Plumping up Philosophy with the Lipids of Desire

Elizabeth Spelman

  • On the Emotions by Richard Wollheim
    Yale, 269 pp, £19.95, November 1999, ISBN 0 300 07974 5

While Richard Wollheim doesn’t go so far as to suggest that the unexamined emotion is not worth feeling, he does proceed on the assumption that it is beneficial for philosophers and non-philosophers alike to have an accurate picture of a powerful and ever-present part of the human constitution. And in a variety of ways he chides philosophers for their inattention to what he takes to be certain facts of the matter about our psyches. To understand what emotions are, Wollheim argues, one must appreciate the very particular role they play in our relationship to the world about us (and inside us). In his inventory of mental phenomena, emotions join beliefs and desires in a holy trinity of roles: beliefs provide us with a picture of the world, desires with things in that world at which we aim, and emotions with an orientation or attitude towards those things. ‘If belief maps the world, and desire targets it, emotion tints or colours it: it enlivens it or darkens it, as the case may be.’ Without the map that belief provides, there would be nothing for desire to target; and without the targets that desires provide, there would be neither the satisfaction nor the frustration from which emotion as an attitude could form. However distinct from desire, emotion nonetheless ‘rides into our lives on the back’ of it. In Wollheim’s psychic cartography, emotions have itineraries: they typically, though not necessarily, proceed along a path marked by nine stages or moments, a prominent subset of which includes the presence of desire, its satisfaction or frustration, the development of a persisting attitude towards the source of such satisfaction or frustration, and the expression of the emotion in behaviour. Working out the details of these ‘characteristic histories’ provides the book’s main structure: it takes up fully two-thirds of the text, and constitutes the major part of his effort to ‘repsychologise’ the philosophical study of emotion.

Continuing a campaign that animates much of his work, Wollheim hopes to underscore and undermine what he refers to as the ‘cardinal philosophical error’ of ‘depsychologisation’. There is something lacking, Wollheim believes, from philosophers’ accounts of mental phenomena such as belief, desire and emotion, and it is a ‘strong theme’, indeed one of the ‘central themes’ of his book to reintroduce it. Wollheim suggests that ‘depsychologisation’ – a clang of a word in an otherwise melodious text – is the result of at least two different commitments on the part of the philosophical brethren (and sistren): to investigate emotions by closely analysing the conditions of coherence in the language employed to report them or talk about them; and wilfully to exclude, if not dismiss, psychoanalytic accounts of emotions and other mental phenomena provided by the likes of Freud and Melanie Klein. The net result of these directions, or misdirections, in philosophical thinking is to squeeze out – as either incoherent or, more charitably, as the proper study not of philosophers but of psychologists engaged in empirical science – desires and emotions as things with histories, with robust ‘psychological reality’. Philosophers, Wollheim laments, tend to assume that we need to think about desires and emotions only in their adult version, thereby ignoring the way they unfold; this deprives us of a full understanding of the particular power of emotions such as shame and guilt, the ‘inordinate, or imperious, character’ of which is best accounted for in terms of a rather complicated story, provided by psychoanalytic theory, of the introjection of powerful, fearful figures.

Wollheim’s desire to repsychologise the philosophical account should not be confused with a desire to dephilosophise it. He shows no lack of certainty about whether the questions he wants to answer are philosophical ones, but he thinks that for the most part philosophers have deprived themselves of the range of resources they need to provide adequate answers. From Wollheim’s broad conceptual loom comes an account of emotion the warp of which has the texture of (or at least strong strands from) psychoanalytic theory, and the woof of which is from the late 20th-century philosophy of mind. Thus the order of the issues discussed follows what Wollheim describes as the stages of the characteristic psychological development of an emotion: a kind of soup-to-nuts menu, the soup being a desire, the nuts being action, the main course the formation of a persistent attitude or orientation. In his extensive commentary on each stage, the terms of which will be particularly familiar to students of the philosophy of mind, Wollheim takes pains to explain why emotions aren’t the kind of thing that can be, or not be, satisfied, nor the kind of thing that can cause, or fail to cause, something else; how feeling is not simply correlated with but an intrinsic part of an emotion; and the difference between the way an emotion comes to expression in behaviour and the way a thought or an image comes to be expressed aesthetically. To the extent to which he is by the bye repairing what he takes to be flaws in the positions of others, his arguments are with other philosophers – no quarrels here with Father Freud or Mother Melanie – and kept for the most part to the footnotes.

