The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 21, 2023 - 5:13:17

The unity of objectivity and subjectivity in emotion

Jules van Schaijik, Sep 20, 2014

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.