Some books you can gobble down quickly like fast food, but some just need to be sipped and savoured. I’ve been carrying around and reading The Joy of Philosophy by Robert C Solomon (ISBN-13 978-0-19-516540-1) for the last two or three weeks. Got some strange looks from people on the train who could only see the first part of the title…….”The Joy Of” (bet they never worked out the next word was “Philosophy”!).
I really enjoyed this book. You know how sometimes you read a book and it seems to open doors for you? Suddenly you see or hear something differently and the world and the way you experience it has changed forever. I played with an idea for a story once. I called it “Quantum Days” because I wanted to explore the phenomenon, that we all experience, of those days when something changes and its so dramatic, or so significant, that the world is changed for us so completely that we feel now we’ve moved to a new level (like electrons jumping from one level to another in the atom – quantum jumps). Well I will get round to writing the rest of that story one day. Quantum Days can come about from reading something though. Occasionally there’ll be an “aha!” moment and your world will be changed. This is one of those books for me.
The central thesis of the book is contained in it’s subtitle on the front page – “Thinking Thin versus the Passionate Life”. Throughout the book Professor Solomon uses a very interesting language device – the juxtaposition of “thin” and “thick”. For him, “thin-ness” of thinking is limited, reduced, somewhat sterile thinking. In particular it’s that form of rational thinking which deliberately attempts to be dispassionate.
my revolt against logical “thinness” is very much a celebration of the passions in philosophy and the richness they provide.
It’s amazing how in medicine as well as in philosophy (and I suspect in science too) the passions, or emotions, are frowned upon. There’s a belief around that “the truth” can only be discovered by the dispassionate, the disengaged, the distant, but Robert Solomon argues strongly against that. In fact he argues for the central importance of a passionate life. He doesn’t use the language of “subjective” versus “objective” but that debate fits well with his. I’ve always been amazed that anyone can think the subjective can be left out of health care (or even “controlled for”). The subjective self (an at least partially socially constructed self) can never be taken out of our experience. It’s just impossible to have an experience which isn’t coloured by, framed by, and reacted to by, the self. That’s why who the doctor is, is important in a consultation. Yet I’ve never seen a single research study in medicine which identifies and/or describes the therapists who are actually entering into the encounters with the patients. Sorry, I digress……..but that’s just one of the many trains of thought this book set off and running for me.
He questions the traditional notion in philosophy that a dispassionate thinking about life can lead to a “good” life
A virtuous life might be something more than becoming the congenial neighbour, respected citizen, responsible colleague, and affective zombie that many philosophers and contemporary moral pundits urge us to be.
Oh yes! I love that phrase “affective zombie”! Here’s more….
I do want to raise the question of whether mere proper living, obedience to the law, utilitarian ‘rational choice’ calculations, respect for others’ rights and for contracts, and a bit of self-righteousness is all there is to a good life.
What he is arguing for is a life of passion, an emotional life. What does he mean by emotions though? How does he understand emotion? Well, he definitely does not think we can fully understand emotions by studying brain chemistry, nor by psychoanalysis, or, I suspect, the research conducted into Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Why not? Because he proposes (and this is one of his radical ideas for me) that we best understand emotions by not focussing on individuals but on relationships, behaviours, actions and society.
….an emotion is not a disposition: it is, first of all, an experience and a way of being-in-the-world
it is the context and the social environment that make most emotions intelligible
an emotion is not so much an element or item “in” experience as it is the ordering of experience
I could go on……I’ve written down many quotes from this book. What is exciting for me about this thought is that it embeds the experience of emotions so firmly, so inextricably into the contexts of the world in which we live and it gives them a central role in our attempt to make sense of our lives and to act rationally and deliberately in life.
He writes a lot about love but I’ll explore that in a separate post. Let me finish this one with two more quotes from this stimulating book.
Emotions are strategies
I’m giving that space so you don’t miss it. Think about this. Are emotions the ways in which we effect change and make an impact on the world? Are emotions actually actions? What does happiness do? What does love do? Anger? Grief? This is a potentially liberating but also empowering perspective.
We too often opt for victimisation or cynicism, the products of our overactive faculty for blame and our extravagant sense of entitlement, or we take refuse in pessimism. But there are better ways to think about life…..
It’s the heroes not zombies argument. Instead of thinking that emotions just happen to us and that our experiences just happen to us, this perspective gives us the opportunity for a much more active and creative engagement in life.