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"Why Should We Give a Damn? On Sharing Emotions" by Thomas Szanto (Phenomenology; Normativity)

Being-in-the-Room Privilege: Elite Capture and Epistemic Deference

© Melody Overstreet

From The Philosopher, vol. 108, no. 4 ("What is We?"). If you enjoy reading this, please consider becoming a patron or making a small donation.

We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.

Open a newspaper and you will likely come across captions like “Black Lives Matter feel betrayed by the lack of support from the establishment”, “Volkswagen regrets the corporations’ wrongdoing”, “The FC Barcelona fan club is delighted about the team’s performance”, or “The government hopes to end the Covid-shutdown soon”. Attributing emotions to political protest movements, corporations, clubs or governments might seem to be mere shorthand for saying that “many proponents of Black Lives Matter” or “each member of the fan club” or “key representatives of the corporation or the government” feel such-and-such emotions. Yet, most of us take the sharing of emotions literally when we use such colloquial expressions as “We are proud of you” or “The newlywed couple is excited about their honeymoon” or “I feel your pain”.

How is it possible for two or more individuals or complex institutional groups, such as sports teams, courts, etc., to share emotions or feel together? In fact, this question entails two more specific ones: First, how should we conceive of the relation of individuals engaging in emotional sharing, and, second, how must we conceive of the nature of emotions, such that they can be shared? After all, it seems strange to think of individuals sharing an emotional episode like flat-mates who agree on halving the rent for their apartment. It would be even more counterintuitive to think of sharing emotions as analogous to sharing a birthday cake by dividing it up into smaller pieces. It is not immediately clear, then, what we really mean when we talk about sharing emotions.

Indeed, there has been notable resistance to the idea that we can genuinely feel something together. This resistance flows from a (Western) traditional, and still dominant, way of conceiving of emotions in individualistic terms. Hans Bernhard Schmid distinguishes three types of individualism regarding emotions:

1) “Ontological individualism”, according to which emotions are mental states whose subjects can only be conscious individuals

2) “Epistemological individualism”, which claims that conscious subjects have direct and privileged access to their own emotions and that yields an epistemic authority over one’s own emotional life that others don’t have

3) “Physical individualism”, which states that emotions are also exclusively bound to the very place where they are felt, namely the bodies of distinct individual organisms.

To be sure, I cannot feel pain in any other body than my own (save for rare cases of conjoined twins who have proprioception of parts of each other’s bodies, though it is not clear whether we can really speak here of two distinct, felt, bodies). Moreover, nobody can feel my joy from my first-person singular perspective (and this, arguably, holds even for conjoined twins as long as each of them is supposed to have their own first-person singular perspective). But does this imply that emotions are private, ineffable mental events, or that we cannot feel joy together, from our first-person plural perspective?

Recent philosophical and interdisciplinary developments in emotion research have challenged the traditional individualistic picture of emotions.

Recent philosophical and interdisciplinary developments in emotion research have challenged the traditional individualistic picture of emotions. Consider first the attack on physical individualism from the so-called “extended mind” paradigm, proposed three decades ago by Andy Clark and David Chalmers. On this view, mental and cognitive processes incorporate technological, social and environmental entities and processes that “scaffold” their emergence and proper functioning. In the past few years, this paradigm has also been applied to emotions. Defenders of extended emotions do not give up the idea that emotions are essentially embodied – emotions depend not just on brain processes but a series of bodily processes, including perceptual, motoric, autonomic or somatovisceral ones, and indeed involve our whole embodied agency. Yet, they go one step further. They claim that the vehicles of emotional experience and expression span neural, extra‐neural and extra-biological components, including the material environment (e.g., wall-paint or parks), technological artefacts (e.g., playlists) that we exploit to modulate our emotional arousal and experience, but also other people and social institutions that shape our emotional appraisals. On this view, emotions extend beyond the boundaries of individual organisms.

Ontological individualism has also come under pressure. Sociologists, for example, have focused on the sedimentation and habitualization of “emotion norms” (Arlie Hochschild), internalized rules that police what and how we ought to feel about certain events in certain social contexts. They have also analyzed the social transmission and reinforcement of “emotional energy” in various everyday “interaction rituals”, such as sporting, sexual, religious, or academic encounters (Randall Collins), and have critically investigated the “commodification” and (self-)marketization of intimate sentiments such as love (Eva Illouz). Social psychologists have long pointed to the sociocultural modulation of emotion regulation, or the ways in which we monitor which emotions we feel, when we feel them, and how we experience and express them. Cultural theorists have emphasized the socio-material “circulation” of representations, by which objects and bodies are endowed with affective value in the first place (Sara Ahmed). All this challenges the idea that emotions are mental states inside a single individual.

