Martha Nussbaum on Emotions and Flourishing – Dissertation pt. 2

This is the second part of my dissertation talking about the social model of disability and emotions.

In part 1, I said what I’m going to do with my argument and did some of it. I defined the social model and medical model of disability.

Now I move onto explaining a framework to understand emotions…


It is important to have a framework to understand emotions if we are to understand the role of emotions in the experience of disability.  Martha Nussbaum offers this in The Upheavals of Thought. This account will generally be assumed true. I do not think the account is flawless but my argument does not fail completely if Nussbaum’s account is deemed unsuccessful.[1]

To Nussbaum, emotions are best conceived of as thoughts or cognitions. Her view is ‘neo-stoic’ as she draws greatly from the stoic accounts offered by Seneca and other ancient philosophers. Cognitions, Nussbaum argues, are necessary and sufficient for emotions (Nussbaum, 2001, pp.56- 58). Rather than simply being unthinking things which ‘push rather than pull’ us around, emotions always involve thought of an object combined with the thought of its importance (ibid. p.23). This is the first two conditions – they have objects and a thought about how important that object is. For an emotion to have an object, it means that it has some kind of target that is in the world and is about something (ibid. p.27). For example, someone might have an emotion because of an object o, in virtue of o, about o or that proposition p.

Secondly, they are intentional. Meaning they are full of value judgements about the object in relation to the person experiencing the emotions. Rather than being directed towards an object like an arrow is pointed towards its target and let go (ibid., p.27), it is almost like casting a fishing line out to the sea, latching onto something important and experiencing where that object stands in relation to yourself. Therefore, although emotions are argued to be thoughts, it is important to make clear that emotions are partial and ‘requires seeing the object […] through my own window’ (ibid. p.28). This has interesting implications for how to conceive of emotions. One to consider is whether an emotion can inappropriately respond to an object or event. There is definitely space to say yes as people can overreact to events but this then raises the question of when the interpretation of significance is misguided or correct. This will be discussed in relation to anger later in the next section.

The third condition is that they form beliefs about the object (ibid. 28). For example, if I fear snakes, I believe there is danger and that is because of the snakes. Moreover, the fear is present because I believe the possibility of danger is significant. With regards to belief then, emotions and their beliefs have some relationship to propositional content. If I am sad because I believe my dad died but he is actually alive then the content of my emotion is ‘false’. However, I will follow Nussbaum’s path in referring to such examples as ‘inappropriate’ because false implies something much harsher and discredits the emotion completely (ibid. p.46).

In close relation to this point is the notion of value perceived in objects. Under this account they are Eudaimonistic – they make direct reference to the person’s own flourishing (ibid. pp.30 – 33). Whatever the person considers of intrinsic value to their own life, whether it is because it affects her well-being or personal projects, emotions capture that significance. We must not mistake Eudaimonia with simple utilitarianism or ‘happiness’ but rather it takes for one to view their life as complete. (ibid. pp.32-33). This is consistent with the idea that emotions are very partial and they make judgements based on how they relate to our own life projects.

Assuming this framework is true, I will now discuss anger and its relationship to the social model of disability.

[1] See Cates (2009) or Griffiths (1997) for opposing views.


How do you think emotions are best understood? 

Thanks for reading!


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