness or wisdom, probably because they allow students to take non-core courses in their first two years. British universities by contrast offer the occasional mindfulness course or well-being day, but nothing with much intellectual meat on the bone. It shouldn’t be too hard to offer such courses, though, and it would be a good selling point when competing with other universities for students’ money (besides being good for them!)

A modern course in wisdom would be eclectic – teaching not one moral philosophy but several. It could balance wisdom from ancient philosophies like Stoicism and Buddhism with research from psychotherapy or social science. It could encourage purposeful discussions in small groups, rather than simply drilling students in dogma. And it could encourage practice and self-experimentation – homework could be trying out a meditative technique for a few weeks, or trying to break a bad habit, or seeking out meaningful conversations, or volunteering for a local charity.

Humanities academics tend to dislike any focus on well-being, let alone ‘wisdom’, because it sounds conservative or neo-liberal to them. But a good course in wisdom would have plenty of room for critiques of particular definitions of well-being – perhaps the Stoic definition of flourishing is too individualist? Perhaps the Marxist definition defers happiness to some idealized utopian future?

In other words, a good course in wisdom would be genuinely pluralist, both politically and metaphysically.

The challenge is not to sacrifice free critical inquiry to dogma. There’s always a risk that universities pursuing wisdom fall prey to what critics call ‘medievalism’ (what they really mean is ‘Catholicism’). They can end up quasi-religious madrasas, endlessly repeating received wisdom, rather than challenging it. If an entire university is built around Positive Psychology, or mindfulness, then what happens to academics and students who challenge that approach – are they thrown out as heretics? You always need room for rebellion, for dissent, for criticism.

Universities can be committed to the goal of encouraging flourishing, while recognizing that the paths to flourishing are several, and rarely run straight.

If you work in this area, and want to connect to our research group on well-being in higher education, please contact Jules Evans at j.evans@qmul.ac.uk

Turning Jealousy into Compersion

Our final post for #BadFeelings week is by the eminent and influential philosopher of emotions Ronald de Sousa, Emeritus Professor at the University of Toronto. His main research areas are philosophy of emotions, philosophy of mind, philosophy of biology, Plato, psychoanalysis, epistemology, philosophy of sex. He has written four books including The Rationality of Emotion (1987) and Love: A Very Short Introduction (2015).


How malleable are emotions?  Countless internet memes display the dictum that “No one can control how they feel.”  This is especially likely to be applied to feelings one would rather avoid, or of which others might disapprove. Sexual jealousy is one of those: to feel it is unpleasant, and to be its target can be fatal.

And yet, a common assumption about romantic relations is “monogamism”, which insists on sexual exclusiveness.  That implies that we are entitled to sexual jealousy. Jealousy is proof of  love.

That assumption, I argued in my talk at the Geneva Negative Emotions conference, is both false and harmful.  An alternative attitude to one’s lover’s other loves is both desirable and possible.

‘Compersion’ is the joy we take in our lover’s pleasure with another partner. The very idea of it undermines the ideal of monogamy—an ideal flaunted in theory about as often as it is flouted in practice.

Loving someone essentially involves a desire for the beloved’s happiness. Too often we add a rider, But only provided that I am the one to cause it!  Surely that is a mark of possessiveness rather than genuine love!

Arguments in favour of monogamy tend to be question-begging. For example, the fact that my beloved loves another need not imply that she no longer love me. If you are tempted to object that no one can love more than one person at a time, consider how absurd that claim is when applied to the love of children or siblings. Yet surely these forms of love are as real as any other.

Yes, you might say, but romantic love is different because it is sexual love.

True; but do you really believe you can’t desire (and enjoy!) sex without love? If so, there is no obvious reason to think sex with one person is bound to encroach into love for another.

Our expectations are driven by an ideology of love.  An ideology, as I use the term here, is a social convention that pretends to be grounded in facts about what is natural. One example is the socially approved dogma that insists, in particular, that women are by nature incapable of feeling lust without love. Only on that basis could anyone think that if your beloved feels desire for another, she can’t still be loving you.

If only ideology prescribes sexual exclusiveness, jealousy might well be thought to be irrational. But emotions don’t just go away just because they are irrational. Why should we believe it possible to replace jealousy with compersion?

Apart from the personal experience of the many practitioners of polyamory who have done it successfully, there are three reasons for thinking that a large part of what makes jealousy seem both legitimate and ineliminable is nothing more than ideological prejudice.

Edvard Munch, Jealousy (1895)

The first consideration is well known to emotion researchers: sometimes, we can interpret a general condition of arousal in different ways, depending on the framing story about what is going on. A much discussed experiment conducted by Stanley Schachter and Jerome Singer showed that physiological arousal caused by purely chemical means—an injection of epinephrine—could lead a subject to report very different subjective emotional states, depending on the narrative context in which it was embedded. When a stooge behaved in an annoying way,  subjects became angry. When a stooge was zany and amusing, by contrast, subjects felt happy.

The story we tell about any situation can have a determining influence on the emotion we ascribe to ourselves, and specifically on its felt pleasantness or unpleasantness, or “valence”.

Perhaps, then, viewing your lover’s pleasure with another can be experienced very differently depending on the story into which we frame it. When it is an accepted part of an open relationship, it need not place the relationship in jeopardy. On the contrary, it may offer additional areas of communication, enrichment, and mutual appreciation. (Who knows? Your lover might get tips or techniques you can try together!)

A second consideration is based on an analogy with a curious feature of pain. In certain circumstances (under the influence of certain drugs or surgical interventions in the brain), pain can be felt but not minded. In other words, the aversiveness of pain can sometimes be separated from its felt character (as stinging, say, or throbbing or pinching). Sometimes it even gives rise to laughter rather than wincing.

Similarly, the character of the imagined scene of your lover’s pleasure with another might remain intensely, even obsessively interesting, but your attitude to it might be one of positive pleasure—compersion—rather than painful jealousy.

The third consideration is the one most directly related to the importance of ideology as a determinant of our emotions. We often ascribe an emotion without any insight into some subjective mental state, solely on the basis of what we assume “anyone would feel” in that situation. And that, in turn, can be driven by what we think other people would consider appropriate. Crucially, this applies not only to third-person ascriptions, but also to the identification of our own emotions. We often adopt an attitude just because we believe most people would think it natural and appropriate.  We all want to be normal.

In short, if you are able to discard the irrational expectations of monogamy in favour of the ideals of polyamory, that will make you more likely to respond with compersion rather than jealousy when your beloved tells you about their latest sexual adventure.

