The Personalist Project

Central to Dietrich von Hildebrand's philosophy of the heart is the idea of "intentionality" or object-directedness. Emotions, he holds, are not just subjective psychological experiences, but meaningful responses—to persons, events or situations. That is why they can be appropriate or inappropriate, reasonable or unreasonable. Like thoughts, emotions have an objective measure, a standard to which they can and should conform.

Introduced to this idea of “intentionality” by von Hildebrand more than 25 years ago, I've always associated it with objectivity. Not in the sense of cool or abstract rationality — we’re talking about the emotions after all — but in the sense of being formed by the nature and value of the object. Emotions, for all their warmth and vividness, are less about the person who has them than the object that motivates them.

So I was somewhat surprised to find that Martha Nussbaum, in Upheavals of Thought — a long and worthwhile book on “the intelligence of emotions” — uses the term intentionality precisely to express a more subjective dimension of the emotions. After explaining, as I did above, that emotions are “about” an object in a way that mere sensations, like a headache, are not, she adds that they have "an intentional object: that is, [the object] figures in the emotion as it is seen or interpreted by the person whose emotion it is." The idea of intentionality here expresses not so much the object itself, as a particular way of seeing that object. To say that an emotion is intentional, in Nussbaum’s sense, is to say that it embodies a unique perspective.

Her point is clearly not just a negative one: i.e. that it is possible to make mistakes about an object, or to grasp it only partially, and therefore feel the wrong emotion towards it. That sort of thing would make the emotion “subjective” in a pejorative sense only. In that sense, the less subjective an emotion, the better.

But to say with Nussbaum that an emotion "embodies a way of seeing" is to say something positive, and something that I now think is perhaps not emphasized enough in von Hildebrand. Sure, one way of seeing something is not the only way of seeing it. Every perspective is partial and limited. But every perspective is also unique and makes a contribution to the whole. It opens another window on reality; it provides another point of access to it. Moreover, an emotion does not just represent one random perspective among many. It embodies the perspective of the particular person whose emotion it is. That person, with her unrepeatable identity and unique history, expresses herself and somehow lives in her concrete emotional responses.

Nussbaum mentions, for instance, that emotions are shaped by our beliefs, assumptions and expectations. In order to have anger, she writes, I must believe

that some damage has occurred to me or to something or someone close to me; that the damage is not trivial but significant; that it was done by someone; probably, that it was done willingly.

Moreover, it seems that we become emotionally engaged only in things or people we care about in some way, by things that play a real role in our lives:

I do not go about fearing any and every catastrophe anywhere in the world, nor (so it seems) do I fear any and every catastrophe that I know to be bad in important ways. What inspires fear is the thought of damages impending that cut to the heart of my own cherished relationships and projects. What inspires grief is the death of someone beloved, someone who has been an important part of one’s life… The emotions are in this sense localized: they take their stand in my own life, and focus on the transition between light and darkness there, rather than on the general distribution of light and darkness in the universe as a whole.

I like these points that Nussbaum makes, and find my own understanding of “intentionality” and of emotions enriched by them. A genuine emotion not only conforms to the nature and value of its object, it is also filled with and formed by the living and unrepeatable presence of its subject. There is, or need not be, any conflict between those two dimensions.

  • share
  • tweet
  • print

Comments (13)

Katie van Schaijik

#1, Sep 20, 2014 8:17am

Jules, I love this insight, which coheres nicely with what I've been reading in Alice Miller and others about emotions.

They are, in a way, the true self. They are where the self "contacts" reality.

Alice Miller critiques the "poisonous pedagogy" prevalent in Germany in the 19th century that aimed at subduing individuality, which meant correcting, suppressing and controlling emotion.

In the tradition we are dealing with, it was considered obstinacy and was therefore frowned upon to have a will and mind of one’s own.

This led to confusion about reality and alienation from self.

The result of a child becoming dulled to pain is that access to the truth about himself will be denied him all his life.

And that of course created adults who were susceptible to ideologies like Naziism.

The more successfully a person was denied access to his or her feelings in childhood, the larger the arsenal of intellectual weapons and the supply of moral prostheses has to be, because morality and a sense of duty are not sources of strength or fruitful soil for genuine affection. Blood does not flow in artificial limbs; they are for sale and can serve many masters.

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#2, Sep 20, 2014 10:04am

I appreciate this:

Sure, one way of seeing something is not the only way of seeing it. Every perspective is partial and limited. But every perspective is also unique and makes a contribution to the whole. It opens another window on reality; it provides another point of access to it. 

