De Sousa on emotional authenticity

De Sousa's account of emotional authenticity highlights the unique emotional repertoire that everyone of us has, thanks to dispositions and experiences that "derive from a multiplicity of social and environmental factors, which are unlikely ever to be identical for any two of us" (de Sousa, 2007, p. 329). These emotional patterns constitute "individual natures", personalized ways of emotionally apprehending the world and its values. However, authenticity understood in terms of "individual natures" must be supplemented with a suitable notion of coherence. The problem is what coherence means in the context of emotions.

First of all, we must distinguish between synchronic and diachronic coherence, depending on whether we assess the coherence of co-existing states or look at transitions between states. Moreover, coherence itself can mean either compatibility or consistency. Compatibility relates to the possibility of feeling two emotions simultaneously, whereas consistency focuses on the rational justification of contrary emotions about the same object.

Two states are compatible with each other if they can both exist together. For instance, one can feel both hungry and cold, or hungry and warm, but one cannot feel both hot and cold at the same time. In contrast, two states are consistent if the states of affairs represented in the intentional contents of those states are able to coexist. Admiration and contempt or love and loathing appear to be inconsistent, for it is hard to see how something could be both admirable and contemptible or lovable and loathsome in the same respect and at the same time. However, de Sousa argues that logical relations between emotional evaluations are insufficient as standards of inconsistency for emotions because many of our emotions do not heed principles of logical consistency. They persist despite clear knowledge of their falsehood as evaluations (e.g. fear of flying), and they are not responsive to rational evidence as motivating reasons (e.g. our lacking fear of driving cars). This fact connects to the relative independence of emotion and rational judgment as functionally and neurophysiologically distinct faculties.

Therefore, de Sousa surmises that standards of emotional consistency must be connected to laws of compatibility, which, in turn, are grounded in competition for physiological and behavioural resources between different emotions. Anger and fear, for instance, are practically incompatible, because one cannot both approach an object and withdraw from it. De Sousa suggests that practical incompatibility may suffice for a weak sense of inconsistency as incompatible emotions often also felt as inconsistent, "that is, as a problem requiring some sort of resolution" (ibid., p. 336). Even so, de Sousa claims that inconsistency is not entirely reducible to incompatibility because the latter cannot be clearly split off from inconsistency. Incompatible emotions can frame the same situation from different perceptual and behavioural perspectives that are irrational with respect to each other, and in this sense, inconsistent.

Compatibility and consistency are standards of synchronic coherence. However, this standard must be supplemented with diachronic coherence: constancy and flexibility of our attitudes through time. De Sousa discusses the book The Hidden Genius of Emotion (2002) by Carol Magai and Jeannette Haviland-Jones on three therapists, Carl Rogers, Albert Ellis, and Fritz Perls at some length. Magai and Haviland-Jones argue that each of these therapists had a unique ideoaffective structure, largely set up in childhood and characterized by the dominant role of certain emotions as well as the inhibition or rejection of others.

Rogers, for example is found to be a life-long avoider of anger, whose main at-tractors are joy and shame. For Perls and Ellis, anger and contempt are the major attractors. Perls' dynamic is based on oscillation between contempt and shame. Ellis's pattern is much more rigidly fixed on avoidance of strong negative emotions. These differences account for the different potential for long-term transformation over the three subjects' lives. (de Sousa, 2007, p. 340)

Magai and Haviland-Jones maintain that these "emotional signatures" have a "fractal structure" as they can be detected at different levels of observation: in the therapists' life decisions, in the main tenets of their theoretical work, as well as in the specific gestures, attitudes, physical postures, and facial expressions revealed in the frame-by-frame analysis of their filmed therapeutic sessions. Magai and Haviland-Jones claim that fractal structures endure throughout our lives and are largely unavailable to consciousness.