And that experience of compersion, once achieved, will feel deeply liberating. I recommend it.

Why pain is not a natural kind

As our #BadFeelings week draws to a close, we turn out attention to pain, with Dr Jennifer Corns, Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Glasgow. Jennifer works on the philosophy of mind, with a focus on pain. She has published a number of papers, including “Pain eliminativism: scientific and traditional” (2016) in Synthese, “The social pain posit” (2015) in Australasian Journal of Philosophy and “The inadequacy of unitary characterizations of pain” (2014) in Philosophical Studies.

Pain is a real and ubiquitous part of our everyday lives. Many of these pains are transient; our heads ache, our stomachs hurt, and our feet throb. Some pains are longer lasting: chronic pain and the pains from disease, healing, and surgery. Paradigmatically, a pain is felt, unpleasant, located in our bodies, and motivates us to do something to relieve or minimise the pain.

Despite its ubiquity, I argued that neither pain, nor any type of pain, is a natural kind. ‘Natural kind’ is a term of art. As I use the term, a kind is natural to the degree to which it is usefully referred to in scientific generalisations for explanations and predictions.  My central claim, then, was that neither pain nor any type of pain are usefully referred to in scientific generalisations for explanation or prediction.

This may seem–as it initially seemed to me–incredible.  The nature of pain is both historically and contemporarily debated not only within philosophy, but across science and medicine, but there has nonetheless been implicit agreement that pain is a natural kind.  ‘Pain’ and terms for types of pain, e.g. ‘headache’ or ‘inflammatory pain’, have been assumed to be useful referring expressions for scientific generalisations. Whether pain is a particular kind of sensation, is controversial and has been subject to reasoned argument. Whether there are pain receptors, pain pathways, or a pain area in the brain are all debated questions that have been subject to rigorous empirical investigation. Underlying these disagreements, however, is the shared assumption that when the dust settles, pain and pain types will have been discovered to have a nature such that we can explain and predict them in sciences like biology, psychology, and neuroscience.

If pain or pain types were mechanistically explicable, we would have a strong reason to think that they were natural kinds. If there is a mechanism, or system, whose workings determined our pains, then the workings of this system, or mechanism–once we discovered it– could support our explanatory and predictive generalisations about pain.  The assumption that both pain and pain types will, ultimately ,prove mechanistically explicable underlies inquiries into pain across the disciplines and, typically, likewise underlies the agreement that these are natural kinds. I argue, however, that empirical inquiry reveals that there are no such mechanisms or systems.

First, consider pain. Notice that many of the pains we suffer are different, such that you engage different treatment options when you suffer them. This is appropriate. As encoded in standard models, distinct types of pain reports implicate distinct ranges mechanistic activity, such that distinct treatment options are more likely to be effective. Empirical inquiry into these different types of pain as reported reveals that there is no single pain mechanism, or system, whose workings determines them.

Consider now these different types of pain as reported. Notice that sometimes your pain does not get better, even when you pursue the best treatment option. While an aspirin will often help a headache, for instance, sometimes it is entirely ineffective. Why? Because even as there are multiple distinct ranges of mechanisms implicated in pains that feel different, so there are multiple mechanisms involved even across pains that feel similar. Aspirin alters the activity of inflammatory mechanisms. These are often involved when you have a headache. Other mechanisms, however, are also always involved. It is sometimes these other non-inflammatory mechanisms which are crucial in determining your particular headache. While we have a good understanding of inflammatory mechanisms, we have no reliable mechanistic explanation for headache pain. Or, indeed, for any other type of pain.

Scientific inquiry into pain has revealed two facts that undermine the prospects for any eventual identification of explanatory mechanisms for pain or pain types. First, each pain is the result of the activity of multiple mechanisms. Second, these mechanisms include those for cognition, memory, genetics, and more besides, such that their convergent activity is idiosyncratic. It is the idiosyncratic convergent activity of multiple mechanisms that undermines the prospect of mechanistic identification–for either pain or pain types.

Even if there are no pain mechanisms or systems whose workings determine pain, however, we may still think that pain is a natural kind–we may, that is, still think it is useful to refer to pain for scientific explanation and prediction. Idiosyncratic convergence, however, likewise undermines utile reference in scientific generalisations. If each particular pain is the result of idiosyncratic convergent activity, then our generalisations about pains will always remain poorer than those generalisations that we might instead offer concerning the activity of any of the mechanisms converging in a particular case.

In her commentary on my paper at the recent negative emotions conference, Giada Dirupo was in apparent agreement with all the empirical facts mentioned in the summary above. She agreed that we are currently lacking any mechanistic explanation for either pain or pain types and, moreover, that we now know that a wide range of mechanisms are involved, idiosyncratically converging in each token pain. She nonetheless expressed hope that we may, eventually, be able to identify mechanisms for pain or pain types, such that reference to them for scientific inquiry remains useful.

While I agree that there is much to learn about the many mechanisms involved in pain experiences, it is, I maintain, the empirical inquiries themselves that support the conclusion that this hope is misplaced. Learning more about any of the involved mechanisms will not change that their convergence is idiosyncratic for each pain experience. If that is right, and this idiosyncratic convergence entails that we always lose explanatory and predictive power when we generalise about the pains instead of the mechanisms, then it’s time to give up the assumption that pain is a natural kind.

We should not conclude from this that pains are unreal. We should instead, I urge, understand pains for the convergent, idiosyncratic experience that they are. Like a parent in response to a child’s report that they have an ‘owie’ or a ‘boo-boo’, a good doctor will take a pain report seriously. They will use that report to identify an appropriate treatment target and pursue a treatment option that is likely to be effective for their particular patient, as we do for our particular children. It is my hope that pain treatment will improve if we focus on identifying and treating the particular mechanisms implicated in token cases and targeting our scientific inquiries on improved understanding of their workings.

Regrets, hot and cold

In our next post for #BadFeelings week, Dr Carolyn Price reflects on the feeling of regret. 

Carolyn is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the Open University. She is the author of Emotion (Polity Press, 2015) and a number of chapters and journal articles exploring the nature of emotions and the norms by which they are judged.

There’s no doubt that regret is a negative emotion, at least in one important sense: it involves a painful awareness that things are not as they should be. Indeed, regret is sometimes regarded as a negative emotion in a second sense – as an emotion we might be better off without. To live without regret, it’s sometimes suggested, as in the famous Edith Piaf song, is to live with courage and resolve. I don’t want to deny that it can be courageous to repudiate regret. Here, though, I want to focus on the positive side of regret, and in particular on a particular kind of regret. My first task is to say what kind of case I have in mind.