Sometimes it seems to me that modern Christianity is terribly confused about emotion--either reducing faith down to an emotional response or state of being (as you occasionally see in Charismatic circles and quite certainly see in Joel Osteen type Christians) or engaged in an active distrust of emotion as something counter-rational that will lead us astray. That the devil can use our emotional responses is taken as a given; that God might as easily use them is somewhat more suspect. 

I like the reminder that emotion is not baseless—it follows upon beliefs and particular relationships between the self and the object of emotion—which suggests that our emotions should actually be increasingly trustworthy guides as we come into right relationship with truth and with others. 

Carole Brown

#3, Sep 20, 2014 11:08am

I very much appreciate the insights of your article, Jules and your comments Katie.  I'm interested in the experience of the "personal relationship with the Lord"  which comes through so clearly in the thought of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict-- and find it fascinating how many people are deeply resistant to the idea of emotions interfering with their faith experience.  Pope John Paul would have been very attentive to the need to integrate the objective and subjective experience of the human person in relationship with the Lord.

Jules van Schaijik

#4, Sep 20, 2014 4:03pm

Thanks Katie. What you say makes me want to add that while, as I say in my post, von Hildebrand does not develop the personal persective side of the emotions very much, he does have a lot to say about the heart being in some sense the real self of the person. He corroborates philosophically what Alice Miller claims: that to suppress or stifle the emotions, is to do real damage to a person.

--

Kate Whittaker Cousino, Sep. 20 at 10:04am

…our emotions should actually be increasingly trustworthy guides as we come into right relationship with truth and with others. 

Exactly so, Kate. Emotions, if rightly developed, are often quicker and more sensitive than reason. The emotion of sexual shame is a good example. Wojtyla, as I'm sure you know, thinks "there is a need to to develop sexual shame by education." "In shame," he writes, "resides the genuine moral strength of the person" and "only a true and genuine shame insists upon a true and fully valid love."

Jules van Schaijik

#5, Sep 20, 2014 4:20pm

Thanks Carole. I agree with you about John Paul II. He is very aware, it seems to me, of a specifically modern type of resistance to the very idea of God, which argues that a flourishing personal existence is impossible under the constant presence of an all-seeing and all-caring Being. God, in this frame of mind, is experienced as the biggest and most insufferable "Big Brother" imaginable.

It is important to show that this image of God, and of our relationship with him, is not true. God is all-powerful and all-seeing. But he does not have a "heavy hand".

Katie van Schaijik

#6, Sep 20, 2014 4:53pm

Carole, I read and admired your recent article on the need for a personal relationship with Jesus. I even started a post about it, but then found myself getting bogged down in the side issue of the meaning of phenomenology, which was I was afraid would overshadown my deep agreement with your gist.

I think many, if not most, of us have been raised to be deeply suspicious of the emotions. We confuse affective coldness or indifference with being "objective" and "rational", when, really, we're being out-of-touch—with ourselves, with others, and with God.

Peter

#7, Sep 22, 2014 7:33pm

Hello, I contributed some posts about Alice Miller a year or two ago and saw this conversation and would like to contribute again.  I have some information that might be helpful for people wanting to learn more about emotions.  I have a lot, but I will try to be as brief as I can:  First, thanks Jules for the great insight about the connection between the objective and the subjective.  I really enjoyed that.  And also, I enjoyed the quote about "blood does not flow in artificial limbs" from Alice Miller by Katie.  Alice Miller sure has a way to get a point across.  It's so effective.  

So, here is some more information:  David R. Hawkins, M.D., Ph.D. explained emotions the following way: the lower ones, or the negative ones (humiliation, blame, despair, regret, anxiety, craving, hate, scorn) have their origins in our evolutionary past and have evolved over millions of years as survival mechanisms within our evolving biology.  The higher ones (affirmation, trust, optimism, forgiveness, understanding, reverence, serenity, bliss, ineffable) he has attributed to a higher degree of consciousness that is in operation during a person's experience of them.  

Peter

#8, Sep 22, 2014 7:37pm

Hawkins' books pertaining to this are "Power Vs. Force" and "Letting Go, The Pathway to Surrender".

