Emotions as commentaries on human concerns

In Being Human Archer argues for a view of human beings as having a “rich inner life” which is partly constituted through our engagement in a “continual running commentary with the events going on around us” (Archer 2000: 193). For instance, as I sat down to write this post I quickly looked at the clock on my Mac and noted that I have to leave the house in two hours to catch a train and there are other things I have to do before I leave. Commentaries of this sort are so emphatically quotidian that they often find themselves ignored by theorists and sociologists. They’re so mundane and everyday that it’s easy to forget about them. Likewise we don’t always listen (note the audial rather than ocular metaphor) to these internal commentaries. If we did then there would be no purpose to the practice of mindfulness which, I’d argue, hinges on cultivating an attentiveness to our own internal conversations qua mental events and how they are in turn shaped by our reactions to those mental events.

These commentaries are often ‘part of the action’. It’s easy to misread Archer on this point but her assertion of the “relative autonomy, temporal priority and causal efficacy” of internal conversation is intended to establish how our mental events can have causal implications in the physical world, avoiding their reduction to either physical processes or social processes. Archer sees them as a continual part of our being-in-the-world:

Sometimes we would like to turn it off and to confront life directly without the accompaniment of this cynical, prudential, censorious, apprehensive, assertive, smarting and forbearing inner commentator, who is all of these things. Yet even when we come closest to doing so, when we are fully absorbed in action, the commentary only becomes discontinuous but does not disappear: the mountaineer interrogates and instructs herself on hand-holds, the lover internally begs that this may not stop, and the lazing holiday-maker or the jump-jockey, in their different ways, think ‘this is the life’.

Since this experience is so universal and continuous to human beings, and also one of which they are acutely if not infallibly aware, one wonders why it has suffered such considerable neglect within sociology. Because it is part of the action (obviously including interaction), it can not be relegated to the domain of personal psychology as if separate from sociological concerns. (Archer 2000: 193-194)

Our emotions are one of the central elements of this inner life. One of the key elements of Archer’s project over the last 15 years or so has been to “reunite human pathos with human logos and to show their inter-linkage within the internal conversation” (Archer 2000: 194). She conceptualises the emotions as a first-order and second-order phenomena:

  1. Different clusters of emotions represent commentaries upon our concerns and are emergent from our human relationship with the natural, practical and discursive orders of reality respectively. Matters do not finish here.
  2. Because of our reflexivity, we review these emotional commentaries, articulate them, monitor them, and transmute them; thus elaborating further upon our emotionality itself.
  3. This occurs through the inner conversation which is a ceaseless discussion about the satisfaction of our ultimate concerns and a monitoring of the self and its commitments in relation to the commentaries received (Archer 2000: 195)

On this view emotions must be understood relationally. They are, as Charles Taylor puts it, “affective modes of awareness of situation”. Thus they emerge in relation to something. It is “because of their situational and relational characters” that our “emotionality is regarded as a continuous running commentary (that is something we are never without) and therefore it is only in sudden or urgent contexts that we are aware of a specific emotion” (Archer 2000: 197). Archer understands these emotions in terms of clusters:

Thus, there is no need to compile complex lists of named emotions and accommodate them on this account, for, as Greenwood argues, there is no necessary correlation between the richness of emotional experience and the existence of an equivalent subtlety of available linguistic labels in any given culture.

Instead, in dealing with the emergence and progressive elaboration of (first-order) emotions, the task will be to delineate clusters of emotions whose emergence is rooted in the different orders of reality – the natural, practical and discursive. in other words, distinct tracts of our emotionality are internally linked to equally distinct kinds of real world objects, whose three different kinds of imports register themselves as commentaries on three correspondingly different kinds of concerns. Prototypical examples can and will be given of each cluster, but is not part of the aim here to accommodate the four hundred or so emotions discriminated in the English language to the three clusters, because of the naive nominalism which would be entailed. Since synonyms can proliferate and the narcissism of small differences may flourish, we should be duly cautious in assuming that each appellation connotes a different experience, just as we should beware of thinking that the absence of a name in certain cultures implies a corresponding absence of a feeling. (Archer 2000: 197)

This clustering takes the form it does because of the relational nature of our emotions i.e. they emerge within particular types of situations. Archer understands three types of situation encompassing three sets of relations:

  • The Natural Order encompasses body-environment relations (visceral emotions and concerns for physical well-being)
  • The Practical Order encompasses subject/object relations (competence-orientated emotions and concerns for performative achievement)
  • The Social Order encompasses subject/subject relations (normative emotions and concerns for social self-worth)

Firstly, it is maintained that all persons have to confront the natural world and that their embodiment ineluctably confers on them concerns about their physical well-being as they encounter the hard-knocks, pleasures and dangers of their environments. This concern itself is embodied in our physical constitution and, although the imports of nature can be over-ridden (at the second-order), they cannot avoid being viscerally registered and resulting (indirectly, as we  will see) in the emergence of first-order emotions.

Secondly, all persons are constrained to live and work, in one way or another, in the practical world: necessary labour is the lot of homo faber. Performative concerns are unavoidably part of our inevitable practical engagement with the world of material culture. The precise objects of performative concerns are historically, cross-culturally and socially varied, but the import of our competence in dealing with the practical realm is universal. In other words, the annoyance of primitive man about breaking a good spear belongs to the same emotional family as the feelings of the playboy of the western world when he prangs his best Lamborghini. The import of the situation is to the subject and has nothing to with where our sympathies may lie as hypothetical observers.

Thirdly, sociality is also necessarily the lot of human beings, who would be less than what we understand by human without their social engagements. Participation in the social realm entails concerns about self-worth which cannot be evaded in this discursive environment. We cannot avoid becoming a subject among subjects and with it come ‘subject-referring properties’ (such as admirable or shameful) which convey the import of normativity to our concerns about our social standing. These may be very different concerns since we can choose (second-order) to stand in very different places (our self-worth is crucially dependent upon the nature of our commitments), but these of course are all equally social and cannot obviate the (first-order) impact of social norms which inflict evaluations on our comportment. (Archer 2000: 198-199)

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