Emotion as a Way of Knowing: Introduction

“[Emotion] has the advantage of being open to all, the weak and the lowly, the illiterate and the scholar. It is seen to be as efficacious as any other method and is sometimes said to be stronger than the others, since it is its own fruition, while other methods are means to some other ends.” (Bhagavad-Gita)

“An thence it comes about that in the case where we are speaking of human things, it is said to be necessary to know them before we can love them…but the saints, on the contrary, when they speak of divine things say that we must love them before we can know them, and that we enter into truth only by charity…” Pensees, Pascal

“Once when Care was crossing a river, she saw some clay; she thoughtfully took up a piece and began to shape it. While she was meditating on what she had made, Jupiter came by. Care asked him to give it spirit, and this he gladly granted. But when she wanted her name to be bestowed upon it, he forbade this, and demanded that it be given his name instead. While Care and Jupiter were disputing, Earth arose and desired that her own name be conferred on the creature, since she had furnished it with part of her body. They asked Saturn to be their arbiter, and he made the following decision, which seemed a just one: ‘Since you, Jupiter, have given it spirit, you shall receive that spirit at its death; and since you, Earth, have given its body, you shall receive its body. But since Care first shaped this creature, she shall possess it as long as it lives. And because there is now a dispute among you as to its name, let it be called ‘homo’ for it is made out of humus (earth).”—Hyginus Fable 220 and Goethe, Faust, Part 2.

The more appropriate translation for the word in brackets [emotion] from the Bhagavad-Gita is “Love”. Everyone knows that love can have different meanings in different contexts, but we shall attempt to understand these “contexts” as the varieties of love that “participate” in the Form of Love in Plato’s use of the word. Just as an oak and an elm participate in “treeness”, so the shoe fetishist (Imelda Marcos) and someone driven by the love of otherness (Mother Teresa) participate in varying ways, and to varying degrees, in the fullness of the form of Love. We shall attempt to understand “emotion as a way of knowing” by attempting to understand the statement of Simone Weil’s: “Faith is the experience that the intelligence is illuminated by Love” and shall attempt to understand this illumination as a revelation of Truth.

Love has to do with the beauty of otherness. That there are other persons and a whole world apart from us is an obvious fact. Yet we can become so self-centered, so preoccupied with ensuring our own survival or so absorbed in our own pursuits, that we can live with an apparent refusal to consent to this otherness, seeing everything other than ourselves as simply subordinate to our own desires and purposes (and we shall examine how the technological way of knowing may be responsible for this stance within our being). When life becomes dominated by self-serving, the reality of otherness, in its own being, almost disappears for us.

What saves us from total solipsistic self-absorption is (according to Simone Weil) the beauty of others and the beauty of the world as a whole. In the contemplation of what is beautiful, our cravings for things that we do not already have is temporarily stilled. To desire that something should be, not because we want to use it or to possess it, but simply because of its beauty, is to love it with a particular purity. It is to recognize its goodness, not for one or another of our limited purposes, but absolutely. To see the beauty of the world in this way–not from the practical technological point-of-view, but contemplatively, in a way that provides rest from practical considerations–is to recognize its essential goodness. To see the whole of the natural order, not just the useful elements or those we consider ugly or noxious, as beautiful is to suggest that beauty and goodness inhere in the natural order itself rather than in “the eye of the beholder”. It is to suggest that beauty and goodness are “objective” features of the world and not just “subjective” functions of our various reactions to it (although this is not the proper way of making this point).

The ‘objectivizing’ stance of the technological world-view removes the term good of any definite meaning. It comes to be seen as a way of referring to what are really our own preferences or tastes. When we try to discover these ‘values’ by turning in on ourselves rather than outward, we find ourselves guided by only the fluctuating opinions and tastes of the Cave about us. When the “good” of something is only understood as the “usefulness” of something then Love, too, becomes lost in this domineering drive for an “objectivising” stance.

Modern science, as it is realized through the technological world-view obscures, stifles, and suffocates the apprehension of the good because it implicitly denies the possibility of understanding things through the conception of purpose. At the inception of modern scientific research four centuries ago (Galileo, Newton) the denial was explicit in the attacks on Aristotelian philosophy and science by writers such as Bacon, Descartes and Leibniz. The identification of scientific thought with basic doubt undermined the traditional understanding of what is good as what any being is fitted for. In the modern scientific view (i.e. 4 centuries ago), real knowledge is limited to temporally organized sequences of objectivity (that is, publicly) observable events, without reference to any conception of purpose or final cause. Without any final cause, then we cannot know what any being is really fitted for, since ultimately there is nothing knowable into which anything should fit. We are left with ‘subjective’ answers to what is due other beings; for instance, Socrates final insight that human beings are fitted to live well in communities and to try and think openly about the nature of the whole. We are fitted for these activities because we are distinguished from the other animals in being capable of rational language. In living well together or being open to the whole in thought we are fulfilling the purpose which is given to us in being human, not some other type of animal. Good is what is present in the fulfillment of our given purposes.

