At the Abyss: The Phenomenon of Self-Reflexive Anxiety

Ruth Rebecca Tietjen recently (2017) finished her PhD-thesis in Philosophy of Emotions at the University of Tübingen, Germany. She works on self-reflexive and mood-like phenomena of fear and anxiety, on religious and mystical feelings. She is particularly interested in how feelings relate to self-hood and processes of self-transformation. Ruth tries to bridge the gap between analytic and existential philosophy and to explore the boundaries of philosophy by touching the borders between philosophy, literature and performance.

Let’s start by having a look at the picture of an abyss:


On my last meters to the summit of the Zugspitze, the highest mountain in Germany, I have to descend some pegs, walk some meters on the ridge, a steel cable on my left side and the abyss on my right side, climb two short ladders, and finally pass another steel cable leading me to the golden summit cross. There are crowds of tourists who, together with me, want to reach the cross sparkling in the sun: people without any experience in mountaineering, young children, old people, all of them having reached the huge platform below the summit by cable car. They all are eager to finally climb up the last meters in order to take a picture proving they had been on the top of Germany. Right in front of me one of the most impatient visitors slips, picks himself up and continues pushing forward. This is the moment, when, for the first time of the day, I really become scared: “If he’s right above me on the ladder and slips again, he’ll definitely take me and some other people with him into the depths”, or so I think. So I’m happy to give way to the oncoming traffic and to thereby increase the distance between him and me. But safety with regard to this outer threat does not end my anxiety. Maybe I as well overestimated my skills? What if I slipped myself? What if I got dizzy? Hadn’t this thought – the thought that I might get dizzy – in combination with the sight of the abyss already started to elicit some kind of dizziness in me? I might fall down the precipice thanks to a fault of my own, or maybe even of my own free will.

For an inspiring analysis of a “traditional” self-reflexive emotion see, for example, Deonna’s, Rodogno’s and Teroni’s book on shame.

For reasons of safety, let’s take a step back, and ask which kind of feeling we are confronted with in this description. We are confronted with a feeling of fear; a feeling of fear of a specific kind: First, besides dimensions of world-directed fear – fear directed at outer events –, the feeling contains dimensions of self-directed fear – fear directed at dangers impending from within ourselves. We are afraid of how we might react, of whether our abilities will suffice to reach a presupposed goal, and/or of whether our will will be strong or stable enough to realize our aims. Metaphorically speaking, in being confronted with the outer abyss into which we might plunge, we are, at the same time, confronted with our inner abyss. Philosophically speaking, we are dealing with an at least partly self-reflexive phenomenon of fear.

Remarkably, the debate on self-reflexive emotions is focused on necessarily self-reflexive emotions directed at our past or present self like shame, guilt or pride. On the contrary, anxiety is a non-necessarily self-reflexive emotion directed at our future self. More precisely, self-reflexive anxiety is about our possible self: about who we as persons might be, might become or might have been.

Being afraid of oneself is a widespread phenomenon. We know it from everyday life: we are afraid of inadvertently burping in public or of failing an exam; we see ourselves confronted with impulses, desires or habits of our own with which we partly identify ourselves and from which we partly distance ourselves. We know it from psychology and psychopathology: think, for example, of the categories of performance anxiety or of obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD). We know it from art: think, for example, of Alice Munro’s autobiographically inspired short-story “Night” or of the whole bunch of movies dealing with a situation in which someone suffering from amnesia is confronted with a horrible crime s/he might have committed. What makes the experience I described in the beginning significant is thus not the quantity of this specific kind of experience, but rather its symbolic and existential character: the fact that it is our (descriptive and evaluative) self-conception itself that is challenged in such situations. Note, that my example inspired by Sartre’s famous description in “Being and Nothingness” thereby is partly misleading.[1] In the example, the possible consequences are disastrous. Thereby, we tend to lose sight of the fact that self-reflexive anxiety is crucially not (only) about consequences, but rather about causes and reasons of events, about the question what our (possible) reactions, behaviour, and actions might reveal about ourselves.

