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Philosophers don’t often write about the heart

The Heart and Its Attitudes illuminates interpersonal phenomena that are, on the one hand, as local and commonplace as heartfelt connections and their rupture between friends and lovers, or, on the other, as nationally or internationally significant as the emotional injuries of racial and gender oppression and war. It is a work of philosophy that aims for rigor and analytical depth, but one that is unusual in its relevance to so much of ordinary life.

Philosophers don’t often write about the heart. At least, analytical philosophers don’t. Why is this? Philosophers are said to live life “in their heads” rather than “from their hearts.” But even if philosophers tend to be head rather heart people, why don’t they think and write about the heart? It can hardly have escaped their attention that matters of the heart are central to what we human beings value most about our lives.

“Without friends,” Aristotle said, “no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods.” Philosophers write a lot about friendship and love, but they tend to do so in terms that leave out the centrality of the heart and heartfelt connection. They speak rather of commitment to one another and each other’s well-being, or taking each other as ends, or sharing deliberative standpoints or living life together, or a whole host of other things, and much less about mutual emotional vulnerability and sharing and being in one another’s hearts.

Surely one explanation of philosophers’ reticence is that talk of “the heart” seems unavoidably metaphorical. Analytic philosophers look for cash to underwrite metaphorical promissory notes. It turns out to be easy enough, however, to cash the metaphor in if we just take “heart” to refer to a cluster of emotional susceptibilities that have an essentially reciprocal and reciprocating structure. The heart aims at heartfelt connection—at shared experience of joy and sorrow, hope and fear, and other emotions “of the heart.” We seek naturally to share these feelings with others and must suppress our natural tendencies if we wish to avoid doing so. Our heart’s wish is to be open to other hearts in the hope that they will be open to ours, and thereby us, in return.

Of course, we do not want the very same heartfelt connection with everyone. Rejection from some hurts us more than rejection from others; and likewise for heartfelt acceptance. Still, we are not completely indifferent to the indifference or coldness of even utter strangers, and we find it necessary to defend ourselves against it, for example, by humor or anger.

“Cold-hearted” and “warm-hearted” . . . more metaphors. But we know instantly what they mean. Someone is cold-hearted if they hold their emotional cards close to their vest and close themselves to emotional engagement. And they are warm-hearted if they are contrariwise disposed. They are cold-hearted if they act without regard to others’ emotional vulnerabilities, to what will hurt others’ feelings, and warm-hearted if they are considerate of and responsive to others’ feelings, putting them at ease emotionally.

Perhaps you can begin to see the topic opening before you. (Philosophical open-heart surgery?) When we talk about our feelings being hurt, we are not talking about bad sensations, like mere physical pain. “Hurt feelings” appears in P. F. Strawson’s catalogue of what he calls “reactive attitudes” in his justly famous and influential “Freedom and Resentment.” Strawson does not really define “reactive attitudes.” He gives some central characteristics (e.g., that they are felt from a “participant” or, as I put it, “second-person” standpoint), and his most influential examples, resentment, guilt, and blame—what he calls “indignation”—mediate mutual accountability. The Heart and Its Attitudes provides a systematic account, arguably the first, of reactive attitudes in general, both those involved in accountability and those that mediate heartfelt connection.

The Heart and Its Attitudes has several intended audiences. I write, in the first instances, for philosophers and students of philosophy, at whatever stage, to try to convince them that the heart and heartfelt phenomena are rich sources of philosophical investigation. I believe this is so intrinsically and also because such investigations can shed light on phenomena that have proven philosophically puzzling. But I also intend this book for the general public. It hopes to show that understanding the nature of heartfelt attitudes and their role in mediating personal and social relations, including in healing profound emotional injuries—wounds to the heart—can help us to see what might repair even terrible harms, such as those of war or chattel slavery and its legacy in the United States.

Feature image by Alexander Grey via Unsplash, public domain.

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