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 A Theory of FeelingsReview - A Theory of Feelings
by Agnes Heller
Lexington Books, 2009
Review by Robert Zaborowski
Mar 23rd 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 12)

The book under review is a second edition of the English translation of the work written originally in Hungarian (Érzelmek elmélete) and published by Van Gorcum in 1979. The second edition includes various minor modifications in the translation (they are mentioned in the Introduction, p. 9; e.g. replacement of the term Ego with Self). Endnotes are set at the end of each chapter. No bibliography. No indexes.

Apart from the Acknowledgments (p. vi), Introduction to the Second Edition (pp. 1-9) the book is divided in two parts, the first (pp. 11-161) the first thrice as long as the second (pp. 165-221), followed by a two-page Epilogue (pp. 223-224). The other difference between parts I and II is that the latter has a separate introduction to it, while the former does not (from the remark on p. 8 one can deduce that the Introduction to the Second Edition should be actually understood as a new Introduction to the First Part, because "[a]s for the second part of the book, it does not need a new introduction or an apology").

From the Introduction we learn that metaphysical philosophy, which is called metaphysics as well, has not "cherished feelings, emotions and sentiments". The reason is that they are not ""pure" or as pure as possible". Heller's attempt is, first of all, "to illustrate that emotions and cognition are always integrated" (p. 1). She mentions a couple of philosophers (Aristotle, Descartes, Spinoza) who made valuable insights into feelings and emotions. The four "turning points [by "turning point" Heller understands "an upsurge of influence"] for questions about feelings and emotions in modern philosophy" (p. 3) are to be found in Hume, Freud, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein. I must say that criteria for this "own [...] not random choice" are not patent for me. Hume's "reason is, and ought to be, the slave of passions" is insulated, as often, from the context. Nietzsche, for his part, doesn't need a justification, says Heller, if it is not the fact that he is a moralist (she is aware that there is no "theory of emotion" in Nietzsche). Freud is important because of "his interpretation of the dynamic of the psyche" (p. 5), while Wittgenstein, who "was the greatest inspiration for this book", describes phenomena through language games. Finally, we are told that the book is a part of Heller's project to outline a new "anthropology" (the term is to be taken not in the American, but in its European, i.e., Kantian meaning. (We are informed also that at the time, A Theory of Feelings was a sequel to On Instinct, a kind of introduction to the former.) What is noteworthy is, first, that Heller provides the reader with a definition of feelings which are "involvements with ourselves and/or with others" (p. 5), and, second, that she avoids -- and that already in the 70-ties -- binary oppositions in treatment of feelings.

The first part, The Phenomenology of Feelings, which is a presentation of "a general philosophy of feelings and emotions" (p. 168), consists of five chapters. In the first (What Does It Mean to Feel?, pp. 11-58) Heller spells out her definition of feeling: it means to be involved in something and ""something" can be anything". Something may be "another human being, a concept, myself, a process, a problem, a situation, another feeling-another involvement" (p. 11). In Heller's view, "the lower [lowest?] limit of involvement", that is "0", is only theoretical, for it can be never reached. This view is interesting in itself provided that we acknowledge that not only any but every human relation and process should be considered as feeling (see p. 109: "there is no knowledge without feeling, there is no action without feeling, there is no perception without feeling, there is no recollection without feeling"). Alas, this wide perspective is subsequently narrowed to a social dimension, as we are told that involvement is defined as "nothing but the regulative function of the social organism (the subject, the Self) in its relation to the world and means to regulate the appropriation of the world from the "point of view" of the preservation and extension of the Self, starting out from the social organism" (p. 25). Heller's sociological approach is underpinned by a statement that the Self is preoccupied mainly with selection "aimed at the preservation of homeostasis" (p. 35). According to Heller "the regulative role of the feelings" is to ensure "the sustenance of the continuity of the Self" (p. 41).

The second chapter is about the Classification of Feelings (pp. 59-103) and its topic are now specific feelings. The classification in question is an attempt to "systematize the heterogeneous variety of feelings" (p. 59). After a quite brief linguistic analysis Heller proceeds to distinguish between simple and compound feelings, and their different classes such as drive feelings, affects, cognitive-situational feelings or "emotions proper" and, in the end, she arrives at some observations on emotional character and emotional personality, which fits in with her classification into six classes (drive feelings, affects, orientative (orientational) feelings, emotions proper, character and personality feelings, emotional predispositions). This classification relies on a philosophical point of view, as she tells us, that is: "from the feelings pertaining to bio-social reproduction to the feelings of purely social reproduction; form the feelings in which we have little liberty to those which insure or presuppose greater liberty and greater scope of activity; from less cognitive feelings to the cognitive ones; from those pertaining to the entire human race to those that are socially and individually idiosyncratic; from feelings that are value - indifferent by their essence to feelings that bear value" (p. 62).