The concept of “existential feelings” was coined by Matthew Ratcliffe.

The phenomena I referred to are diverse. A philosophical analysis may help us to disambiguate them. For example, the description in the beginning contained different forms of self-reflexivity: being afraid of one’s own bodily reactions, being afraid of one’s own failure, and being afraid of one’s own weakness, ambiguity or changeability of will. Having a closer look at the different examples thereby shows that they contain different forms of self-attribution and different degrees of felt responsibility. Furthermore, we can differentiate different dimensions of “generality” that may be involved in experiences of self-reflexive anxiety: the phenomenon I described is an emotional feeling – a feeling directed at a specific situation. At the same time, it holds the potential for presenting itself as an insight into the basic structures of our existence or of human existence as such. For example, self-reflexive anxiety may confront us with the fact that the borders between ownness and otherness, activity and passivity, power and powerlessness with regard to our practical identity are blurred. Finally, the experience bears the potential for “sinking in” our affective live. It may become an “existential feeling”: a pre-intentional feeling that opens up, shapes, and limits the space of experiences, thoughts, and actions possible to us.

In the previous lines, I only could deliver a fragmentary insight into how a philosophical analysis may contribute to our understanding of the phenomenon of self-reflexive anxiety. Nonetheless, I hope that I was able to convey the idea that the commonly neglected phenomenon of self-reflexive anxiety is not only widespread, but also intellectually fascinating and existentially challenging. A philosophical analysis promises to deepen our understanding of self-reflexive anxiety and of self-reflexive emotions, selfhood and processes of self-transformation in more general.

Ruth is always in search of inspiration and discussion, so feel free to contact her: ruth-rebecca.tietjen [at]! For a much more fine-grained analysis of the phenomenon of self-reflexive anxiety, see her thesis “Am Abgrund. Philosophische Theorie der Angst und Übung in philosophischer Freiheit“.

[1]  Cf. Jean-Paul Sartre (1992), Being and Nothingness. A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology, translated by Hazel E. Barnes, New York: Washington Square Press, pp. 65ff.

‘Silence that Dreadful Bell!’: Hearing Fear in Shakespeare’s Othello

This week is Fears&Angers week on the History of Emotions Blog. We’ll be publishing a series of guest posts arising from our upcoming conference ‘Fears and Angers: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives’ where a group of scholars got to grips with fear and anger. In this second post of the week, Kibrina Davey explores fear in Othello. Kibrina is a PhD candidate and Associate Lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University, researching the relationship between violence and emotion in early modern tragedy. Davey’s articles on passions in the tragedies of John Ford and Philip Massinger have recently been published in issues of academic journals, Early Modern Literary Studies and Textus. Her research interests include early modern literature, history of emotions, and Renaissance medicine.

In early modern Protestant England, a bell was not only an auditory warning to alert townspeople of potential threats such as a fire or invasion, but also carried religious and supernatural connotations. In her study on seventeenth century bells, Dolly MacKinnon writes that:

Bells, depending on the context, could be interpreted as remnants of troubling pre-Reformation practices and superstitions, or as sounds of God’s warnings. In early modern society, bell ringing therefore remained problematic, as it “shall seem to incline to superstitions” The more extreme Protestants sought to silence bells altogether.[1]

In her study, MacKinnon details how in the writings of early modern Protestant pamphlets, bells became an indicator of the unholy, considered as signifiers of the supernatural, warnings from God and opposing the Christianity of Reformed England. Undoubtedly then, the sound of bells in Shakespeare’s Othello (1603), would generate fear among the listeners both in the world of the play and in the theatre itself.