Regret is sometimes assumed to be especially concerned with the past – and in particular with one’s past mistakes. In fact, regrets are not always about one’s mistakes; and not all regrets are concerned with the past. Here, though, I do want to focus on cases of regret about some past mistake. Moreover, I’m interested in a particular way of experiencing regret. As Daniel Kahneman (1995) has pointed out, regret seems to come in different favours. Sometimes, it seems to have a wistful character: it’s associated with nostalgic reminiscences, bitter-sweet fantasies and melancholy yearnings. But in other cases, regret seems to have a biting or searing quality: one mentally kicks oneself or tears one’s hair. Kahneman calls this ‘hot’ regret. Almost certainly, regret has other flavours too. Here I’m especially interested in hot regret. What accounts for the bitter character of hot regret? And why might this kind of experience – painful though it is – have value in our lives?

Hot and wistful regret have several features in common. They both involve a recognition that the situation is not as it should be – that something that the subject likes or values has been lost or foregone. They both involve fantasies about how things might be, if only the mistake had not been made, and a wish that things were otherwise.

Plausibly, though, hot regret, involves something further – a desire to amend the situation. In some cases, amending the situation might be a matter of reversing the mistake (cancelling the purchase, recalling the unfortunate email). But even in cases where this is not possible, the subject might still be able to limit its effects (apologising, say) or perhaps, in the longer term, finding some way to compensate for what’s been lost. If so, there’s already one reason to think that hot regret is sometimes a valuable response: it not only alerts us to our mistakes but also motivates us to do something about them. Moreover, this feature of hot regret might well go some way to explain its tormenting character: the bitterness of hot regret is (at least in part) the recognition that the subject’s desire to amend the situation has yet to be fulfilled.

This, though, can’t be the whole story. If it were, hot regret would turn out to be a thoroughly present-tense emotion – a painful sense that the subject’s has a goal they’ve yet to satisfy. But then why suppose that subject’s regret concerns their past mistake?  Why not suppose that they simply feel bad about this unfulfilled goal?  Moreover (and connected with this) it’s not clear how this explanation will account for the self-recriminating character of hot regret.

Still, once we have the idea that hot regret motivates us to try to make things better, it’s not too hard to understand why it might sometimes focus, not only on the subject’s present lack, but also on the mistake that led to it. Most obviously, recalling our mistakes, and fantasising about scenarios in which we acted differently, might well help us to avoid making the same mistake again. Hence, it matters that we represent our mistakes as mistakes. More importantly, the fact that we could have avoided the mistake is evidence that the goal was an achievable one – and that, in turn, is evidence (if only defeasible evidence) that the goal is one that might still be achieved, and so is still worth pursuing.  This second suggestion might help to make sense of the fact that near misses tend to be the most hotly regretted: the closer the miss, the more plausible it is that the goal was once within our grasp; and so the more sense it makes to be motivated to try to satisfy it.

Moreover, on this second suggestion, it will be important that that the subject recalls their mistake not only as a mistake, but also as a mistake of their own. For while we can learn from other people’s mistakes, it’s only the recollection of our own near miss that counts as evidence that the missed goal is one that’s achievable for us, and hence worth our pursuing. Hence, in hot regret, we might expect the subject, not only to recognise that their regretted action was a mistake, but also to recognise that it was their own mistake – one they could have avoided. If so, we have an explanation for the self-recriminating character of hot regret.

If this account is correct, hot regret turns out to have a rather complicated temporal structure: to experience hot regret is to be aware of oneself as a being with a past, a present and a future. First, it involves representing oneself as a being with concerns that extend over time – as thwarted in the past, remaining unsatisfied in the present, but possible, perhaps, to satisfy in the future. Secondly, it implies taking responsibility for one’s past actions – not in a moral sense – but in the sense that one regards one’s past actions as one’s own and as having repercussions for one’s present situation and future choices. This raises a further intriguing possibility – that our capacity for hot regret might help to underpin our sense of ourselves as beings who exist through time. If so, that would be a further reason to value our capacity for hot regret.

Itchy Feet: The value of boredom

On day four of #BadFeelings week, we get to grips with the feeling of boredom.

Tristram Oliver-Skuse is a postdoc at the University of Geneva and a member of Thumos. He recently received his PhD from Melbourne University under the supervision of Karen Jones and Laura Schroeter. Most of his research is in the philosophy of mind.

My contribution to the negative emotions conference was about boredom, a new area of interest for me. I argued there are two types of boredom – existential boredom and mundane boredom – and that the second type, which is sometimes directed at objects, can actually play a useful role in our lives.

Two types of boredom

Boredom is under-discussed in the philosophy of emotions and what discussion there is tends to focus on the most oppressive sorts of boredom rather than more mundane varieties. The form of boredom that captures the majority of the attention is existential boredom – the sort of boredom that flattens out the evaluative landscape, making everything seem uninteresting.

This sort of boredom is well-captured by David Foster Wallace:

I’d look out the window and see the glass instead of anything past it. I’d think of the sorts of small games and toys and developmental projects my mother always suggested and within the boredom not only find them unappealing but be unable to imagine how anyone anywhere could possibly have the mindless energy to undertake any sort of child’s amusements, or sit still in the silence long enough to read a picture book – the whole world was torpid, enervated, worry-logged.

David Foster Wallace, The Pale King Chapter 23

By contrast, there is a common everyday sort of boredom which makes a certain thing stand out as boring against an evaluatively varied backdrop. Being bored by something in this sense involves other things seeming more interesting.

Imagine how you feel when you’re stuck in a staff meeting and you can see a nice patch of grass dappled with sunlight. Your attention may be draw to the grass, which will seem much more interesting than your meeting. It will require effort to redirect your attention back to the meeting precisely because of the different degrees of interestingness.

The productive side of everyday boredom

This more mundane sort of boredom can make us give up on some pursuits against our avowed intentions. In some cases, this plays a useful regulatory function, helping us to let go of projects that are not worth pursuing, even when we cannot see that they aren’t worth pursuing.

We see an example of the positive contribution boredom could make in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, where a doomed academic project threatens to consume the lives of Dorothea and her husband Mr Casaubon.

