A Living Narrative

Book cover
Upheavals of Thoughtby By Martha C. NussbaumCambridge Univ. Press. 751p $39.95 hardcover

This is a brilliant, complex and compelling analysis of emotions and their significance in personal and social life. Like most philosophical writing, however, it is written in an academically analytical style that will limit its readership. This is unfortunate and deeply ironic, for Nussbaum is a masterly thinker of immense learning whose convincing argument culminates in the affirmation of the daily reality of the real-life reader, the very reader who will not read this book.

No doubt many of these non-readers hold to a view of the emotions unthinking energies that simply push the person aroundthat Nussbaum lucidly refutes. Equally so, many probable readersprofessional philosophers, academics, intellectualsmay accept Nussbaum’s argument that emotions are forms of evaluative thought, yet, because of the book’s form, skip merrily past her emphatic conclusion that academic philosophy must not repudiate the quotidian. Having ascended through such a lofty, well-plotted text, these readers may find it hard to return to the truths of their disorderly daily lives. This is because Nussbaum fails to wed inseparably her content to her form.


Her content makes for a powerful argument for thinking of emotions as cognitive appraisals or value judgments, which ascribe to things and persons outside the person’s own control great importance for that person’s own flourishing. Quoting Marcel Proust, who called emotions geological upheavals of thought, not animal energies or impulses, she presents in Part 1 a neo-Stoic analytical framework for thinking of emotions in general. In building her case, Nussbaum sets up adversarial arguments to the contrary and proceeds to refute them. She shows how emotions, as forms of evaluative thought, involve value judgments of things and persons we consider important in our lives. But since these outside objects are beyond our control, we are vulnerable to their loss. This she traces to infancy and feelings of helplessness.

Drawing particularly on Proust and Winnicott, with some help from Lucretius and Freud, she argues that the earliest emotions are likely to be fear and anxiety, when one’s earliest needs are not met, joy when they are and gradually a kind of hope for their blissful fulfillment. Thus an infant develops an ambivalent relationship to its own lack of omnipotence in satisfying its own needs; the needy creature loves and hates the same source. Needy and vulnerable, the infant becomes the child becomes the man, becomes aware of his finite limits, his mortality, the risk his emotions entail and learns to flee the vulnerability of living in need by wishing to extirpate emotion, all the while suffering from secret shame at his neediness. Here, one could argue, the philosopher is born. Nussbaum puts it beautifully: Human beings appear to be the only mortal finite beings who wish to transcend their finitude. Thus they are the only emotional beings who wish not to be emotional, who wish to withhold these acknowledgments of neediness and to design for themselves a life in which these acknowledgments have no place.

Because emotions are connected to childhood, she argues, they have a narrative history. And since emotions reflect our neediness and vulnerability, they connect us to others as well. As parts of our reasoning, emotions therefore are connected to ethical choice. If emotions are suffused with intelligence and discernment, and if they contain in themselves an awareness of value or importance, they cannot, for example, easily be sidelined in accounts of ethical judgment, as so often they have been in the history of philosophy. Ethics, infancy, grief, social norms, music (particularly Mahler), imagination and narrativeall are astutely placed within the framework of her theory.

Using the account of emotions as a basis, Parts 2 and 3 show the connections between emotions and morality, using in particular the emotions of compassion and love. Compassion is analyzed within the historical debatePlato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Nietzsche et al.and shown to play an important role in ethical and political life. Part 3 focuses on the emotion of personal love as it has been addressed in the ascent or ladder of love in Western philosophical/literary traditionsPlatonic, Christian and Romantic. It is at the end of this philosophical meditation that Nussbaum uses James Joyce’s Ulysses to bring the whole argument back to earth, to return the reader to the significance of flesh and blood. She insists that Joyce was on the right track by closing the gap between the real and the ideal; that he, unlike so many of the other thinkers discussed, if not all of them, created a work wherein we, you and I, real people in messy everyday life, could exist. The othersintellectually brilliant as they werecreated worlds that repudiate us in their flights of fancy.

Upheavals of Thought is no doubt an intellectual tour-de-force. This may also be its Achilles’ heel. For when she begins her work with an account of her grief at her mother’s unexpected death, Nussbaum seems to this reviewer to be foreshadowing a truth she later intimates: that the emotions can be truly understood only within the act of writing one’s own life story in a novel way. This demands a book whose form and content are indissolubly wed. Maybe she will write it.


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