Emotions are a pain in the neck sometimes.
We have all been there. One day you might start to feel useless, as if you were not adding value to anything you put efforts in. No matter how many times your loved ones tell you that you are a fundamental part of their lives and no matter how many accomplishments you achieve, this feeling of uselessness keeps eating away at you.
But emotions are also bliss. On the other side of the spectrum, you can start to feel like everything in your life finally goes smoothly. No matter how many small issues you find along the way, positive emotions help you in dealing with them and in seeing them as small and insignificant obstacles.
Emotions have a huge impact on our daily life but their philosophical journey has been a real rollercoaster. Emotions had their “Golden Age” with Aristotle, who acknowledged that emotions (which he calls pathe) influence voluntary actions and that they might have a positive function. Let’s take an example. It is July 9th, 2006. At the Olympiastadion in Berlin, Italy and France are playing to determine the winner of the 2006 FIFA World Cup. At the 111 minute mark, Marco Materazzi and Zinedine Zidane jog up the pitch close to each other, Zidane turns away from Materazzi when the Italian centre-back whispers something. Zidane suddenly stops, turns back and head-butts Materazzi’s chest, knocking him to the ground.
Supposing Aristotle was present at the match, I think he would have commented that although Materazzi insulted Zidane (or his sister, apparently), the Frenchman should have controlled his emotions. What we all saw on the screen was an example of emotional impetuosity. Zidane was not able to control his anger, he did not cultivate his emotions well. In Aristotle’s opinion, pathe are not only a fundamental part of our lives but they are also fundamental component of a good life and a good character. Emotions enable us to select the important aspects of a situation in order to act properly. However, in order to play their role, pathe need to be cultivated. What should Zidane have done? Let’s assume that the Frenchman at least knew that a head-butt was not the right answer to the Italian’s words. In this case, he acted as an akratic or weak-willed person, he knew what he should have done but did not do it. Alternatively, he could have felt a disruptive anger but decided not to act upon it. In this case, he would have been an enkratic person, superior to the akratic one because he did not react with a head-butt. This is still not what the virtuous person would do. A virtuous agent, namely an agent who excellently cultivated his/her character, experiences pathe in the right way, to the right extent, and on the right occasions. Zidane should have realized that a head-butt was an excessive reaction to Materazzi’s insult, that the 111 minute mark of the final was not the right moment to express his anger and, therefore, he should have not given space to this disruptive emotion in the first place. The cultivation of emotions is as important as the cultivation of reason: the truly virtuous person will not only reason well about what to do in particular circumstances, but will also feel the appropriate pathe. In a nutshell, Aristotle thought that emotions are a fundamental and indispensable part of our life. They can be cultivated and play a fundamental role in the good life but they can also disrupt reason and action and lead to nefarious ends.
Golden ages tend to pass, however. With Kant, emotions saw a huge drop in popularity. It has to be admitted that Kant never used the word “emotion”. Rather he distinguished three phenomena: affects (Affekten), passions (Leidenschaften), and moral feelings (moralisches Gefühl or sensus moralis). Affects are feelings of pleasure and displeasure that obstruct rational reflection; they are usually sudden and rash, an outburst of feelings that cannot coexist with prudential rationality. Passions, on the other hand, have a contradictory nature: they prevent us from comparing a specific inclination to all other inclinations in a specific moment. They are evil and immoral but they make us smart, so to say, because they make us think about the means to satisfy them. However, according to Kant, humans, unlike animals, also have moral feelings and moral judgements, which are connected to reason.
Because passions are evil and immoral, and because affects are only agitations of the soul, they are not related to morality. The only emotions that Kant sees as linked to morality are moral feelings but they are nonetheless connected to each other in a peculiar way. Emotions have a cognitive but not a moral value, they cannot tell us what to do, this is a task that only belongs to reason. If Kant were sitting next to Aristotle at the Italy-France match, he would say that the fact that Zidane was angry should have informed him that Materazzi harmed him somehow, but reason should have told Zidane that head-butting Materazzi was not the right thing to do. Therefore, emotions do not guide or control rational deliberation and action; rather they are a sort of interference. The paradigm of action, according to Kant, is the autonomous action, which is produced by duty and reason. To act based upon emotions is a form of heteronomy.
After the Dark Ages, emotions have been reintroduced in the philosophical discourse in a positive light. However, the way in which philosophers talked about them was sort of parallel: bad emotions lead to negative outcomes and good emotions to positive outcomes. In this paradigm, anger does not bring any advantage, it just causes evil actions.
But what about the bright side of negative emotions? I bet we have all seen the animation movie Inside Out (if not, watch it ASAP and be careful: the following paragraph contains a spoiler) in which the protagonists are five basic emotions – Joy, Anger, Disgust, Sadness and Fear – and, eventually, it is Sadness who saves the day. What Inside Out shows us, in a funny and pleasant way, is that emotions generally considered negatively can have positive aspects and offer some benefits.
This is precisely what Splijtstof has tried to explore and focus on during its Symposium, which took place on May 16 and to which the current issue is dedicated. During the Symposium – titled “Splijtstof stares into the Abyss” – and in the present themed issue, we have tried to offer a positive understanding of some emotions which have traditionally been seen as only wicked and obnoxious. Can we avoid implicit social biases? Is AI able to eliminate them in a way that humans cannot? Is it desirable to eliminate implicit social biases in the first place? What role does shame play in group identity? And what role does hate play in our personal identity? How should democracy address hate? These and other questions have been addressed by the three keynote speakers and the two student speakers. If you missed them but you are still curious about their answers, in the issue you can find a report of the event.
To conclude the Symposium, the fourth edition of the Film&Philosophy series took place. In the almost full Theaterzaal C Aoife McInerney, PhD student at Radboud University and Mary Immaculate College (University of Limerick) talked about emotions in animated movies and introduced the movie Spirited Away (2001). After having explored the role of emotions in the history of philosophy, McInerney argued that what makes Spirited Away so philosophically interesting is that it reverses what we traditionally focus on when it comes to reading and understanding the emotional lives of others. For instance, we tend to emphasize the role of facial expression and gesture, which in animations movie are usually less important than the world created around them. This suggests, she argued, that human beings read emotion both from and into a variety of sources and this allow us to understand both the world of animation as well as our own world.
Most of the articles in the present issue deal with allegedly negative emotions and their benefits, but there is no shortage of other pieces: interviews (among which one with René ten Bos), book reviews, short stories, and other podium and column pieces. Gaia and I really enjoyed this second leg of our journey together as editors in chief, which took us to a diverse and heterogeneous, but also fascinating and intriguing place. We wholeheartedly hope you will enjoy it as well, but in case you do not, ask yourself “what are the benefits that my disapproval brings along?” and maybe we will have succeeded in our aim.