Uncharacteristically philosophical post from Dot

Dot writes: this is trespassing on Ken’s territory: possibly not philosophy, but getting there. (I’m not sure where philosophy starts but Ken has a strong sense of where its borders are and when people have failed to cross them. “That was quite an interesting paper,” he’ll say, “but it wasn’t philosophy.”)

I’ve been doing more reading on shame; also on anger, medieval vengeance and feud, but we’ll leave those aside for the moment. Some of the modern literature on shame leaves very little space for shame to have a positive function, but others emphasise that shame is a pretty much inevitable part of emotional development and, as part of how we regulate our attachments to others, a necessary one.

Shame is a major aspect of the human condition. It serves a fundamental purpose, enabling human beings to monitor their own behavior in relation to others… Without both shame and laughter, complex social life would be impossible.
– Suzanne Retzinger, ‘Resentment and Laughter: Video Studies of the Shame-Rage Spiral’, in The Role of Shame in Symptom Formation, ed. Helen Block Lewis (Hillsdale, NJ, 1987), p. 178

Shame in this and other work influenced by Lewis is conceived as related to the ego-ideal and a failure to match up to it: thus shame means a focus on the self (“I am an inadequate person”) rather than, as in guilt, a focus on the act (“I did a bad thing”). So being ashamed and resolving to change would involve thinking something like “I need to stop being that sort of person” rather than “I need to stop doing x.” But it occurred to me to wonder: how could you stop being that sort of person except by stopping doing x? To what extent can you distinguish the person you are from the things you do?

I can conceive of someone arguing that who you are coincides precisely with what you do. But here’s a counter-example, involving something that’s shameful rather than wrong. You are ashamed of being fat and you want to stop being fat. Now, in order to stop being fat you need to stop eating cream cakes (and also start taking more exercise). But eating a cream cake, or even repeatedly eating cream cakes, is not in itself the same as being fat. Some very thin people pack a remarkable number of them away; similarly some unfortunate fat people haven’t touched them for years. There are also several different ways of tackling being fat: one would be drastic liposuction. It seems to me that this is an example where being a certain sort of person cannot be straightforwardly equated with doing certain sorts of things, and where shame at being (for example) fat cannot be mapped exactly onto guilt for (for example) eating cream cakes. The self and its actions are closely related but distinct.

(Another example: one can be a murderous psychopath while doing art therapy in Broadmoor.)

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2 thoughts on “Uncharacteristically philosophical post from Dot

  1. kenanddot

    “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” Yes – thanks for that. After writing the post, I lost confidence in it and wondered if it was just a silly thing to be thinking about; certainly there are some steps missing in the way I’ve thought it through here (I’m never very clear in the first draft): but you send me back to it with new interest.

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