From Romanticism to Political Correctness: Modernity and Emotional Illiteracy

Emotions are part of our very being; we are our emotions, at least to the extent that we are egos. Like music or a river, they tend to have a certain temporal continuity, changing and flowing one into another. Thoughts, by comparison, are more like bubbles, rising to the surface and bursting. Unregulated thoughts lead, through free association, one into another – the monkey mind, and are more apt to be discontinuous unless one is reading or following a long chain of argument.


They also have an important somatic element. You feel them in your gut and chest. They affect your thoughts and your thoughts affect them. Emotions are hard to think about because they are not thoughts and that’s why they are a bit inscrutable. Yet we monitor one another’s emotions constantly as we interact, so in another way, we are emotional experts.

In meditation you can watch emotions and thoughts, hence they are the observed, meaning that ‘you’ are the observer and thus not merely your thoughts and emotions. In that context they are both froth and foam on a deeper sea of consciousness shared by all.

Enlightenment thinkers were antagonistic to emotions, imagining that science and rationality would lead to progress and things like the end of war. We know now, however, that rationality and emotions must work together if we are to be moral. Sociopaths lack empathy and thus a conscience. Their rationality is unimpaired.

It is true that war seems to need hatred, but it also requires a lack of empathy. Getting rid of emotions would actually be likely to lead to even more callous behavior and things like social engineering and mass murder. Those objecting could be accused of being sentimentalists. A horror of killing is as much emotional as intellectual.

Immanuel Kant tried to put morality on a more rational footing. Personally, I don’t see that the categorical imperative and ‘never treat yourself and others as merely means, but also as ends,’ is an improvement over ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ In fact the Christian heuristic seems broader and Kant’s formulation a mere subset of the golden rule. But for all Kant’s rationalism, at the core of his moral philosophy is ‘reverence for the moral law,’ a feeling. But again, just as the golden rule makes me feel even safer than the categorical imperative, so I would wish people to combine this kind of reverence with basic human emotional warmth towards others. If someone is lacking this kind of good will, then I can make do with Kant’s sense of good will – a will governed by the categorical imperative – but I will trust such a person less.

Dan Ariely in The Upside of Irrationality devised an experiment which involved giving five dollars to customers at a café. They were then asked how much of that money they would like to donate to charity. Those who were asked first to do some fairly simple mathematical problems chose to donate significantly less. It seemed that activating one’s emotion-free intellectual side had a negative effect on caring. In a similar way charities that say things like ‘millions of people are starving’ tend to have a much lower success rate than those who personalize their appeal and say ‘this person standing right here’ needs your help to get food or an education. The ‘millions of people’ notion, Ariely argues, is just too abstract and perhaps overwhelming. You can’t personally help millions of people and what’s the point of a drop in the bucket? The individual singled out is both more tangible and makes it seem like help is easier. Emotions, in this case empathy, are fostered by the concrete. The upshot is that suppressing emotion does not seem to help moral decision-making.

C. S. Lewis complained in The Abolition of Man that two authors of a textbook intended for high school English pupils had trivialized aesthetic judgments as ‘merely’ and ‘only’ expressing feelings. To say ‘the waterfall is sublime’ is to say ‘I have sublime feelings about it.’ Lewis points out that this makes no sense. The feelings associated with attributions of sublimity are veneration and awe. Likewise, if one thinks something is disgusting, it does not mean that one’s feelings are disgusting!

Given the role and importance of emotion to human existence, there is nothing ‘mere’ or ‘only’ about it. Although when emotions are taken in isolation, as disconnected from the larger reality, they can be problematic. Logical positivists claimed that moral attributions of good and bad were actually just expressions of emotion; the equivalents of ‘yuck’ and ‘yum.’ Saying our objection to slavery or the Holocaust is on a par with ‘yuck’ also expressed towards a flavor of ice cream is obviously trivializing in the extreme. One imagines, or perhaps hopes, that logical positivists were trying to annoy through their perversity and moral nihilism.

Anything taken in isolation and divorced from a larger context that gives it meaning can be reduced to triviality. Watching a heart cease to beat, when viewed in isolation, is a merely objective and neutral event. If it happens to be the heart of someone you love and know, it is an event of enormous significance. Analytic philosophers and formalists of all stripes have this potential problem. Their tendency to focus on the discrete makes meaning invisible to them.

John Dewey’s philosophy, while reprehensible in many areas, promoted emotional realism; akin metaphysically perhaps, to moral realism. Emotional realism is the notion that the world around us has emotional features which we perceive if there is not something wrong with us. Sociopaths, for instance, apparently do not react to highly emotionally provocative images. They are emotionally blind. Those suffering from other pathologies might have similar problems. If you have no emotional reaction to horrible violence against the innocence, then you also have a perceptual problem – you can’t perceive the horror of the action(s).

The rest of us, however, experience the world as having emotional features. The day is interesting or boring. The stream peaceful and lyrical. The storm violent and raging. Our spouse delightful or annoying.

These features of the world exist at a minimum because of the way we are constructed. Reptiles, lacking a limbic system, have the most rudimentary and savage of emotions and thus their experience of the world is relatively crude and unsubtle emotionally. Human beings, on the other hand, are capable of very delicate emotional perception and refinement, that can be encouraged by reading novels which, when well written, can flesh out our map of the human heart and of the emotional reality of the world.

