"Strike Flat the Thick Rotundity O' the World": A Phenomenology of Anger in Shakespeare's King Lear

By Keeping, J. | Philosophy Today, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

"Strike Flat the Thick Rotundity O' the World": A Phenomenology of Anger in Shakespeare's King Lear


Keeping, J., Philosophy Today


In this essay, I attempt a phenomenological analysis of the emotion of anger, utilizing two performances of Shakespeare's play The Tragedy of King Lear as my research material. This analysis is part of an ongoing project on the phenomenology of emotion. As such, although it is a phenomenology of anger, it is concerned not only with anger itself, but also with what a phenomenology of anger can tell us about emotions in general. The image of emotions which emerges out of this work is as organizational structures combining perceptual, cognitive, and motile, as well as affective, aspects, which serve to mobilize our body as a whole toward some broadly specified form of behavior. Seen in this way, emotions are not mindless physiological processes, but structured, adaptive behaviors that possess their own "logic," a logic that is different from that of cognition, but in its own way just as "intelligent." The structure of this paper will be as follows: I begin with a brief exposition of the theoretical background out of which the project emerges and of my methodology. Then I present my phenomenological descriptions themselves. Finally, I draw some tentative conclusions about anger and emotions in general on the basis of the phenomenological descriptions.

This project takes as its primary philosophical inspiration the body-centered phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and can be seen as a continuation of the project he commenced: the re-discovery and articulation of our original, mute, bodily contact with the world. Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology is of the existential or hermeneutic variety and differs somewhat from the transcendental phenomenology of Husserl. Merleau-Ponty rejects the idea of a transcendental ego and embraces rather the notion of a situated and embodied subject "destined to the world."1 He does not see his philosophy as being opposed to Husserl, however, but as the logical continuation of the direction Husserl's thought was taking shortly before his death. One of Merleau-Ponty's discoveries was that the body is articulated into (at least) four "sides" or "regions," the perceptual, the motile, the cognitive/linguistic, and the affective/social."2 Each of these regions has its distinct way of "knowing," its own logos, which cannot be reduced to any of the others. Merleau-Ponty does a great deal to articulate the motile and perceptual regions of the body in his major work Phénoménologie de la perception, but says comparatively less about the affective and the cognitiveflinguistic. This lack is one of the motivations for the project of which the material presented here forms a part. An explicit understanding of the distinction between these regions informs the phenomenological analyses which follow.

Phenomenology requires first of all a window into the phenomena under investigation. Emotions present a number of challenges to the serious phenomenologist. First of all, they are fleeting and ephemeral. As phenomenologists, we wish to study our phenomena in their presence, not retrospectively. But when we are in the "grip" of an emotion it is very difficult to do serious phenomenology. And emotions cannot be relied upon to sit still for study: often they will pass or even transform into other emotions. A second challenge is the notoriously subjective nature of emotion. If I were to offer a phenomenology of my first-person emotional experience, a critic could easily respond that I was only describing my emotions and that her emotions were quite different. In fact, I believe there are serious problems with this criticism,3 but for now I wish to circumvent it completely by using a work of art for my phenomenology. As Samuel Mallin pointed out, artworks share with texts the peculiar power to make meaning objective.4 The meanings in an artwork remain available to different people or to the same person at different times. This not only allows us the grace to study it adequately but also gives others access to it so that they can check our results and we can enter into a dialogue about them. …

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