Tuesday, July 20, 2010

On Shame

Over the last few years I've become increasingly interested in the philosophy of emotion. In particular, I'm interested in Shame. As an emotion, Shame seems to have everything one could want, and can be approached from numerous directions. It's distinctive qualitative feel means we can look at it through a phenomenological lens, it's intentional content means that it's amenable to conceptual analysis, and it's role in socialization (among other things) opens it up to some interesting studies in terms of evolution. Finally, as one of the so-called "emotions of self-evaluation", it opens up a new way of investigation our notions of self and our conceptions of what a "self" is.

Plus, if one spends their time studying Shame rather than, say, Love - there is the added bonus of sounding like a tortured existentialist. But that's just more to impress people in coffee shops ... now, where did I put my beret?

I recently read Michael L. Morgan's little book "On Shame". What I imagined I had ordered was a popular book that would give a useful synthesis or review of the literature on Shame, but what it turned out to be was - on one hand - rather more interesting than all that, but - on the other - a little less satisfying than what I had hoped for.
In his book Morgan wants to put Shame into action, he want to use it as a force for moral change. In doing this he is making use of the fact that part of Shame's intentional content is a self-reflexive judgement. Barring edge cases - and in the study of emotion there are always edge cases - Shame tends to signal that we have found ourselves to have fallen short of some standard that we've internalized.
Shame tends to be holistic in its condemnation of the self - it is the whole self that has failed, that isn't worthy etc.

There are a few typical reactions to this kind of negative self-evaluation. The first is to hide one's self - we avert our eyes from the Other, we withdraw into ourselves, and in extreme cases we may wish the self extinguished, to dissapear completely.
The second reaction is the desire to change the Self - to become other than what one is (or at least, other than one is presented as being in the judgement at the heart of Shame).

In essence these kinds of responses involve the same kind of reaction - doing something with or to the self - the only difference is that the second kind of reaction is positive - Shame, in the second instance, is used as a vehicle for change.

Philosophers tend to be divided on the utility of Shame. Those philosophers who doubt that Shame is a useful moral emotion tend to emphasize the first type of reaction, while those who champion Shame tend to focus on it as a source of motivation for change. While I don't want to get into this question now, I just wanted to point out that Morgan falls squarely in the camp of the pro-shamers. He thinks that Shame's power to motivate deep change in our selves makes it an extremely useful emotion.

Morgan's endorsement of Shame isn't at all interesting or exceptional in itself, it's a fairly common position. However, where his book gets interesting is in his endorsement of Shame as a collective emotion, and in particular, as a collective emotion in response to us living in a "world of genocide". His book is an attempt to work on the consciences of it's readers, to get us to actively invoke Shame in ourselves for the existence and persistence of genocide in our world.
It is in these respects that his book is most provocative. Collective emotions, and especially Shame, have long been neglected in the philosophy of emotions - most theories tend to explore individual instances of emotions and leave it there. But we cannot ignore the existence of collective emotions. Collective Guilt and collective Shame are serious players in our emotional repertoire and we miss the point if we merely reduce them to collections of coordinated individual emotional episodes.
Furthermore, his suggestion that we employ Shame as an active emotional strategy for change challenges the (by no means universally held) notion that emotions are passive, that they are - in a sense - beyond conscious control.
These two points alone take us deep into the heart of the philosophy of emotion. And this is where, for me at least, the book dissapoints.
Morgan introduces a novel and potentially illuminating approach to Shame, and yet does hardly any work to back it up.
My complaint isn't that he gets his account of Shame wrong but rather that he doesn't give us enough to tell if he gets it wrong. There just isn't enough theoretical detail to evaluate his argument.

As I mentioned earlier, the point of the book is to galvanize the reader to change his or her self. Responding to genocide is serious business, and perhaps theoretical issues can be put on hold by the exigencies of the mass slaughter of fellow human beings. The problem is, though, that a book like this sits uncomfortably between a philosophical investigation of a problem, and a manifesto for change, and although I can't really say whether it hits it's mark as a manifesto, it fails to satisfy philosophically.

I hope that what we're seeing here is the first salvo in a longer philosophical project dealing with Shame by Morgan (although, it must be pointed out that his work seems to have always had Shame on it's periphery). The brief sketch that he provides in this book is barely enough to whet the appetite, but what he does provide is enough to make me pay attention.


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