Ontological and epistemological anti-individualism has also gained much ammunition from philosophy, specifically from classical phenomenologists’ work on shared experiences more than a century ago (e.g., Max Scheler and Edith Stein) as well as from contemporary discussions in analytic philosophy on “we”-intentionality and group agency (e.g., John Searle, Michael Bratman, Margaret Gilbert and Raimo Tuomela).

After centuries of individualism, then, the “Cartesian Brainwash” (Hans Bernhard Schmid) has lost its anaesthetic sway over emotions researchers, but there is still no unanimity on the nature or mechanisms of shared emotions. Nevertheless, a consensus is emerging among philosophers. Whatever the right account is, it will need to show that genuine emotional sharing is more than just having the same feelings “alongside” each other and somehow “adding” them up. For an emotion to be literally shared, it is not sufficient that individuals accidentally happen to feel the same type of emotion (e.g., anger as opposed to hope) at the same time. Nor is it enough that our emotions synchronously converge around the same target. We may well simultaneously feel a burning anger towards the same politician because of his racist remarks, but this alone will not make our anger ours.

To feel together, we need a more robust integration of our emotions. Some argue that such integration happens when we share a specific concern. According to a broadly accepted view in the philosophy of emotions, it is concerns that make emotions arise in the first place and make them what they are­­, namely “felt evaluations” of what matters (Bennett Helm). Such concerns are not theoretical ones. If they were, emotions would only be cognitive evaluations, and precisely not felt. Neither are they practical concerns, which would in turn make them more akin to moral evaluations. Emotions are based rather on affective concerns, concerns over what really matters to the subjects­­ – what we “give a damn” about.

Emotions are based rather on affective concerns, concerns over what really matters to the subjects­­ – what we “give a damn” about.

Now the reasoning is that if individuals don’t share the same concerns, it is hard to see what they share at all, even if the emotions seem to be the same. Consider a timely example: As some observed, certain African-American communities rejoiced in the election of Donald Trump as US-president – as did most white-supremacists. But whereas the former group was driven by the consideration that with the political atmosphere and rhetoric led from the midst of the White House, deep-seated racial injustices in the US will at last come into plain public sight, the latter group’s jubilation was clearly different. The underlying concern reflected by the same type of emotion not only was not shared but was, in fact, in opposition.

Philosophers also agree that we cannot explain how we come to feel and express our emotions as shared by merely summing up individual feelings. Similarly, shared emotions cannot be reduced to the “totality” of sentiments “common to the average member of a society” either, as the early sociologist Émile Durkheim suggested. Our shared anger is more than the aggregate sum of my, your and his or her anger. Rather, the very way my anger feels when we share an episode of joint anger, is affectively coloured and modulated by your anger (and vice versa); it becomes imbued with a sense of being ours. There is a sense of commonality built into our anger, a sense that the issue of concern (say racial injustice) matters to us as a community­­ – not just to me, to you, and him or her personally.


Let us pause for a moment and recapitulate. So far it seems that we need an account of emotional sharing that can accommodate three requirements: first, that sharing emotions is really about sharing emotions. Shared emotions are not simply beliefs about values or cognitive evaluations; rather, they are felt evaluations. Secondly, the emotions that disclose something that we give a damn about must be sufficiently integrated. We must have the same concern, and there must be a certain reciprocal influence between the way I feel about something and the way others feel about it. But thirdly, and seemingly in tension with this, our emotions cannot simply be fused together into one “super-emotion”, floating somewhere independently of us and felt by some collective subject. It is still me, you and all the others in whom concerns stir bodily and emotional arousals. Just as there can be no proper sharing without something that is common to us, there is no sharing if there is not a plurality of individuals who actually engage in sharing. To put it in a formula: there is no sharing if there is nothing common to be shared, but neither is there sharing if there is nobody else to share with.

There is no sharing if there is nothing common to be shared, but neither is there sharing if there is nobody else to share with.

“Plurality” also means that those engaging in emotional sharing must have a clear awareness that, their integration notwithstanding, they actually differ; their affective lives are not fused, let alone identical – just as their bodies and consciousnesses are not. Rather, in various aspects, they can exhibit fine-grained variations in how they feel about the same concern. For example, even if parents are happy about their child’s well-being in the family, they need not be happy about the same aspect of the child’s well-being or with the very same intensity, and yet they still share their parental happiness.


