Being Human and Second-Order Emotions

In this series of posts I’ve been looking at Margaret Archer’s account of first-order and second-order emotions. In the previous post I discussed the process through which an individual comes to deliberate on their first-order emotions – represented schematically as discernment –> deliberation –> dedication. It is through this process that personal identity emerges:

As the successive moments of the conversation culminate, ‘It is these acts of ordering and of rejection – integration and separation – that create a self out of the raw materials of inner life.’ It does not matter in the least that these concerns do indeed originate outside ourselves in our ineluctable relationship with the natural, practical and social orders, for in dedication we have taken responsibility for them and made them our own. We have constituted ourselves by identifying the self as the being-with-these-concerns. The self and its reflexive awareness have been continuous throughout the conversation, but on its completion the self has attained a strict personal identity through its unique pattern of commitments. (Archer 2000: 241)

Two points need to be made clear here. Firstly, this is simplified for analytical purposes and is not a statement about the linear progression of actual biographies. Secondly, by ‘personal identity’ Archer obviously mean something distinct from some of the prevailing understandings of identity within sociology e.g. self-concept or self-presentation. I understand her point to be about the concrete singularity of the individual: we are thrown into a position within the world which we have not chosen, entangled in relationships that are pre-given and it is only through coming to articulate and order our concerns that we manifest our latent potential to be uniquely singular: ‘the being-with-these-concerns’. This view sees certain commitments as constitutive of the self and, once acquired, they transform our affective responses to everyday life:

Thus if one of our ultimate concerns is wife and family, the emotional commentary arising from an attractive occasion for infidelity will not just be the first-order desire for the liaison, but emotionally we will also feel it as a threat, as a potential betrayal of something which we value more. Its emotional important is literally that of a liason dangereuse. In an important sense, we are no longer capable of the simplicity of a purely first-order response: reactions to relevant events are emotionally transmuted by our ultimate concerns. Think, for example, of the commitment to writing a book and of how this filters our responses to otherwise pleasurable activities. We tend to feel irritability at the telephone ringing, even whilst acknowledging that it is a wanted caller; we can feel resentment in having to respond to what we simultaneously accept are other quite legitimate calls upon us; and disinclination to break up a weekend with what we know would be pleasant company. These events can no longer be taken ‘straight’, they come to us coloured as distractions and our responses to them are generally distracted.

Our commitments represents a new sounding board for the emotions. They both mean that we see things differently and feel them differently. Devoted parents see objects and events from the child’s perspective, feeling alarm for them at what will alarm them (rather than what is alarming to the adult, such as a big wave) and experiencing enjoyments through their child’s enjoyment, for they can ‘enter-into’ fairgrounds, flumes or pantomimes through the door of their commitments. (Archer 2000: 242)

It’s in this sense that the transvaluation enacted through internal conversation literally changes our feelings. The occurrence may be the same but its meaningfulness isn’t given the newly articulated concerns in relation to which our affective responses emerge. The person so committed “can never be fully care-free (in excess of those first-order concerns which are part of the human condition), because they have acquired a prism on the world which refracts their first-order emotions” (Archer 2000: 243). The past itself can become transvalued in this way, as past choices come to be imbued with guilt or amusement in light of present commitments. These retrospective feelings can reinforce present commitments through the positive feedback they provide – I may now feel guilty at having done X in the past but this reinforces my commitment to the principle Y which underwrites my newly negative evaluation of X. But this reinforcement also operates prospectively “as an unintended consequence of living out these same commitments, for the simple reason that our lives become organised around them” (Archer 2000: 245).

Books fairs are not meant to be dating agencies, canal restoration is not intended to circumscribe friendships, political protests are not film guides, nor are pop festivals planned to influence our child-rearing practices. Yet a concern is the source of ripple-effects, spreading out over our way of life and insulating it as they go. The concerned need one another for it is only together that they can be themselves (expressing their full personal identities), sharing spontaneously, without self-editing. The most significant transvalued feeling here is that of discomfort. It is felt by political activists when in mixed ideological company and reported by feminists when in predominately male gathering struggling for political correctitude. The mechanisms which circumscribes a way of life is bilateral. We know the edginess about entertaining those with other commitments than ours: the artificiality of censoring our languages and opinions to avoid giving offence; the apprehension that the guests will start to ‘go on’ in proselytising vein, or the sheer boredom when they never stop talking about their children, football, local environmental planning etc. The concerned are drawn to one another but also thrown together, and this accentuation and protection of commitments is significantly regulated by the transvalued feelings themselves. (Archer 2000: 245)

However transvaluation is an achievement which cannot be reached right away nor can it necessarily be sustained. Furthermore, “for children and young people, the establishment of a stable second-order is a virtual impossibility because they know insufficient about themselves, the world and the relations between them” (Archer 2000: 246). In the final post of this series I’ll look at instabilities of the second-order which is the element of this framework I find most interesting.

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