affectivity heart

The Heart as the Center of Affectivity

6:00:00 AMJosh

As I continued reading von Hildebrand's The Heart last week, I was drawn in to his treatment of the "affectivity"of man. Thinking it would be another challenging philosophical concept, I had passed over the prior use of the term earlier in my reading. However, I found myself nodding in agreement with von Hildebrand as he discussed the great importance of man's emotional experience of life. I personally have found in my theological studies what von Hildebrand seemed to have found in his philosophical studies in regards to the emotions: either not much was said about them or they were deemed as suspicious and dangerous when discussed. Having an academic background in psychology, I have learned to greatly value the emotions we experience in life as a gift from God and as signs which point us to greater realities. It was refreshing for me to read a philosopher affirm what I have always considered true. In this post we will explore von Hildebrand's insights into the "affective sphere" of man.

“Let us admit that in man there exists a triad of spiritual centers-intellect, will and heart-which are ordained to cooperate and to fecundate one another.” (46)

History, philosophy, psychology, and related fields will reveal to us that man operates in different “spheres” in his life (to put it one way). When a person experiences or encounters something in life, he or she experiences it through the different capacities within his or herself. These different “spheres” or “capacities” can be grouped in various ways but have been commonly referred to as such: the mental, emotional, bodily, and spiritual spheres. It is important to note that the categories listed here are not a matter of personal opinion but of common understanding and consensus. These categories can be distinguished, but not separated because a person experiences life in these spheres simultaneously each day.

So essential are these spheres of operating in a person, that there have been entire fields of study dedicated to examining each one (psychology, biology, theology, etc.) and the role they play in the life of a person. Modern psychology has made the study of a person’s emotional life commonplace in our society. However, it has not always been that way. In fact, the realm of the emotions within a person, or their affectivity as we’re going to refer to it hereafter, was largely marginalized up until this time in history. What interests us here is the role of affectivity in the life of a person and how it has been viewed philosophically before now.

Throughout the history of philosophy, feelings and emotions have been regarded as suspicious and hazardous to man. It was believed by many philosophers that a person’s feelings would disable them from achieving fulfillment in life and pursuing what would bring them happiness. Von Hildebrand remarks in The Heart, “According to Aristotle, the intellect and the will belong to the rational part of man; the affective realm and with it the heart belong to the irrational part of man, that is, to the area of experience which man allegedly shares with animals.” (26) This comes as a surprise to von Hildebrand, as he observes that Aristotle considers happiness the highest good in life, though happiness by its nature must be felt by a person. (Cf. 26) 

Von Hildebrand seeks to get to the root of why the affectivity of a person has been considered under such a negative light in previous centuries. He theorizes that one such reason is that the emotions have been conflated with the passions. At a later time, he posits that the affective sphere is discredited because of the hazard of being 'ungenuine' to a degree the intellect and the will are not. He is critical of those who discredit the affectivity of a person merely because it is inclined to manipulation and abuse and remarks that there is nothing in a person that cannot be faked or distorted. (Cf. 26-27, 32, 41)

Though the heart, as the center of affectivity in the human person, has been given so little attention in the field of philosophy, von Hildebrand seeks to give it its proper place. In his book, he dedicates the first chapter to the nature and role of affectivity in the person. Contrary to the philosophers that preceded him, von Hildebrand looks at the heart in all its affectivity with unparalleled praise, remarking, “…it is high time we lifted the ban on the affective sphere and discovered its spiritual role. We must acknowledge the place which the heart holds in the human person-a place equal in rank to that of the will and the intellect.” (42)

Von Hildebrand provides a few examples of instances in the life of a person that must be experienced in this affective sphere being discussed. Following his earlier brief examination of Aristotle, he speaks about happiness saying “a happiness which is only ‘thought’ or ‘willed’ is no happiness…Happiness becomes a word without meaning when we sever it from feeling, the only form of experience in which it can be consciously lived.” (26) He later turns his attention to the Scriptures, as he often does, reflecting on the role of sadness, and states that the suffering involved in the crucifixion of Christ is a glaringly affective experience. Quoting a passage from Paul’s letter to Philemon, which exhorts the reader to “Rejoice in the Lord always,” von Hildebrand states that it calls for a response of the heart and not of the other faculties of the person. He remarks that the conception of man as a being who is composed of only reason and will is a contradiction. (Cf. 45)
Von Hildebrand has directly contributed to the development of study of the heart with its sphere of affectivity in philosophy today and, alongside St. Augustine, has been one of the few notable philosophers in history to do so. I will continue my exploration of von Hildebrand’s insights into the human heart in my next post.

Direct quotes taken from Dietrich von Hildebrand’s The Heart: An Analysis of Human and Divine Affectivity (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1977).

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