Upheavals of Thought

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Western philosophy has a long tradition of undervaluing emotions and regarding them as dangerous, unstable influences on human life. In this tradition, reason is the opposite of emotion and the best judgements about right and wrong are those that isolate reason as much as possible from emotional impulses. As Martha C. Nussbaum argues, though, this strict separation of thought from emotion simply does not appear to be the way that the human mind works. People who suffer brain damage that affects the centers of emotion are not just unable to feel, they are also unable to make decisions about how they should behave. Nussbaum maintains that emotions are necessary to ethical thinking because they are judgements of value.

In this massive, loosely organized book, Nussbaum considers different aspects of thinking about emotions as necessary value judgements, a perspective that she labels "neo-stoic." She discusses what this perspective implies for the similarities between human and other animal emotions, the role of emotions in human societies, the emotional development of human beings, and the emotional significance of music. She examines one emotion, compassion, that she considers central to political life. In the final third of the book, she looks at how one may think about love as a judgment of value by examining the concept of love in works of philosophy, music, and literature.

Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions is impressive for breadth of learning and for imaginative speculation, rather than for careful reasoning. Especially in the parts of the book devoted to compassion and love, Nussbaum asserts much and proves little. In the end, she does not accomplish a unified philosophy, but she does succeed at an erudite series of contemplation, sparkling with insights.