In the next chapter (How Do We Learn to Feel, pp. 105-126) Heller deals with ways of learning to express and to verbalize feelings, and in particular with the origin of their idiosyncratic forms, much more than with feelings themselves ("to learn to feel [...] means to learn to read feelings", p. 122). The burning questions of "the denomination of the feeling" and of ""fitting together" feeling and emotional concept" are considered as well. Heller carries on discussing the issue of the regulation of affects, the control of their expressions, and, in the end, leads us to ask about nature of more profound feelings (e.g. love). I would wonder whether they manifest themselves mandatorily. And how are they exteriorized? If it is indeed true that "there is no photograph that would show that the person on it is in love" (p. 70), what does it mean to keep one's emotions, love in this case, to oneself? Is verbal communication the only way of exteriorizing love? What is then love, if the beloved person can ignore the fact that she or he is loved only because there is no verbal communication? Heller arrives, in this way, at the distinction between authentic and inauthentic feelings or rather, I would suspect, between their authentic and inauthentic declarations, expressions and verbalizations.

Chapter Four is devoted to Value Orientation and Feelings (pp. 127-142) and the question that arises concerns "the origin of the "criteria" of evaluation" of feelings (p. 128).

It is true that feelings which are a kind of evaluation are themselves put under evaluation "ready made". This is Heller's thesis that if the feelings are evaluated, the evaluation is being made "from the point of view of homeostasis" (p. 127). She is right when saying that "[i]n the modern societies it is de facto the useful-harmful, successful-unsuccessful value orientational categories that guide in the evaluation of feelings" (p. 139). In fact, affectivity is often labeled positive or negative according to its usefulness and to harmfulness of consequences it brings. It is an open question, however, whether evaluating in such a way has something to do with its actual value or whether this is only a social phenomenon pertaining to how people set their judgments about it.

Chapter Five (Particularist and Individualist Feelings, pp. 143-161) is the last one in the analysis of the phenomenology of feelings. Heller introduces here a distinction between two basic tendencies: particularist (occurring when the person "is characterized by complete identification with his own world (with himself)", p. 144) and individualist feelings (those of the person "characterized by distance both to himself and to the world", p. 145). One of the examples she provides is love "in relation to our own particular Self [...] or for those values for which we had actually chosen" the beloved person (p. 148). In accordance with this the collision between particularist feelings happens when "the feeling requirement of unreflected customary rules confront the affects" ("the Superego collides with the Id"), while the collision of individual feelings is the effect "of collision of values" (p. 158).

The second part, Contributions to the Social Philosophy of Feelings, opens with an Introduction, in which the reader is put on a sociological track: "[...] human beings have task [...] must produce and act; they must reproduce [...]" (p. 166). Heller announces the scope of her study in the second part: "[to] concentrate on the presentation of a few syndromes of the bourgeois world of feelings and emotions and to document key changes by the presentation of literature representative of this particular [i.e. modern] age" (p. 168).

First (Chapter VI: About the Historical Dynamics of the Modern World of Feelings in General, pp. 171-184), after having put forward that "[m]odern society is the first "pure" society" (p. 171), Heller surveys several from two different periods: the French Revolution and the aftermath of the First World War. Thus, she refers to Rousseau, Goethe, Sade and Austen on the one hand, and to Kafka, Eliot, Musil and Th. Mann on the other (in fact, Th. Mann's The Magic Mountain is given a one-paragraph comment only much farther on, pp. 207-208).

In what follows (Chap. VII: The Housekeeping of Feelings, pp. 185-198), she deals with "keeping in order" one's ""emotional household"" (p. 185). The most meaningful from the philosophical point of view is, however, as it seems to me, the remark that "[t]he conception of "reason" and "feeling" as opposite "principles" is characteristic of the everyday thinking of the bourgeois era [...] it is practically a lieu commun" (p. 191). But what is more perspicacious is to underline that "the ideologies which have opted for the reconciliation of reason and feeling have not become lieu commun, proving that while the dichotomy itself emanates from the facts of bourgeois existence, the harmony which would halt the dichotomy is a principle that is polemically directed at these facts" (pp. 191-192). The well known and widely seen result of such a strategy is that "in the name of reason [...] polemics have been undertaken against alienated feelings and in the name of feelings against the alienated reason" (p. 194). And one cannot but add that "the argument that the dichotomy of thinking and feeling is philosophically incorrect" (p. 197) has already been formulated much earlier, to give just two names, by R. G. Collingwood and John Macmurray.

