To Think Feelingly, To Feel Thoughtfully

I don’t think the opposition between thinking and feeling, between heart and mind, makes sense. It just doesn't feel quite right. And yet clearly there is a difference between thinking and feeling.

It seems to me all thinking is a kind of feeling. I don’t feel — I don’t think? — it’s possible to say anything, do anything, without expressing some kind of feeling. This is not to say there is a one-to-one correlation between what one thinks and what one feels. I can think a happy thought but feel depressed. And vice versa. 

I taught a class on joy — Whitman and Nietzsche and such — while rotting in a pit of nihilistic depression. Then again, thinking and teaching about joy was a respite from my mayhem, a light amidst my darkness. So while there is not a one-to-one correlation, there is indeed a correlation, necessarily. Even the so-called strictest of rational rationales expresses some kind of sentiment, some expression of one's feelings.

We are affective creatures, after all. Sentiment of some sort pervades our every fiber. (This is not to say that affect and sentiment is the same thing; a pedantic distinction but I'm sticking to it!) I was going to say we're sentient creatures and, now that I have said it, I kind of like it. To be sentient suggests, in the same breath, that we are feeling creatures and creatures capable of thought.

And I like that feeling is the same word we use for the most visible of our senses — touch — and our invisible experiences: our emotions, our feelings. Why do I like it? As a Derridean, I’d say it’s because the blurring of borders — the intertextuality — is a delight. As a Deleuzian influenced by Merleau-Ponty, I’d say it’s because I find the folds of domains, the marbling of the visible and invisible, exquisite. It’s a thought that makes me feel good. 

Where was I? Oh, yes. I was going to say that all thinking is a kind of feeling and vice versa but I don’t think that’s necessarily true. All feeling expresses thoughts but not all feeling is in and of itself the act of thinking. In fact, it rarely is. Usually, we just react with feelings that are rote, that are not a creative assemblage of elements at all but a regurgitation of the most banal bathos. Feeling is Pavlovian and that is not thinking.

It’s rare to question one’s feelings. After all, it’s how I feel, dammit! But sometimes, perhaps even often, our feelings are stupid. Or at least mine are. I feel stupidly at times when I wish I felt smartly. Jealousy is the most obvious thing I feel that I think is stupid. You're going out with an old boyfriend so I feel bad and jealous! Or when my mother gives her 10 millionth piece of unsolicited advice and I snap: I'm 44! I know how to live my own life! Jeez, what a stupid douche I can be! What stupid feelings!

But this is not to say that all feeling is stupid. Surely there is thinking that is itself an act of thinking, situations in which the emergence of the sentiment is a movement of images, concepts, and ideas that is lively. In this case, sentiment is a creative assemblage.

I have recently been enmeshed in a profoundly emotional milieu — yes, I wrote milieu, mostly because I enjoy how affected it sounds; I have been accused of affective writing which, alas, is not an accusation I would ever parry: on the contrary, I lovingly embrace it — as I was saying, I have been enmeshed in an exceedingly intense emotional situation: the dying of a relatively young woman, someone very close to me. I’ve encountered so many familiar narratives by a breadth of people feeling a breadth of things. She’s a fighter! She’s a mother fighting for her children! How did this happen?!?

I don’t mean to disparage these feelings. And while they may or may not resonate with me, I’ve tried to think myself into different feelings. This is not to mitigate my intense, my sublime, sadness. It’s to try and feel thoughtfully. And one thought I’ve had is that this is the sublime: it is the torrent of the cosmos that exceeds all concept, all understanding, that shatters all narrative and logic. It is what I might call a pure event —an event without a way to narrativize it. I feel the sublimity and think the sublimity and this sounds and feels right to me. 

I will no doubt continue to think and feel a wealth of things about this event. So when I say feeling its sublimity is right, I don’t mean right as in right for the world, as in proper or true. I mean that it sits well with me. I like this phrase, this idea: something — an idea, a feeling — sits well with me.  

And this is where things get really complicated. How do I know if what I think is a good thing to think? Does something sitting well with me mean I am too comfortable, nestling in cliché? Or, on the contrary, that I have found a good emotional-conceptual resonance that suits my constitution?

When I was younger, I was often seduced by an idea, by its affect which I’d try to adopt as my affect. I remember when I first read Derrida as junior in college — in 1989! — and I suddenly thought, and felt, that I was singlehandedly wrestling millennia of Western metaphysics. I saw myself as harassed and harangued by phallocentrism and the metaphysics of presence. The translation? I enjoyed being a pedantic prick. 

After college, I experienced a backlash to Derrida. Where I once thought I felt his liberating effect (and affect), I now found his thinking cold. I wanted heat, man! I wanted passion! Intoxication! I drank bourbon from the bottle and wrote on a typewriter and spent hours in the Beat section of City Lights Books. Yes, still a douchebag but of a different sort, with different ideas that spoke to different feelings.

In grad school, I learned to think a certain way: I began to enjoy the mechanics of thinking itself. I enjoyed logical constructs and disruptions to these constructs (yes, the Foucauldian caesura afforded me a special delight). Over the years, my thinking became what I thought was more controlled (even if, in the eyes of others, still quite sloppy — even emotional). And I enjoyed this thinking; it gave me pleasure, like self-massage. But was it what I felt? 