These statements presuppose a traditional understanding of the natural order as an eternal framework within which human actions can be measured and defined. To the extent that we accept the modern understanding of nature as the product of necessity and chance–that is, outside any idea of purpose–such statements will have at best an untraditional meaning. They may serve to indicate our own goals and purposes, but these will necessarily be our own rather than anything that we have been given. Within the limits of technological understanding (modern scientific and philosophic understanding) little or nothing can be said about the ultimate cause of being and certainly not enough to affirm its goodness. Nor does modern science hold out any promise that we will discover the right use of our power of choice by extending the frontiers of scientific knowledge. To affirm that our height as human beings is somehow our knowledge of goodness and that the absence of such knowledge is not ignorance but madness, or the loss of our distinctive nature, is to put oneself altogether outside modern assumptions. It is to make another Socratic assumption that “we are not our own”, a statement that flies in the face of what we conceive ourselves to be as human beings since we see our “essence” in our freedom and we see our height as human beings to be the “empowerment” found in the making of choices in the “how” of our existence.

Although many have felt the power of emotions in shaping thoughts and influencing behaviour, there are those who believe that emotions are an obstacle in the pursuit of knowledge, while at the same time failing to understand that at the root of their ‘seeing’ is an ’emotion’ and a pre-determined framing that shapes how they view the world. This emotion is the fear and dread that arises through the experience of the world as chaos and the need to secure this world in order to empower the Self and one’s very survival. While emotion may be a key to self-understanding and to understanding the world, the extent to which they contribute to both can be explored through a discussion of the questions inherent in the writings that follow and through an understanding that the confusion and detachment from emotion is something that is given to us in the arts and sciences through the technological world-view understood as “research” of the objects about us. It is a world-view where the good has degenerated into becoming subjective “values”; and where the otherness of love based on the experience of the world and the beings in it as beautiful and worthy of trust has become reduced to self-empowerment based on the experience of the world as chaos and the experience of dread and anxiety along with a response of doubt to this chaos.

Emotion as a Way of Knowing: The Banality of Evil

Simone Weil
Simone Weil

We experience good only by doing it. We experience evil only by refusing to allow ourselves to do it, or, if we do it, by repenting of it. When we do evil we do not know it, because evil flies from the light.

 Does evil, as we conceive it to be when we do not do it, exist? Does not the evil that we do seem to be something simple and natural which compels us? Is not evil analogous to illusion? When we are the victims of an illusion we do not feel it to be an illusion but a reality. It is the same perhaps with evil. Evil when we are in its power is not felt as evil but as a necessity, or even a duty.

 As soon as we do evil, the evil appears as a sort of duty. Most people have a sense of duty about doing certain things that are bad and others that are good. The same man feels it to be a duty to sell for the highest price he can and not to steal, etc. Good for such people is on the level of evil, it is a good without light. —Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace (p.121)

In our discussion of Plato’s Cave, we saw that for Plato, morality is entirely internal and that evil is not the opposite of good but is the deprivation of good, or “good without light” as Weil states. If we remember our original starting point in Plato’s Cave, even the shadows contain some truth because they are made possible by the light of the fire and the diffused light of the sun, and the shadows experience the deprivation of the sun’s light and are deprived of the sun’s light. When things are “shadows”, one can only experience their surface; they lack any depth. This lack of depth is what Plato referred to as the non-being of the beings, and what Hannah Arendt referred to as “the banality of evil”.

What occurs when thinking is not involved in practical action? Again, we want to keep in mind that we are viewing emotion as a way of being-in-the-world as well as a way of knowing, and as ‘a way of knowing’ it must be connected with what we call ‘thinking’ in some way. What happens to thinking when we are submerged in the “they-Self” or the “One” within the technological world-view? We shall try to connect thinking to the ‘ethical’, the praxis of our practical actions within the world.

To explore this we will attempt to understand the phrase the “banality of evil”, a concept which comes from the philosopher Hannah Arendt in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963). We often wonder how it was/is possible that people who carry out unspeakable crimes, such as the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia or the Nazi carrying out of the European Jewish Holocaust during World War II, could possibly act in such horrific, evil ways. Arendt’s thesis is that people who carry out unspeakable crimes, like Adolph Eichmann, a top administrator in the machinery of the Nazi death camps, may not be crazy fanatics at all, but rather ordinary individuals who simply accept the premises of their state (or institution) and participate in any ongoing enterprise with the energy of good bureaucrats. They conceive of their actions to be their duty. Eichmann’s appearance and responses before his accusers have been echoed in eerily similar, familiar ways by those accused of the Khmer Rouge massacres over the past few years.