Mr Casaubon in a BBC TV adaptation of Middlemarch

Dorothea experiences mundane boredom whenever Mr Casaubon tells her about the project, and it is clear that Mr. Casaubon should experience this boredom when he pursues it. If he had felt more bored, and had given up on the project, his life would have gone better. Here is George Eliot’s description of Dorothea’s reaction:

Dorothea was anxious to follow this spontaneous direction of [Mr. Casaubon’s] thoughts .… but she was gradually ceasing to expect … that she should see any wide opening where she followed him. Poor Mr Casaubon himself was lost among small closets and winding stairs, and in an agitated dimness … easily lost sight of any purpose

George Eliot, Middlemarch, p. 145

Boredom is not just a mood

If we pay close attention to the qualitative features of experiences of boredom like Dorothea’s we can see that the feelings that make up the experience are not directed towards the boring object. Yet, I argue, her boredom is about a particular object.

To see the contrast, consider fear and depression. Sometimes fear is not a diffuse reaction, but a targeted one – it is about a particular thing which frightens us. By contrast, depression is not about things, it is a lens through which we experience the world. I argued that boredom is sometimes directed at things in the way that fear is.

If this is right, something other than the feelings must be responsible for boredom being about particular objects.

The response

Danny Dukes gave an interesting and entertaining response to my talk at our conference, outlining an empirically informed characterisation of the emotion of interest – plausibly the polar opposite emotion to boredom.

I also received very helpful questions on a number of fronts, and as a result I ended the day much less sure of my claim that boredom is directed at the objects that bore us. A number of people challenged the ways that I argued for this claim, and gave compelling reasons to think that it might be more similar to depression than I thought.

All in all, the conference was a fantastic experience. I am extremely grateful to all of the other participants, both for their excellent talks and for their generous and helpful questions.

The rational value of political anger

In this, the third in our series on #BadFeelings, exploring negative emotions, the philosopher Mary Carman looks at the meaning and value of anger.

Mary is a member of Thumos, the Genevan Research Group on Emotions, Norms and Values at the Swiss Centre for Affective Sciences, University of Geneva.


The feminist activist and poet, Audre Lorde, famously wrote in her essay ‘The uses of anger’ that:

The angers between women will not kill us if we can articulate them with precision, if we listen to the content of what is said with at least as much intensity as we defend ourselves against the manner of the saying. When we turn from anger we turn from insight, saying we will accept only the designs already known, deadly and safely familiar. I have tried to learn my anger’s usefulness to me, as well as its limitations.

Political anger, anger in response to injustice, can undeniably be a useful emotion as Lorde discusses. It motivates us to act, serves to unify us in fighting certain causes, and can even be important for our sense of self-worth and -respect. Defences of the value of anger, like these, have long been made in feminist literature and in political spheres more widely. At the same time, many people remain hesitant about the value of anger, especially in political contexts. Anger is often problematic in the way that it undermines meaningful dialogue or the way in which the angry person seems irrational – over-reacting, making mountains out of molehills, not engaging with the world in a sufficiently unbiased manner. Have the defenders of anger sufficiently addressed this worry and, in particular, the latter worry that the angry person is somehow being irrational?

When we look at the philosophical literature that focuses on the rational value of anger, we find a common theme. Anger, it is claimed, has rational value because of the way in which it is a response to injustices. Because anger, like other emotions, can be assessed for fittingness, it can be apt or not apt depending on whether a situation really does instantiate an injustice. Through being responsive in this way, the arguments progress, we can learn from anger: we learn about ourselves and about others – what our and others’ values are – but we can also learn about the evaluative world: we learn that here, now, things are unjust.

Recognising the role that anger can have in our coming to gain knowledge and understanding about the evaluative world is itself an important gain. It does not, however, get to the heart of the all-too-common complaint that the angry person is somehow irrational. We can be responsive to genuine injustices; we can experience anger that is fitting, apt, morally appropriate and a manifestation of self-respect. And yet we can still be unduly biased, too hasty in our decisions, too hasty to find fault in others and not in ourselves.

Drawing on empirical work on the effects of anger on decision-making and judgements in choice situations helps to flesh out what exactly this kind of complaint against anger is. Anger, the evidence suggests, has effects on both the processes and outcomes of our decision-making processes. It focuses our attention on things that reflect our anger; it encourages us to attribute blame to others, with a sense of confidence and certainty in ourselves; anger tends towards more risk-willingness; and angry thinking, unlike sad thinking, tends to be heuristic in nature.

If we apply these findings to a paradigmatic rational process like inquiry, we see that anger can be problematic in introducing undue bias, in undermining the coherence and consistency in our views through encouraging attribution of blame to others and not ourselves and through encouraging shallow examination of our ideas. Overall, we might worry that the lack of self-critiquing that tends to accompany anger creates problems for our rational values that require coherence, consistency and rigour in our own thinking. This, or so it seems to me, gets at the heart of the complaint that anger is problematically irrational, and it does so in a way that is independent of whether or not our anger can have other value in our lives.

Not all is bad, however. In my paper at the Negative Emotions conference, I proceeded to argue that anger can also have good effects on our thinking. For instance, and as feminist theorists have long argued, anger can draw our attention to injustices that we might otherwise overlook. The risk-willingness that accompanies anger may encourage us to proceed with lines of inquiry that are controversial or go against a status quo. And the optimism for one’s future and sense of control that accompanies anger can encourage resilience and productivity that can ultimately lead to progress, both in one’s own thinking but also in the shared knowledge base of a community as a whole.

Further, empirical studies suggest that there are mitigating techniques that are effective in counteracting unwanted effects of an emotion like anger, techniques such as reappraising the original emotional stimulus, inducing countervailing emotions, making use of choice architecture, or increasing awareness of the misattribution effects. We can expect all of these, to greater and lesser extents, to be applicable in political scenarios where anger is rife. In particular, increasing awareness of the misattribution effects of anger through being pre-emptively self-critical by expecting to justify oneself to an expert audience seems especially promising. Of course, this requires seeing one’s opponents as an expert audience, which requires seeing opposing views to one’s own as legitimate. This places an important limitation on when anger can be rationally defensible: not all cases of dogmatic anger will pass the test.

If all of this is right, then we have the tools to hand to counter the objection that the angry person is being necessarily irrational. In fact, in many typical scenarios of political anger, such as the anger of members of marginalised and oppressed groups, we have good reason to suppose that the angry are indeed motivated to and are making use of mitigating techniques to a certain degree. We thus do need to take the anger of others seriously.

