Existentialists recognise that much of a person’s emotional life is Other related, an aspect of what they call our being-for-others. They recognise that many if not most of a person’s emotions are different ways in which he encounters other people and realises himself as a being for the Other.
How much of an emotional life does a solitary person actually have or need? Perhaps the so-called emotion of elation that people feel when enjoying solitude well away from other people is not so much an emotion as a sense of freedom from emotion; a transcendence of cloying, irksome Other related feelings like self-consciousness, shame, embarrassment, anger, repulsion and disappointment.
It will be objected that not all these are necessarily Other related emotions. Disappointment, for example, is not necessarily an Other related emotion in the sense that a person can be disappointed by non-personal things like the weather. But surely, most of the disappointment people experience in their lives is due to others, just as most of the anger and irritation they experience is due to others, or more specifically, their reaction to others. Other people disappoint and anger us so readily precisely because we have so many practical and emotional requirements with regard to them, requirements they seldom want to fully satisfy. Other people are nothing to us if not frustrating.
As for the emotion of loneliness that the solitary person may feel, what is this emotion but a hankering after engagement with the Other? A person often feels loneliest when he has recently been in contact with the Other, especially if that contact ended before he had his fill of it. He feels the Other’s lack and so misses the Other. When a person has been alone for some time, however, the lack of the Other tends to diminish as he chooses new paths of transcendence — ways of exercising freedom and overcoming the world — that are not dependent on the Other.
Returning to an empty house after a night out with friends, John always feels isolated and lonely for half an hour or so. Yet, spending a whole busy week alone in the same house he never feels isolated or lonely and doesn’t miss other people at all. The once empty house is now full of him, as he is full of himself.
We often get very emotional when angry, disappointed or frustrated with ourselves. But arguably, to be angry with ourselves is always to be angry with ourselves as Other. I am performing some task and become angry with myself when I make a mess of it. The present me is angry with the me I was a moment ago for messing up and causing the present me precious time and effort to put things right.
In cursing my stupidity I curse my former self for impeding the anticipated transcendence of my present self, for causing me to suddenly find this situation, which I was smoothly transcending towards larger and more important future goals, an oppressive nuisance. Is there any need or room for what we call “emotion” when we are thoroughly absorbed in a task and our transcendence is smooth? Shortly, we will look at the view that emotion occurs when a situation, a task, at least temporarily, becomes too difficult for a person to cope with.
Interestingly, existentialists argue that emotions are not actually states of being that we possess or that possess us. Rather, we must always aim at a particular emotion without ever being able to be at one with it. As essentially ambiguous and indeterminate beings, it is never possible for us to become anything in the mode of being it. We can only ever aim at what we are, play at what we are and so on. It is therefore impossible for a person to achieve an emotional state such that they become unified with that emotional state.
The sad person, for example, strives to be in himself what in actual fact he must make himself be. Initially, the claim that a sad person is not sad in the mode of being sad is likely to meet with greater resistance than the claim that we are not identical with what we do. The fact that a banker so evidently plays at being a banker is sufficient to reveal that he is not really a banker in the mode of being one. Surely though, if a person is sad then he is sad in the mode of being what he is; surely he is to be identified with his emotional state. To hold the view that a person is identical with his emotional state, however, is to fail to grasp that consciousness is always other than itself and never self-identical. The nature of consciousness implies that there is no such thing as an emotional state.
In everyday life it is not misleading to speak of a person being in a certain emotional state. When, in an everyday situation, a person behaving hysterically is described as being “in an hysterical state”, the intention is simply to convey an image of a distraught person who is screaming, crying and tearing at his hair. Many psychologists, however, are misled by such talk. Believing that mental and emotional phenomena have a certain objective existence, they take the expression literally and go in search of the state of hysteria in itself; its psychological and physiological essence. But hysteria has no essence; hysteria is hysterical behaviour.
What is true of temporary emotional states like hysteria is also true of enduring mental conditions like schizophrenia. Criticising traditional psychology, R. D. Laing points out that having a mental condition like schizophrenia is not like having a cold. “No one has schizophrenia, like having a cold. The patient has not ‘got’ schizophrenia. He is schizophrenic”.
