Emotions in philosophy practice
Between imaginary and real,
What place do our emotions have in our knowledge of the world?
What is the intention of this book?
This book deals with emotions in a general way and it is meant for anyone who thinks about the subject. Also, philosophers-practitioners who wish to do so, could enrich their workshops with an additional skill to understand others. This is sometimes called emotional intelligence, but it can simply be called empathy.
The approach of this book is based on the principles of philosophy practice. This puts our knowledge and opinions to the test of discussion and the judgment of others, through questioning and the production of hypotheses. It is the process of “putting into question”, the thinking that interrogates. Thinking revisits knowledge, clarifies, organizes, deepens it. This is often confused with the attitude of “bringing into question”, which carries an arbitrary connotation and which means to refuse the legitimacy of an idea, consequently the paradigm that rests on it, and behind that, the author of the idea. This shows the anxiety of the one who “knows”, whether he is known for this knowledge or not, who considers it as a certainty, and who can go until identifying himself with it. However, thinking requires a form of permanent doubt and examination, therefore a form of ignorance and flexibility. As a result, this principle of ignorance destabilizes people and gives rise to sometimes acrimonious remarks towards practicing philosophers, people do not hesitate to consider them as “dogs”, which Diogenes, the Cynic philosopher, symbolized by living in a barrel in the time of ancient Greece. This way of life meant the search for the essential, the elimination of the accessory and the non-respect of the conveniences. Moreover, Diogenes used to walk around in broad daylight with a lantern and said that he was looking for Man, by which he meant the authenticity of Man, as he was able to accept the truth, which is too often hard to identify and to accept.
Philosophy practice can also be called “Socratic questioning”, because it is essentially based on questioning. It examines various elements of our knowledge that are related to the topic at hand. This implies, on the one hand, to verify the relevance of this knowledge, and on the other hand to test its limits. It thus allows the reflection to progress in a more certain way, insofar as the obscure points, the objects of ignorance, will be better determined and will in turn be the motor of this questioning. In the philosophical work, we thus work out various concepts, words which synthesize ideas, which overlap or are opposed, the ones being used as particular lighting to the others. It is certainly a work of abstract nature, since it categorizes – conceptualizes – by gathering common characteristics to objects or examples of life. However, it inevitably calls upon individual thinking and its subjective environment: it also has an empirical dimension. Indeed, one conceptualizes according to a point of view. This point of view is involved in the understanding of the theme of the discussion, which will articulate the concept in a reasoning. However, it turns out that the individual has his say and that this is generally done at his expense. It is this utterance that reveals choices, marked by motivations or by resistances, and giving an identity to a personal functioning. In this respect, philosophical practice has been inspired by Plato’s dialogues which feature Socrates discussing with various interlocutors, most of them sophists of the time. If we make a psychological analysis of the dialogues, we can notice the correspondence between the themes discussed and the personal difficulties of Socrates’ interlocutors. Thus, Philebus’ friend, in the eponymous dialogue, blocked by his stubbornness in his absolute thesis of pleasure, discovers the use of the one/multiple antinomy, essential in the representation of reality. In other words, he learns how to develop his idea of pleasure, to think it in its different facets, using concrete examples that show how it manifests itself in reality.
The analysis of these elements enhanced our experience in facilitating philosophical workshops. We realized that emotions raised a crucial question in the activity. Are they incompatible with philosophical practice ? Although it is possible to conduct a philosophical practice without addressing emotions, we think it is better not to avoid them. Indeed, each facilitator decides to bring out a certain matter in his or her workshop, and there are many ways to conduct a philosophical discussion or research. However, we have noticed that some are avoided, and for good reason, they generate discomfort. Based on the premise that we need to know what drives us to bring life to group work, we wrote this book to present the advantages of being aware of our choices and of working with emotions, rather than against them. What was the subject of an article initially published in the digital magazine Diotime, has given way to a more in-depth analysis, presented in the following pages. In short, our reflection is based on some explanations of a psychological nature that it articulates then to existential and social issues. For example, and not the least, the judgment is an essential act of thinking, a universal vector of truth; it generates at the same time a fear when it is considered negative and degrading or condemning. A judgment, or synthesis of a phenomenon, however visible and known to all, then becomes a limitation of a being, a reminder of its banality or of its fear of nothingness. Another example of what is discouraging in philosophy practice, just as frequent, and moreover related, is the pejorative connotation of the word “problem”: what would you answer now if we asked you if you have a problem? You might say, “None”, “I’m happy”, “I understand what you’re saying”, or “I just disagree with you”, or “I’m just stating the facts”. But you would be surprised to hear that problems are everywhere, you just have to look at your environment to discover that you like, or dislike, or prefer, or even that you choose many things or none. Every decision, every choice is based on a problem, a question, an emergency, a duty, a feeling or an emotion. In fact, posing the thing as a problem does not aim at complicating existence, but at simplifying it because it explains our relationship to it, thus how we function. However, too often, we prefer a posture of tolerance, politeness or refinement, preserving sensitivities, making people look the other way or lie, by omission, or commission.
