Friday, January 27, 2017

Anger is an energy?

"It isn't sensible [vernünftig] to be furious even at Hitler: how much less so at God," Wittgenstein wrote around 1945 according to Culture and Value (p. 46e of my edition). There is a lot of anger now about Trump's election, although I suspect (i.e. believe 100%) there might be some "anger" mixed in with it too. That is, I noticed even before the election a tendency among some people to talk about how angry they are or to refer to their own rage. What seems odd to me about this is partly how often certain people claimed to be in a rage, and partly the way they behaved when in this state. They did not scream or smash things,. Instead they went on Facebook and typed about the rage they were in. This, it seems to me, is not genuine rage. But maybe that's just me. 

Now the Daily Nous implies that accusing others of being phony about, or of exaggerating, moral outrage is a bad thing. It is certainly an accusation that can be made insincerely in order to undermine the credibility of people making moral complaints. It draws attention away from the content of the complaint to the complainers and their motives. It is thus a way of changing the subject, and of treating the complainers as being not really worth listening to. They are not to be answered, only diagnosed. There is obviously something bad, or potentially bad, at least, about making such a move. 

Still, aren't some people sometimes phony? And isn't that a bad thing?

I certainly don't mean that no one's anger about Trump is real. Even the people who seem a bit phony to me also seem to have genuine objections to make. I just don't believe that all of these people (the ones I'm thinking of are privileged, white men, by the way) really feel the "pure rage" that they claim to feel. There surely could be an element of performance to some such claims. This might have good effects, signaling a kind of solidarity with those who really do feel angry and encouraging others not to be passive. But it can also have bad effects, either making all protest seem like a pose or just alienating the Holden Caulfields among us from political action.

There is something to be said for genuine anger though. Which is not to say that it is sensible. Part of being angry, surely, is having less control over oneself, being less (inclined to behave in ways that are) sensible or rational. You cannot be angry and calm at the same time, even if you can be angry on the inside and outwardly calm. Which is why sitting down to type "What I am feeling now is pure rage" (or "Pure. Rage.") so often seems phony.

I have always, without thinking about it much, taken Wittgenstein's remark about the unreasonableness of fury at Hitler or God to be a rejection of such fury. It could be taken, though, as a contrast between rational responses and passionate ones, so that of course love or hate will never be sensible, but they might be good things nonetheless. But I don't think that's what Wittgenstein is saying. Not because Hitler is not that bad, nor because fury won't do any good. It's more, I would think, that Hitler is so bad that fury at him is an inadequate response, a silly response. There is something irresolute about fury, having to do, I think, with the facts that it cannot be maintained and that it is not something one can feel with all one's heart and mind. (Is that true?) After careful reflection about something one can be glad about it, or very sad. One can be determined to make sure it happens again, or never happens again. But I don't think one can be angry about it.

Anger seems to be a personal response, a feeling that arises in response to something done to you, or at least done to someone very close to you, perhaps to a family member. And some things seem too small to be angry about, while others seem too big. It would be petty to be angry about a loose button, but absurd to be angry about something too distant in time or space to affect you personally, or too enormous for you to have any hope of doing something about it. Hitler's acts seem like this. I can't reasonably be angry at Hitler partly because I don't have any personal relation to him and partly because his crimes are too enormous for such a personal emotional response as anger to fit them.

Wittgenstein was in a better position to be angry at Hitler, but I assume his point was that what Hitler did is too big for anger to be a reasonable response. If someone breaks my fence with their car I might be angry. I don't know what I would feel if I were close to the victims of a mass murder. But it wouldn't be the same.

Having said all this, I'm not sure that I'm right about either anger or about what Wittgenstein meant. I've also been working on this post, on and off, for far too long. A lot of the seemingly phony anger at Trump has died down, being replaced by some combination of determined resistance, despair, horror, and cautious optimism that in the very long run things might be OK. In fairness to the people who sometimes seem phony to me, they do far more of practical value than I do. So my seeing them as (somewhat) phony might say more about me than it does about them. But, of course, I don't think so.

[And, just in case this needs to be said, I am no more saying that Trump is Hitler than Wittgenstein was saying that Hitler is God.]      


  1. seems there is an important distinction to be made here between outrage and rage.
    not sure about Witt my immediate sense in reading it was to wonder if he meant, as many now say, that it isn't helpful/useful to rage against tyrants and such, but it is to be human...

    1. Yes, outrage and rage are different. Perhaps some people who claim to be angry mean that they have witnessed something outrageous.

      And the futility of raging against tyrants might be one reason why it isn't sensible to rage against them. But then rage doesn't seem like a tool that should be judged by its usefulness.

