Contempt in Literature
This interdisciplinary project focuses on one specific emotion: contempt. This emotion is important in Aristotle’s Politics; it has been analyzed by Descartes and Hume, has been recently studied in philosophy and psychology (R. C. Solomon 1993; P. Ekman and K. G. Heider 1988; P. Rozin1999). Most literature on the subject shows that contempt is, like shame and guilt, a moral emotion based on the response to violations of the social order. But some recent studies hint at a different vision of contempt, considered as an attitude - and not necessarily a bad one (2003 Mason, “Contempt as a Moral Attitude”. Ethics 113/2; 2013 Bell, Hard Feelings: The Moral Psychology of Contempt).
The project concentrates on some historical and theoretical accounts of contempt, its objects and modes of expression (in literature: Swift, Johnson, Voltaire, Diderot, Baudelaire, Flaubert, Huxley etc.; in philosophy: Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Kant etc.; in psychology: J. Haidt, W. Miller, etc).
Literature provides many examples of the representations of contempt (as negative or positive attitude, as a cold or a hot emotion), of its formal object (the despicable) and of related emotions (anger, moral disgust, disdain, hatred, and indignation) through irony and the form of satire.
The project investigates:
-The cycle of contempt: being the object of contempt leads to the contempt of those who hold us in contempt.
-The effects of contempt: humiliation, feeling of inferiority; resentment (“Sour grapes”).
Important working hypotheses are that:
- Contempt, unlike disgust and anger, is more than a mere emotional episode but an enduring attitude with a temporal development of its own which manifests itself in various emotions. - - Contempt involves a double appraisal (“she is selfish and therefore contemptible”. Hazlitt and Stendhal on Rousseau: “He is self-complacent and therefore contemptible”).
- The creative potential of contempt as an aesthetic emotion: the scorn for some writers or artists and their style often leads writers and artist to find their own ideals and style (Baudelaire, Flaubert, Blake).