Emotions, Motivation, and Character: A Phenomenological Perspective

  • Elisa Magrì


In this paper, I wish to explore whether and how emotions build on a state of being motivated that is linked to character and requires the positive contribution of habit. Drawing on phenomenological accounts of motivation (most notably Husserl’s and Merleau-Ponty’s), I argue that the relation between emotions and character depends on the institution of an emotional space, which is responsible for our sensitivity to the values of the felt situation and yet it is open to changes and revisions.

1 Introduction

What is the relation between character and emotions? Can we say that a person’s jealousy draws on character traits, or do emotions depend on a more complex interrelation between character, motivation, and features of the experience? In this paper, I wish to consider the extent to which emotions depend on certain dispositions that are often identified in the literature as character traits. Unlike affective episodes, character traits indicate subjective tendencies to experience some particular family of emotions, or alternatively to not experience them in some particular way (Deonna & Teroni 2012, p. 9). In this sense, as Deonna and Teroni write, character traits connect in a stable and coherent way the cognitive and conative dimensions of human behaviour. For instance, a kind person will have a greater tendency to experience affection or gratitude, or a lesser tendency to experience rage.

The drawback of this view is that emotions contrasting with one’s alleged character traits are usually considered as exceptional cases or as responses “out of character”. In contrast to this view, I argue that character can be understood as a complex stratification of motives whose relation to emotions and sentiments can be accounted for without resorting to any “out of character” explanation. A phenomenological appraisal of character explains how the subject apperceives relevant features of the felt situation in a way that is open to variation and temporal updating, and yet this does not lead us to embrace any form of subjective determinism either.

In order to clarify my view, I invite you to keep in mind an example of jealousy, such as the story narrated by Proust in Swann’s Way. In the first volume of his In Search of Lost Time, Proust recounts the story of Swann and how he falls in love with Odette, a young coquette who used to attend the Verdurin’s club to which Swann is also admitted. Unlike Swann, Odette is uncultivated, naïve, and superficial. She is—quoting from her own self-description—“an ignorant woman with a taste for beautiful things” (Proust 1992 [1928], p. 275). At first, Odette does not strike Swann as being particularly beautiful or attractive. Quite the contrary, Swann does not feel any desire, only “physical repulsion, as one of those women of whom all of us can cite examples, different for each of us, who are the converse of the type which our senses demand” (Proust 1992 [1928], p. 275). Despite this, Swann falls in love with her to the point that he embarks on an excruciating path of jealousy before realising with astonishment that Odette was not even his type. What then motivates Swann’s attachment to Odette?

All that Proust says in this regard is that, when Swann first met Odette, she made a casual remark that established “between their two selves a kind of romantic bond which made him smile” (Proust 1992 [1928], p. 276). Proust further explains that

at the time of life, tinged already with disenchantment, which Swann was approaching, when a man can content himself with being in love for the pleasure of loving without expecting too much in return, this mutual sympathy, if it is no longer as in early youth the goal towards which love inevitably tends, is nevertheless bound to it by so strong an association of ideas that it may well become the cause of love if it manifests itself first (Proust 1992 [1928], p. 276).

In other words, Swann is not captured by any particular quality of Odette’s character. It is not even that Swann’s personality matches hers, or that some of Swann’s traits create in him a disposition towards her. On the contrary, an emotional bond, which is established first by Odette’s remark and then reinforced by Swann’s attitude at that stage of his life, motivates Swann to fancy Odette before falling in love, with her.

It is noteworthy that Swann is not led by a mere “mood for love,” for—unlike general moods—his emotional behaviour has a specific object, i.e. Odette and her personality. Proust refers to “an association of ideas” so strong that it eventually becomes the cause of love. That we may fall in love because of some association of ideas is certainly a strong and apparently odd conclusion. However, by association, Proust intends the fact that desire is motivated by certain ideas that are connected to the felt situation. It is then the emotional atmosphere inhabited by Swann that draws him towards Odette. By inhabiting that atmosphere, Swann feels immediately acquainted with Odette, as if they were two lovers. In other words, she becomes so familiar to him that she is no longer perceived as an unattractive stranger, but rather as someone who shares a significant bond with him.

According to Proust, habitude plays an enormous role in the emotional relationship between two subjects. By habitude, Proust arguably means the institution of an emotional space that is felt appropriate by the subjects, thereby motivating their choices and influencing their characters. Habitude institutes an emotional space in which it feels appropriate to Swann to be with Odette, and he is therefore projected towards future possibilities of fulfilment. In this sense, one can find in Proust’s narration two important aspects inherent in emotional experience: (a) habitude as structuring the relation between the felt situation and the apperceived properties of the emotional object, and (b) motivation as the term linking character, emotion, and habitude.

It is noteworthy that, in such an account, motivation does not simply structure the relation between an agent and her/his action, but also and more fundamentally the process of character formation. Motivation stands for the web of solicitations that make a certain situation feel in a certain way for the subject who inhabits it. As such, motivation is non-causal in nature, and it is embedded with possibilities that may not turn into any action. As I will argue, both habit and motivation are of special importance for understanding the nature of emotions in relation to character. In contrast to standard explanations of character as a stable disposition, it is possible to structure the relation between character and emotion in a way that admits openness to change and mutability without falling back into subjectivism. This is an aspect that contrasts with some contemporary approaches to emotions, as I intend to show in the following.