In the opening scene of Othello, Machiavellian villain Iago, suggests ringing a bell to alert the townspeople to Desdemona’s elopement with Othello. After waking Desdemona’s father Brabantio with a frightening yell, Iago implores him to wake the rest of the town, exclaiming

Sir, you’re robbed! For shame, put on your gown.

Your heart is burst, you have lost half your soul.

Even now, now, very now, an old black ram

Is tupping your white ewe. Arise, arise,

Awake the snorting citizens with the bell

Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you.

Arise, I say! (1.I.90-96)

Here, Iago describes Desdemona’s elopement as a robbery, portraying her marriage to Othello and abandonment of her father as a domestic crime which affects the entire town. Othello is figured as a burglar, terrorising the neighbourhood and stealing people’s daughters. This passage reveals several early modern anxieties and fears, the first and most obvious of which is the fear of miscegenation, demonstrated through Iago’s description of Othello as an ‘old black ram’ copulating with the ‘white ewe’, Desdemona. This is added to when Iago refers to Othello as the ‘devil’, presenting him as both religious and racial Other to the citizens of Venice. Iago uses sounds, including his own voice and his reference to the ‘bell’, an alarm that signified the ungodly, to awaken the anxieties about foreign cultures that plagued the early modern populace.

In Act 2, Scene 3, a bell actually rings as part of Iago’s plan to have Cassio removed from the position of Othello’s lieutenant. After persuading Cassio to get drunk in order to exacerbate his passions and make him violent, Iago tells Roderigo to alert the town to the disturbance, telling him, ‘Away, I say; go out, and cry a mutiny’ (2.III.138), and moments later, a bell rings. Feigning ignorance, Iago responds to the alarm, asking ‘Who’s that which rings the bell? – Diablo ho! / The town will rise.’ (2.III.142-143) Once again, Iago links the bell with the devil, conjuring up ideas of the unchristian and supernatural, and imbuing the sound of the bell with the power to generate fear. The use of the verb ‘rise’ here, suggests not only that the citizens will be awoken, but that they will react volatilely, implying that the sound of the bell could exacerbate their fears to such an extent that it would result in violence, chaos and rebellion.

As well as Iago’s response, Othello’s reaction to the ringing of the bell, and the fight that caused it is equally important. He asks

Why, how now, ho! From whence ariseth this?

Are we turn’d Turks, and to ourselves do that

Which heaven hath forbid the Ottomites?

For Christian shame, put by this barbarous brawl: […]

Silence that dreadful bell: it frights the isle

From her propriety. (2.III.151-158)

Here, Othello expresses his anxiety about the fight between Montano and Cassio. He refers to their behaviour as unchristian, comparing their violent outburst to the actions of Turks and Ottomites, two groups of people who represent the Muslim religion which Othello signifies himself. Furthermore, he describes their actions as ‘barbarous’, suggesting that they’re unable to govern their passions. This choice of words is not only telling of the cultural and social anxieties of early modern society, but also indicates the fears that trouble Othello himself. Already, by this point in the play other characters have expressed their fears about Othello’s race and through these acts of hateful speech, the anxieties about his own people have transferred onto Othello himself. This fear is then exaggerated by the sound of the bell which greatly distresses Othello. After all, read more literally, the bell could indicate the threat of invasion by the Turkish armies, and ‘Othello would have been reminiscent for contemporary audiences of the Turks that were considered so dangerous in the play.’[2] The bell provokes Othello’s fears about his colour and culture on more than one level.

In the last two lines of the speech, Othello worries about the effect of the bell on the townspeople, using the adjective ‘dreadful’ to describe the sound.  The word ‘dreadful’ here does not merely convey an unpleasant noise, but an alarming one. He worries that the ringing of the bell will ‘fright the isle/ From her propriety’, suggesting once again the transformative effect that fear can have when transmitted aurally. Not only will the alarm scare the citizens, as in Iago’s description above, it may cause them to act improperly, recalling Othello’s fears about ‘turning Turk’ and behaving in an uncivilised manner. The bell which stands for the unholy, the supernatural and the un-Christian, brings out the fearful voices both real and imagined in Othello’s head that tell him that he himself is sinful, savage, and inhuman.

