Martha Nussbaum's book Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions is by turns both fascinating and frustrating. Its prose is often ponderous. Its length is daunting; my copy sat by the bed, mocking me, for months. But Upheavals is also quite rewarding, at least if one has courage to skip past the more polemical parts.

It took me over 400 pages to realize that Upheavals is really half a dozen books, all shuffled together. Nussbaum includes essays on philosophy, history, æsthetics, sociology, psychology, and politics --- plus a lot of her own diary. Upheavals is also much akin to Douglas Hofstadter's Le Ton Beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language in that both hang heavy with personal statements of belief plus words of homage to a dear departed friend.

The main thrust of Upheavals? It's an examination of emotions --- "grief, fear, love, joy, hope, anger, gratitude, hatred, envy, jealousy, pity, guilt" and so on --- and an exploration of their place in life. Nussbaum tries to differentiate emotions from mere "bodily appetites such as hunger and thirst and from objectless moods such as irritation and endogeneous depression", though the distinctions are often blurry. (I suspect that there's actually a continuous spectrum; see BitsOfConsciousness (21 Jan 2000) for analogous speculation about mind.)

Martha Nussbaum sees emotions as "evaluative judgments that ascribe to certain things and persons outside a person's own control great importance for the person's own flourishing. Emotions are thus, in effect, acknowledgments of neediness and lack of self-sufficiency." Good! But in her exploration of the theme she distracts by introducing too many of her own personal experiences, ranging from dogs she has known to the death of her mother. She gets quite tangled up in discussing "disgust", a peculiarly tricky topic and one which perhaps brings in more idiosyncratic prejudices and hang-ups than any author is likely to realize. (I'm alluding here to Nussbaum's comments on various sexual issues.)

Nussbaum also shows little sympathy for less intellectual people than those that populate her circle. Her examples come from the highbrow arts, especially literature and classical music. There isn't much on football, rock, bingo, beer, monster trucks, wrestling, church choir, or TV sitcoms. There also isn't much science. Most of the book is subjective, focused on feelings. It's big on Proust and Joyce, Walt Whitman and Gustav Mahler.

And when social policy hits the fan, things really get a bit weird. Overall, although I agree with most of Nussbaum's goals, I have problems with many of the paths she suggests to reach those ends.

But amongst all its illogic and invective, Upheavals has sparkles. One of the most thought-provoking sections surrounds a quote from Adam Smith (Theory of Moral Sentiments) from a couple of centuries ago. The full version (including a clause which Nussbaum omits):

Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connexion with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befal himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the more profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.

As part of a discussion of compassion and pity, this brings home some of the real-world questions that are so hard to solve. Is the answer a Maternal State? Would things be better if Good People could get control of the levers of power? Or is the harm that Bad People might do far worse, given a government unleashed to "improve" the situation? I don't know ....

Adam Smith goes on to conclude, beyond the quotation offered by Nussbaum in Upheavals:

To prevent, therefore, this paltry misfortune to himself, would a man of humanity be willing to sacrifice the lives of a hundred millions of his brethren, provided he had never seen them? Human nature startles with horror at the thought, and the world, in its greatest depravity and corruption, never produced such a villain as could be capable of entertaining it. But what makes this difference? When our passive feelings are almost always so sordid and so selfish, how comes it that our active principles should often be so generous and so noble? When we are always so much more deeply affected by whatever concerns ourselves, than by whatever concerns other men; what is it which prompts the generous, upon all occasions, and the mean upon many, to sacrifice their own interests to the greater interests of others? It is not the soft power of humanity, it is not that feeble spark of benevolence which Nature has lighted up in the human heart, that is thus capable of counteracting the strongest impulses of self-love. It is a stronger power, a more forcible motive, which exerts itself upon such occasions. It is reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct. It is he who, whenever we are about to act so as to affect the happiness of others, calls to us, with a voice capable of astonishing the most presumptuous of our passions, that we are but one of the multitude, in no respect better than any other in it; and that when we prefer ourselves so shamefully and so blindly to others, we become the proper objects of resentment, abhorrence, and execration. It is from him only that we learn the real littleness of ourselves, and of whatever relates to ourselves, and the natural misrepresentations of self-love can be corrected only by the eye of this impartial spectator. It is he who shows us the propriety of generosity and the deformity of injustice; the propriety of resigning the greatest interests of our own, for the yet greater interests of others, and the deformity of doing the smallest injury to another, in order to obtain the greatest benefit to ourselves. It is not the love of our neighbour, it is not the love of mankind, which upon many occasions prompts us to the practice of those divine virtues. It is a stronger love, a more powerful affection, which generally takes place upon such occasions; the love of what is honourable and noble, of the grandeur, and dignity, and superiority of our own characters.

So is the best strategy perhaps to concentrate, with fanatical focus, on fixing oneself, rather than on telling other people what they should be doing? Again, I don't know ....

(see also ShotgunsAndRifles (6 Nov 1999), ColdHardMind (9 Feb 2000), ForYourOwnGood (21 Feb 2000), and UniversalFlourishing (25 Dec 2001))

TopicPhilosophy - TopicJustice - TopicSociety - 2002-06-29

(correlates: Comments on 2008-09-21 - Bachman Valley Half Marathon, WebGardening, AlignedMinds, ...)