Now, to bring the phenomenon of shared emotions into sharper relief, it is helpful to delineate it from a number of other ways in which I relate to the emotions of others or in which my emotional state is simply influenced by others.

First, we must demarcate sharing emotions from cognitively grasping or empathizing with another’s emotion (“I understand your sorrow”), as well as from sympathizing with it (“I feel your pain”) or from reacting to it with compassion. Some philosophers argue that empathy entails that I relive, and hence share, the emotion of another, and many psychologists simply conflate empathy and emotional sharing. However, as phenomenologists such as Max Scheler or, more recently, Dan Zahavi have highlighted, this misconstrues both phenomena. Arguably, empathic understanding of what others feel is the basis for emotional sharing. In order to share your sorrow, I must first grasp that you feel sorrow and understand why you feel that way or what your sorrow is about. But conflating empathy with shared emotion means that we cannot account for cases of empathizing where I don’t share your emotion (and might even have opposed feelings or be hostile towards you). Imagine a police interrogator who is pleased with how well he is reading the detainee’s emotions and enjoys triggering fear in him in order elicit incriminating evidence. The same goes for sympathetic stances: I may react with heightened affection and sympathetic care, towards, say, a couple’s desperation over the cancer-diagnosis of their child­­. My affection is motivated not by our shared desperation, but their desperation, and is clearly distinct from it; indeed, I might be hopeful about child’s recovery.

In order to share your sorrow, I must first grasp that you feel sorrow and understand why you feel that way or what your sorrow is about.

Furthermore, most philosophers agree that emotional sharing must also be clearly distinguished from a number of social-psychological mechanisms that interlink emotions of individuals. Consider first how things that other people whom we care about do or experience excite or sadden us, and do so differently, depending on our relationship with them. Or consider the familiar phenomenon of social referencing: Infants regularly check back with their caretakers how to feel about certain things, especially if they are new to them, as when they try to figure out whether the steep descent calls for being afraid or whether it is safe enough. Likewise, mature individuals sometimes overtly or covertly check back with their peers to ascertain whether something really merits a particular feeling. We do so even when deeply personal sentiments such as romantic love are involved, where we might want to reassess our feelings in light of a best friend’s perspective. Or, on an interpersonal level still, we all know the urge to tell others about emotions that we feel particularly intensely or concern something that deeply matters or disturbs us. Social psychologists have shown that such socio-communicative “sharing” of emotions reactivates one’s own emotional arousal and strengthens social bonds. All of this might eventually lead to shared emotions, but as long as we don’t share the relevant underlying concerns which make us care about some matter together, none of these social mechanisms are enough to integrate our emotions.

Another much-discussed phenomenon observed by Gustave Le Bon, the founder of crowd-psychology, is emotional contagion. In emotional contagion, I affectively “take over” others’ emotions or am “swept up” by the mood or a certain emotional atmosphere surrounding others. The basic mechanism here is a “tendency to automatically mimic and synchronize others’ facial expressions, vocalizations, postures and movements”, which leads to a convergence of emotions (Elaine Hatfield and colleagues). This is a pervasive phenomenon in various social interactions. Typically, though, when this occurs one is not even aware what exactly one’s emotion is about, nor that one’s own emotions and the emotions of those whom one mimics are the same. Suppose you enter a bar and are affected by the cheerful atmosphere, without realizing that it is caused by the guests having just watched an exciting match on an already turned-off screen. Moreover, it might well be that nobody in the bar realizes that you are present, let alone that you are “caught up” in the crowd’s cheerful mood (you might not even realize it yourself). Contrast this with going to your friends for a joint screening of a match precisely for the sake of sharing the excitement of watching the game together.

Similar to emotional contagion, some have pointed to the phenomenon of emotional resonance or entrainment as one of the main sources of emotional sharing. A paradigm case here is the infant-caregiver interaction. Participants here attune to one another’s emotional arousal and expression in a dynamic moment-to-moment bodily interaction. As in tonal resonance, a new overarching emotional pattern emerges. As a matter of fact, such sub-personal processes of contagion or resonance often lie at the bottom of various cases of emotional sharing. However, nothing seems to prevent those who have never been in a direct bodily encounter or face-to-face interaction from sharing emotions. And any account worth its salt needs to also explain diachronically more robust or technologically mediated forms of emotional sharing, for example via social media or between citizens who have never met.

