The Vehement Passions

The Vehement Passions

Copyright Date: 2002
Pages: 280
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Vehement Passions
    Book Description:

    Breaking off the ordinary flow of experience, the passions create a state of exception. In their suddenness and intensity, they map a personal world, fix and qualify our attention, and impel our actions. Outraged anger drives us to write laws that will later be enforced by impersonal justice. Intense grief at the death of someone in our life discloses the contours of that life to us. Wonder spurs scientific inquiry.

    The strong current of Western thought that idealizes a dispassionate world has ostracized the passions as quaint, even dangerous. Intense states have come to be seen as symptoms of pathology. A fondness for irony along with our civic ideal of tolerance lead us to prefer the diluted emotional life of feelings and moods. Demonstrating enormous intellectual originality and generosity, Philip Fisher meditates on whether this victory is permanent-and how it might diminish us.

    From Aristotle to Hume to contemporary biology, Fisher finds evidence that the passions have defined a core of human nature no less important than reason or desire. Traversing theIliad, King Lear, Moby Dick, and other great works, he discerns the properties of the high-spirited states we call the passions. Are vehement states compatible with a culture that values private, selectively shared experiences? How do passions differ from emotions? Does anger have an opposite? Do the passions give scale, shape, and significance to our experience of time? Is a person incapable of anger more dangerous than someone who is irascible?

    In reintroducing us to our own vehemence, Fisher reminds us that it is only through our strongest passions that we feel the contours of injustice, mortality, loss, and knowledge. It is only through our personal worlds that we can know the world.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2489-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xi)
    (pp. 1-11)

    Could any pair of words seem as natural together as the words “dispassionate knowledge”? Yet in at least one case the passions were always understood to be essential to the search for knowledge. Descartes, in naming wonder the first of the passions, described wonder as an impassioned state that makes learning possible. In wonder we notice against the background of a lawful and familiar world something that strikes us by its novelty and by the pleasure that this surprising new fact brings to us. Each of us has at every stage of our lives a distinct but provisional horizon separating...

  5. ONE Passions, Strong Emotions, Vehement Occasions
    (pp. 12-27)

    InThe Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, Charles Darwin in 1872 began with a description of the physical expressions of four of “the stronger sensations and emotions.” His four examples are rage, joy, terror, and the agony of physical pain.¹ Ten years later in William James’s essay “What Is an Emotion?,” in which we find the elements of what came to be known as the James-Lange theory, James took for his examples what he called the “coarser” or the “strong” emotions: grief, rage, fear.² The neurobiology of our own time, studying the results of brain lesions, has located...

  6. TWO Paths among the Passions
    (pp. 28-39)

    Ever since the work of Aristotle, the passions have been arranged and discussed systematically. Let me mention a few important features. First, pairs of passions are regarded as opposites. Aristotle described the passions as “anger, pity, fear and the like with their opposites.”¹ Darwin listed opposition as one of the three structural features of emotions. The discovery of opposites is one preoccupation of earlier philosophical work on the passions. Love and hatred form one common pair; distress and pleasure, another. But even though these four terms play an enormous part in the history of the passions, they are not quite...

  7. THREE Thoroughness
    (pp. 40-52)

    Wherever we look at the language for our inner states, we find the creation of, first, a central passion that serves as a template for all others; then, second, a surrounding circle of the “normal”; and, finally, a zone of the puzzling, the defective, the excluded. When Hume, for example, dropped the term “the passions,” which he had used in the central part of hisTreatise of Human Nature, and turned to the term “the moral sentiments” for his later essays, he was breaking free of a vocabulary with too many hostages built in. Now that it was a question...

  8. FOUR Privacy, Radical Singularity
    (pp. 53-70)

    Central, incontestable details of vehement states arise from the one fact about the passions that most interested Darwin and William James, the physical component visible to any observer and measurable by scientists in pulse rates; in changes in muscle tension, posture, and gesture; in trembling, blushing, and smiling—or audible in the shouts of rage or the sobbing of sorrow. The passions are deeply physical and deeply mental phenomena. They make it impossible to draw a clear line within experience that would let us place corporeal events on one side and mental events on the other. Aristotle’s small bookOn...

  9. FIVE Time
    (pp. 71-92)

    The art of life, Marcus Aurelius said, is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s.¹ The wrestler stands ready and poised to meet thrusts that are sudden and unexpected. The dancer wills the steps she will take, and if we are our will, then Yeats is correct and we cannot know the dancer from the dance, because the dance is the visible will of the dancer projected through the body in motion. The wrestler positions every muscle of his body to adjust to changing conditions in the few feet of space around him and the few seconds of time...

