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In libreria

The Dark Side: Philosophical Reflections on the “Negative Emotions”

edited by Paola Giacomoni, Nicolò Valentini, Sara Dellantonio

26 maggio 2021
Versione stampabile

This book takes the reader on a philosophical quest to understand the dark side of emotions. The chapters are devoted to the analysis of negative emotions and are organized in a historical manner, spanning the period from ancient Greece to the present time. Each chapter addresses analytical questions about specific emotions generally considered to be unfavorable and classified as negative.

The general aim of the volume is to describe the polymorphous and context-sensitive nature of negative emotions as well as changes in the ways people have interpreted these emotions across different epochs. The editors speak of ‘the dark side of the emotions’ because their goal is to capture the ambivalent – unstable and shadowy – aspects of emotions.

A number of studies have taken the categorial distinction between positive and negative emotions for granted, suggesting that negative emotions are especially significant for our psychological experience because they signal difficult situations. For this reason, the editors stress the importance of raising analytical questions about the valence of particular emotions and focussing on the features that make these emotions ambivalent: how – despite their negativity – such emotions may turn out to be positive. This opens up a perspective in which each emotion can be understood as a complex interlacing of negative and positive properties.

The collection presents a thoughtful dialogue between philosophy and contemporary scientific research. It offers the reader insight by illuminating the dark side of the emotions.

Paola Giacomoni is professor at the Department of Humanities at the University of Trento.

Nicolò Valentini has recently obtained his doctorate in Philosophy at the University of Trento.

Sara Dellantonio  is professor at the Department of Psychology and Cognitive Science of  the University of Trento.

From Chapter 1: The Structural Ambivalence of Emotional Valence: An Introduction

Emotions are complex phenomena. We all have an intuitive understanding of what they are because we experience them in everyday life. They occur in response to triggering situations in the external environment and play a major role in our perception, cognition, and motivation. Despite their paramount importance in our lives, attempts to provide a general defnition or complete taxonomy of emotions have failed. To date, both the defnition and classifcation of emotions remain controversial and depend on the theory of emotions one favours (Scarantino 2016).
Not only is the general essence of emotions poorly understood, several affective properties are also still a matter of debate. Among these, a central and still much discussed feature is the valence of emotions, that is, their positive or negative character (Colombetti 2005). At frst glance, the difference between positive and negative emotions seems crystal clear. Anger, fear, embarrassment, sorrow, and jealousy are typically considered negative emotions while joy, pride, love, hope, and relief (e.g. Shaver et al. 1987; Robinson 2008) are thought to be positive. However, if we take into account the historical evolution of our understanding of emotions, this intuitive polarization begins to crumble. In fact, studies in the history of emotions show that the valence of emotions can vary from epoch to epoch. Furthermore, the same emotion can take on different connotations even within the same historical period (Knuuttila 2004; Liliequist 2012; Plamper 2012; Pikavé and Shapiro 2012; Rosenwein 2016; Corbin et al. 2016–2017; Cohen and Stern 2017). This intrinsic ambivalence has puzzled scholars since ancient times. Some classical philosophical traditions have described emotions as having negative effects on us. Notably, the Stoics considered them to be ‘disturbances of the soul’ and suggested practising philosophy as a therapy to purge them and reach apatheia (Sorabji 2000). An echo of this thought still resonates today in the common-sense view that emotions are ‘disturbances’, inner turmoil that threatens our well-being. Other traditions, from Plato to Aristotle up to Descartes, Spinoza, and Hume, while taking into account the negative aspects of emotions, have also pointed to the positive effects they can have on many aspects of our lives. Nowadays, a large body of evidence shows that emotions are essential for decision-making (Lerner et al. 2015), moral reasoning (Zahn et al. 2013), social identity (de Rivera 2014), health preservation (Kubzansky and Winning 2016), and so on […].