If one branch of Wollheim’s campaign is to plump up the philosophical study of emotion with the lipids of desire, another is to undermine what he takes to be the desiccating effects of over-intellectual conceptions of the mind. It is perhaps here that the influence of Hume – a philosophical fellow-traveller whom Wollheim frequently acknowledges in the generous and gracious prefaces to his books – is clearest. In Book II of A Treatise of Human Nature, Hume famously insisted that ‘reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.’ Wollheim also sees reason as handmaid to emotion, but he alters the metaphor, implicitly suggesting that reason provides fine-tuning, or perhaps a kind of fertiliser, for the emotions it serves. Both thought and emotion are mental dispositions, but whereas emotion, like belief and desire, has ends,

thought is a merely instrumental disposition. Thought takes on an end from the outside. So, when thinking is made to serve inquiry, it serves the end that inquiry pursues: it aids in the construction, or purification, of some truth-oriented picture of the world. Equally, when thinking is recruited into the service of emotion, it helps to strengthen, or elaborate upon, some attitude that we have towards something in, or held to be in, the world. It follows that, if thinking intellectualises belief, there is no reason to conclude it will intellectualise emotion. When Othello entertains the thought that Cassio possesses the handkerchief spotted with strawberries, and, under the tutelage of Iago, turns it over and over in his mind, he does not intellectualise his jealousy. He plunges deeper and deeper into the jungle of his imagination, as he is the first to realise.

Indeed, Wollheim goes on to say, it is thought which gives emotions ‘their chaotic, overgrown, vegetal character’. Thought, on this view, composts emotion rather than nipping it in the bud. And so the internal tensions or conflicts we experience are not to be understood as battles between thought and emotion for dominion over our souls. Thinking and emotion are in fact on very friendly terms: ‘The direction in which a person’s thoughts will, under satisfaction or frustration, turn and cling cannot be prised apart from what specific emotion it is that forms’; the direction our thoughts take influences the form our emotions take, and as the emotion forms it provides a centre or focus around which thoughts cling or hover. (This is why, for example, a government campaign to induce pride in the citizenry by focusing on the country’s military strength risks inviting that same citizenry to think about matters that may well enrage them.)

Though in some contexts we use ‘thinking’ and ‘reasoning’ more or less synonymously, thinking itself can be rational or irrational, so the fact that thinking about someone in a certain way goes hand in glove with being angry with them, and vice versa, doesn’t mean the anger is rational – though it isn’t necessarily irrational. ‘The truth of human nature seems to be that we can be angry with someone, or despise someone, or love someone, without finding the person deserving of that emotion,’ and such emotions cannot be ‘altogether rational’ Unless we think the objects deserve them. (Even then, Wollheim urges, strictly speaking it is beliefs that are rational or irrational, not emotions.)

Our emotional lives, then, might or might nor line up in accordance with our considered beliefs, and to that extent would hardly seem to be matters over which we have much control. Wollheim’s views about the extent of such control are evident from the very beginning of the book: his statement of the nine moments in the characteristic history of an emotion portrays the human psyche as more or less a vessel, or a crucible, in which a desire forms, then an ‘attitude develops’ and ‘persists’, morphing into emotion proper, something which ‘manifests itself’ and ‘tends to find expression in behaviour’. Wollheim’s project of repsychologising the psyche tends strongly to depersonalise it, in the sense that the person having the emotion seems so passive as to be almost absent – as if it is not that we have the emotions but that the emotions have us. Latter-day Aristotelians and Strawsonians will find themselves wondering to what extent Wollheim’s investment in psychoanalysis has produced an account in which psychological states have become estranged from the persons whose states they are. This tendency to depersonalise emotion even as he attempts to repsychologise it is most pronounced in Wollheim’s analysis of shame and guilt, to which he devotes the last third of the text.

The experience of shame and guilt involves feeling the gaze (in the case of shame) or hearing the voice (in the case of guilt) of a ‘higher authority’ charging us with the failure to live up to an ideal (shame) or to heed an injunction (guilt). This ‘criticising agency’, however, is neither the philosophers’ Reason (for the hundredth time in the book, Kant is flipping over in his grave) nor the theologians’ Divine Spark: it is, more or less, Freud’s superego. ‘The eyes that rest accusingly’, ‘the voice that rebukes’, are ‘the products of fantasy’. The fact that the authoritative critics within us get there through a process, begun in our very early years, of introjecting or internalising them does nothing to undermine their heteronomy, the sense of them as an alien and bullying presence. Our lack of control is multiply determined: it is erroneous to think, ‘against all the evidence that our inner life offers us, that everything that goes on in the mind, at least in the thinking part of the mind, is under our control’; the emotions of shame and guilt form ‘independently of the person’s beliefs’; and fantasy is mostly unavailable for conscious retrieval. We play the shell game of introjecting the criticising agency without any awareness of or control over what we are doing, and so early and so swiftly that we cannot help believing that the pea got there by some other and more highly authoritative hand than our own.

