Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Leaving behind the 'reactive' self and being willing to feel something new

Bruce MacLennan, professor of computer science, identifies what he calls the "protophenomena" of microeffects in the body that bring emotion into being. The neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux similarly talks about emotions as "survival circuits." Even an amoeba, as Neil Savage explained LeDoux's position, "reacts to an environmental stimulus in a way that makes it more likely to survive and reproduce. The stimulus flip switches on survival circuits which prompt behaviors that enhance survival. Neurons firing in a particular pattern might trigger the brain to order the release of adrenaline, which makes the heart beat faster, priming an animal to fight or flee from danger. That physical state, LeDoux says, is an emotion."

But stopping here, at the level of reaction, implies that we see other people only as aids or threats to our own survival and thus that we must objectify them. Thomas Brudholm wrote:

As Strawson put it, 'Being involved in inter-personal relationships as we normally understand them precisely is being exposed to the range of reactive attitudes and feelings [i.e. resentment, indignation, gratitude etc.]' (1974:11). He argues that it is possible to adopt what he calls an ‘objective attitude’ to the other human being; that is, to see the other person as an object of social policy, a subject for treatment, as something to be dealt with or cured. Relating to the other in such ‘objectivizing’ ways precludes reactive attitudes like resentment. However, doing so also means not relating to the other as a fellow human being: ‘If your attitude towards someone is wholly objective, then though you may fight him, you cannot quarrel with him, and though you may talk to him, even negotiate with him, you cannot reason with him’ (Strawson 1974:9). In other words, being susceptible to anger or resentment is inextricably tied to participation in ‘the general framework of human life.’ A social life bereft of resentment is an impossible and, insofar as it is imaginable, impoverished life.

Zat Rana explains that when we act (not just react) we leave behind the idea of the fixed self (which promotes suffering, since we try to satisfy it and it can't be satisfied) and instead we find power in our ability to feel new things and thus become a new being:

A reactive body feels the same thing, over and over again, in the name of acquiring some sort of representation in the world...An active body, however, feels its own power in the granularity of the sensations that flow in and out, and using those sensations and the emotions they bring out, it channels that power forward in everything that it does...The novelty of new representations fade, but the ability to feel every group of sensations in the body as distinct from the last ones is a novelty that never gets old. It gets us out of the cycle of suffering, where nothing seems to be enough. * * * When a body reacts to something or someone, it releases that energy, that strength, inward, to fuel an inner cycle of the patterns of emotion stored in the body’s memory. This hardens the self into a rigid form. When the body acts, however, by simply being in motion or responding actively to something or someone, it releases that energy, that strength, outward, and in doing so, it transforms the sensations that were felt when a stimulus hit the body into something entirely new — a new way of feeling, of being. Self-overcoming.


"Artificial emotions." Neil Savage. The Week, Dec. 31, 2013. p. 29. Excerpted from Nautilus at www.nautil.us.

Thomas Brudholm. Resentment’s Virtue: Jean Améry and the Refusal to Forgive. Philadelphia: Temple, 2008. p. 11.

Zat Rana. “Letter; To Feel a New Emotion.” Sent to email list for Thinking Better, Together, July 21, 2020.

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