affectivity emotion

"I've Got a Feel'n"

7:47:00 PMJoshua Stoner



What is the role of our feelings in life? Why is it we have them and what are we to do with them? These few questions came into my mind as I continued my reading of The Heart, specifically the sections devoted to exploring the affective capacity of the human person. The question is not whether the emotions are important or not. To be clear, we have already concluded they are an essential and indispensable component of every person’s life.

As we discussed in the last post, the affective sphere of man has been regarded as suspicious for centuries and has been seen by many as an impediment to ultimate fulfillment and happiness. I believe we have learned to distrust and even repress our feelings because we have seen the damage that comes from acting based solely on our emotions, unaided by our reason. Not only that, but we know first-hand the intensity by which our emotions rise up in us, stirring within what seems to be a storm of feelings. Left unchecked, our strong emotional drive can lead us to pain and regret. And so the affective sphere is labeled dangerous and untrustworthy. We are advised to “proceed with caution!”

But why has only the affective sphere been stigmatized like this? I mean, why aren’t our spontaneous thoughts considered with such harsh reservations? Certainly, danger lurks for the person who follows and acts according to each undeveloped thought that pops into his mind. Even in the spiritual life of a person, discernment is needed to guide prayer. Man is made up of many parts working together for a common purpose. Any part of a person left unchecked creates an imbalance that can throw that person off their path. What I think is needed here is a holistic look at the human person. Only through this lens will the meaning and importance of the emotions be apparent.

In his discussion of the affective sphere, von Hildebrand points out something interesting regarding the emotions. He states that, “The truly affective man is preoccupied with the good which is the source and basis of his affective experience. In loving he looks at the beloved; in happiness he directs his thoughts to the reason for his being happy; in his enthusiasm, he focuses on the value of the good to which the enthusiasm is directed. The true affective experience implies that one is convinced of its objective validity.” (82)

He is positing here that certain emotions which one experiences in life, are subjective responses to objects encountered by the person. Von Hildebrand distinguishes the emotions one experiences in their life into three categories: psychic, bodily, and spiritual feelings. Psychic and bodily feelings are not intentional but spiritual feelings are. It is this last category to which von Hildebrand refers to in the above statement.

What is the role of the emotions then? Their role is to draw and direct the person toward the goodness of a given object, thereby enabling that person to interact with and to experience the object. The examples given above by von Hildebrand provide a practical application of this concept. Take for another example the death of a friend and the accompanying sorrow experienced at this loss. It is, in part, the remembrance of the goodness of the deceased person who died that the sorrow wells up in the still living person. The sorrow that person experiences subjectively, however, is due to a person he loves passing away.

This brings us back to our earlier discussion of why the affective sphere is so stigmatized. Perhaps what is being cautioned against in regards to this area is the exclusive touting of the emotions divorced from objective reality. To this point, we can agree with this cautioning. It is hazardous for a person to follow their emotions without considering the object which prompted such responses in them. Von Hildebrand speaks to this on p. 83 when he states, “The ‘subjectivist’ (in the negative sense of the term), on the contrary, looks at his own feelings and is concerned only with how he reacts. He is indifferent to the objective situation as such, and its call for a response. Clearly such a man is never capable of a great, genuine and deep affectivity.

Looking to contemporary culture, we can see this reduction of authentic affectivity in spades. In our time, one’s actions are often determined solely by how one feels in the given circumstance, and not by one’s examination of the object they are encountering. The affectivity of man need not be demonized by this fact, rather what is needed is the proper perspective by which we can look at the emotions and their role in the life of a person.

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