On the other hand, there is the often-cited mechanism of group identification that allows for just such impersonal ways of linking up with the emotions of others. But group identification doesn’t really lead to proper sharing, rather only to what is called “group-based emotions”. Think of feeling guilt, shame, indignation or pride in the name of or on behalf of a certain group that one values and feels attached to. When I am proud of the achievements of a group I identify with, I first categorize myself as its member (“I am one of us”), which generates further emotional attachment to the group, thus amplifying my pride. Curiously, such social reloading of one’s own emotions even occurs if the group with which I identify turns out to be an “imaginary community”. And this seems often to be the case in political emotions that invoke values purportedly shared by a community that historically never existed. Consider for example the exclusionary pride in the often-invoked “Judeo-Christian” values shared by “enlightened” Europeans.


And here we finally enter the minefield of normative and political issues surrounding emotional sharing, issues that have been unduly sidelined until recently. We tend to think of emotions as beyond the bounds of norms. If you feel sad or angry, you will have your reasons, and reasons of the heart are, if not beyond any doubt, beyond any need for justification. Yet, social scientists and cultural theorists have long challenged this view. What, when and how you feel is deeply permeated by cultural conventions, norms and values (so-called “emotion norms”). They shape what is emotionally relevant and salient for you, guide your emotion regulation, and define what constitutes an appropriate emotional response to what.

What, when and how you feel is deeply permeated by cultural conventions, norms and values.

Some philosophers make an even stronger claim. They argue that emotions have their own norms of rationality; “oughts” are built into how we feel. If I was proud of your success last week, and my relationship and other feelings towards you haven’t relevantly changed, I ought not bear malicious joy towards your failure today; otherwise something is inappropriate about my feelings. By the same token, shared emotions can be inappropriately felt (Mikko Salmela): If I’m not proud of the strong performance of our dance ensemble last night, ashamed of an overall fair show today, only despairing about petty fights among the dancers, and don’t even hope that our company will thrive the next season, my fellow dancers will likely, and justifiably, be sceptical about my emotional commitment to our ensemble; they might even question my membership altogether.

According to an influential recent account by the philosopher Margaret Gilbert, shared emotions are, in fact, nothing but commitments to feel something as a group. If, say, members of the governing board of a company jointly commit themselves to feeling guilty about the environmental harms their company has inflicted, no single members of the board can unilaterally rescind the commitment to feel so; this can only be done collectively, as a unified body. This account has rightly been criticized for missing the affective import of objects of emotions; emotions disclose something we actually “give a damn about”, not what we commit to give a damn about. But Gilbert rightly emphasizes that, in feeling together, we always have to navigate between what I personally feel, what my fellows feel, and what, in light of our group’s norm and values, we ought to feel. Compared to individual musings, emotional sharing places additional normative pressures on what one ought to feel. Yet, as Spinoza already highlighted centuries back, membership in emotional communities not only restricts but also increases one’s possibilities, affective, and indeed political, powers.


So why does it matter whether and how emotional sharing is possible? Is it only of conceptual interest to philosophers and, ultimately, of little practical, normative, let alone, political relevance? Considering again the examples in the opening lines, the answer to this should clearly be “no”. Is a corporation’s expression of regret just crocodile tears? Or should we take it at face value and accordingly hold the corporate entity collectively accountable if it fails to express or act upon its regret? Should we use or even strategically manipulate emotions in social movements, such as collective anger, hope or resentment? How can shared emotions propel the underlying shared concerns into public view? Can shared emotions reinforce individuals’ attachment to abstract political ideals and values, as Martha Nussbaum argues, instead of just biasing and disrupting rational discourse or deliberation, as emotions in politics have long been, reductively, conceived? Addressing these issues is surely of practical, moral, potentially legal, and imminent political relevance. But how we address these issues depends on what our account of emotional sharing is – how things matter not only to you, me or him/her, but how we, for the sake of our communities, give a damn about things.

Thomas Szanto is Associate Professor in Philosophy at the Centre for Subjectivity Research, University of Copenhagen, affiliated to the Carlsberg Foundation research project “Who are We? Self-identity, Social Cognition, and Collective Intentionality”. He has published widely in phenomenology, philosophy of mind, social ontology and the philosophy of emotions, including the co-edited volumes The Phenomenology of Sociality. Discovering the ‘We’ (2016) and The Routledge Handbook of Phenomenology of Emotions (2020).


From The Philosopher, vol. 108, no. 4 ("What is We?"). If you enjoy reading this, please consider becoming a patron or making a small donation.

We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.

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