affection affectivity

In Defense of Feeling Emotional

6:00:00 AMCatherine Yanko

The first time I read the words, “The strength of woman lies in the emotional life”, I remember laughing aloud (96). Edith Stein proposes this view in her essay “The Spirituality of the Christian Woman” and I thought she was crazy. Had she not ever experienced the usurping nature her emotions can have causing her to be irrational and capricious? This sentence has lingered in my mind for years with restlessness and slight irritability wondering how someone (especially a fellow woman) could say such a thing.  But then I read “The Heart” by Dietrich von Hildebrand. In his vision of the affective sphere, I found the conviction to stop shaming Edith Stein for valuing emotional responses and to ardently argue for the resuscitation of the affective sphere, especially in the modern world.

What was so painfully clear in Hildebrand that I had not realized before? For Hildebrand, the affective sphere wasn’t some fleeting and uncontrollable urge but rather a motivated movement in the person that has the capacity to be value responding. This means that emotions can be avenues for experiencing reality in the very core of the person. Rightly ordered emotions are connected with the object that is perceived. So, emotions can be a sign and an experience of the value of the said object. For example, if I am holding my best friend’s newborn baby and feel an inexplicable joy, I can say I am experiencing the value of the truth of the inestimable dignity of that person. Instead of whimsical feelings, Hildebrand offered me an affective sphere that was freely built upon the foundation of truth because it was rooted in reality.

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So why have I and much of the history of philosophy rejected the affective sphere as being useless and even harmful to one’s development? (3). Hildebrand answers, “Perhaps the most striking reason for the discredit in which the entire affective sphere is kept is to be found in the caricature of affectivity which results from detaching an affective response from the object which is its motive, that to which it meaningfully responds” (6). When the truth and a grounding in reality evaporates from our affective passions, the affective sphere becomes a hindrance to the person since they are no longer living in reality but what one could call a fictitious world.  Emotions thus allow persons to experience the reality of values and have value-responses resound in the very core of their being.
I think the most common culprit for instigating this denial of emotions and the affective sphere is what Hildebrand calls the “Tyrannical Heart”.  “We are confronted with such a tyrannical heart whenever the heart refuses to let the intellect decide what the intellect alone can decide, or when the heart refuses to let the free, spiritual center of the person intervene with an act of willing in the domain reserved to the will” (64). This person takes their heart as their only guide and thus their heart becomes cut off from the realm of objective values (66). He/she is unable to abandon itself to the values at stake since that is an act of the will. This is where the most pressing danger arises: the person living with a tyrannical heart is often stifled in their egocentricity.

Egocentrism, being a manifestation of the tyrannical heart, is explained by Hildebrand in two ways. The first type of egocentrism he names is a petty one that takes every trifle to concern one’s own self (65). The focus is on superficial things which deprives the heart from what is grand and dynamic. One is concerned with shallow vanities and preoccupations (66). The example I think of is someone who is more concerned with their chipped nail polish than their crying child. Second, he mentions the person who manifests egocentrism in a perverted sentimental loving and disordered desire to be loved. The example Hildebrand offers is the person who is hypersensitive to feeling excluded, rejected, isolated, etc. and does not take into account the love others have for him/her. “It is rather a soft closing-in on oneself, a gesture of retiring from others combined with self-pity” (66). In both cases, self-centeredness isolates the person from affective emotions rooted in a wider reality.
Here is what I propose. Let’s ditch the view of emotions as limited to the Tyrannical Heart! The tyrannical heart enslaves one’s sight to the narrowness of the self’s feelings. When these affective responses are disconnected from the object at hand, the heart becomes even weaker as it progressively moves away from reality and into itself. Affectivity has the power in its quick ability to grasp values. To be emotional does not have to be an enslavement but can be a liberation into experiencing values in the whole of the person. The heart is not the sole responder for the person. The intellect and will cannot be overlooked as mundane and useless. Rather, the heart working with the intellect and will can make man wholly free to respond to values. In this way, an experience of values can be felt reverberating within one’s heart. I experience the gift of my friend’s son at the level of knowing his dignity but also in the joy his presence brings.  By allowing my affective sphere into my value responses, I can experience the highest goods of life with my whole person. This kind of experience of values is true strength. Rooted in reality, man and woman alike can reach such strength as Edith Stein proposes.

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