In Upheavals of Thought Martha Nussbaum mounts an elegant and exhaustive defence of the role and centrality of emotion to human experience and ethics. In a work that manages to synthesize both literature and philosophy, without reducing either to a tool of the other discourse, Nussbaum makes the argument that any proper theory of ethics must have a substantive account of the role and function of emotion in cognition. This functions rather as a tacit critique of much moral and ethical theory, which has historically speaking seen emotions as at best a distraction and at worst an impediment to clear ethical and moral reasoning. Emotions, in Nussbaum’s account, are not just incidental to cognitive functioning, but are essential to it. What is commendable about this account is that it reconnects ethical reasoning with the contingency and vulnerability of human subjectivity, rather than abstracting this away to preserve a rather trite ‘trolley-problem’ approach to philosophy. Rather than reinforce the conception of human life as something to be transcended, the lectures consistently focus on the degree to which we are fragile, vulnerable, mortal creatures. Neediness, shame and grief are of particular importance here as they are emotions which reflect on our interconnection and dependency upon one other, whilst also being emotions which are frequently deemed irrational, or to be repressed or minimized.
Whilst written in Nussbaum’s typically polished and scholarly style, the book is structurally a little strange, and could easily have been split into two or even three coherent volumes. The first section begins with what she terms a Neo-Stoic theory of emotion, ethics and cognition, which involves close engagement with Greek philosophy and incorporates a theory of emotion expansive enough to engage non-human animals and infants, (groups typically ignored or side-lined in this area). Section two operates as the application of the first section and is a fascinating account of the role of compassion, moving from its function within normative interpersonal ethics, to its role in public life, law, civic institutions and policy making. The third section is primarily focused upon literature, and what is most compelling is the ways in which Nussbaum connects the notion of narrative to the coherence of judgements about emotions generally. Through a careful examination of a diverse range of writers such as Whitman, Bronte and Augustine. This section, aside from being exemplary literary analysis places emotion within a broad narrative understanding, concluding with an examination of James Joyce as a writer who unites emotion and narrative into a coherent whole. In scope and scale this is a hugely ambitious project and remains a landmark in bringing together literature with philosophy of mind.