Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

On Grief and Emotion

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Yesterday I learned of the death of a very dear friend. She died very suddenly, and very unexpectedly, and a great gap has been left in the lives of all who knew her well. I’m still stunned, and I certainly don’t feel like doing teaching preparation or reading philosophy right now. Nevertheless, the former has to be done, and the latter might help, so I’m putting aside the anthologies I’ve been working through to read something on the nature of emotions. Hopefully, doing this reading will help put me in the right frame of mind for teaching prep. I’ve chosen to read Martha Nussbaum’s ‘Emotions as Judgements of Value and Importance’ from Thinking about Feeling, edited by Robert Solomon.

Rather poignantly, Nussbaum starts with a poem by Friedrick Ruckert (translated from the German):

Now the sun is going to rise, as bright as
if no misfortune had happened during the night.
The misfortune happened only to me.
The sun sends light our neutrally.

You must not fold the night into yourself.
You must drown in eternal light.
In my tent a small lamp went out.
Greetings to the joyful light of the world.

Already I’m struggling with this, but I’m determined to proceed, and I have this hope that I’ll come to better understand the emotions I’m currently feeling too. I’m a great lover of Nussbaum’s writing, but I’ve never read anything as personal and moving as this work – an essay in which she speaks of her own grief at the death of her mother. Somehow, by chance I’ve selected a reading exploring the very emotions I’m experiencing as I read it.

Nussbaum’s premise is that emotions are a form of judgement about things we value and ‘in which we acknowledge our neediness and incompleteness before those elements we do not fully control’. She contrasts her neo-Stoic view with that of a picture of emotions as ‘unthinking movements’ which push at us in ways we struggle to control. Nussbaum concedes the strength of this view – the death of her mother, like the death of my dear friend, is accompanied by emotions that seem to assail her. The onslaught of emotions leaves us feeling like we are passively and powerlessly trying to weather a storm – an account she compares to that of Seneca. Nevertheless, Nussbaum argues that we should reject this view and adopt her account of emotions as a form of evaluative judgement instead. She gives the following reasons:

1. Emotions have an object: my grief is not mysterious and directionless, it is about the loss of my friend.

2. The object is an intentional object: the loss I feel includes an view of my departed friend as valuable within it. In this way, my emotions are not merely directed, but include an interpretative aspect. Nussbaum writes ‘What distinguishes fear from hope, fear from grief, love from hate—is not so much the identity of the object, which might not change, but the way the object is perceived: in fear, as a threat, but with some chance for escape; in hope, as in some uncertainty, but with a chance for a good outcome; in grief as lost; in love as invested with a special sort of radiance.’

3. Emotions are more than ways of seeing their objects, they also embody beliefs about them: I don’t just see that my friend is gone, I believe that her loss to the world is a permanent and terrible thing. Beliefs are essential to emotions because they help distinguish between them. For example, I may feel sadness and loss, but it is the beliefs that accompany those feelings that makes my emotion identifiable as grief.

4. The beliefs and intentional perceptions characterising emotions are connected to judgements of value. Because I saw my friend as valuable to me, her absence is of extra significance. This value that I placed upon her, and our friendship, helps explain why her death causes me to grieve in a way that the deaths of others do not. I know those others to be valuable also, but their lives and projects are not entwined with mine – they are not partly constitutive of my good.

It’s in this last point that Nussbaum really strikes a chord (and I feel myself welling up again). She writes of how the death of a loved one, because we value that loved one as a constituent of our own happiness, feels like ‘tearing the self apart’.

Nussbaum’s claim is that emotions are a kind of evaluative judgement, that they are the combination of beliefs and perceptions. But, it is possible that these beliefs and perceptions might play a role in emotions without at the same time being those emotions, and so she spends a portion the latter part of her essay assessing (and rejecting) accounts of emotions which take this weaker position. I don’t really have the heart at the moment to go through this section here – it’s very much in the formal philosophical mode, exploring logical connections and testing for validity, and my scattered thoughts are making concentration difficult. Nevertheless, I’m going to push on and work through Nussbaum’s final section, which concerns the Stoic’s account of judgement.

Nussbaum describes judgement as a response to appearance. When something appears to us, we can accept that appearance and thus form a judgement. Or we can reject the appearance with the thought that things are not as they appear and so judge in contradiction to the appearance. Or we can acknowledge how things appear without committing to a view – we can suspend judgement. It is our reason that features in the decision about how to respond to an appearance and accept it as a belief. There were moments when I first heard of my friend’s death, and afterwards when I was thinking about it, that it just didn’t seem real or possible. You ask yourself if it’s a terrible joke, or if someone might be mistaken. How could someone young and vibrant just die all of a sudden? And then you examine the facts and you come to know that, no matter how awful it seems, it is true nonetheless. This is the assent to appearance. I have assented to the appearance the my friend has died, and with that I am plunged into sadness – I cannot believe that she has died and be unmoved, to do so would deny the value I placed upon our relationship.

At this point, Nussbaum begins to bring in the second part of her definition of emotion – that emotions are concerned with ‘vulnerable externalities’. The claim here is that the judgement I have made is concerned with events that I cannot control: the unexpected, the irreversible, the unchangeable. This fact, Nussbaum argues, reveals that we allow our goods to depend upon factors we cannot control – leaving us somewhat at the mercy of external events, and this brings us to Nussbaum’s characterisation of emotions as ‘upheavals of thought’ (the title of her book on the subject of emotions). The functioning of our reason in the experience of emotion is not some cold, dispassionate process – it is ‘an upheaval’. The cognitive act of judgement – the assent to appearance – is the emotion, the upheaval. In terms of grief, Nussbaum writes of the death of her mother:

Internal to the grief must be the perception of the beloved object and of her importance; the grief itself must quantify the richness of the love between us, its centrality to my life. It must contain the thought of her irrevocable deadness.

I’m no scholar of emotions, but Nussbaum’s account certainly seems more appealing and accurate than the one she contrasts it with. But most of all, I’m grateful to Nussbaum for sharing her grief with me: it must have been a hard thing to take the death of her mother as the starting point for academic inquiry and by doing so, she has helped me a little with my own sense of sadness and loss.


Author: Steve C

I work in normative ethics, specialising in animal and ethics and political philosophy.

One thought on “On Grief and Emotion

  1. Thankyou. I’ll come back to this.

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