With all of this in mind, other questions about anger then start to arise. What, for instance, should we say about rage and about mild indignation? What if anger not only is responsive to injustices but instantiates an important form of understanding injustice – how do we balance all the different aspects to the value (and disvalue) of anger? What if we choose to be ‘irrational’ in order to capitalise on other aspects of our anger in order to achieve some goal, where does that leave the rational status of our anger? In any event, Audre Lorde is quite right: we must learn both the uses and our limitations of our anger, and doing so can be for the benefit of ourselves and of others around us.

Read more about anger on the History of Emotions blog.

Further reading

Defences of anger:

  • Audre Lorde (1981). ‘The uses of anger’. Reprinted in Sister, Outsider (2007). Berkeley: Crossing Press, pp. 124-33.
  • Uma Narayan. (1988). ‘Working together across difference: Some considerations on emotion and political practice’. In Hypatia2, pp. 31–47.
  • Eusebius McKaiser (2015). ‘Anger misunderstood’. In Run Racist Run. Johannesburg: Bookstorm, pp. 103-113.
  • Amia Srinivasan (forthcoming). ‘The Aptness of Anger’. In Journal of Political Philosophy.

Reviews of empirical work of effects of anger and emotion on decision-making :

  • Jennifer Lerner and Larissa Tiedens (2006). ‘Portrait of the angry decision maker: How appraisal tendencies shape anger’s influence on cognition’. In Journal of Behavioral Decision Making2, pp. 115–137.
  • Jennifer Lerner, Ye Li, Piercarlo Valdesolo et al. (2015). ‘Emotion and decision making’. In Annual Review of Psychology1, pp. 799–823.

Life’s Anxieties: Good or Bad?

This is the second in our series of guest posts on #BadFeelings this week on the History of Emotions blog. Charlie Kurth is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Washington University in St. Louis. His book, The Anxious Mind (MIT, forthcoming) develops an extended philosophical defence of what anxiety is and why it matters for moral and social life. The book is part of a larger set of projects at the intersection of emotion research, moral psychology, and ethical theory. In this post he asks whether our assumptions about anxiety are unduly negative.

Folk wisdom tells us that anxiety is an inherently unpleasant and pernicious emotion. Anxiety is unpleasant, no doubt. And it can clearly go awry—taking our attention away from what matters or, worse, paralyzing us when we need to act. This, of course, is obvious to anyone who has ever struggled with a bout of anxiety. A recent slew of “anxiety memoirs” enriches the picture with tales of anxiety-wrought havoc and disaster (e.g., Berry 2014; Stossel 2013; Smith 2012).

But claims about the pain and trouble that anxiety can bring aren’t just bits of the common lore—they also have empirical and philosophical backing. For instance, a recent review of research investigating the effects of anxiety in evaluative settings notes that it’s “predominantly harmful to task performance” (Zeidner & Matthews 2005: 147). And among philosophers, there is a long tradition—in both western and eastern writings—that views anxiety, and negative emotions more generally, as problematic for virtuous thought and action: the virtuous person is typically thought to display a “tranquil mind” in the sense that there is “harmony” or “serenity” among her beliefs, feelings, and motives—competing impulses have been “silenced” (e.g., Kant 179; Annas 2011; Hursthouse 1999; McDowell 1998; Confucius). In short, we seem to have a rather unflattering picture of anxiety: it is impairing, inherently unpleasant, and inconsistent with virtue.

However, while there is much that is correct in these observations about anxiety, they’re not the whole story. Anxiety also has a more moderate and productive side. Here we find forms of anxiety that not only can help us see that we face a potential threat or challenge but that also bring the caution and risk assessment efforts that better enable us work through the challenges we face. Consider Henry Marsh. Marsh is one of the world’s most accomplished neurosurgeons. Though he has performed over 400 brain surgeries, these procedures still make him anxious. But, importantly, he does not see his anxiety as a distraction or a curse. Rather, he sees it as the manifestation of his accumulated surgical expertise: when determining whether to remove more of a tumor—at the risk of damaging healthy brain tissue—he is guided by his anxiety. As he explains, “you stop when you start getting more anxious. That’s experience” (Knausgaard 2015).

Neurosurgeon Henry Marsh, who is guided by his own anxiety when operating. Image © Alex Mackworth-Praed

But you don’t need to be a world-class brain surgeon to benefit from anxiety. The moderate twinge of helpful anxiety is a common feature of everyday life. The pinch of unease felt when talking to a new acquaintance signals that you may have said something offensive; this discomfit then brings an increased deference that can help you get your conversation back on track. Consider as well: feeling the itch of anxiety brings focus in advance of your big test; anxious about your important presentation, you decide to review it one more time and catch a subtle but significant mistake. Anxiety in situations like these—social interactions, public performances, and occasions where one may be evaluated by others—is beneficial because it functions as a regulating device: by signalling a potential danger or challenge, and by prompting caution, focusing attention, and engaging restraint, it operates as a check on overconfidence and our tendency to just go on autopilot.

Moreover, these examples are not just cherry-picked anecdotes. As David Barlow, a clinical psychologist and the founder of the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders at Boston University, explains in his book Anxiety and Its Disorders (Gilford 2001):

we have known for almost 100 years that our physical and intellectual performance is driven and enhanced by the experience of anxiety, at least up to a point. In 1908, Yerkes and Dodson demonstrated this in the laboratory by showing that the performance of animals on a simple task was better if they were made “moderately anxious” than if they were experiencing no anxiety at all. Since that time, similar observations have been made concerning human performance in a wide variety of situations and contexts. Without anxiety, little would be accomplished. The performance of athletes, entertainers, executives, artisans, and students would suffer; creativity would diminish…

So while we tend to focus on anxiety run amok—occasions where it manifests in unfortunate, even chronic and debilitating ways—that tendency obscures the milder, and likely more common, cases of anxiety and the benefits it can bring.

Importantly, anxiety’s positive contribution is not limited to facilitating social exchange or enhancing physical and intellectual performance. In contrast to the negative assessment suggested by the above comments from philosophers, anxiety can also make a positive contribution to moral thought and action. To see this, consider a familiar scenario.

The doctor has just told you that given the extent of your mother’s Alzheimer’s, it may be time to put her in a care facility. While you are inclined to follow this suggestion, the decision makes you anxious—your mother has always been terrified of nursing homes. But because of your unease about this decision you know you must make, you begin to consider whether there might be a better way to reconcile her needs and fears.

