Sunday, October 24, 2010

Review: Hiding from Humanity

[Martha C. Nussbaum. Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004.]

I'm approaching this book from a specific place, with specific intent and interests, so I need to say right off the top that there are some things about it that I find interesting and useful, but other aspects that I just would not, no matter how well or poorly they were done.

The goal of this book is to explore the existing and appropriate roles for emotion in the social world, particularly with respect to the law. It focuses specifically on disgust and shame, but also presents more abbreviated discussions of fear and anger. It explores how each of these emotions is put together, and takes the approach that each is not just an affect -- a state of feeling -- but that each has cognitive content. The shape and kind of cognitive content is specific to each emotion, and Nussbaum argues that it is this cognitive content that determines how best to relate to it when it comes to the law.

For instance, she says that the common law tradition is predicated on the relevance of fear and anger to the making and the application of law, even if such is not commonly acknowledged. She says that law as it exists only makes sense if you accept that it is reasonable for human beings to fear certain things -- like being assaulted or robbed -- and to be angry at certain things -- like having a loved one murdered. Law is, in some very basic ways, a social response to the importance and validity of those emotions. Anger and fear are not necessarily but can be reasonable and rational and useful pointer towards harm that has happened and actions that can be taken in response. She argues in contrast that disgust, and in a more limited way shame, have cognitive content that is sufficiently frequently not reasonable or rational -- social manifestations of disgust, for instance, are often based on "magical thinking" and things like contamination by association -- and so are not ever (disgust) or in many situations (shame) a good basis for making law.

I find this book's talk about the social relevance of emotion to be reasonably interesting. I'm intrigued by the idea of emotions having cognitive content, and that its specific shape varies with the emotion in question. I was a bit disappointed with its specific take on shame as it draws rather more heavily than I was hoping, and much more heavily than its take on any of the other emotions, on the psychoanalytic tradition. It does say that it is also basing it on other things, like experimental psychology, but it does not draw those epistemological connections very explicitly. Still, despite my wariness of psychoanalytic knowledge, this account of shame did feel somewhat more grounded than some I have previously encountered.

The book loses my interest, however, with its heavy focus on relating these understandings of emotion to liberal-democratic theory and to liberal-democratic legal systems. I certainly see some value in understanding the law as it currently exists, so the connections drawn with emotion are interesting in that regard, but generally I don't think liberal-democratic theory is the best place to start to really get a good understanding of the law. Or a good understanding of much of anything. The only reference to traditions other than the liberal-democratic one is to what it calls "communitarianism," which it associates with particular contemporary, mostly conservative, theorists in the United States. The text feels no need to make any reference to the more critical traditions that I am more interested in when it comes to understanding the social world. Because of this, I think it's important to hold onto its theorizing of the social relevance of emotion quite tentatively, given that particular assumptions embedded in liberal-democratic theory about how the social world works and is put together, and about the state, are likely silently incorporated. There was also no discussion of the many powerful ways in which social regulation, including social regulation related to emotion, happens that are not directly dependent on law.

So this book has some limited usefulness to me, but lots of other content that holds little interest, and an overall framework much different from anything I would be tempted to use. I would say, then, that it is only worth reading if you, too, have a specific interest or piece of work to which it is relevant.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

No comments: