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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


The Vehement Passions by Philip Fisher (Princeton University Press) Breaking off the ordinary flow of experience, the passions create a state of exception. In their suddenness and intensity, they map a personal world, fix and qualify our attention, and impel our actions. Outraged anger drives us to write laws that will later be enforced by impersonal justice. Intense grief at the death of someone in our life discloses the contours of that life to us. Wonder spurs scientific inquiry.

The strong current of Western thought that idealizes a dispassionate world has ostracized the passions as quaint, even dangerous. Intense states have come to be seen as symptoms of pathology. A fondness for irony along with our civic ideal of tolerance lead us to prefer the diluted emotional life of feelings and moods. Demonstrating enormous intellectual originality and generosity, Philip Fisher meditates on whether this victory is permanent--and how it might diminish us.

From Aristotle to Hume to contemporary biology, Fisher finds evidence that the passions have defined a core of human nature no less important than reason or desire. Traversing the Iliad, King Lear, Moby Dick, and other great works, he discerns the properties of the high-spirited states we call the passions. Are vehement states compatible with a culture that values private, selectively shared experiences? How do passions differ from emotions? Does anger have an opposite? Do the passions give scale, shape, and significance to our experience of time? Is a person incapable of anger more dangerous than someone who is irascible?

In reintroducing us to our own vehemence, Fisher reminds us that it is only through our strongest passions that we feel the contours of injustice, mortality, loss, and knowledge. It is only through our personal worlds that we can know the world.

Philosophy and the Passions: Towards a History of Human Nature by Michel Meyer, translated with introduction and notes by Robert F. Barsky (Literature and Philosophy: The Pennsylvania State University Press) (Hardcover) excerpt from Introduction by the translator: This leads us to the present text, in some ways a further study of the problematological approach from another, related angle, and in others a broad summary and evaluation of how passion has been considered by philosophers since Aristotle. I would emphasize a few points here, to help guide the reading. First, none of the previous discussions are left behind in the present text because, consistent with all of Meyer's work, there is an overall project which demands that certain areas receive careful study, areas which happen to include the domain of literature and the problem of passion and its relationship`to rationality. Second, I would once again suggest that the implications of this book are surprisingly radical, since they speak to basic human impulses, the way that we come to know things about the world, and the complex and often paradoxical relationship between our passions and our quest for knowledge, a relationship which seems sometimes to be a harmonious and mutual effort, and at others to be a struggle of opposites that wish to impose norms and interpretations based on vastly different criteria.

The subject of the passions is of interest in light of the previous discussion because they, like powerful literary texts, are troubling, worrisome, even frightening. This is where Meyer's writing turns downright exciting and speaks in direct and specific ways to some of the most topical issues of contemporary philosophy and criticism:

Passion must be seen as something other than some extreme emotion or the underlying foundation of sociability. It is above all a form of sensitivity, before being amorality or, worse, immorality. It is the sign of the contingency in man, that is to say, what he wishes to master. By being the place where temporality and the reversion of all truth into its contrary converge, passion upsets, destabilises and disorients by reproducing the uncertainty of the world and the course of events. It is in fact the other in us, without which we would not exist, but with which it is difficult and dangerous to be. Passion is the word for all risks, as well as the one for infinite promises. There is a moral choice implied in passion on account of the fact that it opens up contradictory choices, alternatives. If passion and morality have always been closely associated, it must not be forgotten that pathos was originally this sensible, unreflexive consciousness which plunges us into the stream of life, and which pushes us to flee from dangers as much as to seek pleasure.

It is this contradictory quality of the passions, the endless paradoxes that are created in our consideration of them and our relationship with them either through reasons or the senses, that guides Meyer's readings of philosophical`work on passion: "Passion is as much that which attaches us to the world as that which can save us from its dangers by warning us of their existence. Passion swallows us up in an ever present reversibility of existence, by changing its course and, thereby, it confronts us with the chasms and the illusions`of life. Both a signal of alarm and the danger itself: it is the alternative which refers to all possible existential alternatives."

So the passions are the representatives in the human being of excess and deviance, they are the uncontrolled elements of our (flawed?) human nature; these are claims which relate to as vast a project as one could M imagine. To address such a complex area of study, and to assess the relationship between specifically "human" nature and "nature," critical issues for philosophy and theology for millenniums, Meyer characteristically follows a historical pathway. He offers a tapestry, a survey of the history of the philosophical approach to passions in the works of, for example, Aristotle, Saint Augustine, Descartes, Freud, Hobbes, Hume, Kant, Locke, Machiavelli, Mandeville, Marx, Nietzsche, Plato, de Rougemont, Rousseau, Saint Thomas, Smith, Socrates, Spinoza, and Wittgenstein. In so doing, he offers a reading of each philosopher, useful even for those interested in their respective general approaches; but he goes further still, indicating flaws or gaps in their respective reasoning, the contradictions and paradoxes of their approaches, and as such provides a look at how the reasoning mind can operate on the process of reasoning, which is laid bare in each of the texts discussed.

As might be expected, this present text also offers a Raymond Wilhams‑style keyword reading of passion, a study of how the term has been employed, and interpreted, since the dawn of classical philosophy. In so doing he offers a history of ideas, complete with the fundamental breaks that have occurred, specifically regarding the understanding of the passions, at particular moments of history. The ruptures, the consequence of the rise of Christianity, the views of the Stoics, the revolt of the romantics, the peculiarities of the modern era, are all described and assessed as regards the problem of the passions.

Along the way, Meyer's problematological and historical approach forces us to confront our own preconceptions, and self‑satisfaction, concerning the society within which we live, for there is no society which allows for the freedom of unregulated passions. There is no more arbitrary exchange of goods in a barter system than there is unregulated economic exchange under capitalism, not to mention the accession to power (the exchange of positions and of functions), which is also always codified: evidently, total liberty has had no other reality than an illusory one. Even liberated passions have found their antidote in theorization. Montesquieu against Machiavelli, Marx against Smith, and probably Freud against himself. Even our society has its own methods of controlling passions. There is a democratic legislation of the election and of the eligibility for all citizens who can thereby express an individual's will to power with regards to others, as in the case of others with regards to him. The pursuit of material interest itself abides by restrictions, even when there is liberalisation, since economic activity obeys rules of concurrence assumed just (fair). Affective and sexual relations don't escape socialisation either, even if they are no longer expressed through the negotiation of parental alliances or by the mere, but always castigated, exercise of violence. This remains the danger related to all passion, since power, pleasure and the expression of the "great Ego" reinforce one another in each person, over and above the equivalence of words which we have underlined and that illustrate their substitutability.

Hence the refusal by all authorities, legal, governmental, theological, to allow for a free reign of passions, for they, like the questioning previously described, and the literary texts when assessed in a properly problematological fashion, pose significant threats, even though they are clearly part of us, part of our most intimate nature, the source, indeed of our very drives. And so the questions come back, typically, and with a vengeance. Does passion tear people apart because it blinds them, or on the contrary, does passion permit us to become truly aware of our own nature?


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