The Personalist Project

I finished Deresiewicz’ delightful book A Jane Austen Education, which I first mentioned a few days ago. Before putting it back on the shelf, I want to mention another of its insights—one that tracks closely with what I have learned from von Hildebrand about the heart as "the real self" (see his The Heart, chapter 8). It has to do with the need to investigate our feelings.

For Jane Austen the most obvious responsibility we have with regard to feelings is to govern them with our reason. We must not let ourselves be carried away by them, as, for instance, Marianne is in Sense and Sensibility. Even love, indeed especially love, which is the most affective of all human realities, must be carefully discerned and firmly rooted in the objective truth about the persons involved.

So much is clear and familiar. But in his chapter on Northanger Abbey, Deresiewicz argues that Austen’s view of the relation between thinking and feeling is much deeper and more complex than that. This is brought out especially well in Northanger Abbey, in a conversation that takes place between Henry Tilney and Catherine Morland soon after the latter has lost her friendship with Isabella Thorpe. Tilney, in his usual teasing way, gets Catherine to admit that losing Isabella does not pain her nearly as much as she would have thought, and then he responds by saying:

You feel, as you always do, what is most to the credit of human nature. Such feelings ought to be investigated, that they may know themselves.

Henry Tilney & Catherine Morland (Masterpiece Theatre)

Tilney’s point is that Catherine already knew “in her gut” what she did not yet realize consciously. She felt the truth about Isabella—i.e. that she was a false and scheming “friend”—long before she could think it. And this sort of thing happens quite frequently. There are many important truths given to us in and through feeling, which would be jeopardized by an overly simplistic or rationalistic “thought-over-passion” approach to the moral life. Here is how Deresiewicz puts it:

It is good to be in touch with your feelings, but it is even better if you also think about them. Feelings, Austen was saying, are the primary way we know about the world—the human world, anyway, the social world, the people around us. They are what we start with, when it comes to making our ethical judgments and choices.

Note the emphasis on human and ethical truth. Feelings contribute very little to our knowledge of mathematics or brute, scientific facts. But they contribute a lot to our knowledge of persons and of how we ought to treat them. In those areas especially it pays to be attentive to our feelings.

Pressure to silence one's feeling

Deresiewicz puts his finger on an especially important factor that easily leads us to ignore or prematurely silence our feelings:

Our feelings… are sometimes impolite and often inconvenient for the people around us. Friends and relatives are apt to tell us, instead, what we should be feeling—what we supposedly are feeling—if only to make their own lives easier or more exciting.

People who stick to their intuitions can be just as troublesome as people who stick to their moral or intellectual principles. And the fact that they cannot clearly articulate what they vaguely but deeply feel, makes their situation extra difficult.


Katie (thanks!) pointed me to a good example of what I mean in the great movie Jean de Florette. The Florettes have just met Ugolin, a greedy, conniving peasant who together with his uncle Papet is doing everything he can to trick the Florette family out of their newly inherited property. Ugolin has tried to get in their good graces by helping them get settled. During dinner that evening, the Florettes have the following conversation about Ugolin:

Jean (father): He is a good man.
Aimée (mother): I don’t like him.
Jean: Because he is ugly?
Aimée: Manon is afraid of him.
Jean: Manon, I’m surprised that you don’t like that nice man.
Manon (daugther): He’s ugly. He looks like a toad.
Jean: It’s your thoughts that are ugly. Ugly exteriors often hide the purest souls.

Here the truth about Ugolin is first given in a strong but indistinct way to Manon. She is afraid of him. Her mother gets the same truth indirectly, by noticing and trusting Manon’s instincts. But Jean, already won over by Ugolin’s pretenses, looks only to Manon’s unsatisfactory explanation for her gut sense, and has no difficulty dismissing, even condemning it. Her feelings are ignoble. She should be ashamed to judge a person's character by his looks.

Of course, in the case of Manon, we, the viewers, already know that she is right and her father wrong about Ugolin. In real life things are not that easy. Our gut feelings can also be wrong. Emotionalism is no better than rationalism. This is why Tilney is right when he makes Catherine aware of her real feelings, and then says, not that she must follow, but that she must investigate them—examine them, test them, and learn what they have to teach her about Reality and herself.

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Comments (3)

Patrick Dunn

#1, Jul 31, 2013 3:00pm

I think this is one of the reasons why I was surprised (I believe it was last July 11 - 2012, that is) to see St. Benedict as a patron of the PP.  Because, in my reading and in conversations I've had with a Benedictine monk, it's primarily thoughts which matter (for instance).  I believe the epistemology would go: if I react in a certain way to something (my affective response), I ought to examine the thoughts I hold which lead me to such an affective response.  Anger, for example, or impatience with another human being could well be a result of an idea I held about them or how they ought to be or what they ought to do, etc. - and so to uproot this sin, it is necessary to examine my thoughts. 

As to feelings themselves, then, they could just be essentially irrational and not a priveleged means of getting in touch with Reality.

But I think you're proposing a more complex epistemology here, a listening with the heart somehow in cooperation with the head.  I think this is more Ignatian, as I said last summer.

Just a thought as I ponder your post.

Jules van Schaijik

#2, Aug 1, 2013 6:46am

Thanks Patrick. Very interesting comment.

I did not have the distinction you make in mind as I was writing this post. But it is true that one could learn from one's feelings even while holding that those feelings themselves are essentially irrational, i.e. mere "reactions". This passage from his book leads me to think that Deresiewicz himself holds that view:

Feelings are always about something, and that "something" is not itself a feeling. It's an idea, a perception of a situation… And because ideas can be wrong, the emotions that are based on them can also be wrong.

My own view, as you rightly suspect, is different. It is that the emotions themselves have a certain intelligence. They can be cognitive as well as truly responsive. And so we need to investigate not just the ideas on which they are based, but also the feelings themselves. They "contain" certain truths about the world (or at least of my take on it) and also truths about myself.

Where exactly St. Benedict stands on all this I don't know.

Patrick Dunn

#3, Aug 1, 2013 8:38am

I see what you mean. 

In addition to Ignatian spirituality's treatment of the heart and feelings which I discussed last year, and also in addition to Pascal's famous "the heart has its reasons," Alice von Hildebrand's article on defending feelings has been very helpful as she makes distinctions about feelings that I think have been lost on a great many spiritual writers over time who would be prone to saying things like "love is an act of the will" (without any distinction - I think that's partially true, or true at times) or something dismissive like, "Well, feelings come and go - they can't be trusted" (again, without any distinction or nuance).

It is all much more complicated and mysterious than that and so I think our epistemology must be too. 

I am grateful for your writing.

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