2 Motivation and Character in Contemporary Accounts of Emotions

While purposiveness and motivation play a key role in cognitive accounts of emotions, motivation is often equated with action tendencies. This involves the postulation of a kind of goal towards which one’s own attitude is directed. For instance, according to Solomon (2007 [1973]), emotions are short-term responses and they are rational in that they fit into a person’s overall purposive behaviour. This does not entail that a person’s purposes are often coherent. In fact, for the sake of emotions, one can destroy marriages, careers or relationships. For Solomon, emotions, like judgments, are purposive, but such motives may not be recognised. As Solomon puts it, “emotions are essentially non-deliberate choices. Emotions, in this sense, are indeed ‘blind’ as well as myopic; an emotion cannot see itself” (Solomon 2007, p. 21). However, to say that emotions have intelligent purposes means—on Solomon’s account—that emotions enable or accompany our capacity for doing or changing something. Thus, from Solomon’s point of view, the motivation of emotions is equivalent to the purpose of an action. This view overemphasises the link between emotions and action, thereby neglecting the role played by emotions in structuring the intelligibility of the situation. By stressing the active (and causal) role of motivation, one overlooks another important sense of motivation which is involved in the emotional experience as well and coincides with a more general sense of orientation that does not necessarily lead to any action.

From a non-cognitive perspective, Goldie (2002) argued that it would be a mistake to cram into the notion of emotional intelligibility aspects as different as beliefs, values, and feelings, for emotions also refer to a person’s mood and character. From Goldie’s point of view, emotions involve a stratification of beliefs, desires, and wants, but not only may beliefs and desires have opposing directions of fit, they also involve a stratification in terms of relevance, for the satisfaction of a craving may not bring about the satisfaction of the first-order desire felt by the person. In this sense, Goldie acknowledges, contra Solomon, that the rationality of emotions is more complex and multi-faceted, for it cannot be reduced to either the standard belief-desire model or to the equivalence of emotions and judgments. According to Goldie, both models should be replaced by a “thicker explanation” which is based on motives and desiderability as well as on personality and character (Goldie 2007).

Thus, one can find in Goldie a broader view of motivation that is linked to evaluation and affective appraisal. More specifically, on Goldie’s account, “the notion of motive is both summarizing and evaluative of what is in the mind of the person doing the action, but it does not imply that the motive, as such, was in the person’s mind as he did the action” (Goldie 2007, p. 107). In other words, for Goldie, motives are not so much mental events as explanatory non-causal terms that reflect what one feels appropriate in certain circumstances. In Goldie’s example, a man can be “set on” revenge but not be thinking about revenge as such when he carries on with his actions. For Goldie, motives dispense with explanations in terms of beliefs and desire, because they are sufficient to explicate why certain subjects act in certain ways under certain circumstances and against the specifics of their actions, provided that we can make sense of what they felt to be appropriate at the time. At the same time, one can refer to character and personality in order to explicate the dispositions that make certain subjects more likely to have certain kinds of motives in certain situations.

In his book, On Personality, Goldie expands on this topic and argues that character traits are deeper than personality traits in that the former are laden with values and moral qualities, whereas the latter are dispositions for which there will be some kind of “if–then” conditional (Goldie 2004, p. 10). To be a kind person—this is Goldie’s example—one must have a relatively enduring disposition reliably to have kind motives and to act in a kind way, so that the appropriate “if–then” conditional can be applied to her: roughly, if Susan is in a situation where kindness is appropriate, then she will reliably have thoughts and feelings that are characteristic of kindness and thus will reliably act as a kind person should. Personality includes traits of character, besides many other features, and it evolves over time. More precisely, Goldie holds that personality traits can be divided into some broad kinds that merge into each other, which are (a) ways of acting; (b) habits; (c) temperaments; (d) emotional dispositions; (e) enduring preferences and values; (f) skills, talents, and abilities, and (g) character traits (Goldie 2004, p. 11ff).

While Goldie was aware that “sometimes, the explanation [of an action] does not refer to the individual’s mental condition (drunkenness, depression, anger) and its influence on thinking, but instead it refers to the particular situation that the individual is in” (Goldie 2007, p. 111), he does not account in more precise terms for the relation between dispositions, felt situations, and character traits. Most notably, the role of the felt situation is derivative of various subjective factors, so that any emotion that contrasts with one of these element is simply a response “out of character” that can happen here and then.