Crossing the line of dramatic
We can easily recognize that emotions are a kind of affection that does not let us act as we please, and that, while we are suffering from them, we find it difficult to think clearly. How can we act when an emotion holds us? There are several ways to answer this question, several practices, which we will have to choose according to our personality. For our part, let us observe ourselves in our relationship with emotions and let us discover the information they bring. Let us accept to confront the main problem we encounter, which is that our distance to ourselves is naturally reduced, offering an uneasy vision; obviously, we are within ourselves and we do not see ourselves acting. Indeed, the eye can see everything but itself. Let us try to discover a way to observe and know ourselves. Let us explore the means to overcome the impossibility of facing ourselves, often a corollary of a negative vision or strangeness. In particular, “under the emotion” – the expression says it well – we undergo, either we do not react, or we hide, or we want to defend ourselves. So, we put ourselves in the dramatic relationship to the event and we use blinders. In this manner, we can lead a generally more comfortable life, since from now on we close our eyes to everything that could constitute a danger, a posture that gradually takes on the appearance of a profession of faith. In other words, we arm ourselves with convictions aimed at warding off insidious encounters with others, who are represented by another person, but who could just as easily, and even more obviously, be ourselves.
On the other hand, some people will wonder why they should try to distance themselves from their emotions. It is true that they are part of our individual functioning and that, by definition, we cannot separate ourselves from them. However, it is above all a question of getting to know them, knowing in which situations they appear, in order to take some bearings and not always be caught off guard. It is true that they seem quite embarrassing at times, because we lack control, the time would be for effective repartee and yet we do not know what to decide, what to say, or avoid doing. A multitude of possibilities invades us and obscures the horizon of our thoughts. We can see that by taking reference points, we understand ourselves more accurately, and we have a greater quality of relationship with things and with others.
Like any philosophical subject, our work began with a question: why do we have to put our emotions in brackets when we want to analyze problems? In this frequent question, we have chosen to open these parentheses in order to better consider the implications of their content and to articulate it to the rest of the question. From a syntactic point of view, the parentheses bring an element to specify the content of the sentence, but which nevertheless remains independent. Thus, this question evokes the difficulty to understand one’s emotions in situations that are difficult. However, it could be that the embarrassment does not come from the nature of the situation, but perhaps from the presence of emotions during its treatment. Indeed, if we ask the question “what is the problem?”, we can bet that the answer will concern our relationship to the situation, formalized in a rather unconscious way through an emotion. Our reflection has therefore focused on the place of emotions in the practice of Socratic questioning and has led to the principle of a possible balance between the rational functioning and the emotional tissue. The idea of balance does not necessarily mean that there is equality of value, frequency or strength, but that the emotions would have their place in the rational process. We have noticed that they oblige us to take them into account, because they intervene as soon as we open ourselves to the other – object or subject – which requires us to convert them into reflective matter in workshops. Now, generally, emotions are listed, categorized, they are the object of a psychological science which remains the domain of experts, but they are not articulated, compared, opposed, graduated. In other words, their understanding is not integrated in the individual’s maturation process.
It is worth noticing something surprising, as we wonder how to integrate emotions into philosophical work. Questioning is what provokes emotion, apparently. Who says “provocation” says “emergence”. This means that emotions, as a human characteristic, are part of the process of relating. Just as strange, when a question is asked, we call upon our intellectual capacities. How can it be that sometimes very intimate, the less clear movements of our mind are unblocked and occur in a more or less abrupt way? Everyone will have an explanation for this; we propose the hypothesis that the question obliges us to organize the accumulated information in order to select some of it, whether it is psychological or cognitive, and that in the course of this reorganization, elements that had remained “under the radar” gradually take shape and become apparent. This is a remark that we easily hear: we push the person into a corner. This is what we call “clarifying the thinking”. And the more it is moved, the more intelligible it is. But this movement is only effective if the individual thinking frees itself from its reflexes, which take the form of common opinion, hasty judgment, categorical affirmation, personal conviction or emotional reaction. Thus, it would be a question of a suspensive movement, which prepares the elaboration of an autonomous thought.
