An Aristotelian objection to authentic emotional ambivalence

Kristjan Kristjansson (2010) has suggested that authentic ambivalence is in conflict with the ideal of integrity that requires a unified evaluative perspective. Accordingly, he sketches an Aristotelian solution to the problem of emotional ambivalence on the basis of phronesis. Kristjansson does not aim at an exegetically correct interpretation of this central Aristotelian notion. Instead, he applies it to empirical evidence on emotional ambivalence among bicultural individuals. He argues that phronesis is a human capacity of critical self-reflection that allows the subject to rationally mediate and adjudicate between her ambivalent emotions.

[Phronesis] compares the relative weight of competing values and emotions -values that are incompatible but not incommensurable - with eudaimonia: the ultimate good and unconditional end of human beings.... This involves reasoning, based on ethical first principles, about one's appropriate and rational combinations of desires and beliefs (Kristjansson, 2010, p. 507).

Kristjansson claims that the mediating, overseeing, and prescriptive role of phronesis is realized in its role as a second-order intellectual virtue or meta-emotion that "incorporates not only true beliefs about what to feel and do, but also includes a motivational component: the desire to adhere to those beliefs; a desire whose satisfaction or frustration, in turn, supplies the affective component of the emotion." (ibid., p. 508).

In the first appearance, an Aristotelian phronesis appears very attractive in resolving persistent empirical cases of emotional ambivalence. Unfortunately, the story is not very explicit about how this feat is actually achieved. The most Kristjansson says is that "phronesis first moulds and forms the person's emotional dispositions in order to turn them into emotional virtues; then it stands guard and comes to rescue again if two emotional virtues conflict in a given situation" (ibid., p. 508). This quote hints at a disconcerting conclusion that is confirmed earlier in the text: a person with phronesis is understood by definition to be capable of "overseeing the virtues and adjudicating the relative weight of each of them in conflict scenarios" (ibid., p. 505). The problem is that if we do not know more about the sophisticated intellectual, conative, and emotional processes through which phronesis necessarily rather than contingently succeeds in striking the optimal way to feel, the claim that phronesis is the virtue that allows us to solve the problem of emotional ambivalence remains uninformative, especially beyond the context of exegetic Aristotle research where Kristjansson claims to be operating. Indeed, we should be able to identify phronesis not only by its outcomes but also in terms of its operation. Only then can we can claim that something similar to phronesis may be guiding biculturals - who unlike the Aristotelian phronimoi need not possess "all the [moral] virtues" (ibid., p. 505) - to achieve an integrated rather than compartmentalized identity.

Even if integrity is the ideal, it makes little sense to ask biculturals or members of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer groups to abandon or repress one aspect of their identity in order to become wholehearted if this turns out impossible due to incommensurable aspects of their different identities.[1] Something like an

Aristotelian phronesis may assist these individuals in reaching a synthesis, however unique and delicate, even in these cases. However, it seems odd to blame these individuals for lacking practical wisdom if they fail to reach a synthesis of their divided identities. When those individuals feel ambivalent emotions, it seems possible that both emotions are true to them albeit on different communal standards. Here we have an intuitive case of authentic emotional ambivalence. Therefore, I conclude that Kristjansson's Aristotelian proposal fails to provide a plausible resolution of all cases of persistent emotional ambivalence.


I have argued that an integrity view of emotional authenticity is capable of overcoming the anomalies of the sincerity view: recalcitrant emotions and managed emotions. Sincerity is an important virtue in our emotional lives but it must be distinguished from authenticity. Sincerity is a psychological notion that refers to veridical self-knowledge, whereas authenticity is a normative notion that relates to personal authorisation. By the integrity account, authenticity is analyzed as coherence between the evaluative content of emotion and one's subjectively rational values and beliefs. However, sincerity is a necessary condition of authenticity because an authentic emotion must be psychologically real even if it need not emerge spontaneously. Moreover, authenticity is a regulative and open-ended ideal as our spontaneous emotions frequently challenge the coherence of our present emotions, values, and beliefs.

  • [1] I agree with Calhoun (1995) who argues that integrity is compatible with ambivalence. Her example is the professor and novelist Maria Lugones, whose two identities, Latina and lesbian, are mutually incompatible in the culture she lives. Lugones' problem is that "within Hispanic culture, lesbianism is an abomination [whereas] within the lesbian community, Hispanic values and ways of living do not have a central value. As a result, 'Latina lesbian' is not a coherent identity." (Calhoun, 1995, p. 239) Calhoun argues that Lugones displays more integrity by resisting the urge to resolve the conflict between her two value structures than by forcing herself to wholeheartedness.
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