In conversations with some of my girlfriends, and even in leadership seminars that I’ve been attending lately, the emerging theme that just so happens to be plaguing my life right now involves the questions of the head and the heart (in regards to women in particular). At least once a day for the past week, I have found myself engaging in conversations with others on female emotionality, and how more often than not, it appears that the intellect and reason take a back seat to the heart and its emotions in women. One friend asked, does it make me less feminine if I tend to think more logically and clearly and less with my emotions? Another confided in me, it’s normal for me to be feeling so unstable all the time, right? My emotions just seem to never be in check. Naturally, with my newfound love for philosophy and my annoying (my friends prefer to call it endearing) tendency to turn to books for my answers, I found a good starting place in Hildebrand’s work, The Heart.
Before delving into the balance between the head and the heart in women specifically, one should probably start by inquiring into the nature of the heart and the intellect in mankind in general. Hildebrand starts his approach to this question by acknowledging the fact that it would seem that the affective sphere has been given a second-rate position in classical philosophy. Plato, for instance, ranks the intellect incomparably higher than the heart in his Republic, while Aristotle goes so far as to claim that the intellect is possessed by the rational part of man, while the heart and its emotions belongs to the irrational part of man (1). In other words, it is our emotions that make us more like irrational animals and less like human beings! Thus, in philosophy, the affective realm is quickly slapped with the title of “passions,” and as a result, seems to be viewed as irrational and unspiritual (2). Hildebrand rightfully points out the error in this way of thinking.
The error, according to Hildebrand, enters as soon as the philosopher fails to make distinctions. The “affective sphere” covers a vast range of experiences, from bodily feelings to perfect contrition (3). Thus, when the entire affective sphere is wrongfully associated with lower types of affective experiences (such as viewing true value-responding joy or deep love in the same way as one would view a bodily feeling or a passion), then the natural result is that the entire affective realm and affective responses “become something hollow, something without serious meaning, a floating feeling, an irrational, uncontrollable wavering emotion” (4). Thus, when one experiences a true affective response to something justly deserving of it, one often becomes uncomfortable and wishes to run away from the world of “feelings” to the seeming stability and calm of the intellect. As a result, “the great and noble reality of adoration, of hope, or the fear and love of God, so intimately bound up with the existence of God, immediately dwindles down to ‘mere’ feeling when we consider these responses in themselves as the main theme” (5).
Next, Hildebrand suggests three main errors that have led many to hold these views (whether consciously or not) in regards to affectivity. The first error is when one shifts the “theme” from the object to the affective response. The second error is when one then detaches the affective response from the object. Lastly, the third error occurs when one takes something (which is not actually in the affective realm at all) and reduces it to an affective state (6).
Speaking more plainly, Hildebrand seems to be proposing that perhaps the reason why affectivity and its importance have been neglected lies in the fact that those who have analyzed affectivity and wrongfully separated the affective response from its object (error 2) therefore find themselves in a realm of uncontrollable emotion, desiring to return to the realms of the will and intellect.
We see these errors playing out in our culture every day. Instead of focusing on those things which deserve our love and admiration, people often find themselves focusing on the feeling of loving or the feeling of admiring. In a world where one’s affective responses are cut off from their objects, the affective realm becomes one of seeming chaos. Everything seems… arbitrary. In consequence, there is widespread fear and suspicion surrounding the heart and its movements. For many, feeling is no longer fashionable. It has become a crutch, or even a disability in itself. Or, as Aristotle thought, the affective realm is even something that makes me more similar to my dog than to Socrates.
In my next post, I will seek to explore the topics of the heart and the intellect in regards to the feminine nature.
(1) Dietrich von Hildebrand, The Heart