In the last chapter (The Abstraction of Feelings and Beyond, pp. 199-221), Heller starts with the analysis of the bougeois-citoyen schism, drawing on Goethe, Marx, and to a larger extent on Balzac, and on Skinner. As in a flash, an impressive insight is made that "[t]he apex of the hierarchy of feelings is occupied by the emotional dispositions: love and friendship" (p. 215), but it is neither developed nor proof-given. Heller too mentions borderline situations. The significance of this chapter is not quite clear for me. It does not provide any conclusion to the book either.

The Epilogue turns on Human Suffering.

Probably, the first question to be asked is whether Heller's book is to be considered a philosophical, a psychological or a sociological study. In my opinion, it is all three in its different parts. These three perspectives are, however, isolated and, I am afraid, it can hardly be said that Heller arrives at an interdisciplinary approach. Therefore, some parts are more interesting for a philosopher, while other for sociologist (or, to use Heller's term, social philosopher). For the same reason I am not sure how Heller's theory, if any, should be labeled: as a philosophical, psychological or sociological one? As a philosopher I am glad to see that the philosophical part is a major one and that Heller makes here several good points while the weaknesses are very few (e.g. Heller reproduces, p. 1, a false opinio communis according to which Plato set a model of degradation of feelings and emotions to a low status).

The peculiar thing is to see that Heller in important issues works hand in hand with Max Scheler, who made a lot for a better understanding of affectivity, first of all, by adopting a vertical, multilevel, or, if one prefers, hierarchical approach to it. Let us look at Heller's assertion that "[i]t is generally known that intensity and depth of feeling are two quite different things" (p. 92) and some line later on that "[a] feeling is deep when it sets our whole personality [...] we feel deeply when we become involved in something with our whole personality" (p. 92). Not only the content and context but also the terminology is similar in Scheler. It is Scheler's contribution to articulate the difference between several (types of) feelings in terms of levels according to their depth: "[...] levels of feeling that correspond to the structure of our entire human existence" (Scheler too is explicit about irreducibility of depth to intensity). Scheler's fourfold division anticipates to some extent Heller's typology with the difference that Scheler's model is supposed to be valid for overall affectivity, while in Heller the division varies according to such and such a feeling (e.g. six types for fear, five for joy). To say the least, Heller's argument could have benefited much from Scheler's analysis and conclusions in this respect (Scheler is referred to but in relation to his analysis of sympathy, p. 4, p. 89).

The problem is also the vagueness of the criteria in Heller's divisions. As in the quotation above, we pass at once from "bio-social reproduction" to "purely social reproduction", another time from "little liberty" to "greater liberty and greater scope of activity", still another time from "less cognitive feelings" to "the cognitive ones" and from "the entire human race" to "individually idiosyncratic" and, finally, from "feelings that are value" to "feelings that bear value". Is the criterion to be identified with some kind of degree? But the degree of what? Similarly, one could ask whether drives and affects are differentiated according to the same criterion as affects and emotions (in Scheler the criterion is clearly put forward: levels of depth).

As to the book's strengths I would like to underline three of them. First, Heller's use of the term feeling (rather than of emotion) meets a tendency to represent affectivity in a fuller way and satisfies the tradition of translating German word Gefühl or French sentiment by feeling (rather than by emotion), which in these languages are used to speak about affectivity in ontology and in ethics. Then, Heller's focus on complementarity of feeling and thinking (in Chap. VII and to a lesser extent passim) goes along with the tradition that starts with ancient Greek philosophers and was never extinguished. As one may surmise, nowadays the supporters of intelligence of emotions and of emotional intelligence have the same ideas in mind, albeit in truncated form. Finally, Heller's hierarchical approach, not so frequent, helps to avoid the so-called upwards and downwards reductions (Dixon's term) in the analysis of and approach to affectivity and human being as a whole.

These three points are crucial for anyone who wishes to grasp affectivity in its entirety. Thereby, the second edition of Heller's book is welcome. One can hope that from now on it will be referred to in bibliographies more frequently and will be known more widely than hitherto.


© 2010 Robert Zaborowski


Robert Zaborowski, University of Warmia and Mazury & Polish Academy of Sciences, is currently working on ancient Greek philosophy and affectivity.


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