More recently, Deonna and Teroni (2012) have offered a more comprehensive account of emotions that neatly circumscribes the relation between emotion and character. They hold that emotions correspond to felt bodily attitudes towards objects that are correct if and only if these objects exemplify a given evaluative property. For example, “fear is an evaluative attitude, an attitude in the light of which the subject will typically form specific desires such as the desire to scamper up the nearest tree. Anger is an attitude in the light of which the subject will form the desire to avenge himself in this or that way” (Deonna & Teroni 2012, p. 83). In their view, emotions correspond to a felt action readiness that is solicited by the circumstances and exemplifies a specific evaluative property that can be motivated, but not necessarily justified, by character traits, sentiments and desires. In regard to this, Deonna and Teroni emphasise that explaining emotions in terms of character traits has only the function of rooting emotions in a broader evaluative outlook that helps recognise the weight or lack of weight the subject lends to certain values or objects (Deonna & Teroni 2012, p. 115). Yet, while character traits can positively contribute to the justification of emotions, “they do not yield justificatory reasons in their favour” (Deonna & Teroni 2012, p. 115). As they put it:

In order to say that there are justificatory relations between character traits, sentiments, desires, and emotions, one must, quite controversially, conceive of the former not merely as dispositions to undergo the latter, but rather as something like long-lasting affective states that are independent of the emotions to which they give rise. Mark’s love for his niece is now viewed as a long-standing intentional relation to her that can be justified only if there is evidence that she is indeed lovable. (Deonna & Teroni 2012, p. 114).

Deonna and Teroni’s proposal offers the undeniable benefit of clarifying the relevance of character traits. Yet the specific limits they put to the explanatory capacity of character traits is questionable. Mark’s sentiment towards his niece results from the combination of a number of dispositions that are elicited by different qualities of his niece as well as by a number of different situations in which his attachment to her eventually developed. While this confirms that character does yield justificatory reasons in favour of emotions, it does not attribute to character any long-standing intentional relation independent of the emotional experience itself. Indeed, Mark’s love does not need to be caused by any specific property of her niece in order to be motivated. Following an Aristotelian model of character formation, it can be argued that an inclination to behave or feel in a certain way need not result directly from a disposition to have that kind of inclination as a response to a certain kind of feature (Webber 2006). It follows that, while character cannot fully explain why we feel certain emotions towards others, the relation between character, emotion, and felt situation needs to be grounded on a different kind of interdependence. Accordingly, the notion of character should not be reduced to a settled disposition that is established once and for all, but rather as an attitude in light of which a range of different emotional experiences are available, thereby modifying and enriching one’s own personality.

In my view, to claim that character offers a more positive contribution to emotions is not to vindicate a deterministic view of character traits. On the contrary, it means that emotions and affects can be investigated not just in terms of their solicitation to act, but rather as instituting a dimension wherein one’s own character evolves and changes by developing affective ties to the felt situation. This calls for a reconsideration of the role of habitude as structuring the relation between character, emotion, and situation. In the following, I propose to look at this problem from a phenomenological perspective. More precisely, I argue that a preliminary clarification of the notion of motivation enables us to discern the different layers of motives that operate within emotional experiences. I will mainly draw on Husserl’s and Merleau-Ponty’s accounts of motives, as they offer the tools to revisit the relation between emotion and action as well as that between emotions and character.

3 Motivation is said in Many Ways

As is well known, Husserl draws, in Ideas II, an interesting distinction between motives and causes. Unlike causes, motives are not “real” in that they refer to the development of personality (what he calls Geist) rather than to alterations and changes in nature. Unlike reasons, motives cannot be reduced to definite and explicit goals to which a subject directs her action, because they also address the passive or pre-reflective level of experience. More precisely, Husserl distinguishes motivations of reason, which are active and conscious, from associations, habits, and analogical nexuses. This partly corresponds to Bratman’s (1987) distinction between deliberative and non-deliberative intentions. Deliberative intentions are formed on the basis of deliberation about A at t 2 . In contrast, I might have formed this intention not on the basis of present deliberation but rather at some earlier time, t 0 , and have retained it from t 0 to t 1 without reconsidering it. In this case my intention is non-deliberative.

For Bratman, deliberative intentions require reasoning and a conscious disposition to undertake a certain course of action against a background of prior plans and beliefs. Non-deliberative intentions, in contrast, need not be explicitly recalled at a given time in order to be carried out, for they are embedded in the outlook of the agent. Bratman also lists a third type of intention, which he calls policy-based and that refers to the general policy of acting in certain sorts of ways in certain kinds of circumstances. For example, one may have the policy of turning down a second drink before driving home. In these cases, one complies with a given policy that is the product of deliberation, and yet deliberation is not required in order to apply the policy in a certain situation.

Husserl’s account differs in two important respects from Bratman’s. First, Husserl’s account does not consist in a list of different senses of motivation. On the contrary, he offers (particularly in §56 of Ideas II) a genetic reconstruction of how different types of motives cohere together in constituting the subject of concrete intention. Second, Husserl’s view of motivation is not restricted to the explication of agency, for it addresses the whole structure of experience. As stressed by Paci (1968), motivation encompasses a broad variety of experiences, from which the personal ego—the subject who takes a stance—stands out. Let me briefly focus on each layer of motives separately.