The term “competence” has two meanings: on the one hand, it is a quality related to know-how; to be competent is to be able to perform a task, to complete it, thanks to a certain ability and experience. On the other hand, “competence” implies knowledge of the field in which one intervenes, so a person with such and such a diploma in such and such a sector will have the theoretical knowledge required to deal with the typical problems of this sector. In philosophy practice, we are essentially concerned with know-how, which allows the practitioner to be able to relate to the idea or the interlocutor. In this, it stands in opposition to an academic world that defends the primordial status of knowledge and instead promotes the capacity for judgment. This cleavage is well marked, but is not absolute, indeed, some people study philosophy at the university and realize the absence of concreteness, that is why they turn to philosophy practice. On the other hand, the practitioner is regularly led to read and discover philosophical texts in his or her activity, and the development of his or her general culture is therefore organic. In these two cases, we arrive at an interesting balance between theory and practice. But it is not easy to combine two rather opposite competences, it invites a certain finesse of mind and self-denial, which are trained.
But there is no question of systematically associating the two opposites, rather they will be used according to the themes examined. From this point of view, you will find in the book key concepts such as: emotions, play, judgment, fading away, emotional intelligence, emotional chaos, philosophy practice, consciousness, negative path, double perspective, suspending judgment. In order to lay the foundations for the reflections proposed in this book, chapter 1 explains synthetically some principles of our philosophical work. Chapter 2 will deal with the naming and classification of emotions. We have been inspired by various researches in psychology and philosophy. On this occasion, we will take into account some definitions given in the current use, in psychological or neurological analyses and philosophical demonstrations. Then, we will make a link to notions that are commonly related to them such as emotional chaos and emotional intelligence. Afterwards, we will move the reading towards the attitudes brought into play by the emotions and, in chapter 3, those that would be interesting to practice. Therefore, we will talk about self-effacement and suspension of judgment. After having evaluated the emotions in a general way, we will apply our analysis to philosophy practice in chapter 4. We will ask ourselves which ones are involved in workshops and consultations, and how to associate them to philosophical work. And we will report in chapter 5 different forms of workshops accessible by a simple structure or thanks to the annexed explanations.
Why stop at the opposition between thinking and emotions ?
The main thing that is reproached to us when we wish to make people think is that philosophy practice is an aggression, a censorship of subjective expression, an authoritarian method, an artificial way of being or devoid of any feeling, which does not take into account the “context”. It should be noted that these are the words of adults. Adults have acquired an experience, a knowledge, which they seek to legitimize or which they do not want to see questioned. Too often, they want to have a space to speak, time to express an idea, at length, as well as the attentive and silent look of approval from the other. And if this is not obtained, frustration usually sets in motion a reactive system of a tit for tat. While children are not driven by this concern, they generally do not have an image to defend and have a greater capacity to let go. However, they are accustomed to viewing the adult as an authority and tend to seek out the right answer to satisfy them or to make their best impression.
The radical aspect of philosophy practice really appears when it is confronted with an emotional state. At that moment, the openness to the other stops, and the interlocutor freezes – like the victim of Medusa – in a definitively subjective and indifferent quant-à-soi towards the other who tries to dialogue. What becomes interesting to examine is what causes this change in the relationship, and the motivation; in other words, let us try to see who Medusa is, the one whose blood drop can give birth to any poisoned being. The hypothesis we put forward is that at the beginning there is a desire for community, to find in the other what we perceive in ourselves, as an echo of our intimacy. But as soon as the passage to the manifest is made, as soon as our intimacy is revealed, we realize that we lose our singularity, it is no longer secret and becomes banal, since it is recognizable and identifiable. By uttering it, we have the impression of losing our identity. We then try at all costs to restore or protect it. We thus seek to get out of this trap, through the emotion, by the unconscious means of a memory of a private event. This can be noticed if we let the person justify himself, he will explain this phenomenon by his education, his character, or by an event that has deeply marked his life. A second hypothesis consists in the anxiety of reaching the truth about oneself. The truth being like a determination, a condemnation, whereas generally we desire our “freedom” that we think to find in an attitude butterflying in the shades of the world. Another attitude is emerging, that of indignation, a form of scandal, which invokes the immorality of judgment: “Who are you to judge?”, “We don’t have the right to judge.”
The notion of community is certainly sought in philosophy practice, in the effort to understand what others say, in the reflection that this provokes and what we can respond to in a relevant way. We will call it empathy. Empathy is the capacity to understand the other, his idea or his affect. It means the ability to work on the same idea from different thoughts, to make sense of it, or to examine an emotion, to describe it, to name it and to analyze its causes, consequences or the circumstances of its expression. Empathy does not necessarily imply feeling the same emotion as the interlocutor at the same time, but recognizing the emotion and making sense of it as a universal phenomenon. This process requires us to distinguish between the personal experience, the intimate, subtle and sacred side, and the universal, public, obvious and “depersonalized” aspect. By doing this, we access what is common to all individuals, we are talking about what defines the human being, endowed with reason and the capacity to analyze all the phenomena that affect him.