  10. SIX Rashness
    (pp. 93-108)

    Rashness, commonly understood, is the defective, minor partner term to our central notion of the deliberate pace of reasonable action. Rashness stands in even stronger contrast to hesitation, Hamlet-like doubt, or to prudence that slows down the will, allowing time for careful thought before action begins, or even, in extreme cases, paralyzing the will and making action impossible. Only by taking time can we weigh the consequences and enable a choice of the best possible next-on action before we turn to execute that action itself. When Adam Smith set up his central principle of prudence within the moral sentiments, he...

  11. SEVEN Mutual Fear
    (pp. 109-131)

    Thirty years ago Robert Nozick imagined one of the most extreme extensions of freedom in his bookAnarchy, State, and Utopia. Why not, he asked, permit all actions, even violence to others, if compensation be paid later? If someone breaks my arm, he must pay compensation: not just my medical costs, of course, but full restitution for my suffering, loss of work, and so on. Why have laws against anything if we could establish, so to speak, a market for damage?¹ Nozick saw that there is an unexpected answer to this wild proposal. Only the suffering of those actually injured...

  12. EIGHT The Aesthetics of Fear
    (pp. 132-156)

    The classical model of fear arises out of what we would today call interdisciplinary work. To grasp Aristotle on fear we would begin with his discussion of courage in theNicomachean Ethics: courage in situations of a fear of imminent death, and above all on the battlefield where the option of flight and cowardice exists, where skill matters, and where the soldier must act, must face and go toward the very thing feared—the enemy soldier. To this profound argument must be joined the analysis of legal cases in theRhetoricwhere the assessment of a crime’s severity and the...

  13. NINE The Radius of the Will
    (pp. 157-170)

    One of the most telling statements about the passions is the remark of La Rochefoucauld that there are many people who would never have found themselves in love if they had never heard other people talking about love first.¹ Like most wise and witty observations on the passions, this maxim draws a portrait, sponsored by the intelligence, of a subject that, as soon as the clear light of reason falls upon it, seems to disappear. La Rochefoucauld points only to “some people” who might never have thought up love for themselves, but if love is a kind of state they...

  14. TEN Anger and Diminution
    (pp. 171-198)

    To think about a version of the will designed by the passions and the spirited self, and not by the long history of our legal system with its spillover into everyday life and psychology, we need only replace the interest in responsibility, punishment, and reasonable effectiveness with a concern with the quite different situation that I have called the feeling of “injury” or “insult” to the will. A door through which we wish to pass sticks, blocking our route to the room we planned to enter; a fever takes the life of one’s best friend; a storm at sea threatens...

  15. ELEVEN Grief
    (pp. 199-226)

    The civilizing of all terms connected to the passions is especially clear in the history of the word “mood.” An Old and Middle English word that once meant ferocity and vehemence,moodcame from the Germanic word for courage (Mutin modern German) and matched the broad range of the related German wordGemüt, once the main term for spirit or for the inner life of a person, the main alternative to the use of the word “soul” down to the time of Kant. Mood meant high-spirited, energetic, expansive being, best demonstrated in battle or in a race. It captured...

  16. TWELVE Spiritedness
    (pp. 227-245)

    If the experience of mortality is anticipated in everyday situations by the undercurrents of diminution, loss, and the threat of loss present in fear, jealousy, and many other states, then this secondary detail of each of the impassioned states—the anticipation of mortality—signals one of the most important structural facts about vehement states, no matter what their local content might be. All such states are states of loss.

    The vehement states are, at the same time, no matter what the local content might be, states of arousal. We preserve in our clear ideas of sexual arousal or the arousal...

    (pp. 246-252)

    The well-deserved success of objectivity and impersonal, systematic justice in our legal system can blind us to the costs and losses in the victory over anger and impassioned spirit on which this civilizing accomplishment was based. Objectification and the disowning of the merely personal world have many more victories to show than this one triumph of impersonal justice over retaliation. The guiding Kantian ethical ideals of reciprocity and universality; the concept of a rational life plan as we find it in Stoicism and in Rawls’sA Theory of Justice; the requirement to act from an integration of one’s inclinations, as...

  18. NOTES
    (pp. 253-262)
    (pp. 263-265)
    (pp. 266-268)