As this example draws out, your anxiety about your choice prompts (potentially) valuable brainstorming. Yet it seems to do more than just get you engaged in instrumentally valuable thought. For notice: your anxiety also captures something admirable about you—namely, your sensitivity to the significance of the decision you must make and your awareness of the limits of your knowledge and experience on these matters. If that is right, then it suggests that anxiety in a situation like this doesn’t just help you make a better decision; it’s also central to your admirable character—the manifestation of your virtuous concern.

The emerging picture of anxiety that we have here reveals it to be a complicated emotion, one that has the potential to both help and hinder our ability to negotiate the complexities of social and moral life. What are we to make of all this? How we answer this question will turn on both philosophical questions about the importance of emotions like anxiety in shaping thought and action, and empirical questions about how susceptible anxiety is to our efforts to cultivate it. On this front, I’m cautiously optimistic: anxiety is central to how we perceive, learn about, and assess the people and things that surround us; though it can go badly awry, it is also emotion that—with effort—we can shape so that we experience it at the right time and in the right way.

Negative Emotions: The good, the bad and the ugly

This week is #BadFeelings week on the History of Emotions Blog. We’ll be publishing a series of guest posts arising from a fascinating recent conference where a group of philosophers got to grips with the nature and significance of a range of emotions generally categorised as ‘negative’. In this first post of the week, the conference organisers, Mary Carman and Tristram Oliver-Skuse offer their preliminary thoughts on negative emotions. Mary and Tristram are members of Thumos – The Genevan Research Group on Emotions, Values and Norms, at the Swiss Centre for Affective Sciences (CISA), University of Geneva

Despite its bad rap, can anxiety in fact be good for us? How about public expression of contempt? Should we be contemptuous of Donald Trump and his orange menace and, if so, what form should our contempt take? What about embarrassment – does it in fact play an important function in our social lives, without which we would be much worse off? These were all questions touched upon in a recent conference on negative emotions at the Swiss Centre for Affective Sciences (CISA) and the University of Geneva: Negative Emotions – The Good the Bad and the Ugly.

Hosted by Thumos, the Genevan Research Group on Emotions, Values and Norms, eight philosophers tackled eight different negative emotions, followed by responses from graduate students in philosophy, psychology and sociology who are members of the Swiss Doctoral School in Affective Sciences and engaged discussion from the audience.

Towards the end of the conference, various participants drew attention to the fact that little had been said about what exactly a ‘negative’ emotions is. Some assumed that it was an emotion with a negative evaluation; others that it was an unpleasant experience. What the discussions at the conference highlighted, however, was how diverse the conceptions of ‘negative emotions’ are and how easy it is to overlook the ways in which an emotion – positive or negative – can have (or lack) value, if we attempt to pigeonhole it right at the outset. In this brief overview, we highlight some of the main claims made about the eight emotions.

The conference opened with Ronald de Sousa on jealousy with a response from Frédéric Minner. By arguing against monogamy, de Sousa argued in favour of a positive form of jealousy, ‘compersion’, the positive feeling appropriate when one’s romantic partner has sexual pleasure with another. Jealousy, he argued, revolves around viewing one’s partner as a possession. We should instead embrace their autonomy, down to taking pleasure in their enactment of their own sexual desires.

Sandy Berkovski then turned the conversation to embarrassment, followed by a response from Juliette Vazard. Embarrassment, Berkovski argued, is a lot more common and important than we might otherwise think. Some philosophers see embarrassment as a mild form of shame (and you can read more posts about shame on this blog), but according to Berkovski shame has an additional normative element and, on closer inspection, isn’t as common as we often think. Embarrassment is instead a mild form of humiliation.

The afternoon of the first day focused on two closely related emotions: anger and contempt. Focusing on anger in political contexts, Mary Carman looked at extant defences of the rationality of such anger which claim that it is rational insofar as it is a justified responses to injustice, but Carman argued that these defences fail to really address the common complaint that anger is importantly irrational. Drawing on empirical work on anger in decision-making, she cashed out this complaint through highlighting negative effects on our thought processes. Not all was bad, as she ended by suggesting both that there are positive effects and that the negative can be mitigated. This was followed by a response from Fabio Mancini.

Macalester Bell then picked up the theme of contempt, expanding on arguments found in her book Hard Feelings: The Moral Psychology of Contempt. She argued that contempt was a uniquely appropriate response to superbia – the vice of unrealistically and unethically elevating oneself over others, commonly manifested in racism and bigotry. According to Bell this unjust attitude can be combatted by the contempt of those demoted by the superbia. Heidy Meriste gave a response.

Day two opened with Charlie Kurth on the cultivation and regulation of emotions, with a discussion of the unique ways in which disgust, anxiety and compassion work, with a response from Melanie Sarzano. Since these emotions work in different ways and have different degrees of inputs from biology and society, different cultivation techniques are required. The differences between the sorts of techniques required have implications for different theories about the place of emotions in a good life, or so Kurth contended.

The conference then turned to pain, with Jennifer Corns presenting her arguments towards the claim that pain is not a natural kind. By this she means that the notion of pain does not play a positive role in the best scientific practices of explanation and prediction, not that we should cease talking about pain as a result, or that it is not a real thing. Scientific theories do not use notions like Portuguese red wine to generate predictions or explanations, for instance, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t Portuguese red wines. Giada Dirupo gave a response. Pain may or may not be an emotion depending on who you ask, but as various speakers had been drawing analogies between emotional experiences and pain experiences in order to develop their arguments, a focused discussion of pain was timely and well-placed amongst the themes of the conference.

Kicking off the final afternoon session, Tristram Oliver-Skuse talked about boredom and Danny Dukes responded with interest. Oliver-Skuse suggested that boredom poses a challenge to phenomenal views of emotional intentionality. In particular, he argued that it is possible to characterise what it’s like to experience boredom without ever mentioning the object that bores us, thus creating problems for a branch of views according to which the intentionality of a mental state is given entirely by the phenomenal character.

To close the conference, we focused on regret. Carolyn Price argued that we can distinguish two types of regret: hot regret and wistful regret. The former is characterised by a desire to change the situation we regret, that is, a motivation to act on a real possibility. The latter is characterised, instead, by a mere wish to do so – an idle motivation which is unconnected from real possibilities. Maude Oullette-Dube had the final words in response.