This is to be distinguished from the community that people seek from a psychological point of view, which we will call sympathy. It has two disadvantages: the first is that we are on the level of feeling, either we associate ourselves with others’ feelings or we express our own. As it is personal, it cannot be questioned, we can only express it or reject it. The second disadvantage is that we lose our freedom and our ability to judge, because we become one with the other person, we are caught up in our relationship with them and we fail to come back to ourselves, in order to maintain our own coherence and to stay away from the problem. If there is fusion or identification, we claim the argument of the sacred, of the untouchable, which turns into a moralistic mode, denouncing the perpetration of an evil act. But if there is a moral side to philosophy practice, it is at the level of the idea, and it is not a question of saying that there is something good or bad, but rather that there is a degree of thought to be reached, if it is not already in us… let’s say that our faculty of reasoning can allow it, it remains to value this potential.
How the reader can relate to the book
Each of us can feel concerned by the problem of emotion. Emotion imposes its power on the rational part, that is to say that we are caught up in an impulse that takes away our functioning, without the possibility of opening up to another perspective. Emotion is a confinement in an immediacy that prevents us from settling down and letting our gaze go serenely towards the open sea. The approach will therefore be to recreate a mediation that will add smoothness to the faculty of judgment and make the cognitive function clearer.
Either emotions seem to be absent or they are too present. In one case, the emotion is experienced by the person as a weakness, a dysfunction, and is inhibited as much as possible in order to keep control of oneself and one’s environment, which one wants to keep calm and generally rational. In the other case, the expressed emotion imposes to the thinking the biased and excessive perception of a situation, without leaving to the individual a real chance to adapt to it. Consequently, it leaves a feeling of powerlessness, which another emotion will compensate or replace with a proportional force. The result is an internal state that fluctuates a lot, sometimes deviating considerably from what is happening around. From this arises a very strong will to control mood outbursts, painful for the author and harmful to those around him. Both personalities should try to identify the wheels of their sensitivities, distinguish the objects or causes of the emotions themselves and use common categories with typical characteristics. This could lead to flexibility and lightness or accuracy and delicacy.
In his dialogues, Socrates questioned his contemporaries a lot, especially sophists. Most of them prided themselves on their knowledge, and in some cases their knowledge made them famous. He used refutation to test the strength of their arguments and irony against their seriousness. The present work of the philosopher takes up these two skills and attitudes, with the difference that it is not the sophists who are invited to think, but people in general, at least those who express the will to do so. Socrates was known, through Plato’s writings, for his quest for the real nature of knowledge, trying to analyze ideas through transcendental concepts, whereas today it is more a question of putting our own vision of the world into play and at a distance, among other things through the examination of our opinions, thanks to conceptualization and problematization. The exercise of thinking was done from the formal or conceptual point of view and then from the subjective or existential angle. In both cases, the principle of the dialogue with the philosopher is undoubtedly to put oneself at a distance from what one thinks one knows, in order to get closer to the truth.
Nowadays, questioning can be used in all kinds of fields: teaching, human relations, management, family, etc. Its interest is to identify the resistances of the thinking, which makes it possible to define our aptitude to integrate ourselves in any organization, whether it is our life, the society, a company, a school, any place where intervenes what is commonly called the “respect of the other” and where the “savoir-vivre” or the “work-together” support the coherence of a group or a society, while resorting to the “care of oneself”, to the autonomy of one’s thinking and to a good life. It is a return to the causes of things that move us and surround us, which allows us to put things into perspective. Working on language seems to be essential for shaping thinking and developing clear and thoughtful communication. Moreover, it is possible to use the Socratic questioning method in a negotiation, since it is about getting to know oneself, presenting one’s position, one’s needs and agreeing on the object of the discussion, without abdicating what is essential for oneself or for the other.
This is what this book seeks to evoke: a work of discernment to promote awareness of individual functioning and ideas for facilitating workshops to train in an amazing process of reflection. Awareness does not mean taking possession of any knowledge, but rather allowing oneself to be traversed, impregnated for a moment, in the race of thoughts and non-thoughts of which we are the theater. Nothing must remain frozen, but follow a movement, whatever its nature, remain lively and attentive.
This manual can be consulted in any order. The main thing is that the reading of it is intertwined with the reflection. And since the subject is quite broad, its treatment will not be exhaustive. Therefore, you can share various problems and questions, which will be an opportunity to exchange and improve the book.
We can write a book describing emotions, their circumstances, our relationship to them, but nothing can replace a personal practice. The problem with emotion is that it connects something we have misunderstood one day, with a new event, in a system of reiteration. There are therefore associations of ideas, images or sensations that are made at the speed of synaptic and nervous connections, without the intervention of our understanding, that is to say the capacity to analyze in the moment what is happening and to choose the right attitude. This is what we discover and train in collective workshops and philosophical consultations.