I have attempted below to explain a personalist spirituality as it would pertain to these emotions.  So, for the personalist the higher emotions would be states of being belonging attributed to communion with Holy Spirit of the Trinity in greater and lesser degrees according to the state or emotion experience, which depending on a given personalist, the person may experience these states as integral and personal, yet at the same time as an objective reality of the person’s being (in other words, something other-worldly).  I say given personalist because these experiences may not be ubiquitous among personalists, and I say objective reality because according to Catholic doctrine any states of being attributed to the Holy Spirit would require an objective metaphysical derivation (i.e. the Trinitarian God).

Also, I think it necessary to point out the ontological distinction being made here because the quality of experience between the two categories of emotions is quite obvious and noticeable if you pay close attention to the magnitude of awareness of what is happening during the experience of an emotion (the higher emotions or states of being allow for greater awareness of experience). 

Peter

#9, Sep 22, 2014 7:43pm

Hawkins book is titled, "Letting Go, The Pathway Of Surrender", not "to Surrender".

Hawkins explains that the negative emotions have evolutionary origins.  The explanation for them having negative ramifications for the personalist and the bridging connection for the Catholic personalist, I would suspect could only be to point the person in the opposite direction of the result of the fall, i.e. original sin; in the direction of God. 

If these negative emotions began to evolve as a result of the human being taking advantage of evolutionary niches having to do with survival and therefore at that time being beneficial to man and valued as superior over any other alternatives due to their survival value(very early on because animals have these lower emotions too), then the fall of man (man becoming aware of his condition) would have been subsequent to this starting point of the evolution of these negative emotions and would have also been the very same point in time (as the fall) that man became aware of a metaphysical objective reality that would have put his imperfect condition in stark contrast with this new discovery of an objective reality greater than himself.

Peter

#10, Sep 22, 2014 7:47pm

So, the question would have arose, how do we get to God from here?  After another vast and unknown amount of time, we arrive here and now and the question is still the same, but now we have more information to help us understand how we might go about it. 

Hawkins suggests we administer what he calls the letting go technique.  What this is, is a technique for neutralizing negative emotions. 

The technique is as follows:  One is to acknowledge the negative emotion without resisting it.  Not act on it in any way, not even talk about it (against what Alice Miller recommends which is to discuss them with an enlightened witness).  First acknowledge it, second, do not judge it, just let it be what it is.  Third, feel it in its full without judging it (this is the crux because you will want to escape it, repress it, project it, judge it, etc.).  Again, just let it be what it is without acting on it in any way (this is neutralizing it).  Fourth, surrender it.  

Peter

#11, Sep 22, 2014 7:50pm

What surrendering the emotion means is to give it up, to let it go- but giving it up and letting it go imply that there is some action involved on your part, which there is not according to Hawkins; the terms surrendering it, giving it up and/or letting it go just mean to allow the negative emotion to run out of energy on its own, which it will if you do not resist it, if you feel it in its full and if you do not judge it. 

You let it be what it is and you let the energy behind it run itself out on its own once it is neutralized.  Once you do this enough with all of your negative emotions as they come up, you will find yourself with a lot of time on your hands because there is no more negativity inside of you!  Then, you can continue this process, because you can’t “kill it off” (original sin) as Flannery O’Connor wrote, but you can manage it!  After you get the swing of it, you can focus on prayer and a willingness to let the Holy Spirit transform your life even more than you already are! 

Peter

#12, Sep 22, 2014 8:15pm

I just wanted to make it clear that Hawkins attributes the positive emotions to spirit and not to an evolutionary origin, or as I have categorized them, to the Catholic personalist's integral and non-dualistic connection with God through the Holy Spirit.

Peter

#13, Sep 22, 2014 8:45pm

Also, the human being undergoing these evolutionary changes prior to the fall would not be the human being as we define it today.  It would have been so long ago that it would have probably been some other kind of creature.

Above when I said,

"If these negative emotions began to evolve as a result of the "human being" taking advantage of evolutionary niches having to do with survival and therefore at that time being beneficial to "man" and valued as superior over any other alternatives due to their survival value(very early on because animals have these lower emotions too), then the fall of man (man becoming aware of his condition) would have been subsequent to this starting point of the evolution of these negative emotions and would have also been the very same point in time (as the fall) that man became aware of a metaphysical objective reality that would have put his imperfect condition in stark contrast with this new discovery of an objective reality greater than himself."

It makes a certain kind of sense to deligate the title of human being to the creature who rose from the ashes of the fall of man. 

 

Sign in to add a comment, or register first.

Forgot your password?