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  • Writer's pictureCrone

What does it feel like?

Antonio Damasio can be a little confusing, partly because he's talking about immensely complicated stuff, but partly because he uses words in a way that differs from the norm.

Emotion, for him, is the movement - towards or away from - as manifested in different aspects of the system. Feeling is what we would, in common language, tend to call an emotion. Feeling in his definition is that it feels like something to have a given emotional response.

William James* famously explains emotional reactions thus: you a walking in a forest; a bear appears; your hairs rise, your skin prickles, your heart rate increases; you then experience a cognitive sense of fear, which is caused by this particular ‘fingerprint’ of bodily sensations. This has been widely disproved – notably studies show that people on a wobbly bridge talking to an attractive girl will discount the fear and assume they feel sexual arousal. Sensations are not causally related to the feeling (to use Damasio’s term).

So, doesn’t this discount Damasio? I don’t think so because the physiological changes he is talking about are not specifically sensations. The feelings are a construction of the evaluative cognition (at an unconscious as well as conscious level) of the environment as a whole dependent on the survival and flourishing needs of the total organism. There is not a divide between the bodily and the mental: both are integrated in the evaluation, the response and the feeling. Which is how cultural and linguistic frames can affect feeling states.

I’m not sure that I have ‘got’ this fully – after all, I struggled with Joseph LeDoux’s The Deep History of Ourselves, Lisa Feldman-Barrett’s How Emotions are Made (her article here nicely explains her position) and Damasio’s Descartes’ Error and The Strange Order of Things (a very brief precis of his position can be found here) but all this work does suggest at the integral role feelings have. We can’t just push them aside and pretend it’s possible to be 100% 'rational', because rationality encompasses feelings. Nor indeed can we ignore the body, which is what we are.

I like it that Damasio’s genealogy of emotion - sorry, of feeling - is grounded in the organism's quest to maintain or reattain homeostasis (which is like an internal harmony, dynamic and context dependent, rather than a set 'figure' or position). Meaning that feelings are related to survival. In fact, he says that it's not possible to maintain life without data on the current state of the body. Agency, the power to act, comes from interoception. The basic awareness of subtle body based sensations. Even bacteria sense things in their environment that they can move away from or towards. The more complex a system becomes, the more likely - necessary - it is that the emotions become feelings. Their salience is brought to the fore by being made conscious, and that allows increased agency as the organism can then start to control how it responds

And with very complex creatures, we can see from this framework how feelings encompass values related to well-being beyond survival; how they entail an appraisal of the environment, the society. They are cognitive evaluations of the situation suggesting at a response - flee, fight, chase, hide, appease, dominate - and the more aware we are of them, and, the reasons for them, the more choices we have in how to act.

Because they already encompass this cognitive element, they can become further nuanced by more cognition, can embrace more complex and wide-ranging, even abstract values. Martha Nussbaum (who cites Damasio's work) claims that feelings map our appraisal of what matters to us to live a good life. Thus, our rational appraisal of values followed by habitual behaviours in accordance with those values, can indeed come to shape our feeling responses in a prosocial way.

It's interesting how closely Spinoza’s analysis ties in with contemporary thought. In his view (thanks here to the late Roger Scruton for making his thought nearly approachable) an emotion is a bodily condition, and at the same time the idea of that condition. Mind and body move in parallel. Spinoza writes in the Ethics:

The idea of any thing that increases or diminishes, aids or restrains, our body’s power of acting, increases or diminishes, aids or restrains, our mind’s power of thinking. Thus bodily injury, which reduces our body’s power of acting, has its mental parallel in pain, which reduces our power of thinking. Our emotional life stems from this close complicity of mind and body. The mind strives to imagine those things that enhance the body’s power, and to blot out the images of adversity and failure.

The process goes two ways, though, and, as I mentioned in a note to a previous post, the more fully we understand our situation, the less the body and the external causes that afflict it exert their control. A poor understanding makes us passive, limiting our freedom. He accepted the scientific, deterministic outlook and yet at the same time believed that through understanding causes (as in the causes for one's anger at a given act - like the reflective stance Robert Solomon recommends) one could thereby affect one's outlook and emotional state.

