A review of The Vehement Passions, by Philip Fisher

In the opening pages of The Vehement Passions, Philip Fisher lauds "the passions, as one of the longest uninterrupted, most intricate and necessary descriptive problems in the intellectual life of Western culture." He laments that our modern understanding of the passions has sustained "waves of damage both from absent words and from the bad surplus of overlapping, once technical, but now informal vocabulary." His purpose is apparently to cleanse and reinvigorate our vocabulary, which requires first a wide historical sweep—from Homer to Albert Hirschman, from Stoicism to rational choice and game theory. In the course of this, he uncovers the main causes that have impoverished our way of thinking and talking about the passions—Stoicism, Christianity, and the "new economic description of man" of the 17th century.

That Fisher, editor of a well-known volume of new historicist essays, The New American Studies(1992), should approach his subject historically is hardly surprising. But his main point is decidedly ahistorical: "the stubborn, consecutive, rich thinking about the passions is one of the best arguments that we have for cultural memory, for a sustained core account of human nature in spite of the constructions of culture, power, and historical moment." Indeed, as he will say most succinctly in his conclusion, "the passions provide our best, most immediate template for our idea of 'having an experience' and lead beyond that to the meaning of experience within a precisely articulated landscape of time." For all the influence of history, the passions resist the constructions we wish to impose on them, and in our experience of and reflection on them, we can acquire self-knowledge.

Focusing on the "vehement" passions—the passions that put us "out of the mind" (vehemente)— as the vehicle of self-knowledge, Fisher singles out fear, grief, and especially anger. To begin with, he seeks to make the case for their significance against those Stoics, ancient and modern, who see them as aberrant, asocial, and radically opposed to a "reasoned and morally responsible picture of the will." The passions, he argues, are the "least culturally constructed materials" we have. They have been the object of systematic thought throughout our intellectual history, provide deep access to human and animal psychology, and are key in the greatest literature, even "legislat[ing] what we mean by genre and by form in many of the most profound and culturally important works."

Fisher distinguishes the passions from moods, emotions, feelings, affections, and sentiments, arguing that these various terms "are not alternative ways of talking about the same matters but language used in the service of quite distinct politics of the inner life." In this regard, the vehement passions stand in a dynamic relation with one another: anger turns into grief, for example, grief into the desire for vengeance. They are also "at the farthest remove from irony," and, in Stanley Cavell's words, they repudiate "the hold of the ordinary." Most importantly, by reinstalling an "absolute priority of self," these passions are "monarchical states of being"; they are so removed from the civility and tolerance of others that belong to everyday life that they are "located in the space that a civilization leaves open between its concept of insanity and its concept of irony." In sum, the vehement passions are distinguished by their "thoroughness"—they drive out all other states of being so that the self is wholly undivided—and their precondition is the limitation or "humiliation" of the will.

In Fisher's account, thoroughness and the humiliation of the will are decisive. Great terror or anger engages the mind, body, and soul, bringing them to a unified peak of concentration. This experience can be contrasted with our experience of thought, which requires a forgetting of the body's distractions. In making this contrast, Fisher further contends that "whenever we locate the core of human worth in thought, a hostility to the body and to sensation follows at once." This may be true of some of Fisher's Stoic and Christian antagonists. But it is not true, even by his own account, of a thinker to whom he has frequent recourse— Aristotle. Nevertheless, in different ways, this hostility to the passions marks the Stoic, Christian, and economic or rational doctrines of human nature.

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But The Vehement Passions is noteworthy less for its grand historical claims, which are necessarily schematic, than for its treatment of the passions themselves. In this respect, the work is curious not only for what it discusses but also for what it leaves out. Despite his emphasis on the relation of the passions to self-knowledge, for example, Fisher offers no sustained discussion of the distinctively philosophic passion of wonder, and he only touches upon love or eros. The cause of these omissions, it seems, is Fisher's own template of "vehemence" and its decisive component, the will's humiliation.

Fisher's preoccupations are on full display in his account of anger. In a series of chapters whose subjects move from rashness, fear, and the will, to anger, grief, and spiritedness, Fisher begins by claiming, on Aristotle's authority, that "rashness is the true alternative to the rational will." Rashness—in the form of indignation's rage at injustice—epitomizes the immediacy of the passions. Unlike the rational will, which requires deliberation and therefore time, the vehement passions are aroused and propel us to act instantly. Consequently, because the passions oppose deliberation and sober judgment, they must be managed or tamed if the process of law is to have its day. On the one hand, then, anger is central to justice; on the other, its "time scheme," which concentrates our action in the "immediate past" and "imminent future," must be overridden.