Psychologists will object that many emotional states do have at least a physiological essence. Tourette’s syndrome, for example, which is characterised by sudden, repetitive movements and utterances, is the result of certain neurochemical irregularities in the brain. However, that a person is subject by virtue of the facticity of his biology to involuntary spasms of aggressive behaviour, to a failure of aggression inhibition, does not mean that within his biology there exists the substantial being-in-itself of aggression. Although the Tourette’s sufferer behaves aggressively due to physiological causes beyond his control, and is not, therefore, responsible for his actions, his aggression can no more be separated from his behaviour than a university can be separated from the buildings and functions that comprise it.
There is no such thing as sadness. The sad person is not a sad thing in the way that a crow is a black thing. Sadness is rather the transcendent meaning of a certain set of gestures; the meaning of a certain slumped, listless demeanour. As sadness is nothing but the meaning of postures that a person must re-adopt moment by moment, he cannot take possession of his sadness. He can no more take possession of his sadness and be united with it than he can be united with himself.
Sadness is not a being but a conduct; the conduct of a person who makes himself sad. The requirement of having to be perpetually at a distance from himself in order to make himself sad means that he can never be sad in the manner of being what he is. As Sartre says, “If I make myself sad, it is because I am not sad — the being of the sadness escapes me by and in the very act by which I affect myself with it”.
A person cannot give sadness to himself as he can give a gift to another. Precisely because he exists as that which always strives to be fixed and substantial, he cannot be fixed and substantial. In so far as his being is to be what he is not, he is sad only in so far as he makes himself sad and reflects upon himself as sad. His sadness is not an object in consciousness reflected on; it exists entirely in and through an act of self-reflection.
The sadness of another, especially when portrayed in art, theatre or film, appears to a person to have more substance than his own. As his sadness consists only in an irresolute commitment to be sad he may envy the sadness of others in so far as their sadness appears to him to be sadness in itself. He too would like to be the personification of sadness: a weeping, dejected angel of melancholia pictured by an artist. Far from wanting to snap-out of his sadness, he will want, for example, to honour a lost lover with a sadness that is the epitome of despair. Or, in bad faith, he will strive to become his sadness and despair in order to escape his freedom to hope that his lover will return; a hope that tortures him with apprehension as it repeatedly raises him up only to cast him down. However, because sadness is only the conduct of a person who makes himself sad, he can never, so to speak, be sad enough.
This view of sadness reveals the full extent to which, according to Sartre, “Man is a useless passion”. Each person is such a useless passion that he must despair even of becoming, as a last desperate means of escaping his free transcendence, a being in despair in the mode of being what he is.
Sartre’s position echoes that of Kierkegaard. In The Sickness unto Death Kierkegaard considers a girl who despairs over the loss of her lover: “Just try now, just try saying to such a girl, ‘You are consuming yourself,’ and you will hear her answer, ‘O, but the torment is simply that I cannot do that”’. The girl has to be herself as despairing, rather than escape herself by having herself consumed by despair. She despairs of being at one with her despair as a means of escaping her consciousness of despair.
In 1939 Sartre published a book called Sketch for a Theory of the Emotions. Although very short, this book contains many powerful insights into the nature of emotion that are well worth exploring.
Sartre advocates a philosophical method of investigating emotion as opposed to a psychological one. The phenomenon of emotion, he argues, can only be properly understood by subjecting it to a phenomenological reduction that thoroughly analyses it and grasps its true essence.
The problem with psychology, as opposed to phenomenology, is that it fails to grasp the essential features of phenomena and instead simply lists facts about phenomena that appear as accidental. Psychologists can only say that there is emotion, that it involves certain behaviours in certain situations. They cannot explain why there is emotion, what it signifies or why it is an essential aspect of human consciousness and a necessary feature of human reality.
Psychologists investigate people in situation, but phenomenology investigates what it is for people to be situated. Emotion is an inalienable feature of human situatedness and human reality, it belongs essentially to our way of being in the world and is not the accidental addition to human reality that psychology makes it appear.