Over the two days of the conference, we had wide-ranging discussions from an engaged, supportive yet critical audience. This week, a few of our speakers will reflect on their emotions on this blog, thereby extending the discussion of the good, the bad and the ugly of what we may call negative emotions. As we hope you shall see, these so-called negative emotions are not a simple lot. We would like to think the Swiss Doctoral School in Affective Sciences, swissuniversities and CISA for their funding and support, as well as the History of Emotions blog for giving us this opportunity to share our work more widely. But most of all, we would like to thank our speakers, respondents and all who participated in the stimulating discussions and close examination of our affective lives.

“Ava’s Sigh” Prelude to Mood Shifts: A Sonic Repertoire, Tuesday, June 6th

Mary Cappello’s five books of literary nonfiction include Awkward: A Detour (a Los Angeles Times bestseller); Swallow, based on the Chevalier Jackson Foreign Body Collection in Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum; and, most recently, Life Breaks In: A Mood Almanack (University of Chicago Press). A Guggenheim and Berlin Prize Fellow, Cappello is a former Fulbright Lecturer at the Gorky Literary Institute (Moscow), and currently Professor of English and creative writing at the University of Rhode Island. She will be speaking as part of the Centre for the History of Emotions event series on Tuesday 6 June: book online here.

Every now and then, a sound stops me in my tracks and asks me to listen more deeply or more fully. Truly to encounter it and to learn its name. Recently, I had this experience with my two-year-old niece Ava’s sigh.

Longwood Gardens, Kennett Square, Pennsylvania

We were roaming a public garden where fountains trickled and snapdragons trilled when, of an instant, my niece paused to sigh. Prior to this articulation, she had crouched as if readying herself to spring, but did not. Instead, she stood up, looked about her, twirled a bit then sighed.

By certain measures, my niece has been slow to vocalization, and yet, to my mind, there is so much that sigh might signify affectively. An indicator of an in-between state, it might be saying,

“What do we do next?”

“How shall I move?”

“What do I want, now?”

When Ava breathes in more fully like this, it’s not for absence of breath, but as a way of inward-moving-saying. It was actually more of a simultaneous intake and outtake of air than the more commonly recognized adult “sigh of contentment” (and when was the last time you uttered one of those?) Thought is involved in Ava’s sigh, but not exactly the sound of a thought—it’s more like the sound of thinking’s before or after. Ava is not yet verbalizing a whole lot, but she knows the word for sky (rhymes with sigh). “What’s up there?” I ask her. And she replies, smiling, “sky.”

If I could create a study borne of my niece’s sigh or if I could allow its movement into my prose, if I could find a way to essay it, I might alight on something like “mood.” Maybe I would need to drop my pen, or use the crayon in a child’s hand, to sweep across the page or graze it. I would definitely need to listen anew, from the vantage of an altered state, and to sound my understanding, in turn.

Moods seem to be a bedrock of our being (we’re never not in a mood of one sort or another), at the same time that moods seem to exist quite apart from our ability to perceive them. Writing Life Breaks In: A Mood Almanack presented me with a tantalizing aesthetic problem: I mean, here’s this thing that is ephemeral, amorphous but ever-present and foundational. It will not let you pin it down, and it might only come into view when you aren’t trying to discover it. If you look too directly at it, it may not show itself, or will vanish. And the minute it does materialize, life is sure to break in, and poof, it’s gone.

In this new book, I wanted to court the mystery of this airy something that ever accompanies us, that some thinkers consider the very ground of our being, but which we barely have a language for, and I pursued something I came to call “cloud-writing” to do this. The prose forms that constitute the book are meant to invite a reader to hover and drift, to immerse and release, even occasionally, to sleep (perchance to dream). I’m not sure I succeeded at this—I’m still waiting for the review that says, “Life Breaks In succeeds in putting the reader to sleep”—but I was hopeful to play with form in such a way to approximate the vaporous density, the present absence, the ethereal materiality of mood.

Is mood a place?, the wonderful essayist and poet, Nicole Walker asked me recently, and I replied, Yes. But a place that is often enough un-locatable, un-map-able. That throws off both compass and clock.

The earliest form of the word in Anglo-Saxon suggests mood as a place—in the head or breast/chest. Nowadays, we affiliate it with a more broadly indicative “zone” that troubles distinctions between inner and outer states.

A detail from Florence Thomas’ Alice in Wonderland plaster bas-relief, Beverly Cleary Children’s Reading Room, Multnomah County Library, Portland, Oregon. From 1946 until 1971, Thomas was the incomparable creator of View-Master table top 3-D fairy tale tableaux, childhood “mood rooms,” par excellence.

Late in the pages of Life Breaks In, I begin to consider whether mood hovers in the space between words and the things to which words point. Or if moods are made of the stuff left over from childhood that left their trace without finding their way into representation (the psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas tempts me down this particular path). For any reader willing to remain inside the book’s strange precincts, there’s a kind of lift-off from language altogether that eventually occurs. The book is often operating on that threshold between the representational and the non-.

I’m always interested in getting at affective states that are off limits or that efface the cribbed playing cards of happy, sad, angry, and bored. I’m also very aware of the blunting of all of mood’s complex shadings by “depression” as a signifier, and a bottom line premise of my book is that mood is the basis for a lucrative pharmacology even though there is no agreement either in the hard or social sciences on what mood IS.

In this way, my thinking is companionate with that of Tiffany Watt Smith, who, in an article in The Guardian where she discusses her book, The Book of Human Emotions, writes: I offer this collection of emotions as a gesture against those arguments that try to reduce the beautiful complexity of our inner lives into just a handful of cardinal feelings. Because one thing I’ve learned is that we don’t need fewer words for our feelings. We need more.

The other day, I texted a friend a guffaw-making article on one of the US President’s latest debacles, and he replied, “I manage to laugh and seethe almost simultaneously.” There’s no emoji for that combo, and the revolution will not be Google-able. New feeling states that have no name are more interesting to me than the clownish antics of our current commander in chief even if he and his kin—my fellow Americans—have paved the way for their emergence.

Which brings me back to Ava’s sigh. Now I’m thinking of the gasping sort of sigh I suffer daily, those multiple intakes of shock since the election. All of the OMG’s, and the whatthefuckjusthappenedtodays. If Trump’s presidency and person are taking up all the air in the room, it’s obvious that we need to find another way to breathe.

Insofar as words inch us towards mood, they do so on levels that are corporeal, unconscious, and elemental. At one point in Life Breaks In, I suggest that how (the sounds of) words affect us might depend on the quality of the air through which words move. What would happen if we suspended our reliance on taxonomies of emotion, and considered mood instead in terms of envelopes, niches and spheres; as gravity and wave, voice and hue; as temperature and tempo; as making and creating; as reverberation and skin. Mood as air; mood and sound.