How this notion thus opposes the view of the passions in Stoicism, Christianity, and modernity in general appears to be connected in a complicated way with Fisher's view that "one of the deepest currents within modernity" is the "spiritualization of fear." The rise of the modern state, and modern science, for example, may have subdued or eliminated the most immediate threats—the "wolf at the door"; but because of our consequent ability to pursue goals of long-term political and economic advantage, not to mention the foundation of the modern state in "mutual fear," we live in a future of anxious uncertainty. Fisher calls this the "economic model of fear," and he connects this model with a more generalized and spiritualized notion of fear in the account of the sublime in Burke and Kant and in the idea of dread in Kierkegaard and of angst in Heidegger. Fear, in other words, is the predominant passion in modernity, and if "fear has been within modernity a fundamental route of access to the most highly spiritualized remnant of inner life," it has also led to the rise of boredom and depression, "states from which the spirit needs to be rescued." Moreover, fear destroys our willingness to act with "reciprocity," only to forge a deeper devotion to such action when our shared fear "reveals the interdependence of wills." These dimensions of fear, in addition to the rationalization of human life that is the natural response to it, seem to be connected with Fisher's emphasis on anger as a route to individual wholeness in a modern world that fragments the self spiritually and politically.

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To tease out this important strand of his argument, one must turn to Fisher's discussion of the will, which comes belatedly after his consideration of rashness and fear. For the passions, and particularly anger, are a response to the will's discovering its "limits," namely the "humiliation" that comes with insult, injury, and ultimately, mortality. A consideration of our mortality as the ultimate limit and injury helps to explain Fisher's emphasis on fear, grief, and anger, as well as his treatment of the link between these passions and the concern for justice. In short, "the passions occur around an active will, one that expects to fare well in the world and can, for that very reason, be startled, surprised, and even angered by insults or injuries to [it] and its expectations about the future."

The idea of the will arose in response to the needs of the legal system, which requires a notion of responsibility—of a "deliberate act"—as a ground of punishment, a view that is later spelled out in Christian notions of sin, punishment, conscience, confession, the Last Judgment, Purgatory, and Hell. Even Aristotle, who Fisher concedes did not have a concept of the will in the strict sense, presents the view that human action is deliberate and may be credited or punished when under the command of reason. But the idea of the deliberate act or rational will is put into relief by what Fisher calls an alternative "presocial" account of the will connected with the passions and above all anger. For the passions rebel against the humiliation that attends insults and injuries to ourselves and our loved ones; this rebellion thus issues from a wounded sense of justice that compels the "self " to assert itself because "in anger the self itself and its world are at stake." According to Fisher's argument, then, our concern with justice is firmly rooted in a sense of self and the "essential features and limits of anything" are revealed in that struggle the Greeks called agon. Our path to self-knowledge is fundamentally conflictual and is led by the thumotic part of the soul, the seat of anger.

Fisher makes his case against an "economic" view of man that stresses interests over passions and a Kantian universalism that honors the universal moral law as opposed to individual inclinations. Although he rarely mentions Nietzsche—he is not even listed in the index—it would seem that Fisher's position has a Nietzschean cast, except that in highlighting, even championing, the passion of anger as the assertion of the self against the limits of its will, Fisher captures one strand of Nietzsche's thought torn from its philosophic whole. At the other end of the historical spectrum, Fisher relies heavily on Aristotle's treatment of the passions, but has little recourse to his account of the virtues as the habituation of the passions necessary for our moral perfection and happiness.

Fisher wishes to encourage the discovery of a "personal world" that can claim "to be prior to and, finally, more essential than any shared, common world or 'mere world.'" But his effort to challenge the universalizing, and democratizing, effects of Stoicism, Christianity, and Kantianism causes him to underplay the deeply passionate and agonistic aspects of the modern world and modern thought, and to neglect the importance of a "shared world" and reason in the ancients' education of the passions. Yet Fisher is on to something. The modern world—if not modern thought—seems relatively inarticulate before the passions, despite the fact that modernity has seen the worst outbursts of the most vehement passions, and more superficially, that we are forever encouraged to get in touch with our feelings. It is also not a new concern that the individual risks being submerged in the sea of modern universalism.

But as we ponder our limits as human beings, it is doubtful that the passions that put us "out of the mind" are either an adequate response to our predicament or the deepest source of self-knowledge about it.