Sartre offers psychology the insights of phenomenology in the hope that psychology will derive a method from phenomenology that will enable it to do more than simply accumulate observational data that it hopes to interpret in future through the accumulation of yet more data. Pure psychology underpinned by phenomenological psychology would be able to comprehend the essential significance of psychological phenomena by identifying them as aspects of a coherent whole. Pure psychology, that great, barren, reductionist, pseudo-science that enthrals the masses by pretending to have the power to help people understand each other as people, has, as yet, largely failed to take up Sartre’s generous offer.
In moving towards an account of his own phenomenological theory of emotions, Sartre begins by critically examining the classic theories of emotion put forward by William James, Pierre Janet and Tamara Dembo respectively.
James endorses the peripheric theory of emotions, arguing that emotion is consciousness of physiological manifestations. A person feels sad, for example, because he weeps, rather than vice versa. If emotion was simply awareness of physiological manifestations, however, then different emotions could not be associated with the same physiological manifestations in the way that they are. Weeping accompanies relief as well as sadness and the fact that the physiological manifestations of joy and anger differ only in intensity does not mean that anger is a greater intensity of joy. The central weakness of the peripheric theory is that it overlooks the fact that an emotion is first and foremost consciousness of feeling that emotion and not simply consciousness of weeping or laughing; it has meaning, it is a certain way or relating to the world.
Janet’s theory is an improvement on James’ as it recognises that emotion is not simply an awareness of physiological disturbance but a behaviour. Janet views emotion as a behaviour of defeat that serves to reduce tension. For example, a girl breaks down in tears rather than discuss her case with her doctor.
Sartre agrees with Janet that emotion is a behaviour of defeat, but criticises him for not appreciating that defeated behaviour can only be such if consciousness has conferred that meaning upon it through its awareness of the possibility of an alternative, superior, undefeated behaviour. For Janet, the girl simply begins to cry as an automatic reaction to the situation in which she finds herself. For Sartre, the girl’s action is and must be deliberate. She cries in order to avoid talking to the doctor, although in bad faith she refuses to recognise that this is her motive or indeed that she has any motive.
Dembo, whose theory is closest to Sartre’s own, holds that emotion is an inferior response to a situation that may occur when a superior response has failed. For example, a person becomes angry and kicks the machine he has failed to fix. Sartre agrees with Dembo that emotion is an inferior response to a situation that occurs when a superior response has failed, but argues that Dembo fails to acknowledge the significance of the role played by consciousness in the change of response. One form of behaviour cannot replace another unless consciousness presents the new behaviour to itself as a possible, if inferior, alternative to the present behaviour.
To summarise: All three classic theories of emotion are inadequate because they fail to recognise or sufficiently acknowledge the essential role that consciousness and intention play in the emotions.
Sartre moves on to critically examine the psychoanalytic theory of emotion put forward by Freud and his followers. Arguing for a position that has become central to the theory and practice of existential psychoanalysis, Sartre contends that the traditional psychoanalytic distinction between consciousness and the unconscious, the domain of primitive drives and desires, is nonsensical in various ways.
In Being and Nothingness Sartre argues that the ego would actually have to be conscious of the memories and desires it was imprisoning in the subconscious, the memories and desires it was repressing, in order to act as a discerning censor. “In a word, how could the censor discern the impulses needing to be repressed without being conscious of discerning them?”. In Sketch for a Theory of the Emotions he questions the very possibility of a relationship between consciousness and an unconscious.
For Freudian psychoanalysis, emotion is a phenomenon of consciousness, but, according to Sartre, essentially it is “the symbolic realisation of a desire repressed by the censor”. The desire, being repressed, plays no part in its symbolic realisation as an emotion. The emotion, then, despite the claims of Freudian psychoanalysis, is only what it appears to consciousness to be, anger, fear and so on. Freudian psychoanalysis considers emotion to be a signifier of whatever lurks in the unconscious, but as Sartre points out, the signifier is entirely cut off from what is signified.
