Musings on the Emotions

Emotions are the background context in which our subjective experiences take place. They paint, and possibly distort, virtually every moment of our existence. Can we say that we ever have an emotion-less moment? Emotions are not always characterized by their excesses or their extreme states, which is how we often think of them. For example, anger, sadness, jealousy, joy, etc., are emotions with distinct names, because they are distinct emotions; separated from the other, more nuanced emotions, by their very vividity and starkness.  If one introspects upon their emotions enough, they begin to discover these other, more nuanced, blurry, and inexact emotions that are constantly at play. The mark of a healthy mind is the stability of those emotions which are more or less positive or neutral, and are also, to a greater or lesser extent, resistant to negative external pressure. If we take all of this into account, it seems less likely that an “emotionless” state is possible. I would be open to arguments or evidence to the contrary, of course. Either way, its safe to say that emotions play a much bigger role in our existential experience then we generally acknowledge.

I have also come to notice that some of the aforementioned “distinct” emotions for which we have clear definitions and meanings are not emotions unto themselves, but composed of a constituency of other emotions. Jealousy, for example, is a perfect example of an emotion that we generally think to be entirely distinct from others (and Love, Anger or Hate are perfect examples of emotions that can be said to exist in their own right, irreducible to other more basic emotions.) In reality, I think it can be said that jealousy is actually an emergent property that presents itself when a few different, and possibly contradictory, emotions bubble up simultaneously. Surely both love and hate, or at least some aspect of those emotions, are at play in jealousy. These are contradictory emotions (love and hate), giving us that odd, perplexing and unsavory feeling in our gut that we get when we become victims of jealousy. In addition to love and hate, a pinch of bitterness or envy are present as well, along with a dash of anger and a sprinkling (sometimes more than a sprinkling) of possessiveness (which can be seen both as a trait and an emotion, in my opinion. Surely we have felt a unique emotion associated with the possession of certain dearly valued object that is not really love, but a certain other sort of desire or longing). This emotion is often felt in relation to humans instead of to objects, when we feel a certain entitlement to another person. In romantic relationships especially, this emotion of possessiveness is ever-present and can get out of control rather easily. It’s a curious effect of the human mind that we direct an emotion reserved for the possession of inanimate objects towards a human being, but it is not surprising. This need to possess, and its contingent emotional baggage, probably has its roots in the human desire to control the chaos of reality. We exercise this need for control in a myriad of ways, but our affection towards certain objects is one of the more peculiar manifestations of this need for control, in my opinion.  Objects don’t die, they tend to stay around, and if we can possess something that does not get old and die, in contrast to ourselves, we can have a subconscious calming.  We can attach our transient selves to a not-so-transient object , and thus get an illusory, albeit sedating, sense of control over our own inevitable fate. We invest our very selves into objects such that our most prized possessions are not just possessions, but externalizations of our own selves. It is not a surprise, when viewed from this perspective, that we should do the same to our lovers and friends. Our selves are intimately tied up in “the other”, and this can lead to a certain sense of entitlement to, or possessiveness over, that person, because in them we view a part of our selves, and what do we own in this world if not our own selves?

Emotions of the sort we have been discussing, as well as emotions generally, are absolutely vital for the way we interact socially.  We like to fancy ourselves as rational agents, more or less reasonable creatures with a very potent intellect.  We emphasize the rational over the emotional because the rational is what sets us apart of the animal world.  Emotions seem more base, more instinctual, and thus more animalistic, and so we downplay their importance to our intellectual lives.  However, all reason exists in an emotional context.  Emotions play a very significant role in our decision-making, our reasoning, and our thinking generally.  To be rational without any emotion would be a very different sort of “rational” than we assume.  It would be cold, distant and calculating because it would not have the emotional under-current to give it direction, morality, and “heart”.  Therefore, as much as we try, we cannot separate our rational selves from our emotional selves, they are inexorably interconnected, and that is actually a very good thing.