Sign up for Mary Cappello’s free talk on the evening of Tuesday 6 June at the Horse Hospital here: https://moodalmanack.eventbrite.co.uk


Gut Feelings Week: Dyspepsia and Navigating Nineteenth-Century Health

This guest post by Evelien Lemmens is part of Gut Feelings Weekin which a group of scholars participating in the conference Gut Feeling: Digestive Health in Nineteenth-Century Culture explore different aspects of digestion.

Evelien Lemmens is a PhD candidate researching the relationship between diet, digestion and emotional health in Britain between 1850 and 1937. She is part of the Wellcome Trust funded ‘Living with Feeling’ project at Queen Mary University of London’s Centre for the History of Emotions. Her research interests include history of emotions, social history of medicine, and gender history.

How do you solve a problem like dyspepsia?

Dyspepsia, as a term used in lay literature and endorsed by the non-medical community, experienced its glory days during the nineteenth century. Gaining traction from around 1800 onwards, the term’s use was spurred on by the growth of the British press, significant attention to the ailment by manufacturers of patent medicine, and an increased demand for public education on topics of diet, cooking, and domestic science. By the 1880s, self-proclaimed “dyspeptics” were found, as per the physician Thomas Clifford Allbutt and fellow commentators, on every street-corner and formed a real nuisance for the medical community. However, throughout its rise and fall, and up until today, the term ‘dyspepsia’ remains a vague and flexible term.

Early example of a published monograph showing ‘dyspepy’ on its title page. James Rymer, A Treatise Upon Indigestion, and the Hypochondriac Disease, 5th edn (London, 1789).

Dyspepsia (as dyſpepſy) first made an appearance in an English-language publication in 1661, but it was not until the 1780s that it appeared in the title of one. Originally limited to use in medical and academic texts, ideas of dyspepsia steadily infiltrated lay literature, gaining increased momentum from 1800 onwards. This increased awareness resulted in a wider cultural attention for and appropriation of dyspepsia. During the first half of the nineteenth century, dyspepsia transformed from a disorder of the intellectual elite to the national disease of Britain and America. This was allowed for by a broadening of dyspepsia’s aetiology, which came to comprise every possible cause: mental overwork; emotional agitation; poor ventilation; substandard food quality and preparation; improper dietary habits and lifestyle; tightly-laced corsets; poor oral hygiene and so on. The breadth of dyspepsia’s aetiology meant that anyone could fall victim to it, and it became a perfect disorder for ‘cure-all’ patent medicines to target.

Despite its prevalence in publications, especially during the second half of the nineteenth century, dyspepsia has remained a difficult ailment to grasp. By its most basic definition, dyspepsia equates to indigestion. However, the term’s meaning increased in breadth and complexity at the start of the nineteenth century, and the surge in attempts to delineate dyspepsia resulted in a critical blurring of the ailment entailed.

This blurring of dyspepsia contributed to divergent judgements of the ailment. On the one hand, dyspepsia could be accepted as an objective and legitimate category of diagnosis, as it was used in official medical reports, court cases, and parliamentary records. Dyspepsia could alter how an individual’s actions were judged, especially if these were considered erratic or out of character. For example, an 1894 inquest into the suicide of Captain Charles Ernest Cureton – an occasion of “considerable gloom” – offers a verdict of “suicide while temporarily insane” resulting from his dyspepsia, hypochondria, and depression “in spirits.” Here, dyspepsia connotes more than a failing of digestion.

Frontispiece of Sydney Whiting’s Memoirs of a Stomach, showing a man suffering from dyspepsia and indigestion resulting from over-indulgence and faulty habits.

On the other hand, dyspepsia was often depicted as a woolly excuse of a condition, amounting to little more than indigestion following one’s own faulty eating habits, accompanied with unwarranted self-pity. These “martyrs to dyspepsia” became a favourite target of satire in periodicals like Fun and Judy, and fear inciting advertisements for dyspepsia remedies, which presented the ailment as life-wrecking, were criticised as “puffery.” The social acceptance of dyspepsia was dependent on the interpretation of the term, and fluctuated over time, genre, class, and gender.

Today’s dictionaries continue to exemplify this difficulty, as is demonstrated by definitions of dyspepsia in the Oxford Concise Medical Dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary. The CMD, a standard reference guide for medical practitioners, defines dyspepsia as:

(indigestion) n. disordered digestion: usually applied to pain or discomfort in the lower chest or upper abdomen after eating and sometimes accompanied by nausea, vomiting, or a feeling of unease or fullness after eating.

Meanwhile the OED, the accepted authority on the English language, defines dyspepsia as:

Difficulty or derangement of digestion; indigestion: applied to various forms of disorder of the digestive organs, esp. the stomach, usually involving weakness, loss of appetite, and depression of spirits.

While both present dyspepsia as disordered digestion, the CMD mentions nothing of the accompanying mental and emotional dimensions that are present in the OED. Furthermore, while the CMD focuses very much on symptoms post-eating, the OED highlights a loss of appetite. The difference is striking: a sufferer of dyspepsia in the OED is inflicted with weakness and poor emotional health, as well as a lack of interest in food, whereas the sufferer in the CMD predominantly has digestive complaints following the intake of food.

Similarly, dyspepsia is still included in the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD-10) today. However, the diagnosis of dyspepsia is splintered and occurs in a myriad of diagnostic categories: a disease of the digestive system (K30); symptoms and signs involving the digestive system and abdomen (R10-19); or somatoform disorders of nonpsychotic mental, behavioural of neurodevelopmental symptoms (F45.8).

This splintered and dynamic nature of medical diagnoses, past and present, highlights the value of medical anthropology in studying the cultural and social history of medicine and health. In The Body Multiple, Annemarie Mol presents an ethnography of the day-to-day diagnosis and treatment of atherosclerosis, a comparatively straightforward ailment. Following “objects while they are enacted in practice,” which she terms praxiography, she notes the significant discrepancies between different specialisms (surgeons, physicians, internists, radiologists, pathologists) in diagnosing, explaining, and treating atherosclerosis. Though these discrepancies complement each other and can work together, they offer different interpretations of the disease and require tools of translation between them. In this study, Mol clearly demonstrates that medicine “has gaps and tensions inside it. It hangs together, but not quite as a whole.” Her approach – tracing the enactment of pathology – offers a new way for historians to approach the history of medicine through practice theory, which will illuminate dynamic tensions within and between historical ailments.

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