[1] Dolly MacKinnon, ‘”Ringing of the Bells by Four White Spirits”: Two Seventeenth- Century English Earwitness Accounts of the Supernatural in Print Culture’ in Religion, the Supernatural and Visual Culture in Early Modern Europe ed. by Jennifer Spinks and Dagmar Eichberger (Leiden: Brill, 2015) pp. 83-104 (p.84)

[2] Andrew Hadfield, A Routledge Literary Sourcebook on William Shakespeare’s Othello (London: Routledge Taylor and Francis Group, 2003) p.11

Requiem for a Bad Dream: Fear of the Night, the Devil and the Nightmare in Early Modern England

This week is Fears&Angers week on the History of Emotions Blog. We’ll be publishing a series of guest posts arising from our upcoming conference ‘Fears and Angers: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives’ where an interdisciplinary group of scholars will get to grips with fear and anger. This post is by Charlotte-Rose Millar, a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland and an Associate Investigator with the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (1100-1800). Her book Witchcraft, The Devil and Emotions in Early Modern England is forthcoming with Routledge in 2017​.

This post was originally published on the Inner Lives project blog.

Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).

In 1781, Henry Fuseli painted his now-famous depiction of The Nightmare. The painting (above) depicts a woman lying on her back in bed. She appears asleep or in a deep trance, her eyes are closed, she is wearing a figure-hugging robe, and her hair falls sensually off the bed. On her chest sits a demon, a horrid, blackened creature that gazes unsettlingly at the viewer. A mare peeking through the curtains reinforces that the experience on display is the nightmare: an encounter believed to be caused by a demon or, in some cases, a witch, sitting on the chest.

Descriptions and depictions of the nightmare existed long before Fuseli’s painting and continue to resonate today. But what exactly is the ‘nightmare’? When described in these terms, the experience takes on a completely different meaning than that of a bad dream or disturbed sleep. Rather, ‘the nightmare’ refers to a specific episode, one defined by waking with the feeling of something heavy on the chest and being unable to move. Those suffering from a nightmare encounter were likely to experience: a feeling of pressure or weight, often on the chest; a feeling of a presence; a sense of being fully awake but to appear sleeping to others; keen awareness of physical surroundings; paralysis or very limited mobility; fear, often terror; psychic, visual, or aural hallucinations; and fear of death. The nightmare was also most likely to occur when the victim was sleeping in the supine position, that is, on their back: a point reinforced in Fuseli’s representation. These experiences have been described as the ‘dark other’ of the dream, one that provides insights into our inner selves.

Wellcome Images (CC BY 4.0).

One extremely common way of understanding the nightmare in the early modern world was to attribute it to the Devil or to witchcraft; indeed, I first became interested in these nocturnal ordeals while researching seventeenth-century English witchcraft pamphlets. For some the nightmare represented a sexualised demon such as an incubus or succubus, for others, the hallucinations caused by the nightmare reinforced their belief that they were being tormented by a neighbourhood witch. But nightmare encounters were not confined to the early modern period. Fascinatingly, historians, anthropologists, and psychologists have found accounts of the nightmare over almost 2,000 years of human history, with cases from the classical world right up until the present day. These findings have led many historians to label the nightmare as a form of sleep paralysis, a biological condition that appears to have the same, or extremely similar, symptoms to those of the early modern nightmare. This finding has allowed the nightmare to be labelled a ‘pan-human’ phenomenon, one that –  transcending time and space – can provide insight into changing cultural fears.

Wellcome Images (CC BY 4.0).

