When trying to come up with something to submit for this interesting 2014 conference titled ‘Do emotions shape the world?’ I thought I might go and study some more the relation between valuing, feeling and knowing, as it was researched during the years of World War I by Max Scheler. Scheler was an important phenomenologist – a key figure in a sense, having written an answer to the formalist ethics of Immanuel Kant (who said something like: choose only such rules for your actions as you would want others to choose) by going back to lived experience. In lived experience we perceive the world always already valuing things, relationships and situations. So, according to Scheler, we do not start with the objective world of classical science (as Kant thought we should) and then have to explain where the hell we can found sound value judgments on. Instead, we always already have an intimate, personal entrance to the world through what someone called ‘valueception’. Scheler’s contribution to fundamental ethics is somewhat forgotten, though, which is about to be changed, I thought.
His work was extensively analysed, interpreted and criticized by another phenomenologist, the Austrian-Dutch Stephan Strasser, in a work from 1956, originally titled Das Gemüt, and later translated into English as Phenomenology of Feeling. His main contribution to the subject was to draw the lofty ideas of Scheler on moral development (which he saw as purification and interiorization) down to earth. To Strasser the ordinary pleasures and attachments of life, enjoying company with others, the safety of your home, sex with a loved one, or nice food, do not deter one from higher morality, but keep the dangers of high idealism within bounds. As an example of evil stemming from too much detachment he refers to Dostojewski’s murderous hero Raskolnikow. He would not want to mention that more real example of evil detachment – the nazi henchmen of whom it is known that during training they were drilled to ignore their normal human affections, including inhibitions to torture and kill, by focusing on the supposedly ‘higher’ ideals of nazism. Hannah Arendt, a contemporary of Strasser, who escaped those same henchmen like him, wrote about this in her Eichmann study on The Banality of Evil.
As Strasser had lost most of his relatives to the criminal acts of the nazi’s, he informally adopted (I was told), after settling in the Netherlands, my father as a ‘nephew’. As a child I never realized of course that this friendly ‘uncle’, who with his wife, whom I called my aunt, spread an atmosphere of old Austrian style (including classical music, learning, strudels and extensive teas) had achieved something in the field which I would enter myself later in life: philosophy. His work was translated in several languages, and after he died his library and letters were transferred to the Simon Silverman Phenomenology Center at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, USA. Not all the letters, as I have a small collection. When I finished my studies in the late eigthies, I sent one of my papers to him, which resulted in a tiny correspondence over the little years which were left to him, before he died in 1991.
Six letters are in my possession, written betweeen 1986 and 1991. They made me feel special because of their personal, gentle and friendly tone. Only later, during my postdoc research on Identity of the moral agent, did I come across his Phenomenology of Feeling, discovering there to be more than just the shared catholic-humanistic atmosphere I remember from my youth, but solid reflection to be studied seriously. From his letters, which were always encouraging, I remember mostly this one warning, when I wrote him about my troubles finding a place to do my PhD studies. I wrote him that in ‘these times’ one should focus very much on a specialized topic, and I asked for his advice. He then warned me ‘not to specialize too much’, as obliging to this trend would hinder me in my development as a philosopher. He then prophecized that the interest in the humanist phenomenology of his tutor, Buitendijk, would return some day, after the folly of a philosophy attempting to become a specialized science would have blown over. My regular readers may notice that I took his words to heart. Attending to lived experience however in everyday life, and attending to my teaching load at university, the thick volumes written by Strasser and Scheler stand here on my desk as a challenge yet to fully face.
Max Scheler lived from 1874 untill 1928, and wrote, among other important contributions to phenomenology, Formalism in Ethics and Non-Formal Ethics of Values: A new attempt toward the foundation of an ethical personalism. The German original appeared from 1913-1916.
Stephan Strasser lived from 1905 untill 1991. As I owe a lot to his encouragement, I dedicate this piece to his memory. His Phenomenology of Feeling. An Essay on the Phenomena of the Heart appeared first in German in 1956.
Here is the link to the center which keeps Strasser’s library and papers: http://www.duq.edu/about/centers-and-institutes/simon-silverman-phenomenology-center/special-collections