What Arendt had detected in Eichmann when viewing the process of his prosecution and his trial was thoughtlessness. Eichmann’s ordinariness was demonstrated  in an incapacity for independent critical thought: “… the only specific characteristic one could detect in his past as well as in his behavior during the trial and the preceding police examination was something entirely negative: it was not stupidity but a curious, quite authentic inability to think.” Arendt continues: “When confronted with situations for which such routine procedures did not exist, he [Eichmann] was helpless, and his cliché-ridden language produced on the stand, as it had evidently done in his official life, a kind of macabre comedy. Clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality, that is, against the claim on our thinking attention that all events and facts make by virtue of their existence.” It is not too difficult to extrapolate what Arendt is saying to current political events.

In an article “Normalizing the Unthinkable” (Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, March 1984), Lisa Peattie described how in the Nazi death camps work was “normalized” for the long-term prisoners as well as regular personnel: “[P]rison plumbers laid the water pipe in the crematorium and prison electricians wired the fences. The camp managers maintained standards and orderly process. The cobblestones which paved the crematorium yard at Auschwitz had to be perfectly scrubbed.” Peattie focused on the parallels between the routines of action in the death camps and the preparations for nuclear war, where the “unthinkable” is organized and prepared for in a division of labor participated in by people at many levels. Distance from execution helps render responsibility hazy. “Adolph Eichmann was a thoroughly responsible person, according to his understanding of responsibility. For him, it was clear that the heads of state set policy. His role was to implement, and fortunately, he felt, it was never part of his job actually to have to kill anyone.”

The point being made here is that human beings in the everydayness of their dealings (within the technological world-view) are incapable of the capacity for the thinking that reflects on the wholeness of their activities when they are given over to the “they-Self”. There is a most sinister “innocent appearance” or commonplace “normality” to our activities whether it is manufacturing food, bombs or corpses when these activities become rootless, mechanized and routinized.  Almost 10 years after Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt reaffirms in Thinking and Moral Considerations this same dimension of evil: “… the phenomenon of evil deeds, committed on a gigantic scale, which could not be traced to any particularity of wickedness, pathology, or ideological conviction in the doer, whose only personal distinction was a perhaps extraordinary shallowness.” Arendt asks the question: “Could the activity of thinking as such, the habit of examining and reflecting upon whatever happens to come to pass, regardless of specific content and quite independent of results, could this activity be of such a nature that it ‘conditions’ men against evil-doing?” But, in the technological world, all our thinking is a striving for results.

When I speak of the sinister innocence of the appearance of evil as a phenomenon, I am referring to the quote from Simone Weil that begins this reflection. Weil sees “the surface phenomenon” as the phenomenon of evil in the same way that the shadows in the Cave that “enthrall us” are the “illusions” of an absent reality, the Good. Arendt, who cannot allow herself to assert something like “the highest good” at this early stage, continues:

“I mean that evil is not radical, going to the roots (radix), that is has no depth, and that for this very reason it is so terribly difficult to think about it, since thinking, by definition, wants to reach the roots. Evil is a surface phenomenon, and instead of being radical, it is merely extreme. We resist evil by not being swept away by the surface of things, by stopping ourselves and beginning to think, that is, by reaching another dimension than the horizon of everyday life. In other words, the more superficial someone is the more likely will he be to yield to evil. An indication of such superficiality is the use of clichés, and Eichmann …was a perfect example.” 

Whereas Arendt sees evil as an “extreme” manifestation of the phenomenon that it is, Weil sees evil as commonplace and the false reality of our everyday being-in-the-world since our being is “deprived” of the good unless we are thoughtful and attentive to it, unless we are loving. Arendt sees thinking as necessary to prevent us from doing evil, but she is unclear regarding thinking’s direction when she says “reaching another dimension than the horizon of everyday life”. What exactly is that “horizon” and that dimension in the technological? Arendt in her later thinking says:  “It is indeed my opinion now that evil is never ‘radical’, that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus on the surface. It is ‘thought-defying’, as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing. That is its ‘banality’. Only the good has depth and can be radical.” (Hannah, Arendt, The Jew as Pariah – Jewish Identity and Politics in the Modern Age. (New York: Grove Press, 1978), p. 251.)

In Plato’s Republic Bk. 6, Plato describes the city/society/the culture (all forms of human community) as ‘a Great Beast’ that one gains some freedom from through recognizing it as such, and from this turning receives freedom to move towards the light. The metaphor of the Beast is an analogy to the ‘they-Self’, the social, and the Cave of Bk. 7 of Republic is a literal description of being in ‘the belly of the beast’ and the ‘turning’ and ascent to remove or extricate oneself from the Beast’s control and from serving the Beast. The Great Beast in Republic is the greatest temptation or resistance which prevents one from seeking the Good. Today power, empowerment, the illusion of the control over necessity, is the temptation.


Author: theoryofknowledgeanalternativeapproach


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Theory of Knowledge: An Alternative Approach

Why is an alternative approach necessary?

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