3.1 Active Motivation: Motivations of Reason (Ego-Motivation)

Motivations of reason are deliberate, since they depend on the active role of the subject in so far as s/he judges, values, or entertains a cogito that is linked to another in virtue of nexuses of logical consequences and conscious judgments. Motivations of reason can be interpreted noetically (e.g. in that the subject draws conclusions from her own theses) or noematically (e.g. where the focus is on the matter of each thesis, which is linked to another in terms of sedimentations of earlier sense-content). It is worth noting that motivations of reason can also be irrational. For example, when the subject fails to take responsibility for what s/he believes to be true and lets herself be drawn by impulses or instincts, she is motivated by reason only relatively. Arguably, Husserl suggests that motivations of reason require the actualisation of a cogito taken as the premise in light of which the ego determines its own attitude. This, however, is not to deny the role of affects and emotions, which entail a different form of motivation, e.g. passive motivation.

3.2 Passive Motivation: Associations and Habits

Passive motivation is crucially dependent on the sedimentation or precipitation (Niederschläge) of earlier acts. These latter can be either rational acts that are originally posited by the ego but are connected independently of the ego’s contribution, or they involve sensibility and the passive sphere of experience. In both cases, once a connection is formed, there exists a tendency to follow or to continue in a direction of similarity. For example, I am used to grapping the pen in the way that feels most comfortable to the grip of my right hand, and I am subjected to hidden associations between ideas and images that lead me to wonder how I linked them together in the first place. In this case, Husserl’s general goal is to avoid any infinite regress in order to examine the pre-reflective ground of associative connections. In this respect, Husserl’s analysis centres on the affective prominence of sensory unities. As shown by Nuki (1998), one can think of associations in terms of transmissions of awakening that involve the receptivity of sensibility. Here, association is not a function of sheer succession from one act to another. Quite to the contrary, association emerges passively when one constitutive moment of an act appears against the background of an already formed and homogenous sensory field. Husserl’s idea is that in association there exists a transmission of awakening such that whatever stands out from a certain sensory field acquires affective prominence, thereby generating a transfer of attention to a new sensory formation.

At this level, one can see that the essential feature of the law of motivation is—as Husserl puts it—a relation of existential positing: the existence of an act (e.g. listening to a melody; touching the pen) demands a complementing act (e.g. apperceiving the tune; grabbing the pen). Complementarity does not refer to any cause-effect connection, but rather to the unification that results from apprehension and sensory content at the level of affectivity. When I sing the tune of a song I enjoy, I expect that there will be a certain unfolding of the melody, although I cannot anticipate it before listening. Thus, my expectation is not built upon recollection, for I may not have heard that melody before. Likewise, objects that are given in my perceptual horizon solicit affective tendencies that are integral to my original apprehension of them. Motivation is the law that institutes intentional nexuses between sensibility, perception, and time consciousness, forming sedimentations of sense contents that are constituted independently of the active contribution of the ego.

With regard to this, Husserl stresses the parallel between active and passive motivation. While the former consists in active acts of position-taking (Stellungnahme), such as judgments, the latter inscribes the possibility of meaningful connections on affectivity. Yet these two forms of motivation cohere together in that passive motivation provides the former with a background of solicitations that can be fulfilled or not by the ego. Additionally, passive motivation can enter relations of judgment by constituting implicit connections that can be eventually taken up by the ego and endorsed in acts of judgment. But how can passive motivation contribute to active position-taking, given that the latter, unlike the former, involves a predicative form and conscious deliberation? At this level, it is necessary to reconsider the role of “habitus” in this section of Ideas II. Habit is a fundamental ingredient of passive motivation in that it consists in a passive form of position-taking, namely in an implicit form of assent.

Husserl introduces habitus at the pre-predicative level of experience in order to account for the way in which we constitute perceptual regularities on the basis of which—by apperceptive transfer—other objects of a similar kind also appear in a preliminary familiarity and are anticipated according to a horizon. We could say that the instauration of habit corresponds to the iteration of a series of transmissions of awakening, which inscribe a pattern on sensibility. Basically, the operations involved in apprehending and explicating the sense-meaning of an object are unified and retained in habit in such a way that, when a new occurrence of the object is available, it is given within a familiar horizon.1 However, for Husserl, when I perceive something I do not simply see something in the flesh, I also posit it as valid until something else will change or modify my original certainty (Husserl 1939, §21). It is in virtue of this connection between receptivity and certainty, which is established through habit, that the world presents itself to me as familiar and known. Accordingly, various sensory experiences are simultaneously unified and integrated as one’s own dispositions towards specific situations.

In this perspective, circumstances are apperceived as familiar because habit holds together our perception of the object as well as our assent to the event. For this reason, Husserl speaks of “habitus”, meaning the disposition that provides the nexus between sensibility, perception, and the felt situation. As a result,—precisely because the internalisation brought about by habit involves assent—habit is not blind. For Husserl, habit cannot be resolved into sheer automaticity and repetition, for it consists in the institution of a horizon of potential experiences (Moran 2011). Unlike the standard conception of habit as “not knowing what one does when s/he is doing it”, habit indicates that, even when we are not consciously entertaining any thoughts, a permanent possession, which Husserl calls habitual knowledge (habituelles Wissen) (Husserl 1939, p. 137; 1973, p. 122), is involved.