Freudian psychoanalysis, argues Sartre, treats consciousness as a passive phenomenon, receiving and being the signification of meanings from outside without even knowing what they mean. But consciousness is not a passive phenomenon. It is entirely active, it makes itself, it is nothing but consciousness of being conscious of the world. As such, whatever meanings consciousness signifies are its own meanings, meanings for consciousness, not meanings that are received from “behind” or “beneath” consciousness that have no meaning for consciousness.
The great error of Freudian psychoanalysis is that it interrogates consciousness from the outside, treating it as a passive collection of signs, indicators and traces that have their meaning and significance elsewhere. In fundamentally misrepresenting the nature of consciousness psychoanalysis overlooks the fact that the significance of emotion lies within consciousness, that consciousness is itself “the signification and what is signified”. Phenomenology, unlike Freudian psychoanalysis, undertakes to interrogate consciousness itself — as a relation to the world and to itself — for the meaning of emotion.
In outlining his own view of emotion, Sartre argues that although people can always consciously reflect on their emotions, emotion is not originally or primarily a phenomenon of reflection, a state of mind. Emotional consciousness, argues Sartre, is first and foremost consciousness of the world. Emotions are intentional, they are a way of apprehending the world. For every emotion there is the object of that emotion, every emotion is directedness towards its object and exists as a relationship with its object. The emotional person and the object of his emotion are wholly bound together. To be frightened is to be afraid of something, to be angry is to be angry with something, to be joyful is to be joyful about something and so on.
Sartre considers the kind of relationship to the world that emotion is and what is common to all the diverse occasions when emotion occurs. The world presents itself as a system of instrumentality that people utilise to achieve their goals. There is always a degree of difficulty involved in tilling any system, always the possibility of obstacles and pitfalls arising that hinder progress. Difficulty manifests itself as a quality of the world itself. Sartre describes objects as exigent, they are exacting and demanding, their potentialities can only be realised by overcoming certain difficulties. Emotion occurs when the world becomes too difficult for a person to cope with.
Finding all ways of acting in the instrumental world barred by difficulty, a person spontaneously and non-reflectively wills the transformation of the world from a world governed by causal processes to a world governed by magic where causal processes no longer apply. Emotion is a spontaneous attitude to a situation that aims to magically transform that situation in such a way that it suddenly no longer presents an insurmountable difficulty or threat to the consciousness of the person concerned.
A person faced with great danger, for example, may faint as a means of removing that danger from his conscious grasp, even though fainting does not normally serve to remove a danger in any real, practical sense. Similarly, a person may angrily curse, hit or throw a tool that is proving difficult or impossible to utilise, as though the world had magically become a place where the difficulty presented by a tool could be removed by these “means”.
In Sartre’s view, all emotions are functional. Anger is evidently functional but, on the face of it, joy does not seem to fit this description. Unlike an angry or frightened person, surely a joyful person does not need to magically transform his situation; surely he wants his situation to be as it is with its object or source of joy secured? Sartre distinguishes emotional joy from the joyful feeling that results from adapting to the world and achieving temporary equilibrium with it.
Emotional joy occurs precisely because the object or source of joy is not yet secured and if it is secured will only be obtained by degrees and never as an instantaneous totality. Sartre considers a man who is told that he has won a large sum of money. The man is restless with joy in anticipation of something the pleasure of which will only come to him over time through countless details. “He cannot keep still, makes innumerable plans, begins to do things which he immediately abandons etc. For in fact this joy has been called up by an apparition of the object of his desires”. His joy expresses impatience for the object of his desires, rather than satisfied possession of that object.
Sartre also considers a man who dances with joy because a woman has said she loves him. In dancing, the man turns his mind away from the woman herself and from the difficulties of actually possessing and sustaining her love. He takes a rest from difficulty and uncertainty and in dancing mimes his magically achieved total possession of her. “Joy is magical behaviour which tries, by incantation, to realise the possession of the desired object as an instantaneous totality”. Joy, no less than sadness, anger, fear or any other emotion, is a magical behaviour that functions to miraculously transform a situation when that situation becomes too difficult for a person to deal with in a practical, unemotional way.