Being Human and Transvaluation (part 1)

In the previous few posts on Being Human, part of a broader project to blog thematic overviews of all Margaret Archer’s major books, I’ve been looking at her account of the emotions. This is absolutely integral to her understanding of reflexivity, it’s covered in less depth in the reflexivity books and, unless it’s understood, it’s easy to get the impression that she has a rationalistic view of human agency. Whereas in actuality she has a rather subtle understanding of deliberation as being underwritten by (and also responding to) a complex  structure of affectivity which arises from the emergent relations between our own constitution (bodily, cognitively, socially) and the constitution of the world (natural, practical and social). The previous posts have looked at her understanding of emotions as commentaries on human concerns, the different forms of affectivity and their embedding within everyday life. In this post I’ll discuss the notion of transvaluation and Archer’s account of personal identity as arising through the reflexive transmutation of first-order emotionality into second-order emotionality.

So far, three clusters of emotions have been discussed as emergent commentaries, relating to our physical well-being, performative achievement and self-worth in the natural, practical and discursive orders respectively. Matters do not end there with a series of immutable first-order emotions, ranked as it were, simply by their relative intensity. They do not because of our human powers of reflexivity; our capacity to reflect upon our emotionality itself, to transform it and consequentially to re-order priorities without our emotional sets. That there is some second-ordering process involved commands broad agreement. (Archer 2000: 222)

As is often the case with her style of argument, Archer chooses two contrasting perspectives on an underlying question which she critiques and uses to develop her own account. The first view is one which sees second-order emotionality “as a matter of cognitive reflection in which reason is brought to bear upon the beliefs underpinning first-order emotions, whose revision then leads to emotional re-direction (second-order)” (Archer 2000: 222). On this account reason is the arbiter of emotion, reflecting on our first-order reactions and ‘weeding out’ those which have insufficient basis to justify survival into the second-order. The second view is one of evaluative reflection in which the “subject asks, if emotions are affective commentaries upon our situations, which of these have the greatest import for our greatest concerns?”. Instead of “trying to rationalise our first-order emotions, we evaluate them as guides to the life we wish to lead, and thus end up embracing some and subordinating others” in a process which is not the “rational optimisation in which the desired life is selected according to reason and then emotions are assessed for their goodness of fit” but rather one in which “pathos and logos work hand in hand at the second-order level” (Archer 2000: 233). The second view is that adopted by Charles Taylor and, by way of a sympathetic critique, Archer adopts his terminology of ‘transvaluation’ while nonetheless distancing her own account from his:

There is much that can usefully be gleaned from Taylor’s discussion of transvaluation per se to contribute towards an account of the emergence of second-order emotionality. (This is particularly the cause because transvaluation paradoxically dwells upon our emotional fallibility rather than upon the intuitive acuity of emotions.) Tranvaluation entails progressive articulations of our first-order emotions,. To begin with many initial feelings may remain fairly inarticulate, such as a diffuse feeling of guilt about our relations with an elderly parent. In such cases we may seek further understanding, by interrogation of self and of circumstances, and through this the feeling may be transformed one way or another. It might dissipate upon further inspection; it may intensify as we appreciate the significance of neglect; or it could diminish if we find that to do more would be to the detriment of other duties: ‘hence we can see that our feelings incorporate a certain articulation of our situation, that is, they presuppose that we characterise our situation in certain terms. But at the same time they admit of – and very often we feel that they call for – further articulation, the elaboration of finer terms permitting more penetrating characterisation. And this further articulation can in turn transform the feeling.‘ (Archer 2000: 226) [italics are Archer quoting Taylor’s Human Agency and Language pp. 63-4).

What I find so compelling about this view is its nuanced relationship to language. On this account “the movement from first-order to second-order emotionality entails a shift from the inarticulate to the articulate, from the less adequate to the more adequate characterisation and from initial evaluation to transvaluation” (Archer 2000: 227). It’s something I’ve used to make sense of the experience of people who identify as asexual who, prior to coming to encounter the notion of asexuality, are struggling to articulate something about themselves and finding that the articulatory repertoires currently available to them are entirely inadequate. It’s this sense of what someone is trying to say which is, I think, a profound aspect of the human condition. Both because of its ineffable core of first-person experience (that exceeds what we are able to say to ourselves in inner speech, let alone to external others through external speech) but also because the attempt itself frequently changes us: 

The very act of offering oneself a second-order articulation serves to ‘open up the question whether this characterisation is adequate, whether it is not incomplete or distortive. And so from the very fact of their being articulate, the question cannot but arise whether we have properly articulated our feelings, that is whether we have properly explicated what the feeling gives us a sense of.’ Second-order revision can thus be indefinitely elaborated as we analyse further our understanding of imports and discard previous interpretations, both of which are transformative movements in this process. From feeling rejected by our teenage children’s obvious preference for the company of their peers, we can reflect upon the restrictiveness of our own dependence and then take pleasure in their new independence, new things to talk about and new social skills. (Archer 2000: 227)

For those familiar with the notion of a morphogenetic sequence: first-order emotionality is the T1, internal conversation is the T2-T3 and second-order emotionality is the T4. These cycles are seen to be a continual and overlapping feature of our embodied human being-in-the-world but ones which can, nonetheless, be analysed through isolation their prior conditions, interaction and ensuing elaboration. It’s just that unlike the other morphogenetic sequences Archer has been concerned with, these are intra-personal (with the partial exception of communicative reflexivity).  In part 2 of this post I’ll explore the intra-personal interaction in more detail and then move onto transvaluation (in a substantive sense) and Archer’s account of personal identity.

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