Human experience is not just sense experience. Philosophers like Dewey and Heidegger, the latter also having his own enormous problems, work to include things like mood which go to the heart of shaping our existence. Mood affects what we foreground out of a larger background. There is physiological evidence that at least some of the time, the amygdala is activated before the frontal lobes. In that case, we feel first and think later. Thus our thinking is emotionally conditioned before we start. Meditation, it is thought, can calm an overactive amygdala involved in fight or flight responses and give the pre-frontal cortex more prominence.

René Girard traces a fascinating history of changing attitudes towards emotion in Deceit, Desire and the Novel. There he points out that the Romantics imagined that he who feels the most is the most authentic, the most admirable human being. Normal people’s emotions are pallid and tepid. Great artists and poets were imagined to be great feelers. This was combined with an imperative for originality.

Girard points out that at a certain point thinkers realized that actually many of our strongest emotions are in fact generated via imitation. You love the Beatles. This strengthens my own conviction of the adorable nature of the Beatles. My heightened affection in turn affects you and so on in a never ending feedback loop until our total hysteria for the imagined perfection of the Liverpudlians can lead to a potentially murderous frenzy, endangering the lives of the very people we admire.

Likewise, many of our strongest romantic episodes occur in the presence of a rival. An ex-boyfriend who won’t do us the favor of disappearing and the like. Our devotion to the object of our affections can in fact be our imitation of the possibly imaginary love felt by the rival. Dostoevsky’s The Eternal Husband and The Double play on this theme.

Once very extreme emotions have been seen to have this imitative basis, being derivative, thus violating the demand for originality, then some philosophical writers take as their heroes characters who feel little or nothing. This leads to the novels like The Outsider by Camus, or Nausea by Sartre. The Outsider wants us to feel sympathy for the character who feels nothing, who doesn’t cry at his mother’s funeral. Overtly, the notion is that the Outsider is an admirable nonconformist being punished for being different. But it is Girard who points out that the Outsider is of course being promoted as the hero of the novel. His lack of feeling, makes him different, and thus original, embodying the Romantic ideal while also rejecting it by renouncing feelings.

Neither the Romantics who embrace extreme emotion nor the post-Romantic rejection of feeling is healthy or desirable.

At the present time what I see in modern American culture is a trivializing of emotion à la the subjects of C. S. Lewis’s criticism; a kind of positivism which makes emotion irrelevant or unrelated to reality. Emotions, far from being trivial, are in fact necessary for decision-making. People with certain kinds of brain damage that affect the processing of emotions apparently stand before the Starbucks counter, or wherever, stuck in a paroxysm of indecision. Emotions are necessary for navigating the world.

But also present is a fanatical attention to ‘hurt feelings.’ This is the notion that if I hurt your feelings I have done something wrong. A proper attitude would be that sometimes I might hurt your feelings through gauche ineptitude or callousness, but at other times your feelings are hurt and it’s not my responsibility. One hears the slimy politician giving his non-apology apology. “I apologize if my comments caused anyone offence in anyway. That was not my intention.” Surely that would depend on whether one’s comments were warranted or not. If my criticism of genocide hurts Pol Pot’s feelings, I’m not apologizing.

Radical egalitarianism, the basis for much political correctness, tends to make it seem offensive to make any comparisons between people that suggest that one person is superior to another, even though someone will always be better or worse than you in pretty much any human characteristic you can think of. Political correctness makes these differences hard to acknowledge and the difficulty is related to hurt feelings and harming my self-esteem. But the simple reality is that when it comes to looks, intelligence, whether verbal or mathematical, musical ability, athletic ability and all its various stripes, height, wealth, social status and most importantly morality, there is always someone better or worse than you.

The notion that simply acknowledging reality is ‘offensive’ I find intensely annoying. I actually had to steel myself the first time I wrote the above list on the board for one of my classes. I was about to commit the sin of hierarchy. The downside to reality in this context is that no matter how proficient one is, there will always be someone better. The upside is, you could be worse. There is now something to aspire to, should one wish to. If no one were really better or worse then there is no point in living. At the very least I have to be better than myself at time T2 rather than T1 if I am to improve. I can also see what others have achieved as an inspiration to what I too might be able to do.

Emotions as hurt feelings are not sufficient to judge moral worth or harm and the possibility of hurt feelings always exists when making comparisons to others. Some comparisons should probably be avoided, like the rich dentist who feels bad that he’s not as rich as his even richer neighbors, but other comparisons are good to help give us a realistic sense of where we stand in the world (I’m no Plato) and to give us something to strive for (I could be a little bit more like Plato).

Overall, modernity has tended to have a pathological relationship to emotion. At first ignoring it, championing its extremes and then aspiring to feelinglessness. Emotions have been substituted for morally realistic judgments and marginalized as unscientific. Latterly, emotions as hurt feelings have played an important part of modern pathologies. A colleague recently told me that a local sports team abandoned their name ‘The Braves’ in order not to offend the local Indian tribes. When representatives of the tribes heard about it they said that it really had not been necessary. They hadn’t even known about the name and now that they do, they still don’t care. I called ‘pre-emptive PC’.

Our attitude towards emotion has suffered as have all the invisible things in life since the Enlightenment. We reject the great invisible God and then do our best to rid ourselves of the nuisance of consciousness, morality, emotion, values, meaning and purpose as unscientific. Yet without these things we are far from fully human.

Richard-Cocks2Richard Cocks teaches philosophy with key interests in ethics, metaphysics and consciousness from Platonic, Christian and Buddhist perspectives, with an especial interest in canonical works of Western Civ.