This dominance of the emotions is what makes human relationships so god damn hard.  Especially romantic relationships.  It is hard enough for most of us to deal with our own emotional ups and downs and keep the mental ship steady, let alone doing that laborious work for another person as well.  The human emotional complex is a complicated beast; its messy, difficult to understand let alone navigate, and so strong at times as to make us chemical puppets to our emotional surges for a period of time.  One day we are passionate, engaged, motivated and excited with life and the next we wax cynical, retreat from the world, and experience a sort of mental apathy.  Such is the plight of the emotional ape.

Dichotomous Thinking in Political Ideology

After reading the first third of Raymond Guess’ Philosophy and Real Politics, I have begun to investigate and analyse my own political sympathies, dispositions and ideologies. It has made me wonder about not only my own ideologies, but that of others as well. I have come to believe that most of us have a dichotomous sense of our own political views. On one hand, we have our ideals; our abstract notions of what politics and the political system OUGHT to be, and on the other hand, we have our own “realist” beliefs that are more relevant to how things actually are.

Guess lays out three kinds of questions that are, in his view, essential to contemplate when thinking about politics. The first one is dubbed the “Lenin question”, which, once expanded a bit by Guess, states “Who does what to whom for whose benefit”. The second question, referred to as the “Nietzsche question” asks “What is the thing to do here and now?” and this is markedly different than abstracting away from reality and asking what’s the best course of action based on lofty values or universal notions of ‘the good’ or’ the right’. The third question, called the “Max Weber question”, discusses legitimacy. What I am concerned with here is the second question, and I want to flesh out my notion of dichotomous thinking using it as my reference point.

I will admit up front that I may be making the mistake of generalizing about how people think based on how I think, however, upon deliberation I think it is fair to say that many people, at least, display the sort of dichotomous thinking I am talking about when it comes to politics. I, for example, have a few different general political ideals ranging from more or less “realist” to more or less “idealist”. In the realist camp, I would say I am a rational secular progressive. In the idealist camp, I am somewhere between a decentralized democratic socialists and an anarcho-syndicalist. (It is pertinent that I elaborate here. Secular progressivism is realist in this sense because its indicative of my orientation in time, space, socio-politico environment, etc. It is not meant to delineate an over-arching theory of how things ought to be or a set of ethical values.) The former position is held in relation to what actually is the case, namely that we live in a capitalist quasi-republic with political actors who act based on expediency and in the interests of socio-political power as opposed to consistent moral or highly philosophical ideals. Given my situation in a capitalist quasi-republic, I think the state serves as an essential opponent of big, concentrated wealth. It does not always serve that purpose, and is often times manipulated and hijacked by the very concentrated wealth they are supposed to act as a buffer against, but I view the state being abolished while our current system of capitalism stays in place as being an unsavory dystopia. This view clashes strongly with my ideal positions of decentralization of political power and my sympathies with anarchism. But how can someone hold such contradictory positions?

I think because anyone who subscribes exclusively to such abstract, idealist positions cannot, and perhaps should not, be taken seriously as someone who is offering a real solution or strategy pertaining to real issues. The critiques of the status quo that stem from their ideal position may be relevant, but their position is just not in line with reality, and therefore adds little practical significance to what is actually happening in our socio-political environment. However, many people who hold such positions realize this, if only subconsciously, and thus temper their idealism with another, often times largely separate, set of political ideas and desires that they can advocate for given the reality of their political environment. So, when it comes to me personally, I hold the position that the State, ideally, should be diminished, but when it comes to health care in our current system, I can be found advocating for a single-payer system as a thing to be done “here and now”, as Guess says, based on the realities of a myriad of interests and the preference for a State run health care system as opposed to a for-profit run system, which are the only realistic positions given my social, political, and economic environment at this historical point in time. In this sense I can claim, confidently, that I am a realist. Better yet, maybe I am a realist with idealism simmering on the back-burners of my philosophical disposition!

At any rate, I think Raymond Guess, thus far, has laid out a convincing case for understanding and analyzing politics based on the realist approach. However, I think it is often overlooked that people can be practical realists while still holding on to some more “liberalized” idealist positions. The deciding factor of one’s political make-up, however, is how successful they are in separating the two positions distinctively within their mind and applying them correctly.