Monday, April 14, 2008

Head vs the heart

Reviewed by Prof Ashok Vohra

Emotion: The Essence of Life — An Evolutionary Explanation
by Kuldip Kumar Dhiman. Unistar.
Pages. XVI+160. Rs 295

Emotion: The Essence of Life — An Evolutionary ExplanationLong before psychologists and other social scientists, philosophers recognised that emotions are important part of human personality and play a significant role in understanding human beings and their actions.

Emotions not only describe and illuminate causes/reasons of human actions but also motivate human beings to act in the way they do. They don't necessarily have a positive impact on human personality. Because of the sway they hold on human beings, emotions make one prone to excessive and violent acts. They weaken human resolve by impeding judgement, making it irrational.

In the moral domain, emotions by detracting us from the path of duty deviate us from good deeds; whereas, according to Kant and the Bhagvadgita, for example, duty alone determines what is good. They play a significant positive role in the field of art. However, whether emotions play a positive or negative role would depend upon whether they are conceived as impulses without thought or intentional content, or as having some sort of cognitive content.

Emotions are distinct both from bodily appetites, such as hunger and thirst, and from objectless moods, such as irritation and endogenous depression. The first distinction between emotions and moods is that while emotions last for a short time, may be a few seconds or even less, moods and their cognates last for a longer duration. The second and more important distinction is that unlike moods, emotions have objects, for example, one is angry or pleased with something.

Emotions play a major role in the making of our descriptive beliefs, for example, what is happening in the world, as well as evaluative beliefs for example our attitude towards those happenings. So they affect our way of not only seeing an object, but also of our appraisal of that object. For example, all religions advocate emotions like compassion, pity, and charity. But philosophers like Kant, Nietzsche and many others argue that these emotions hurt the self-esteem of the suffering person.

Philosophers' views have now been supported and enriched by advances in cognitive psychology, psychoanalysis and anthropology. Each discipline has developed its own method of studying, classifying and scrutinising the effects of emotions. After providing conceptual clarifications from early Greek thinkers to Paul Ekman in our times, Kuldip Dhiman in his book defends the nascent methodology of 'evolutionary psychology'. Unlike the traditional methods which lay excessive emphasis on 'objectivity' and 'rationality', the evolutionary psychology is based on the axiom that emotions are not a hindrance in understanding the self, rather they contribute a great deal in our understanding the unknown, hidden aspects of human personality. They provide a key to many of the hitherto unexplained human psychological phenomena.

Dhiman argues that evolutionary psychology is a "very useful framework" and "very dynamic method" of psychology. The defence of Evolutionary Psychology by Dhiman is not for its own sake but with a view to support his own conviction that "the essence of life is individuality, and this sense of individuality comes largely from our emotional profile" because "emotions are involved in an organism's survival" itself.

The author relying upon the insights from anthropology, ethnology, linguistics, neurosciences, cultural studies and other allied branches of knowledge proves that reason and emotions are perfectly compatible. To say that we ought to be solely guided by reason is as wrong as to say that our judgments and ensuing actions should be based on emotions alone. He establishes that through emotion management—emotion expression, emotion regulation, and emotion inhibition—we can develop an effective communication and build a better world around us.

One can whole heartedly agree with Dhiman's conclusion that evolutionary psychology has a great potential and that the in-depth study of emotions which is its starting point is "not only useful and necessary for our existence", but "crucial to our survival".

The book puts in lucid language some of the complex technical terms used in the recent developments in the philosophy of mind in general and more particularly in the area of evolutionary psychology. Each of the illustration by the author is of great help in understanding the emotion under discussion. The book shall be of great interest to experts and the layman alike. The publishers deserve to be congratulated for excellent production at an affordable price.

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