This process also helps explain the integration between passive and active motivation at the level of judgments and beliefs. Using Husserl’s example, having once believed M, with a certain sense and under a certain mode of representation, I then believe M again in a new case (Hua IV, p. 224; 1989, p. 235). This corresponds to Bratman’s notion of policy-based intention: my belief that drinking a second glass of wine before driving home is not wise holds even when I do not deliberate about it. When I hold the belief M, I stick to a certain connection of ideas without necessarily reflecting upon the reasons why I judged M to be true. Unlike Bratman’s view, however, Husserl’s argument suggests that policy-based intentions do not depend on lack of deliberation, but rather on the internalisation of motives that connect my original commitment to the character and features of the actual situation. This is not to say that any intentional act is marked by habituality in the sheer sense of following a route. In fact, Husserl warns against the confusion of occurrences of motivation with occurrences of habituality. While habit represents the glue of passive motivation and contributes to the sedimentation of webs of motives into a pattern, motivation comprises a broad spectrum of intentional acts that is not reducible to habit.

3.3 Empirical Motivation: Analogy

Empirical motivation consists in the web of solicitations originated by the sense data or hyle of perceptual acts. Such solicitations run back and forth, having the possibility of being fulfilled in actual experiences or not. For example, the taste of the Sachertorte I enjoy on my first visit to Vienna brings me back the sensuous enjoyment of the Sachertorte I first tasted when I was a student in my home country. While I do not entertain any conscious representation of the Sachertorte I originally had as a student, a web of expectations surrounds the Sachertorte I eat in Vienna for the first time, just like the well known madeleine moment in Proust. Such expectations are linked to the sensible qualities of the cake, and they can be fulfilled or frustrated depending on the actual qualities of the Sachertorte I enjoy in the present. This suggests that our experience of objects and events is open to affective solicitations that are not completely under our control, and yet they constitute an atmosphere that is affective and sensuous in nature.

4 Toward an Account of Emotional Space

The difference between a passive and an active sense of motivation is characteristic of Husserl’s account and reflects two different yet connected senses of subjective position-taking. On the one hand, the personal ego is constituted on the basis of our reflections and evaluations. By consciously endorsing certain beliefs and positions, the ego eventually forms its personality as reflecting her choices, values, and beliefs. It is only when we take up certain motives as our own that we manifest freedom as agents, i.e. as persons and subjects of rational choices (Hua IV, §§59–60). On the other hand, passive motives form an affective background within which we apperceive events, gestures, and expressions as emotionally salient or relevant to us.2 While the active sense of motivation is at stake in contemporary accounts of emotions, the second one suggests that the relation between character and emotion requires a more complex view of the self.

In several places, Husserl refers to the constitution of an environing world or Umwelt that is completely actual for the self and represents the sphere in which the ego lives and acts (Hua XI, p. 162; 2001, p. 210). In his Introduction to Ethics, Husserl argues that subjectivity creates its own environing world through the various forms of both its waking and passive life. It is precisely through such a dynamic that the ego develops its own personality and character, that is to say an ever-changing habitus (Hua XXVIII, §22).3 The constitution of character is a dynamic process that involves an environing world, wherein the ego unceasingly constitutes itself and is always motivated anew by the sleeping ego. Accordingly, a second nature arises when the habitus of an individual is established as the concordant unity of all her modes of behaviour.

However, the concept of second nature does not amount to the formation of a determined identity based on the repetition of similar actions and behaviours. On the contrary, it reveals the formation of a style, i.e. a unique personal development that retains its identity on the basis of continuous variation and self-transformation.4 Basically, habituality underlies the synthesis of free motivation (e.g. conscious position taking) and passive experience in order to generate an attitude that is characteristic of specific circumstances, but it is also open to revision and temporal updating. Indeed, every new position-taking of the ego institutes a new moment in the personal history of the self. It follows that character, for Husserl, is a dynamic process that constitutes its own surrounding world (Umwelt) in the lived present.5 We can further characterise the notion of Umwelt in terms of emotional space, in order to emphasise that character develops against an affective and emotional background, and it is the interplay with such an environing or affective world that motivates emotions rather than fixed character traits.

For Husserl, emotions have a characteristic structure in that they are founded on objectifying acts like perception, representation, or judgment, which maintain a reference to their intentional objects (e.g. in love the reference is the loved person, in joy the object of joy).6 Furthermore, as Husserl argues in Ideas I:

We are conscious of the value in valuing, the pleasant in being pleased, the joyful in enjoying, but at times in such a way that, in valuing this or that, we are simply not entirely “sure”. Or we may be conscious in such a way that the subject matter merely suggests itself as valuable, as perhaps valuable, while we still refrain from championing it in evaluating it (Hua III/1, p. 243; 2014, p. 233).

This suggests that emotions are value-laden and entail a stance or positing, i.e., an underlying doxic thesis. Emotions are indicative of a corresponding thesis or belief, e.g. an appraisal of the world, that can be made explicit in a predicative form. Yet Husserl also holds that at times we are not sure about the values that are manifested in experience. Indeed, we often go through revisions and reconsiderations of the values we appraise, hence we avoid taking sides.

