I was struck by two things when I read Martha Nussbaum’s Anger and Forgiveness. On one hand, as I noted previously, I’m excited by Nussbaum’s new, and more Śāntidevan, normative approach to anger; it seems like she and I have moved toward the same position there. On the other, though, I realized that I have moved away from Nussbaum’s general descriptive theory of emotion. Nussbaum articulates this theory at length in Upheavals of Thought, and I don’t think her theory has changed much by the time we get to Anger (she offers a summary of it in the appendix). What has changed, in the roughly fifteen years since I read Upheavals cover to cover, is that I agreed with her theory then, and I no longer do – and reading the short summaries of the position in Anger helped me realize that.
Nussbaum’s theory (derived primarily from the Stoic thinker Chrysippus) is that emotions are fundamentally cognitive judgements of value, with a content directed at an object believed to affect our well-being. So fear, for example, is primarily a judgement that something could be harmful to us in the future; grief is primarily a judgement that something of value has been lost to us. I found this account plausible when I first encountered it. I no longer do.
Around the time I was reading Upheavals, I also took a ten-day Goenka vipassanā meditation course. At that time the main vipassanā meditation technique itself hadn’t left a big impression on me, compared to its monastic discipline and the karmic redirection. But I do remember speaking to a course instructor about my feeling a “knot” in my stomach, a nervous, agitated, congested sort of feeling, when I practised the main technique. I said I didn’t know what was causing the knot, and the instructor said the beauty of the technique was that you don’t need to know what’s causing those sorts of feelings. You just observe them, in a way that helps them dissipate.
I was skeptical of the instructor’s claim at the time. One of the reasons was the many years I had just spent with my first wife. (We had just separated entirely amicably, en route to an equally amicable divorce.) More than anyone I’ve known before or since, she had a penetrating insight into the uncomfortable sides of people’s personalities that they keep hidden from themselves. She naturally gravitated to Freud and his probing attempts to find the past roots of each person’s flaws. Learning from her, I had come to find it essential to uncover the hidden roots and sources of psychological problems. That was a good fit with Nussbaum’s view of the emotions: our emotional problems would typically be a matter of false judgements of value that we needed to uncover. The meditation instructor’s approach, by comparison, seemed like a superficial papering over.
A lot changed over the years that followed. I came to observe many cases, in myself and others, where we knew the roots and sources of our emotional difficulties well, sometimes all too well – but the real struggle was figuring out what to do about them. Between my first wife’s insights and my first Buddhist epiphany of ten years prior, I knew very well what was wrong with me – but it still remained wrong! The problems were no longer “deep” in the sense of being hard to discover, but of being hard to root out. Diagnosis is not treatment; the First and Second Noble Truths are not the Third and Fourth. Understanding the roots of our problems might be one step to fixing them, but it sure didn’t fix them, not alone.
I think my problems – like insidiously recurring political anger – are not by any means fixed, but they have ameliorated significantly in recent years. What has helped most has not been a deeper understanding of the problems’ roots, but rather various Buddhist practices. These include karmic redirection, “confession” and scriptural reading. But of particular importance, I have, alongside all of that, continued the secularized practice of mindfulness meditation that I first took up to treat my insomnia. Because since I started that treatment, I think its benefits have stuck, in a way that they didn’t from the first ten-day Goenka course.
The benefits, in particular, are summed up in that increasingly ubiquitous term mindfulness. I am indeed more able to watch my problematic emotions – anger being one among many – arise, and this often does help them dissipate. Sometimes anger has roots deep enough that it keeps returning, and that case can require an alternate, more cognitively oriented, response. (Without such a response, one risks repressing the anger rather than reducing it.) But most cases – like anger at an email client working poorly – can simply be removed with attention in the moment. And I think this is the case in part because those so often emotions arise unbidden, without a good reason behind them, and indeed sometimes even without any cognitive content at all. I note especially how often I feel fear, or anxiety, without any thought of objects of the fear; I just feel the fear itself. Meditative observation can get us to note how anger or fear are localized in the body: we feel a hot or tangled feeling in our stomach, our chest, our throat, our face. It allows us to see how these emotions are so often separable from any supposed cognitive content. Andy Puddicombe’s popular Headspace meditation program, in advising its audience how to handle anxiety, recommends that we aim to view our negative emotions as bodily sensations, in order to more easily detach from them and thereby let them go.
So I cannot accept that cognitive beliefs or judgements are what emotions primarily are. I think they often have cognitive content (though that content is often not expressed in words even for humans, and in nonhuman animals it never is). But the somatic, bodily dimension is at least as essential; certainly it comes first in evolutionary prehistory, and even humans typically feel fear or anger well before we think it.
And so I find it implausible when Nussbaum speaks of emotions having a belief-based structure. She thinks that typically implicit in anger is the “road of payback”: the idea that a wrongdoer’s suffering makes things better. I’m not sure of this claim, but it’s not obviously wrong. What is clearly wrong to me is the next step she takes of declaring such false beliefs “derive from deep-rooted but misleading ideas of cosmic balance…” (5) That step gives our ideas way too much credit. It does not seem able to acknowledge our commonality with nonhuman animals, whose anger doesn’t “derive from” any ideas at all. Nussbaum later tries to say that ideas of payback “probably derive from metaphysical ideas of cosmic balance that are hard to shake off, and that may be part of our evolutionary endowment.” (24) Here I am left scratching my head: what kind of angry nonhuman animal has “metaphysical ideas of cosmic balance”?
It seems to me a far more plausible explanation to say that our desire for revenge does not derive from any ideas at all. In some sense it embodies an idea (“this other dog is in my space”) but it doesn’t come from other ideas. Rather, it comes from biological motivations that we animals have inherited from our evolutionary ancestors; they had cognitive capacities in the sense that they could process information, but not at a level that gave their ideas any structure. In our case, it seems, the structure comes to us after the fact. As Jonathan Haidt puts it, “the emotional dog wags the rational tail.” Reason, fortunately, can sometimes talk us down from bad emotions – but we often need more than reasoning alone, we need practices like meditation that go deeper than a cognitive level.