What Is an Emotion?: Categorizing the Uncategorizable

Something cool that came up when I typed in “Seneca De Ira

When we call something by a name, we put that thing into a category. And when we write a paper or book or a blog post or an article and then give it a title, we assume that what we have written is rightly categorized under our title. That being said, it’s no wonder that in a book titled What Is an Emotion? we’d find excerpts from Seneca’s De Ira, Descartes’s The Passions of the Soul, Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature, Sartre’s The Emotions, and so on. But what about the other readings? If we’re reading a book about the emotions, then why are we reading excerpts from books with titles like Ethics, On the Origin of Our Knowledge of Right and Wrong, Being and Time, and, my personal favorite, Rhetoric? What this means is, not only do Aristotle and Spinoza and Heidegger and Scheler and Brentano (among others) believe that emotions have to do, in some way, with the topics under which their books are titled, but also–apparently–Solomon, the editor of What Is an Emotion?, believes that the titles of these books–in some way–deal with the emotions.

So the question is, why, if these philosophers are as wise as we think they are, why did they include a discussion (in several cases a very lengthy discussion of which we only have a very small excerpt or an explanatory essay) about the emotions in books of these names? Ethics? Rhetoric? Origins of knowledge? Being? What do these things have to do with emotions?

I think it has to do with the act of categorizing and naming. The very nature of language forces us to categorize. We have to draw lines that may not (and in some cases do not) actually exist if we are to say anything at all. So, my question is, can we really categorize the emotions? Sure, we do it to talk about them, and language is, to some degree, the way in which reality appears to us. But, on a deeper level, there are some things that are real that we just can’t talk about. For example, in terms of emotions, don’t they seem a bit trite when we try to put them into words?

But we try anyway, and so have these philosophers. I do think it is significant, however, that while these philosophers seem to disagree on a whole bunch of different things, they all agree–whether they think emotions are bad or good–that emotions are part of who we are. Emotions make us human. (Or at least, one of the things that make us human.) And this is the problem, in The Joy of Philosophy, that Solomon had with much of analytical philosophy–the form contradicts the content, and modern philosophy tends to dehumanize the human experience. So maybe we can’t categorize human beings very much, either.

Or at least, we see what happens when we take the principle of categorization to its logical extreme. Because we can’t just not talk about human experience. And, besides, I think there is value in reading and studying others’ categorization of the uncategorizable. The more we study it, the more we understand the human experience–ourselves and one another, our lives together and alone.

And the more we understand life, the better we live, and the better we die.

One thought on “What Is an Emotion?: Categorizing the Uncategorizable”

  1. I think part of the reason we have limited vocabulary for emotion is because we don't talk about it. Any subject talked about, over time, develops a good vocabulary. I've found that as I have written about emotions over the past few years, personally and academically, it as become easier and easier to dress them up in words whose appearance fit how they feel inside. Maybe the answer is partly to talk about them more – because I agree – the better we understand them, the better life we have.

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