    2. that's why it would be non-sensical

  2. Suppose I knock on your office door as you are in the middle of grading student’s papers, and ask you if you love your children. And suppose that I then complain that what you say seems a little strange because you did not seem to me emotional at all—one way or the other—when I first knocked on your door.

    Might anger, at least sometimes be the like that? That is, might there be here different kinds of anger to speak of? Might we have here anger as a disposition (like knowledge: you know that your feet don’t grow on your head, even if you have never had this thought in your life.)

    Also, is there a connection for you between the two accusations: the accusation that the anger is phony and the accusation that the anger is silly, or irresolute? (Actually, I think “unhappy” would be the term Wittgenstein would choose here—unhappiness for him, if I understand, often involves complaining that the facts are as they are: ‘being angry with fate.’)

    And in this connection it might be pointed out that there is some tension between the two “accusations.” If an anger is phony, it is not real. And if it doesn’t really exist, can it be irresolute, or even silly?

    Thanks for the interesting post!

    1. [Fun fact: I just became angry as a result of accidentally deleting my reply instead of saving it. I'll re-type it.]

      I'm not sure I understand you first idea here. Would anger as a disposition be like a constant, simmering pre-rage that boiled over at the slightest provocation? So that someone might be angry in the sense that they were quick to anger?

      On phoniness, silliness, and irresolution I think I'm on firmer ground. I agree that phony anger is not real anger, and so it cannot be silly or irresolute or anything else. My claim is only that some people either exaggerate how angry they are or else, basically, lie. Another possibility, though, is that there is a sub-culture in which "I am angry" just means "I disapprove of something." I might be taking people too literally. Taken literally, though, some people's claims to be angry seem to me, sometimes, to be either false or at least exaggerated.

      A second class of cases involves silliness. I'm not very concerned with these, but it seems to me that real, non-phony anger might nevertheless be silly. A childish person might get angry at things that would not bother, or at least not anger, a more mature person.

      All anger, though, I want to say, is irresolute, in the sense that one cannot be angry with one's whole self, as it were. This is connected with the fact that anger always seems to be temporary. And with the fact that, like drunkenness, people are apt to say and do things they don't really mean when they are angry. (Although of course anger and drunkenness can also bring out what is genuine but usually hidden.) Anger seems like something that comes over you and then, eventually, goes away, or a temporary taking over of the self by one part of the self (a not very rational part). I'm not certain that I'm right about this, and perhaps I've expressed the point too obscurely for anyone to judge. But I hope this helps.

    2. About the first idea of the dispositional anger. What about love—do you understand what it would mean for love to be dispositional? If so, do you think of it as something simmering? – So Take annoyance, for example, which is close to anger. Suppose someone said they were annoyed by something that has become fashionable recently—e.g. say that we live in a post-truth era. Would you then expect them to actually constantly have simmering emotions—to be holding something back? Would it be fake annoyance if they did not?

      But I’m not sure I understand your position exactly. I’m worried that you might take all anger to involve what Aristotle calls “irascibility” (NE IV, 5). It sometimes seems that all anger for you involves “losing it.” You say, for instance, that anger “comes over you,” as if it is necessarily something alien. Aristotle, in opposition, thought that it is possible to be angry at the right things, and with the right people, and in the right way. He takes it as obvious that we sometimes ought to be angry, and he talks about “be[ing] cross only in the way, at the things, and for the length of time that reason directs.” So it seems he at least did not think all anger involves “loosing it.”

      I can think of another way of understanding what you say: You might be after something like the claim that all anger is unhappy in Wittgenstein’s sense—that all anger is or involves anger with fate, or the world, or God. – Is this closer?

      At any rate, if I understand, I think your worries about anger are different from Martha Nussbaum’s. I haven’t read her book about anger, but I heard her give a talk about it last year (that’s partly why I didn’t look for the book), and she seemed to be mostly concerned there with the (dis)utility of anger. Her tone also struck me as snobbish—somehow failing to fully recognize the reality of the anger of those she criticized, not really willing to touch it, as if it were something almost dirty.

    3. I'm still trying to understand what you say about dispositional anger. I thought you were making a distinction between two ways in which someone might be angry, and I thought you meant that someone might be angry only sometimes or, alternatively, might have an angry disposition. It seems I've misunderstood. But I didn't mean to suggest that I think all anger is of the simmering kind.

      I also don't think that anger always involves losing it. It does seem to come over people, or to boil up from within, but I don't mean that it always or necessarily involves total loss of control. I had Aristotle's words about being angry in the right way, at the right things, etc. in mind as I wrote this, and don't take myself to have said anything inconsistent with that idea.

      Pure rage, on the other hand, does seem to me to involve either losing it completely or at least coming close to doing so.