In both early modern and modern nightmare experiences, fear appears to be an essential component. One eighteenth-century sufferer, whose torment was reported in John Bond’s 1753 An Essay on the Incubus, or Nightmare, was ‘so much afraid of [the nightmare’s] intolerable insults’ that he slept all night in a chair, ‘rather than give [the nightmare] an opportunity of attacking [him] in an horizontal position’. Another victim ‘imagin’d the Devil came to his bedside, seiz’d him by the Throat, and endeavour’d to choak him. Next day he observ’d the black impressions of his hard Fingers on his Neck’. As a result of these encounters, this man made his servant watch over him at night so that he would wake him and thus ‘rescue him from the Paws of Satan’. The dread in these descriptions is palpable and, in both cases, the sufferers imagine the nightmare as a tangible beast that can hurt them and, in turn, be physically warded off.

In these early encounters, the biological fear that is part of the nightmare encounter became representative of the greater anxiety caused by belief in the Devil’s presence. Today, sufferers of the nightmare, or sleep paralysis, are less likely to assume the appearance of Satan, although this is not unheard of. Instead, many modern day sufferers fear alien abduction; a fear that perhaps has more relevance than the demonic in the modern world. Others have more mundane fears: one Canadian sufferer, interviewed in 1973, claimed that ‘those TV chipmunks’ had ‘hagged’ him in the night, a word used to describe nightmare encounters.

Wellcome Images (CC BY 4.0).

So what does this mean for how we interpret supernatural phenomena or access inner lives? Does it help? Or is it all a fascinating yet essentially unhelpful distraction? It’s clear that nightmare encounters allow us an insight into inner lives; through the hallucinations associated with these phenomena in particular we’re given vivid insight into people’s darkest fears (whether these be devils, aliens, or the suddenly suspect Chip ‘n’ Dale). The biological roots of the nightmare also help us to understand supernatural belief. In cases where men and women claimed they were ridden in the night by a neighbourhood witch who crushed them and left them unable to move, it may very well be the case that the afflicted did indeed hallucinate the appearance of the person they suspected of witchcraft. Thus, the nightmare would act to confirm suspicion and, also, to invoke terror. Through exploring cases where men and women experienced a ‘nightmare’ encounter we gain insight into the very real fear that men and women felt towards certain people, phenomena, or beings and, in turn, learn how these phenomena were believed to act in the world. Through its unique symptoms, the nightmare allows a genuine glimpse into how a biological phenomenon can be culturally constructed and, in turn, allow insights into inner lives.

What to do about anger? Pragmatism and passionate disagreement

This week is Fears&Angers week on the History of Emotions Blog. We’ll be publishing a series of guest posts arising from our upcoming conference ‘Fears and Angers: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives’ where an interdisciplinary group of scholars will get to grips with fear and anger. In this, the first post of the week, Dr Mara-Daria Cojocaru asks what we should do about anger. Mara-Daria is lecturer in practical philosophy at the Munich School of Philosophy. She is working on pragmatist theories of emotion and is interested in the epistemic role of affective states. Her background is in political philosophy. 

Register for Fears and Angers (closes June 12)