In this light, feeling an emotion that contradicts our values is not an experience “out of character”. From a Husserlian point of view, emotions presuppose the instauration of an emotional Umwelt in which certain actions are felt to be more or less appropriate depending not only on the value system endorsed by the subject, but also and more importantly on the development of her dispositions within the felt situation. What makes emotions distinctive intentional experiences is the fact that the emotional object is apperceived within an affective horizon, wherein the subject is presented not only with different possibilities for action, but also with different opportunities to assent to or deny the felt values of the situation. In turn, such response is capable of affecting, adjusting, or altering one’s own character and value system. From this perspective, any individual emotional response is not an effect or a result of certain character traits, but rather the expression of one’s own attitude considered in her dynamic interaction with the situation. This is why Swann’s surge of jealousy for Odette cannot be ascribed to either Odette’s or Swann’s respective peculiar traits, but rather to the affective salience that manifests itself in Swann and Odette's encounters and rituals, and that attaches itself to the environing world they share (e.g. the peculiar bond instituted among the members of the Verdurin’s club, or the systematic ritual pursued by Swann in his meetings with Odette). When Swann finds himself deprived of this affective and shared Umwelt, he falls into a spiral of jealousy that reveals, more than his narcissism, the fragmentation of his emotional space.

Following Husserl, it can be argued that the motivation underlying emotions is not to be equated tout court to action tendencies, because emotions are involved in the instauration of an emotional space or Umwelt, wherein a course of action is expected but not anticipated. It is in and through such space that action eventually takes place, but the relation between emotion, motivation, and action is not straightforward. Indeed, motives are responsible for the complementarity of intentional acts, i.e. for the unity and coherence of our experiences, but they do not guarantee any consequentiality or causal relation between character and actions.

The notion of emotional space may help explain why we fall in love with a person that does not even share our values, or why we feel emotions that contradict our principles. Indeed, the “rationality” of emotions depends on the intertwining of habitual disposition and free motivation (Hua IV, §59), that is to say on the free interplay between receptivity and spontaneity. Yet there exists coherence between a person’s set of values and her emotions, for each emotional Umwelt represents the unfolding of character in the constant, surrounding space in which modifications and changes in one’s character are always possible depending on the specifics of the situations as well as on the encounter with other selves.7

In my view, Husserl’s account allows us to reconsider the relation between emotions, motivation, and character in that he brings to light the fact that motivation is both active and passive, hence it cannot be reduced to an inclination to act. On Husserl’s account, passive motivation enables us to feel acquainted with a situation and to develop affective ties that eventually institute our own emotional Umwelt. In this context, the emotional space makes apparent that our appraisal of the situation can be marked by hesitation, uncertainty, or full adherence. From this point of view, the relation between character and emotions is dynamic and stratified and it does not imply any one-way directionality or causal action between the two.

5 The Patterning of Body and World

The notion of emotional space can be further developed by looking at Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, which develops further Husserl’s theory of passive motivation in light of the other relevant features of embodied perception. Like Husserl, Merleau-Ponty argues that motives cannot be reduced to either reasons or causes, as they include objects, states, and events that are present only tacitly in our experience (Wrathall 2004). Most notably, Merleau-Ponty draws attention to the fact that, in emotional experiences, there is a simultaneous patterning of body and world (Merleau-Ponty 2012, p. 219). By this, he means that emotions are embodied in gestures and features of expression that do not simply convey whether one is angry or happy, but they also reveal the physiognomic basis of perception.

As Merleau-Ponty writes: “Already the mere presence of a living body transforms the physical world, bringing to view here ‘food’, there a ‘hiding place’ […]” (Merleau-Ponty 2012, p. 220). According to Merleau-Ponty, our perception of spaces and objects is embedded within a Gestalt that is responsible not only for the coherence and regularity of the perceptual content, but also for the way in which things and events appear to us with a peculiar and familiar tonality. For this reason, a warm place is felt as a shelter or as a hiding place, depending on our dispositions and needs. In short, we do not perceive the environment “neutrally,” for even a city like Paris presents itself to us with an atmosphere and a style that reminds us of an old friend. Such a capacity, which has been correctly identified by Romdenh-Romluc (2009) as “the power of summoning”, is at stake in perception and serves the purpose of linking consciousness to the world though affective and habitual ties. In perception, things appear to us as if they are embedded with a distinct familiarity, whereby the world summons us, i.e. it evokes a horizon of possible experiences where we can project our acting and feelings. The power of summoning that characterises perception is not always the same in everyone and it does change also in the course of one’s life. For example, when I feel nostalgic, the relation between the actual environment and myself is decentred, for I am no longer the centre of it. In this case, I do not project myself in the actual world with an attitude of joy or free expansion, therefore my experience of the environment is gloomy and marked by uncertainty.