Today, the discussion on whether and how we should differentiate between positive and negative emotions is no longer the exclusive domain of philosophical inquiry, but has become the subject of a multidisciplinary investigation that involves psychology, cultural history, neuroscience, and related disciplines (Shuman et al. 2013; Parrott 2014). However, this enquiry has not yet borne full fruit. There is a lack of general consensus among the multitude of theories that have attempted
to solve the positivity/negativity polarity puzzle with no defnitive conclusions (e.g.Davidson 1984; Lazarus 1991; Ben-Ze’ev 2000; Prinz 2004; Teroni 2018). […]

Besides, in most cases, pleasures and pains deeply intertwine, and the attempt to unequivocally distinguish and separate them does not produce reliable results. […] 

If we look at the contemporary debate, we see a compelling need to investigate the valence of emotions. Both so-called ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ emotions are the object of increasing interest since they appear to play an important (‘positive’ or
‘negative’) role in our psychological life and personal development. […]

Negative emotions matter and always have. […]

This work does not attempt to formulate a theory of negative emotions. It is rather structured as a series of case studies, which raise analytical questions about the valence of particular emotions. […]

Each chapter is devoted to the analysis of a particular emotion, traditionally conceived as a ‘negative’ emotion. The aim is twofold. First, to focus on the negative connotations of emotions in terms of their motivational, hedonic, and behavioural aspects. Second, to focus on the features that make these emotions ambivalent: why – despite their negativity – they may turn out to be positive. This opens up a perspective in which each emotion can be understood as a complex interlacing of negative and positive properties. Therefore, the very same emotion can be positive or negative depending on the point of view we use to assess it.
For instance, scholars from Antiquity to Descartes up until today (Giacomoni) have described the ambivalence of anger offering manifold interpretations. This emotion can be perceived as negative from the point of view of its hedonic tone,
appraisal, or moral consequences but can also serve positive functions when wellregulated and justice-oriented. Hume (see Galvagni) also considers that anger  – together with hatred and resentment – plays a crucial role in the development of the sense of justice. Another negative emotion which is granted an important role in the development of the individual is ridicule, conceived by Plato as a pathos characterized by its paramount educational value. (Di Stefano). The passion for ‘glory’, which has been analysed beginning with Hobbes’s work, also has structural ambivalence that permeates human relationships: on the one hand, this passion is positively experienced as inner triumph; on the other, it nourishes an insatiable thirst for prestige which threatens society as a whole (Carnevali). The same ambivalence characterizes boredom as an experience of emptiness which incorporates a complex interplay between thought and feeling: its visceral negativity can be counterbalanced by a creativity that may allow human beings to reassert themselves in the struggle against a widespread sense of nothingness (Goodstein).
The second principle of organization in this volume is historical. In every age, people have paid special attention to the emotions as well as to their positive or negative valence and the effects of this valence. And yet, these descriptions of emotions as well as their positivity and negativity are enormously variable. The chapters are organized in sequence spanning the period from Ancient Greece up until the present day. The volume will thus present how ideas about the negative aspects of emotions have evolved over the history of Western thought, highlighting both divergences and points of contact between the different epochs. […]

This historical approach will also offer clues for the contemporary discussion on emotions by indicating new interdisciplinary and diachronic lines of research. For example, the idea of miasma put forward by the Greek tragedies is viewed in connection with recent research on the moral psychology of disgust to highlight the crucial role the emotions play in regulating social interactions (Valentini). Furthermore, the relationship between dramaturgy and its philosophical rationalization with respect to the theme of fear leads to refections on the paradox of tragedy in Antiquity (Beltrametti) and the eighteenth century. Theories of the sublime take their cue from antiquity to explicitly argue that terror can be fascinating. The human soul has an innate latent propensity for danger as well as an innate inclination to sympathize with others’ pain. When kept at the right distance, these propensities can become a source of enjoyment in theatre (Mazzocut-Mis). Thanks to Platonic theories of shame, we can quite precisely reconstruct the social meaning that Greek culture attributed to this emotion. This, in turn, offers clues that can help us critically address the twentieth century anthropological scheme that opposes «shamecultures» to «guilt cultures» (de Luise). Moreover, an emotion like shame entails an unpleasant frst-person experience and yet, as is shown for example in Hegel’s work, this emotion plays an important role in the process of individual development and is deemed to be the constitutive place of self-consciousness (Maurer).
The volume ends with two chapters related to the neuro- and cognitive sciences. The frst offers a neuropsychological model of shame showing that – although this is a potentially problematic emotion for the individual – it also constitutes a powerful signal for us to align with moral standards and stick to social norms (Grecucci, Neresini and Job). The second one is meant as a general presentation of the contemporary theory of emotions in which the authors briefy illustrate what emotions are currently considered to be and how they are considered to work. By relying mainly on the example of anger, the authors detail the role of feelings in our emotional experience and the role of emotional valence in the way that emotions work (Pastore and Dellantonio).

Courtesy by Springer