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I heard Amy Jenkins (British TV writer) say she didn't realise when she was younger that other people had feelings too. Daft as that seems, I understand what she meant. The indifference of strangers suggests they're not feeling things as intensely as you are. Feelings are private and in the usual run of things not on display. As you pass a person in the street it is impossible to see the detail of their inner life: that he just heard news of his father's death, that she just accepted that marriage proposal. Nothing is necessarily apparent from public behaviour. In fact, much effort is made not to show feelings in public. Of course it is daft to think that others don't have it all going on behind the veil too and with effort it is possible to become intelligent about how other people actually feel. But the core of Jenkins's point was sound: that insight into feelings, one's own and others, requires imagination and some lateral thinking.

Feelings are complex having infinite tones of emotion but generally I'd say humans are programmed to feel, one way or another. Actually I think they are a seething mass of feeling. Everything is sensed. Everything is felt. Humans are feeling creatures. They could be accurately named Aestheticus Humanus. It is their aesthetic nature, i.e. their feeling nature, that defines them. Not to say everyone feels things equally. Artists like Amy Jenkins do assimilate differently, probably more acutely, with more attention to detail. Others go through life never having the remotest idea of how they feel themselves or how others do.

Crudely, there might be two types at the extreme: those who suppress and undervalue emotion and those who do the opposite, who express themselves too much and possibly over-value feelings. As extremes, neither type is in good proportion. Type One prefers to ignore the inner world. Contemporary wisdom would argue this leads to poor mental health. Type Two needs to vent. They tend toward the self-absorbed and give too much validation to what they feel. They think their feelings are objectively true as well as subjectively: if they feel spooked, they might think spooks are in the room. Types are often gender specific: venters female, ignorers male.

Having a measured sense of what is external and what is internal would be a mark of well-being. Although it may seem like an easy thing to do, I think our culture makes a bad job of distinguishing the inner from the outer. It tends to objectify too much what is felt and projects on to outer reality what is inner experience. At the same time it relegates the inner world to an inferior status. This kind of misappropriation is embedded in language: “it has been a terrible day today” properly translates as “I have felt terrible today”. What is inner is constructed in language as outer. What is essentially metaphor becomes fact. The bewitchment of the intelligence by way of language was how Wittgenstein put it.

I think that seeing through this confusion toward an understanding of human nature as basically aesthetic is key for how to live. Such an enterprise is consistent with Hume who in his Treatise of Human Nature set in motion a train of philosophy and psychology which has remained largely unresolved to the present. A coherent resolution is a pressing issue and is long overdue.

everything is felt



philosophy • 21.02.08