Reviews: Selections from the Oxford Handbooks 2 – “Emotion” and “Wittgenstein”

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Peter Goldie, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Emotion. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010, xiv + 722 pp. £32.00/$55.00 paper.

“Philosophical research in the emotions is now extremely active and productive,”[p. 1] says editor Peter Goldie. That said, the Handbook includes thirty-one chapters grouped into six post-Introduction parts: 1) What Emotions Are, 2) The History of Emotion, 3) Emotions and Practical Reason, 4) Emotions and the Self, 5) Emotion, Value, and Morality, and 6) Emotion, Art, and Aesthetics. Part 6 seems most relevant here, and so I’ve selected two chapters from this part for special consideration: Chapter 27: “Expression in the Arts” by Derek Matravers, and Chapter 30: “Emotions, Art, and Immorality” by Matthew Kieran.

Matravers considers four accounts of the relation between music and the emotions before turning to consider expressiveness in painting; more specifically, the contributions of Richard Wollheim  and Dominic Lopes. In the end, Matravers opts for “a generous pluralism” that draws from multiple “accounts of the relation between art and the emotions.”[p. 632]

More interesting, to my mind, was Kieran’s consideration of “Emotions, Art, and Immorality.” He begins:

We are naturally interested in why people are bad, come to be so or come to do bad things. What looks more puzzling is how and why works get us to empathize, sympathize, and even admire bad people or react to morally problematic situations as we would or ought not to ordinarily.[p. 681]

“The reason we do so,” says Kieran, “is the payoffs such imaginings will bring.”[p. 693] He goes on to consider various motivations and values including aesthetic, emotional intensity, cognitive gains, drives and desires as well as artistic values before addressing the question of “imagining morally problematic characters and states of affairs” and our character.[p. 701] Noting that these imaginings need not be morally problematic, he nevertheless concludes that “we need a better conceptual grasp of the ways in which emotionally responding to imagined states of affairs might manifest virtue and vice.”[p. 702] Indeed, that is precisely what we need, and more to the point, precisely what I had hoped to find here. The essay is, nevertheless, helpful in walking through the various parts of the conversation, and is, as such, well worth reading.


9780199287505_450Oskari Kuusela and Marie McGinn, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Wittgenstein. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011, xiii + 824 pp. £100.00/$160.00 cloth.

“Wittgenstein is a contested figure on the philosophical scene.”[p. 1] That said, this Handbook includes thirty-five chapters grouped into seven parts: 1) Introduction, 2) Logic and the Philosophy of Mathematics, 3) Philosophy of Language, 4) Philosophy of Mind, 5) Epistemology,  6) Method, and 7) Religion, Aesthetics, Ethics. Part 7 seems most relevant here, and so I’ve selected one chapter from this part for special consideration: Chapter 34: “Wittgenstein on Aesthetics” by Malcolm Budd.

Budd begins: “Wittgenstein had a deep and enduring interest in at least two of the major art forms, literature and music; practised, if only briefly, two others, architecture and sculpture; was an artistic benefactor, leaving part of the fortune he inherited from his father, all of which he gave away, to be distributed to Austrian artists who needed financial support; and towards the end of his life acknowledged aesthetic along with conceptual questions as the only ones that really gripped him.”[p. 775]

Regarding aesthetics, Wittgenstein was primarily concerned to argue against appreciating, and instead for understanding a work of art. Budd explains: “When we admire a work without reservation, it is not replaceable for us by another that creates the same effect, for we admire the work itself, so that its value does not consist in its performing a function that another work could perform just as well.”[p. 790] The issue, for Wittgenstein, was that appreciating divorces the effect (i.e., appreciation) from the work itself.

Less helpful than it might have been, this chapter is nevertheless thorough, providing handles for the novice and multiple points of entry.

Reviews by Christopher R. Brewer

Image Credit: Oxford University Press

5 Comments

  • Bruce Herman says:

    Chris– are you concerned to develop an analysis of the ethics of the imagination? It’s tricky business. Christian critics of John Updike understandably find his fiction off-putting because his “protagonist” is often venal, narcissistic, or oversexed. Yet I’ve heard thoughtful readers say that a hundred years from now Updike will be seen for the genuine moralist he was, or at least his books will be taken as an accurate anthropology of late-Empire America. In any case the bad guys will ultimately be known as bad guys in stories that simply present them honestly. The problem with attempting to foreclose the possibility that art might glorify evil is that evil be trivialized or stereotyped or clichéd. When bad guys are simple villains the reader or moviegoer can safely imagine them as “not me”. When they are robustly envisioned we identify with them and see ourselves as we actually are: bad guys in need of redemption. If the artist doesn’t supply the happy ending of redemption, she mustn’t be faulted. From the human perspective there is no exit. For the door offstage to appear, Christ be must appear. But I’m skeptical about movies and novels where the moral of the story is supplied to reader or viewer. “Christian art” is often powerless to infect anyone with a believable set of emotions. I think there’s a proportional connection between how convincing an image is and how much emotional freight it carries. If the ethical coordinates are too clearly pre-mapped, that freight never gets delivered.

    • Christopher R. Brewer says:

      Bruce, good to hear from you. I assume you’re referencing this bit: “’we need a better conceptual grasp of the ways in which emotionally responding to imagined states of affairs might manifest virtue and vice.\'[p. 702] Indeed, that is precisely what we need, and more to the point, precisely what I had hoped to find here.” To be clear, I’m not meaning to develop so much as report. Matravers’ essay raises important questions, but doesn’t to my mind, discuss them thoroughly. That said, a thorough discussion would require more space, and perhaps a slightly different focus, and so I don’t mean to fault Matravers so much as point out that readers looking for “a better conceptual grasp” might be disappointed with this essay which has more limited aims. Regarding your comment, I think we’re on the same page – important points. Thanks for flagging them.

      • Bruce Herman says:

        Chris – yes – that was the bit I was responding to. It’s interesting that in our public discussions of the Columbine and Sandyhook shootings (and other spectacular evils of our day) violent video gaming is suspected to be a source of imaginative “training”. I wonder if films like “The Wolf of Wall Street” will be faulted as training for more Bernie Madofs in the making. It’s really difficult to discuss this issue — the connection between virtue/vice and art. My hunch is that when it comes to evil, art more often than not is more journalistic than motivational.

  • Dan Drage says:

    Bruce and Chris, could it be more about the stories told by works of art, accepted by viewers, which lead to virtue or vice? Could it be the narrative we viewers construct from the work, regardless if the artwork is journalistic or motivational, whether real or imagined state of affairs, becomes the response, and out of that narrative we shape our decisions?

    • Christopher R. Brewer says:

      Dan, thanks for this. As these comments go to show, there’s quite a bit that could be said here. That said, I do want to give the book its due. It is, after all, a Handbook of Philosophy of Emotion. What I mean to say is that this is a complex conversation of which philosophy of emotion is a part, and even that smaller part of the conversation is itself complex. My comment in the review was simply that while the essay raised some important questions, it failed to do full justice (how could it?) to the conversation. All this being said, I think you’re right to raise the question of hermeneutics (even if it is a different part of the conversation). Frankly, I’m glad to see that the essay is provoking comment for a more thorough conversation is, it seems, exactly what is needed, and Kieran’s essay seems as good a place to begin as any.

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