In this respect, it is important to notice that, for Merleau-Ponty, the physiognomic patterning of the world establishes coherence on the basis of our bodily acquaintance with situations and events. Following Husserl, Merleau-Ponty argues that association is not obtained in virtue of an act of comparison or by reflection. If the shape of a cloud brings to my mind the profile of the person I love, it is because the pattern that structures my perception of the cloud already bears that resemblance with the profile of the beloved, and not because I compare the cloud with the representation of the beloved. In this sense, perception is imbued with affective features that draw on the emotional Umwelt that one inhabits. Accordingly, on Merleau-Ponty’s account, the transmission of awakening that characterises passive motivation is grounded in our bodily experience, thereby instituting a subterranean logic between the lived body, emotions, and the felt situation.8

In light of Merleau-Ponty’s analysis, the notion of emotional Umwelt can be further enriched and articulated by looking at the way in which the spatiality of one’s own body contributes to creating an “envelope” of habitual action (Merleau-Ponty 2012, p. 106). Bodily movement and kinesthesis facilitate our insertion in the world in such a way that gestures can be considered as having a “melodic character” that accompanies everyday life (Merleau-Ponty 2012, p. 107). When bodily movements unfold, we find out that we possess not just fluidity of action but also a form of self-acquaintance that enables our communication with the outer world. This is why Merleau-Ponty argues that the body does not just have space, but inhabits space (Merleau-Ponty 2012, p. 140). In other words, the body partakes in a system of equivalences and concordances between one’s experience and the range of motor tasks available in specific contexts. It is symptomatic that also for Merleau-Ponty the central element that guarantees the coherent and dynamic unfolding of our orientation in the world is habituality in the form of the body-schema.

The body-schema provides us with a synchronic unity of movement and orientation that is grounded in our sensory-motor processes. By simultaneously delimiting our fields of vision and action, every motor habit instantiates our own bodily space, which, however, does not represent a closed system: “We have the experience of a world, not in the sense of a system of relations that fully determines each event, but in the sense of an open totality whose synthesis can never be completed. We have the experience of an I, not in the sense of an absolute subjectivity, but rather one that is indivisibly unmade and remade by the course of time” (Merleau-Ponty 2012, p. 228). When an alteration (either pathological or non-pathological) occurs in our affective and kinaesthetic horizon it reverberates as a fragmentation of our primordial orientation in the world, for in those cases the perceptual field loses its “plasticity” (Merleau-Ponty 2012, p. 133).

If an individual's Umwelt manifests such patterning of body and world, it can be argued that emotions like grief, anger, joy or happiness are not simply manifestations of states and feelings, but affective tonalities of the Umwelt. Joy and grief are two distinct emotions that reverberate in my own Umwelt, tinging events and subject with a tonality that reflects my own projection in the world, whether as free expansion or as impoverishment. In this sense, the notion of emotional space is particularly relevant when it comes to explicating the lived experience of others. While the problem of empathy requires a more extensive discussion that I cannot provide in this article, I wish to suggest that the concept of emotional place may play a crucial role for understanding the phenomenology of intersubjectivity. As is well known, on both Husserl’s and Merleau-Ponty’s accounts, empathy is a specific, pre-reflective experience that involves our apperception of other embodied selves. As such, empathy draws on the passive sphere of experience, and it is strictly different from both conscious inferring and simulation, because it depends on associative nexuses established at the level of affectivity (Zahavi 2014). Yet this does not mean that our basic and primary experience of others lacks social or cultural significance. In empathy, there is a fundamental encounter between different styles and characters (Hua IV, §60). While a total capture of the other’s style cannot be achieved because of the dynamic nature of character, Husserl nonetheless argues that we can follow the other’s motives, thereby making intuitive the other’s history and development. As Pugliese has pointed out (Pugliese 2004, p. 91), every experience that we have of the other has to become archaeology in order to bring to light the essential turning points of one’s own story.

Thus, Husserl arguably suggests that our experience of others admits different layers of stratification. This is what he hints at in the second book of Ideas when he differentiates between the constitution of the psychophysical subject and the notion of subject as character and personality. Following out another’s motives does not entail that we need to figure out another’s course of action. In fact, it means that we co-share or co-participate in another’s Umwelt, and that someone else’s emotional space is apperceived analogously. Importantly, through empathy, we seek to understand another’s existential projection in the world (Ratcliffe 2008). In order to do so, we draw not just on the passive repertoire of our bodily experience, but we also engage in a more complex stance of interpretation of another’s affective background. In this sense, the stratification of motivation is essential for understanding empathy as the intersubjective dimension that discloses the integration between passive motives and features of character and personality. In this perspective, the notion of emotional space does not anticipate the course of action chosen by the subject, but it illuminates the non-causal entanglement between character, bodily experience, and motivation.

6 Conclusions

In light of the notion of emotional space, it is possible to uncover the nature of emotions as bodily responses to felt situations. While contemporary accounts of emotions stress the active role of motivation, I have argued that motives have a passive dimension that plays a more fundamental role in relation to character. In this regard, the phenomenological perspective that I have outlined emphasises that character is constituted at the pre-reflective level of experience and it is then subjected to a continuous process of questioning and self-appropriation, having its own style and evaluative stance. In this light, emotions play a key role in that they disclose the affective resonance that permeates the subject as well as her relation to the lived situation, including other subjects. This suggests that we can speak of an emotional subject besides the psychophysical self and the practical agent. The emotional subject is rooted in the psychophysical realm of motives and affects, and it represents the dimension in which the surrounding world constantly resonates with possibilities and anticipations that may or may not be followed out, and whose development is neither linear nor consequential.

