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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Can one control emotions?

As a young teenager, I loved (I can't say I understood it) Erich Fromm's The art of loving. And I have always been more or less sure that one can learn to be happier and that one is responsible even of one's emotions and "nature".
This, however, contradicts centuries of poetry about love as an uncontrolled emotion surprising one at once, about spleen, about depression and sadness as inescapable. One could almost argue that the lack of control on emotions seems to be a characteristic mark of many extra-ordinary artists and historical figures (or is it only a "selective" lack of control?).
Personally, I met many people who live fatalistically, wishing and hoping that the future will bring them something better and enduring the present instead of trying to change it. However, I never met someone who could claim no-control whatsoever on his/her thoughts. Emotions seem in this sense to be different from, e.g., inductions, as they imply less effort and can hence be thought of as "externally" determined.
All of this seems connected with the belief on a persistent self (on this connection, see here), an agency that pervades present and future moments and can hence influence them. But the two beliefs are not necessarily connected. One could belief in a persisting agency and at the same time in its being a victim of events –in particular, emotional ones. And Theravāda Buddhism is an example of cultivation of emotions'control without believing in a self.
Do we negate a distinctive character of emotions (and, hence, miss an important potential inhering in them) if we assume that they can/must be controlled?


Dominik Wujastyk said...

Dear Elisa,
You reify emotions as if they constituted an unproblematic category of subjectivity. But they are cultural constructions (of consciousness) and have a history. It seems highly unlikely that humans have experienced what we call emotions in a uniform manner over historical time. And probably for each individual in the synchronic view, emotions are experienced differently, with differing strengths, differing qualities, different affective associations.

The "history of emotions" has been emerging as a distinct research area in recent decades. A new centre for this topic exists at London University ( and also at the Max Planck in Berlin ( My point is, I think, that the category of emotion needs to be historicized if it is to be understood.

elisa freschi said...

Dear Dominik,
you are absolutely right and I thank you for reminding me of your "everything has a history" saying. Emotions are certainly historically determined, insofar as –I believe– Linguistic Communication as an instrument of knowledge is prevalent. For instance, before the "invention" of "romantic love" it was hardly the case that one would feel that way towards one's wife or husband. After knowing about "romantic love", instead, one could tend to think that one feels that way, too.
Yet, my question seems to remain unaffected by this point, since one can still ask whether one can control emotions (independently of their historical origin). Or do you mean that the very fact that emotions are historically determined implies that we are not passive in regard to them?

sujanasi said...

This problem was dealt with in later Buddhist teachings like Dzogchen and Mahamudra. They claimed it is possible to experience emotion without identifying oneself with it. In this way emotion is considered to be a form of psychic energy, that can be experienced either for a while in appropriate situation, or during a long period in a vicious circle.

elisa freschi said...

Thanks Evgenija,
very interesting hint. The Mahāmūdra point of view would, then, be that it is possible to live an emotion as emotion and still not become slave of it insofar as one distantiates oneself from it. This is a still different claim from the Stoic/Neo-Stoic one that emotions can be addomesticated.

Dan said...

Mia cara Elisa,

I'm not sure if you have adequately differentiated between emotion and emotional expression. Which do you propose to control? And, yes, if you try to control them (either one) you are bound to experience some failures. Trying this is a lot more important than philosophizing about it, although I'm not saying the latter might not also be interesting. I don't care much for contemporary evolutionist accountings or emotions, but that could just be me.

Ciao for now,

elisa freschi said...

Welcome here Dan, and thanks for the comment:-)
As for your question, you are surely right about my lack of differentiation. My purpose was, anyway, to propose a control of emotions. It is surely worthwile to control one's expression of anger (and, for instance, avoid beating one's children or neighbours) but philosophically and personally speaking it is much more challenging to ask oneself if it is possible to operate on one's emotions (so that, one can avoid feeling anger at all/or better: one can avoid indulging in it).
I see your point as for the minor importance of the philosophical enterprise…but can't get persuaded to give it up;-)
Lastly, I am also not convinced of the significance of evolutionary accounts of emotions. From my point of view, they represent a point of view quite different and are hence valueless when it comes to my own dealing with emotions (just like "evolutionary theology" would not interfere with my personal beliefs or disbeliefs). What about you?

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