In Japanese philosophy, according to Julian Baggini, this feeling sense has always given far greater weight than in much of the Western tradition – apart, perhaps, from Spinoza.** Perhaps it’s for that reason that virtue ethics, which is a skill-set dependent in large part on self-cultivation, by internalising habits of moral action, has been the most dominant form of moral thinking. Practice is more important than theory; morality is more about thinking than doing; the good life is embodied and enacted rather than described in a set of codes. As with Murdoch, there is an understanding that aesthetics and ethics share a family history, incorporating the person's evaluative system.

Artistic responses, like ethical ones, are linked organically with world-view, in a way that cannot always be cashed out in concepts or words.

Take this painting by the Zen monk Sengai as an example. I've read across the internet various different ideas of what it's 'about'.

This is the most frequently cited - originally from this website:

The circle-triangle-square is Sengai's picture of the universe. The circle represents the infinite, and the infinite is at the basis of all beings. But the infinite in itself is formless. We, humans, endowed with senses and intellect demand tangible forms. Hence a triangle. The triangle is the beginning of all forms. Out of it first comes the square. A square is the triangle doubled. This doubling process goes on infinitely, and we have the multitudinously of things, which the Chinese philosopher calls 'the ten thousand things', that is, the universe.

But then I found this on Japan Times:

Perhaps the most thought-provoking is his famous painting, entitled “The Universe,” of a square, triangle and circle linked together that has fascinated all who see it — especially some members of the New York Abstract Expressionists. People look for meaning in these three basic forms just as they look for symbolism in the famous Ryoani Temple rock garden.

But that is a shallow approach that defeats the true purpose of this painting. Far better that it is appreciated or understood more as a catalyst for the mind to reach an intuitive state where the senses are opened to higher truth.

'The senses are opened.' As I mentioned in a previous post, trying to define things can strip them of their value.

My worry though, as I learn about all this, is how we come to a place where what we feel - whether based on intuition or verbal and rational thinking (in both cases, this is cognitive) guides us toward the good? How do we know? Who can we trust to tell us? We've seen how rights and utility conflict; we've seen how environmental and societal factors can affect our values; we've seen how reliant feelings are on what matters most deeply to us; we've seen how blame can be a stick and how anger can impassion fights for justice, but might increase conflict; we've seen how wonder can make us feel something strongly but not necessarily guide action. Relationships can feed compassion - but isn't impartiality a political good?

I can understand how Spinoza, Kant, Mill, Rawls and Singer came to apply reason based codes, frameworks and routes out of the ethical morass, because this feeling side is so slippery.

Yet I resist.

Aristotle and Confucius wrote that by doing good - which demanded an assessment of context and relationship as well as great self-understanding - feelings come to align with right action. And isn't it strange that in such an individualist culture, the one thing that we can change, ourselves, us individuals, is the one thing we don't want to change? Sure, we'll work hard to be more attractive, more successful, richer, happier, higher in status, fitter, stronger, lither - but morally better? No. We just want to follow some codes, set up a few direct debits and maybe pray or send loving-kindness.

Thinking for ourselves? Sorry, Spinoza, Kant and Mill, it’s just too damn hard.


*Actually, James' position is much more nuanced than this suggests.

**It’s worth noting that Spinoza was very influenced by Stoicism – as his view of the emotions shows. That is another virtue tradition – in which virtue is entirely its own reward. They believed that as the inner self is all that one can control, and that by being virtuous (which in Spinoza would translate into universal understanding), one is ipso facto living a good life, whatever the external constraints. Spinoza, I think, was more politically minded than they and more aware of the way in which external limitations impacted individuals. In addition, his focus was on understanding the nature of the world and all that is, a very large scale truth, rather than specifically controlling or determining one’s inner disposition. What’s more, he did concede physical determinism and while he believed that a full understanding of the causes of anger, say, would allow for a different perception of it and greater freedom, I do not think that he had such a grand vision of cognitive freedom as that stated by the Stoics.

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