It is important to notice that, from a phenomenological point of view, we would never expect that a subject conducts herself according to standards of behaviour that are rooted in character’s traits. This because character evolves over time and apperceives events and situation within an emotional space that may influence but does not determine the course of action chosen by the subject. Yet this is not to deny responsibility and agency, for what holds us responsible for our actions lies not in our character traits, but rather in our conscious acts of willing and acting. Like the musical phrase that spellbinds Swann, it can be said that the relationship between habit, character, and emotion consists in a web of motives that articulates and makes intelligible our participation in the life-world but does not define our actual personality once and for all.


  1. 1.

    Not by chance, the position-taking at stake in habituality is ultimately rooted in the structure of time consciousness, and more precisely in the net of intentional acts that underlie our memories and expectations (Hua IV, p. 227; 1989, p. 239).

  2. 2.

    This is an important aspect that characterises Husserl’s account of pre-reflective experience, which is not as unchangeable and stable as it is often supposed (see, for instance, Ratcliffe’s critique of Husserl on the sense of reality: Ratcliffe 2008, pp. 70ff). The notion of affective background in Husserl is also very close to that of mood, as shown by Lee (1998) and Quepons Ramiréz (2015).

  3. 3.

    As is well known, Ideas II addresses several notions of the I (e.g. the self of the lived body, psyche, spirit), which are not equivalent to each other, although all of them are grounded on the transcendental unity of the ego. For a discussion of this problem, see Ferrarin (2017). In this paper, however, my argument is limited to the notion of personal character.

  4. 4.

    For Husserl’s notion of style, see Meacham (2013, pp. 16–17): “Because style is instituted, it is constantly in the process of reforming itself by referring-back to its own developmental history in such a manner that its history is continuously acting upon it in new ways. At the same time, its history is retroactively transformed in its own development. And yet, an individual style retains its identity precisely on the basis of this continuous back-referral, because it refers back to an idiosyncratic pathway of development unique to that ego”.

  5. 5.

    Contrast this with Scheler’s view of the value-laden “shell” carried along by each individual and whose law of formation is prescribed—rather than instituted—by the value structure of the milieu (Scheler 1973, p. 100): “Man is encased, as though in a shell, in the particular ranking of the simplest values and value-qualities which represent the objective side of his ordo amoris, values which have not yet been shaped into things and goods. He carries this shell along with him wherever he goes and cannot escape from it no matter how quickly he runs. He perceives the world and himself through the windows of this shell, and perceives no more of the world, of himself, or of anything else besides what these windows show him, in accordance with their position, size, and colour. The structure and total content of each man’s environment, which is ultimately organised according to its value structure, does not wander or change, even though he himself wanders further and further in space”.

  6. 6.

    For a discussion of Husserl’s account of emotions with respect to the relation between their presentational and affective dimensions see Drummond (2013).

  7. 7.

    In his course notes from the College de France (1954–1955) on Institution and Passivity, Merleau-Ponty takes into account the concept of the institution of feelings by referring to Proust. Even though Merleau-Ponty was more interested in spelling out the problem of self-delusion and narcissism in Proust’s description of love, Merleau-Ponty notices that emotions are bound to the felt situation according to a process of sedimentation. In the case of Swann’s falling in love, Merleau-Ponty notices that “love is not created by circumstances, or by decision; it consists in the way questions and answers are linked together—by means of an attraction, something more slips in, we discover not exactly what we were seeking, but something else that is interesting. The initial Sinngebung [is] confirmed, but in a different direction, and yet that is not without a relation with the initial donation of sense” (Merleau-Ponty 2010, p. 39). Merleau-Ponty’s idea is that the relation between character, motives, and emotions is structured along a process of institution, which coincides with “the foundation of a personal history on the basis of contingency” (Merleau-Ponty 2010, p. 36). For a discussion of emotions as institutions in Merleau-Ponty see Maclaren (2017).

  8. 8.

    As shown by Heinämaa (2008), Merleau-Ponty employs the notion of sedimentation to account for the necessary temporary relations resulting between perceivable objects and the constitutive originarity of the body. Far from outlining a mere accumulation of events and experiences, the process of sedimentation refers to the emergence of spontaneity out of contingency.



I presented shorter versions of this paper on the occasion of the following meetings: the conference Aesthetics of Emotions. Art and the Cognitive Sciences organised by Prof. Maddalena Mazzocut-Mis at the University of Milan in October 2016, the staff work-in-progress meeting of the UCD School of Philosophy in November 2016, and the 48th Meeting of the Husserl Circle in July 2017. I would like to thank all the participants in these events for the opportunity to discuss this paper and for their encouraging feedbacks. I am also grateful to Fabrizio Desideri, Alessandra Fussi, Alfredo Ferrarin, Niall Keane, Alice Pugliese, Jeremy Smith, and Salvatore Tedesco for reading and commenting on previous drafts of this paper. The completion of this article was made possible by research grants funded by the University of Milan in collaboration with ACRI and the Irish Research Council for Social Science and Humanities.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.UCD School of PhilosophyBelfield, Dublin 4Ireland

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