The features of shame and guilt which make their origins opaque to us, and leave them unconstrained by our beliefs, and not subject to our control (though their power is attenuated through a lifetime of critical reflection), might appear to jeopardise their claim to being emotions that could make us partners in morality. For the norms and ideals in the light of which we feel shame or guilt are themselves, on this account, the deliverances of fantasy, and our acceptance of their authority would appear to be a matter of their psychological power over us, not some rightful entitlement on other grounds. Isn’t this simply a matter of might makes right, only now on an internal battlefield? Morality, one might have thought, is supposed to give us a leg up in our resistance to the bullying power of tyrants, internal or external: it is not supposed to be the end result of their dominion over us.

At this point it becomes clear just how far-reaching the implications of Wollheim’s campaign to repsychologise the philosophical study of mind are. On his reckoning, we have to decide whether morality is (a) a set of propositions, or a code, lacking ‘psychological content’ and unconnected with ‘the facts of empirical human nature’, or (b) something having its origins in (even if it is not reducible to) those very facts. On the first view, moral ideals and moral injunctions must be derived from something independent of or anyway not beholden to human nature in order to be entitled to command us; on the second view, they have no chance of actually commanding us if they are dumb to or contemptuous of the demands of human nature. Though he doesn’t really argue for it here, Wollheim clearly thinks the first portrait of morality, of which he takes Kantianism to be an exemplar, is a non-starter, because of what he has described in The Thread of Life as its ‘unwillingness to take seriously the actual material on which it is exercised: the embodied person’.[*] Urging us to reject Kant’s ‘singularly bleached view of morality, unstained by the demands of psychology’, Wollheim would have us see morality instead as ‘a miscellany of attitudes, beliefs, dispositions to act, and dispositions to refrain from action, the whole, in virtue of its origins in the psyche, shot through with feelings, and anxieties’.

On the Emotions does not so much provide an argument for the necessity of folding psychology – especially in the form of psychoanalytic theory – into the philosophical study of emotion, as exhibit the details of a more fully imbricated account. There is no attempt here to justify the deployment of psychoanalytic theory, though readers can turn to Sigmund Freud (1990) for Wollheim’s response to the claim that Freud’s views are not subject to empirical test (‘the problem with Freud’s theories is that they are just not testicle,’ a psychologist of my acquaintance once insisted). Wollheim frequently invites us to assess the perspicacity of his account by judging to what extent it deepens our understanding of emotional scenes from literature and everyday life. On occasion he moves from illustrative example to broad generalisation, and his confidence in such mid-level truths can be jarring. For example, in making the point that some acts we do not consider shameful if done unobserved become shameful when observed, he proclaims: ‘People who are not ashamed of masturbating are invariably ashamed of being observed masturbating.’ Clearly Richard Wollheim has been hanging out in the wrong places; or maybe only the right places. In any event I wonder whether he ever takes public transport late at night.

As part of an ardent and ongoing campaign to keep the psychology in philosophical psychology (or, as Wollheim put it in The Mind and its Depths, 1993, to ‘attribute a genuine mind to mind’), On the Emotions invites questions for which it only provides the sketch of an answer, perhaps because its author thinks that anything more would require a kind of speculation improper in a work of philosophy. To what extent does Wollheim believe there is a psychological or, more specifically, a psychoanalytic account to give of the ‘depsychologisation’ he decries? Recall his depiction of Kantian moral theory as ‘unstained’ – my emphasis – ‘by the demands of psychology’ (fighting words, one would think, in psychoanalytic circles). Forty years ago, Wollheim concluded his book on the philosopher F.H. Bradley with a kind of warning: ‘For there are some in whose eyes any attempt to relate an intellectual work to the elementary and emotional movements of the psyche is a way of degrading the intellect. On those who are so confident where the emotions end and the intellect begins, it is the pleasure and the privilege of the emotions to take their revenge.’ Perhaps, as an impresario of the emotions, Richard Wollheim has become the agent of such revenge.

[*] Yale, new edition, 304 pp., £11.95, 14 October 1999, 0 300 07975 3.