    4. I am not sure how to better explain what I mean by “dispositional anger.” The phenomenon I mean looks just like what you described: people say they are angry, e.g. when a certain topic comes up, but without getting emotional. You at one point suggest it might be a “sub-culture,” but I think the phenomenon is too widespread for that. That’s my impression anyway. And since it’s so widespread, I’m trying to examine if there is a way of seeing that AS anger. Part of what I’m suggesting is that maybe the difficulty to see that as anger is like the difficulty someone might have with saying that two people are in love even during those times when they don’t actively show affection to each other. I’m wondering if this would involve a position that imposes condition on how love, or in our case anger, MUST look like.

      You say: “All anger, though, I want to say, is irresolute, in the sense that one cannot be angry with one's whole self, as it were.” You also say you “don't take [yourself] to have said anything inconsistent with that idea [Aristotle’s ideas about anger].” – I’m not completely sure what you mean by ‘being angry with one’s whole self.’ Do you mean that when we are angry there is always a part of us that isn’t? Or do you mean that we never feel fully justified to be angry? – This last possibility at least seems to be in tension with Aristotle. At least, he doesn’t seem to imply that anger cannot ever be fully justified.

      I think there is something deep in what you are saying that I’m missing

    5. Thanks, although I'm not at all sure that there is anything deep in what I'm saying.

      With regard to your second paragraph, yes, I meant (something like) that when we are angry there is always a part of us that isn't angry. I may be focusing too much on the kind of anger that involves completely losing one's temper. And perhaps all I mean is that you never really lose your temper completely--you always get it back again eventually.

      As for dispositional anger, I think a few things might be going on. One is that people from America talk about emotions in a different way than people from Britain (and maybe elsewhere) do. For instance, in response to a joke an American might say, "That's funny." Where I come from this makes no sense: if it's funny you laugh, or at least smile broadly. Saying "That's funny" shows that it actually isn't funny, or at least doesn't seem so to you. It could only be a sarcastic response to a joke, but in the US it can be completely sincere. Perhaps American people saying "I'm angry" is sometimes sincere in a similar way.

      I tend to focus, when I think about this, on cases I have seen where I am sure the person speaking is being phony. But I might be reading phoniness into too many other cases. And, of course, I don't think that all anger is phony or unjustified.

  3. I agree – a very interesting post! (Also, a reminder that it’s been too long since I’ve listened to P.I.L.)

    I wonder if that remark by Wittgenstein was a reaction to something someone said or wrote. It has that feel to it. If that assumption is right, then it would be good to know what that stimulus was.

    As for the question of the sensibility of anger (or other emotions), I think you are right to say that emotions like anger or rage are not the kinds of things that are sensible. I don’t know if all emotion is like this, but I’m inclined to say from Wittgenstein’s remarks in PI on pain and privacy that emotional reactions arise partly out of our biological natures and partly out of a sort of social calibration (perhaps including enculturation). Thus, an emotional reaction reflects, partly, that social calibration.

    Sometimes we expect that others will be socially calibrated with us. Anger seems like an emotion that works this way; being joined in anger establishes or reinforces a sense of solidarity. These expectations can be frustrated or off base, or they may be felicitous. It can be frustrating when, for example, people with whom one may be closely and/or emotionally connected – perhaps one’s extended family – do not share one’s anger. I might well say (or think) something like “anger is the only sensible response to Trump,” but that just seems like another way of saying, “I wish it were common sense that Trump is terrible, that it is a tragedy that he is in office, etc.” Perhaps expressions of emotion are sometimes attempts at establishing solidarities (a kind of shorthand). In this way, while the emotion in question may not be sensible, the emotion may reflect a set of beliefs and values that themselves are sensible (even if contested).

    1. Thanks.

      One thing that interests me here is the relation between sensibleness and reasonableness. Emotions don't seem like the kind of thing that could be sensible, but they do seem like the kind of things that could be reasonable. It would be perfectly reasonable, I think, for me to be happy, sad or angry in various situations. It might be unreasonable not to be. And this seems as though it ought to be connected to questions about virtue. If someone directly experiences or witnesses blatant racism right in front of them then perhaps it would be vicious not to feel anger. (I think it might depend on the particular case, and on what one felt or did instead of anger, if anything.) And if anger is a virtuous response to a situation then I think I would want to call it a reasonable (although not exactly sensible) response. This probably is partly a matter of enculturation, but some things seem pretty universal.

      "Anger is the only sensible response to Trump" and "If you're not angry, you're not paying attention" are interesting cases. It is probably best to take them as you suggest, and I don't mean to be judgmental about people who say such things. On the other hand, I think it might be precisely claims like this that encourage competitive displays or exaggerated claims of anger.

  4. There is a very fine discussion of anger in Amia Srinavasan's review of Martha Nussbaum's book, Anger and Forgiveness. Here is a link to the review