De Sousa reads the study of Magai and Haviland-Jones as an argument for a specific conception of authenticity as "a certain fit between the basic emotional configuration that defines an individual nature and that individual's choices and habits" (ibid., p. 341). The opacity of authentic patterns of emotion is somewhat disturbing because it maintains that these patterns are beyond the subject's awareness and rational influence. Magai and Haviland-Jones do not see this as a problem, but de Sousa speculates about confronting Ellis (who was alive and active when the Magai and Haviland-Jones book came out) with the researchers' account of his fractal structure and observing his response. Irrespective of the consequences of such confrontation, its long-term effects on the fractal pattern of Ellis would have become discernible only when the new pattern had already passed out of awareness. Concludes de Sousa: "It follows that the relation of consistency or inconsistency that matters most at this level cannot be exhausted by the phenomenology of emotion, for the most important patterns will not show up as such in conscious experience at all" (ibid., p. 342).

Nevertheless, de Sousa emphasizes the importance of taking at least an aesthetic interest in authenticity, regardless of whether such interest changes one's behaviour. A problem is that practical criteria of emotional consistency "do not get a grip on the aesthetic, both because the aesthetic by definition restrains all action-tendencies, and because resource-based physiological criteria of compatibility are not guaranteed to surface into awareness" (ibid., p. 343). However, an aesthetic approach allows an ascent to a meta-level of irony that is capable of reconciling any apparent inconsistencies with a second-order recognition of one's incoherence.

My qualms about de Sousa's discussion on emotional authenticity and coherence focus on his conclusion that ends up with aesthetic criteria for emotional coherence. The problem is that an aesthetic approach to one's emotions seems to involve a disengaged attitude towards them and irony certainly does. The disengaged attitude naturally associates with aesthetic emotions that do not manifest in action, and therefore do not compete for limited physiological and behavioural resources. Indeed, de Sousa's examples of apparently inconsistent but aesthetically reconcilable contraries are musical preferences such as Palestrina and Acid Rock rather than emotions. In this disengaged, aesthetic context, ambivalence is at home, as Pugmire (2005) points out. However, let us suppose that the subject is not an observer but deeply involved in the emotion-eliciting situation. Is it plausible or even possible to apply the idea of aesthetic coherence to cases of ambivalence in which we, for instance, both admire and despise a person for the same reason, or feel both proud and ashamed of the same act of ours?

If such cases are possible, they seem rare and inherently instable, not merely psychologically but also normatively because the balance of reasons may not provide equal warrant to both emotions. Think about a homosexual who is both proud and ashamed of his sexual identity but whose shame is merely a voice from his narrow-minded upbringing. Even if an aesthetic reconciliation may be possible, such strategy may be seriously irrational if it implies that the question about the relative warrant of normatively inconsistent emotions is supplemented or replaced with a question about factual compatibility in terms of physiological and behavioural resources. When it is possible to rationally adjudicate between normatively inconsistent emotions, reconciling them by taking an aesthetic refuge may not come without a price for emotional authenticity.

By adopting an aesthetic approach to her inconsistent emotions, the subject steps back from the underlying concerns of those emotions, as well as from their conflict, that may demand both rational and practical solution. Emotional ambivalence is a way of becoming aware of such conflict, which, by the means of an aesthetic reconciliation, is brought into dissolution rather than resolution. De Sousa seems to recommend both, depending on whether we understand reconciliation in terms of aesthetic criteria or practical compatibility - indeed, the mutual relation of these two standards of emotional consistency remains obscure in his discussion. Yet there seems to be an important difference between these two forms of solving emotional conflicts, which renders the former strategy suspicious in cases where the subject's vital concerns are directly involved. It seems that an ascent to a metalevel of irony is a way of robbing the full importance of these emotions and avoiding one's responsibility to face the question about the relative warrant of inconsistent emotions. An aesthetic reconciliation may amount to what Sartre (1939) mistakenly ascribed to all emotions: taking refuge from the situation in order to avoid one's responsibility for it. Indeed, we can ask, is it authentic to apply aesthetic standards of coherence to non-aesthetic emotions in the first place?

Nevertheless, I agree with de Sousa qualms about accepting a person's lifelong pattern of emotions as authentic without qualifications. Even if these emotional configurations are largely unconscious and resistant to change, I agree with de Sousa that it makes sense to speculate about a person's response if he or she were confronted with an adequate account of his or her fractal structure. We do not know in advance if such confrontation would have any effect on the person's emotional configuration and behaviour but such confrontation, even as a hypothetical condition, may have independent justificatory value for the authenticity of emotions.

 
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