Martha Nussbaum’s Neo-Stoic Theory of Emotion

Martha Nussbaum’s Neo-Stoic Theory of Emotion

1. Introduction
2. The difference between Martha Nussbaum’s view and traditional stoicism
3. The essence of Martha Nussbaum’s neo-stoic views
4. The critique of Martha Nussbaum’s views
5. Conclusion
6. Bibliography

Martha Nussbaum is one of the representatives of neo-stoicism who is particularly concerned about the problem of emotions. It should be said that this problem is not new and since the ancient times emotions their nature, origin and development have always interested scientists, philosophers and ordinary people. Not surprisingly that her neo-stoic views are based on the views on ancient philosophers known as the stoic school. Moreover, her ideas are a logical continuation of the ideas of ancient philosophers though significantly modified and adapted to the contemporary world where the frontier between an individual and the universe tends to disappear that makes many philosophers speak about the development of cosmopolitism in an unprecedented scale.
The difference between Martha Nussbaum’s views and traditional stoicism
From the beginning, it is necessary to start with the description of Martha Nussbaum’s basic theoretical concepts and her philosophical neo-stoic views.
First of all, it should be said that she underlines that her views are based on the ideas of stoics and she estimates that stoics paid a particular attention to the problem of emotions. For instance, she states that “the stoics were the first to give systematic attention to emotions, and they get a lot of things right” (Nussbaum 2001, p.27) and she precise that according to stoic views “if we want to understand why a society is riven, they [stoics] say, look at inappropriate emotions, at the overvaluation of certain goods, such as money, honour, status. (Nussbaum 2001, p.28).
However, it is necessary to say that her view, including those on emotions, differ from the traditional views of representatives of the stoic school. In this respect, it is possible to say that she rather tends to be more precise, more concerned on the problem of emotions proper compared with the views of traditional stoics. Basically she tends to “distinguish their [stoics] theory of emotion from their normative thesis, which goes overboard” (Nussbaum 2001, p.28).
Moreover, she significantly modifies stoic views on emotions, emphasising their evaluative power and such views of the contemporary philosopher may be rather close not to traditional ancient stoic philosophers but, to a certain extent, they are similar to the views of Thomas Aquinas. Basically, what makes her views really different or modified compared to the views of ancient stoic philosophers is the fact that she beliefs that one of the main goal is a so-called ‘ataraxia’, a freedom from disturbance that implies “a state of calm detachment resulting from the careful shedding of attachments to external goods over which one has no control” (Jacobson, 2003, p.131). Obviously, to a certain extent it challenges stoicism in the common sense, i.e. “the art of maintaining a stiff upper lip” (Jacobson 2003, p.132).
As a result, she arrives to different conclusions, especially concerning emotions. Notably, she states that “some manifestations of emotions can be destructive to human flourishing” (Nussbaum 2001, p.142). For instance, such an emotion as disgust, being perceived in a minority group, can potentially result in any emotional reaction from verbal cruelty to physical violence. Or else, the feeling of shame, being experienced by a disabled individual, can damage his/her capacities, which are not necessarily directly linked to the fact of being handicapped itself.
The essence of Martha Nussbaum’s neo-stoic views
It is obvious that there are certain differences in the views of Martha Nussbaum and representatives of traditional stoic school. This is why it is necessary to trace the main theoretical assumptions, which make her theory really new, or to put it more precisely neo-stoic. In this respect, Martha Nussbaum views on emotions are particularly noteworthy since they really distinguish her from other stoic philosophers who are significantly influenced by traditional views of stoic school.
First of all, it should be said that she pays a lot of attention to the problem of emotions and she underlines that emotions form evaluative judgements. It means that, according to Martha Bussam emotions are engendered by an individual and are influenced by his/her individual perception of the world, his/her way of thinking, etc. that makes it possible to estimate that emotions are intentional by their nature and, what is probably more important, they are shaped under the influence of personal beliefs of an individual. It means that emotions an individual possesses are perceived and even provoked by his/her own individual view and beliefs. In other words one and the same event, or action may provoke different emotions for people who have different socio-cultural background, different views, beliefs and traditions.
For instance, the act of cannibalism seems to be terrifying, shocking for a contemporary civilised individual while, if one takes a look back into history, he/she will realise that for a savage it is quite an ordinary practice, a norm of life. As a result, the contemporary individual will be shocked, he/she will have absolutely negative emotions, while the savage will remain indifferent, if not to say pleased in the sense that for him/her the act of cannibalism is associated with the process of eating, which traditionally provokes positive emotions for practically all people and it should be pointed out that the emotions provoked by eating are among the strongest emotions an individual can experience.
Furthermore, Martha Nussbaum defines emotions as “appraisals or value judgments, which ascribe to things and persons outside the person’s own control great importance for that person’s own flourishing” (Nussaum 2001,p.79). It means that emotions can contribute to the self-perfection of an individual. Moreover, she argues that emotions may be developed in thoughts and in a combination they can influence the moral life of an individual.
To a significant extent the great effect, which emotions only, or in combination with thoughts can produce on an individual, may be possible basically due to the result of a so-called ‘shock effect’ of certain emotions. It means that some emotions are so strong that they can change the individual way of thinking about certain things, in this respect it is noteworthy to remind the possibility of combinations of emotions and thoughts. For instance, such a strong emotion as grief can produce a shock effect on an individual to the extent that he/she would attribute this emotion to something extremely negative that is associated with grief.

The critique of Martha Nussbaum’s views
However, such a view on emotions that Martha Nussbaum promotes may be criticised. To put to more precisely, her opponents estimate that the combination of emotions and thoughts suggested by the philosopher seems to be contradicting to physiological processes which the work of brains constitutes. To put it more precisely, it is possible to draw an example of people who have brain damage, which often affects directly the centre of emotions so that people can neither feel nor make decisions about how they have to act or behave. In response Martha Nussbaum underlines that emotions possess the judgement value and thus are essential basis for the formation of individual’s views on the world that implies the formation of thoughts and certain mentality.
At the same time, Martha Nussaum underlines the importance of feeling ‘global responsibility’ that also engenders a lot of criticism because it comes into clashes with her concept of “the rootedness of emotions in local situations” (Jacobson 2003, p.141) within the individual and the feeling of global responsibility. And the response of the philosopher also seems to be quite persuading: “the challenge is to build concentricity in a way that really does extend outward rather than drawing the line somewhere, so that you demonise those who are outside the boundary” (Nussbaum 2001, p.348).

Thus, it is possible to conclude that Martha Nussbaum’s neo-stoic views underline the role of emotions in the shaping of moral values on the basis of the role of emotions as evaluative judgements. Her argument seems to be quite persuasive though not ideal that makes it necessary to continue the analysis of theoretical concepts she suggests in her works.

1. Jacobson, Daniel. (2003). “The Significance of Recalcitrant Emotions (Or Anti-QuasiJudgmentalism)” Philosophy, Supp. 52, p.127-145.
2. Nussbaum, Martha. (2001). Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions. New York: Routledge.