I am on a bus in Germany and a passenger is being asked to show his ticket. The man is travelling on a ticket he claims is valid, but the bus driver thinks it isn’t. We are on our way to a book festival and some festival tickets include transportation. However, it seems that there are a number of bus companies operating in the area and there is confusion about which company, and which journeys, are included in the ticket the man bought. The situation gets heated. Another passenger, herself also on the way to the book festival, intervenes and offers evidence in the form of the festival leaflet that this bus is, indeed, not included. The man gets even angrier and begins shouting at both the bus driver and the woman. The woman sides with the bus driver, the bus driver sides with indecision, and in light of the increasing delay to our journey, mixed information coming from his superior (whom the driver calls “mein Meister”, my master), and the man getting ever more agitated and refusing to pay, the bus driver leaves and starts driving again. After a few minutes, he announces over the speaker that he has paid for a ticket for the man out of his own pocket and that this is how he resolved the situation he does not find objectively resolved. The passenger mockingly thanks across the bus and scoffs at the woman who had intervened and sits defeated right behind him. Ten minutes later, we hear the bus driver again: thanks to the woman who had supported him, because, normally, he’d find himself alone in such disputes. She signs a friendly, conspiratorial gesture with her age freckled hand. I have very mixed feelings: I had been wondering whether some kind of prejudice on behalf of the bus driver might have been at play when he attempted to control the passenger since he is not Caucasian. I disapproved of the zeal with which the woman appreciated that the person was double-checked in the first place (she had given the bus driver the thumbs up). It is Germany in 2017 after all. I felt that it is easy to get confused with so many bus companies and that nobody would be harmed, really, if this passenger got a free ride. Having recently returned from the UK, I felt ashamed of the culture of deference to authority in my home country. I thought it a nuisance that we were held up for that long. I was annoyed that the man would refuse to look at that leaflet the woman was showing to him, and I asked him why he wouldn’t take a look: he stuck his tongue out at me. I registered anger dwelling up in me as well – and decided to revise this blogpost, which I had just started, and use this situation in order to make my point: that there must be something that we can do about anger that we currently don’t always manage to do. Let me explain.

Maybe we feel we really shouldn’t, but many of us get angry when we disagree, particularly when we disagree about moral and political questions. Unfortunately, philosophers are of little help here because they are divided on the matter. While already Plato knew why we get angry in such situations, philosophers these days defend two competing views as to what we should do with our anger, if doing something about anger has to do with the way we think about it. Basically, one group of philosophers thinks that anger is an ‘apt reaction to injustice’, the other group regards it as ‘road to perdition in moral and political life’. In the first case, anger is taken to be a faculty, like a sensor: there are certain facts in the world, in particular the destruction of value, that “call for” an angry response. Not responding angrily to these facts is at best a sign of apathy and at worst due to false consciousness. And there are many values that are potentially destroyed in the situation on the bus: Imagine the man was indeed travelling on a valid ticket and neither him, as a victim, nor any of us on the bus who are witnesses to what would be systemic racial prejudice, would protest. Accordingly, the idea that anger is an ‘apt reaction to injustice’ has risen to prominence in feminist and racial justice circles. However, we don’t know whether the man is a victim, and whatever his reasons for being angry, just assuming that he is because the situation fits a pattern we have learned to find upsetting doesn’t seem to be enough. Anger seems to be a somewhat unreliable sensor.

Others, in turn, most notably in recent times Martha Nussbaum, suggested that anger should not be allowed in public life: as the self-righteous reaction by the woman on the bus might illustrate, anger breeds anger, it may be seen as essentially unreasonable, a bad character trait even, and undermining the institutions we have in order to deal with moral and political problems. On this view, the most reasonable thing is to call the authorities and to emotionally transition into a concern for justice. While this comes close to what the bus driver did, imagine that, actually, yes: the passenger was travelling without a valid ticket. However, imagine, too, that the information was really not easily available to an outsider and that at some point he gave up in frustration and took his chances. He may have been in a hurry, and we can think of many other structural aspects that may have co-created the problem. We may not be raging, but, eventually, we may be able to see the problem, too. Thus, it seems too easy to simply dismiss hotheads and people who can come to appreciate anger in other ways from moral and political debates either.

I want to suggest, then, that both views, while each seeming plausible in one way or another, have a problem because they take anger at face value. Anger is either taken to be too reliable or too stereotypically unreasonable. Philosophical pragmatism promises help. For while one pragmatist, William James, was famous for promoting a particular view of what an emotion essentially is, the dynamic and semeiotic conception of emotion we find in pragmatists such as Charles Sanders Peirce and John Dewey helps us in thinking what we could do about them. The most important feature of which is interpreting anger in such ways that the violent disagreement that tends to get us stuck, on the bus or in moral and political life, is turned into one that is simply passionate.

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

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.