This kind of thinking purposefully turned a blind eye to my feelings. If I felt otherwise, it was because I was weak. I needed my ideas, my thinking, to reshape my feelings, to discipline me into being a new kind of being (yes, I was reading a lot of Nietzsche). But this is the worst, most dangerous hegemony of ideas, of thinking, of rationality. It's ideological fascism of the self.  

Where does this leave me? If my ideas can't be trusted to be emotionally resonant and my feelings can't be trusted to be thoughtful enough, how am I to think and feel?

My project over the past few years, executed through this blog, has been to think feelingly and feel thoughtfully. I'll have an idea  — say, the concept of tolerance — and I'll think about it while I let it permeate my body. At which point, I question how it sits with me, how it resonates with me emotionally which, in turn, lets me refine or rethink of complicate the idea.  

Sometimes, the movement goes the other way. I begin with a feeling such as, say, how I react to my mother, and try to discern the ideas that inform it. Those ideas begin to inflect how I feel and my feelings shape the idea and I try to land somewhere — somewhere new, somewhere complex, somewhere that feels and thinks right.

Deleuze and Guattari write of a body without organs (BwO), the body as a continual flow punctuated by local zones of intensity. This probably makes more sense to an acupuncturist than an MD. But this is how I am trying to think and feel my thinking and feeling and the relationship between the two. I am reengineering my body so that ideas can seamlessly permeate and pervade my feelings while my feelings, rather than just being rote reactions, burble and bubble with my ideas.

I recently watched the writer, Junot Diaz, give a talk. What I found alluring about him is how he moved so elegantly through experience, sentiment, and concept, weaving them into beautiful, powerful constructs. Watching him work out an idea, watching him express himself, was an education  — he'd close his eyes, lean back, lean forward, as if davening and massaging an idea into words. His was a body without organs.

Ideas tested and inflected by sentiment are, to me, richer, more delicious ideas. They resound more fully, more powerfully. And feelings that are shaped by ideas, that are themselves a thinking, let me feel more smartly. I want a thinking and a feeling that sit well with me in the best possible sense. 


Jim H. said...

First of all, the death/distress of someone close and especially a young person is devastating. My regards and thoughts as you sort out your feelings and thoughts as you go through this time and best wishes to your acquaintance in their struggle.

Second, I have quotes from two philosophers I've used on my blog that have some pertinence here. I'll not get into the blame game—that whole separation of feeling and thought goes back, in philosophy at least, to Plato's Republic when he exiled the poets. But has the breach been repaired in modern times?

"A feeling—i.e., a positive prehension—is essentially a transition effecting a concrescence. Its complex constitution is analysable into five factors which express what that transition consitss of, and effects. The factors are: (i) the 'subject' which feels, (ii) the 'initial data' which are to be felt, (iii) the 'elimination' in virtue of negative prehensions, (iv) the 'objective datum" which is felt, (v) the 'subjective form' which is how that subject feels that objective datum." A.N. Whitehead, Process & Reality, Part III, Chapter I, Section II, p. 221
"A feeling is the appropriation of some elements in the universe to be components in the real internal constitution of its subject." PR, Part III, Chapter I, Section X, p. 231.
"I contend that the notion of mere knowledge is a high abstraction, and that conscious discrimination itself is a variable factor only present in the more elaborate examples of occasions of experience. The basis of experience is emotional. Stated more generally, the basic fact is the rise of an affective tone originating from things whose relevance is given." Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (1933), p. 175-76.


Max Scheler, German philosopher, identified simultaneity of feeling as what he called a "community of feeling":

"Two parents stand beside the dead body of a beloved child. They feel in common the 'same' sorrow, the 'same' anguish. It is not that A feels this sorrow and B feels it also, and moreover that they both know they are feeling it. No, it is a feeling-in-common, A's sorrow is in no way an 'external' matter for B here, as it is, e.g. for their friend C, who joins them, and commiserates 'with them' or 'upon their sorrow'. On the contrary, they feel it together, in the sense that they feel and experience in common, not only the self-same value-situation, but also the same keenness of emotion in regard to it." The Nature of Sympathy, pp.12-13.

Bottom line: For Whitehead, to Feel is be Real and to experience Reality. For Scheler, to Feel With is to be part of the human community.

Jim H

Unknown said...

Hey this is great practical information, will love to read more about this, is this all in relation to deleuze body without organs?

Daniel Coffeen said...

Hey Gavin — you're unearthing some oldies! I like it. Funny, I never thought about this in relationship to D&G at all or the BwO. It's just something I've thought about for a while and navigated and wrestled, especially as I moved into — and then out of — academia. I've been attracted to what we often call thinking but I found academia downright awful (except for the teaching; I loved that). I could never write the way academic write; and I experienced professors who write "radical" philosophy but are arch conservatives in their lives — and this, well, irritated me.

I've dedicated my entire philosophical practice to my life — and vice versa. Although, now that I've written that, it sounds sorta douchy. Hmm.

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