[note: acute comments coming in make me realize that this post is a bit hastily written. I’ll say a bit more in the comments when I can, but let me Draw your attention to the discussion of the bystander in #3.]
There’s a recent post here about how humans vary in the strength of the emotions they field. A cruel comment may get someone angry for a day or two, but another person may feel beaten up in a way that lasts far longer without being pathological, though it may become a pathological threat to their health and more general ability to function.
The discussion on the last post turned quite quickly to Borderline Personality Syndrome, and contributors covered a lot of ground. But I think we left out two other important topics. In addition, there may be connected topics that I am not mentioning, and I hope they’ll get raised in comments if anyone is interested. So here are the two I am thinking about.
1. Given that being nasty to someone can cost them a week or more of their lives, and that “strong feelers” are not rare, what in the world is happening with people who are nasty adult bullies in supposedly humanistic fields like philosophy? I suggested in a certain recent discussion that occupied this and a number of other blogs that maybe some of the bullies are not aware of the power their words can have. Words are not sticks and stones. But words can kill by sending someone depressed over the edge. And no doubt in other ways in our small world.
Another possible source of the nastiness is alexithymia, which is a fascinating but unpleasant disorder. People with the disorder usually are literally incapable of imagining others’ distress. It’s been suggested that corporate criminals who ruin the savings accounts of thousands or millions may not be able to imagine fully the effect of what they are doing. While no diagnostician at all, I watched carefully the descriptions of Ken Lay, of Enron infamy, and he certainly was described as displaying related traits.
I once tried to tell someone prone sometimes to incredibly nasty comments that she could end up killing someone. A very difficult thing to say, and I messed up entirely by managing to suggest I was going to die. That was a real mess to sort out. So let me say now: Words can kill. Probably more often they deeply wound. The wounds can cause chaos in someone’s life.
2. A second question concerns the value of being a strong emoter. If you look at our last discussion, emotional surges were likened to tsunamis. Of course, some of us like to think that philosophy is driven by reason, but might strong emotional reactions have epistemic importance even in the ‘rational’ fields? If so, it might mean that some of us arrive at important conclusions in advance of finding the reasons for them. Does our pedagogy allow this? If not, should we rethink some of the demands placed on students.
I recently gave a paper to a group of biologists, some of whom encountered the concept of mental content for the first time (which, incidentally, is a concept I doubt in the end makes sense). Some of the biologists took standard argumentative weapons and launched them at the concept. But one person was perplexed and very unhappy. I was reminded of three-hour tutorials with Elizabeth Anscombe, where one could do deep conceptual therapy, which does allow that one may need a lot of time to find reasons for already intuited conclusions such as “There’s something badly mistaken here.”
Anyway, I’d love to know what others think about this.