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Piper’s question and ours: a role for adversity in group-centred views of non-agentive shame


This paper aims to contribute to ‘group-centred views’ of non-agentive shame (victim shame, oppression shame), by linking them to an ‘anepistemic’ model of the experience and impact of human failing. One of the most vexing aspects of those group-centred views remains how susceptivity to such shame ought to be understood. This contribution focuses on how a basic familiarity with adversity, in everyday life, may open individuals up to these forms of shame. If, per group-centred views, non-agentive shame is importantly driven by participation in social practices with others, a better understanding of the impact of adversity on individuals’ lives may offer a way of explaining how embodied experience instils in individuals a need for such participation. The upshot is an understanding of the individual’s susceptivity to non-agentive shame, which affords it the same legitimacy as more conventional notions of shame.

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  1. Williams (1993, 77–78). Williams was not arguing for a necessary heteronomy of shame per se, but was rather exploring whether shame need not always be heteronomous. Cf. Hutchinson (2008, 143–144).

  2. Wolheim (1999, 159).

  3. For a contrasting view, cf. Elster (2004, 152).

  4. Wollheim (1999, 150).

  5. For a related concern, cf. Wollheim’s objection to the social constructivist’s deferral of the question of feeling in emotions (1999, 253–254).

  6. In anticipation of such a worry, Maibom has argued that appropriateness need not figure as an essential feature of shame, as long as the functional reality of social norms in shame has been shown to take precedence over any more abstract or universal set of normative conditions for shame (2010, 588–589). Likewise, Calhoun claims that interpretations of social norms according to which an oppressed person feels shamed may have that power to shame only by way of their “sheer conventionality” (2004, 143).

  7. Smilansky (2007, 13), Williams (2002, 116) and Gilbert (2004, 19).

  8. Orth et al. (2006, 1610).

  9. For a comparable description of shame, cf. Lynd's description of the “incongruity” of shame feelings (1963, 42).

  10. Calhoun (2004, 143).

  11. I am grateful to Alba Montes Sánchez for this insight. One question here, beyond our scope, is how particular this feature is to non-agentive shame. One also says to the unsuccessful marathoner or the profligate snooker player that they should feel no shame and be proud just for having competed. We also ‘protest’ in their cases, in other words, at the implication of shame at their failure.

  12. Piper (1996, 76).

  13. Brison (1993, 6).

  14. Lanning (2009, 403) and Goodman and Epstein (2008, 103).

  15. Maibom (2010) and D’Arms and Jacobson (2003).

  16. Jenner (2004, 244).

  17. Du Toit (2009, 81), citing Raine (1998).

  18. Cf. Silfver (2007, 179) and Fanon (1986, 116).

  19. Piper (1996, 77).

  20. Cf. Gilbert (2004, 10). One finding that might contravene this description is in Tangney and Dearing’s research on the correlation between shame and a kind of anger or venting directed at the shaming other. However, in the research they present, there is little attempt to distinguish between shame and humiliation, and in our view the ‘anger’ effects they observe may be accounted for by circumstances of humiliation (2002, 96–97). On the distinction between shame and humiliation, see below.

  21. Petersen (2003, 116). Cf. also Amar and Burgess (2009, 69 ff.).

  22. Hazelwood and Burgess (2009, 91). According to Petersen (2003, 115–116), these approaches are vital to the healing process for victims of abuse and violence.

  23. For a related account, cf. Thomasen (2015, 11ff).

  24. Calhoun (2004, 141, 138).

  25. Calhoun (2004, 141, 138).

  26. Cf. also Sánchez (2015) for a related critique.

  27. Zahavi (2014, 222).

  28. Zahavi (2014, 225). Cf. also Zahavi (2014, 213): “Shame makes me aware of not being in control and of having my foundation outside myself. The other’s gaze confers a truth upon me that I do not master, and over which I am, in that moment, powerless (….) Thus, to feel shame, according to Sartre, is to recognize and accept the other’s evaluation, if ever so fleetingly. It is to identify with the object that the other looks at and judges.”

  29. Zahavi (2014, 226–227). On this point, Zahavi’s position seems to align with Kekes, who insists that “it is essential that we ourselves should accept the standard [we fall short of], otherwise we would not feel badly about falling short of it” (1988, 283). For a critical discussion of this position, which anticipates Calhoun’s, cf. Buss (1999, 528–529).

  30. Zahavi (2014, 228).

  31. Cf. Zahavi’s examples of the first aid giver and the niqab abstainer (2014, 227).

  32. Zahavi (2014, 228).

  33. Sartre (1998, 222, 262, trans. changed).

  34. Zahavi (2014, 227–228).

  35. Cf. also Sartre (1998, 245): “[Shame] reveals me as a being which is my being without being for me.”

  36. Sartre (1998, 262–263).

  37. Zahavi (2014, 227).

  38. Fanon (1986, 213–216).

  39. Zahavi (2014, 226–227).

  40. Zahavi (2014, 226–227).

  41. Zahavi (2014, 226–227).

  42. Gilbert (2004, 10).

  43. On this analysis of the distinction between humiliation and shame, one may take issue with Thomasen’s analysis of shame (2015). Thomasen's account, especially with its focus on violence as a response of feeling that one is losing control over one’s identity, may be more apt for describing humiliation, insofar as she focuses on a ‘competition’ between how one sees oneself and how others do (2015, 13). If our analyses is correct, however, descriptors such as ‘competition’ and ‘tension’ may not yet suffice for describing shame; as we have tried to show, even in non-agentive shame with its heterology there is not just a competing version of oneself that one is confronted with, and over which one may attempt to regain power. The shameful self is painful not because one has lost control or power over one’s identity (Calhoun’s specter of weakness once more) but because how it seems to fit me, to inexorably turn me towards a truth about myself, whatever my convictions and my self-conception, from which I cannot turn away.

  44. Though she does not distinguish shame and humiliation, Lynd intimates that there may be a difference of intensity between the two, where the latter is much more about an exposure of oneself (1963, 29).

  45. Cropanzano et al (2011, 58).

  46. Cropanzano et al (2011, 58).

  47. Fanon, for instance, describes this as an “infernal circle” dominating one’s life: “I am the slave not of the idea that others have of me but of my own appearance” (1986, 116). For victims of rape, Du Toit calls this “the falling away of a relatively dependable, predictable world capable of being transformed into conformity with her projects and intentions” (2009, 94).

  48. Zahavi (2014, 227). Cf. Gilbert (2004, 11).

  49. On this point, Calhoun critiques Bartky’s understanding of gender shame. Cf. Bartky (1990, 83–99).

  50. Calhoun (2004, 136–137). Cf. also Calhoun (2004, 136): “No rational, mature person who firmly rejects her subordinate social status would feel shame in the face of sexist, racist, homophobic or classist expressions of contempt.”

  51. Calhoun (2004, 137).

  52. Lewis (2010, 742).

  53. Cf. Orth et al (2006, 1609): “In contrast to guilt, the key aspect of shame is that the individual perceives failure of the self in meeting important social standards (and not only moral but also competence and aesthetic standards).”

  54. A further important component of this model is the question of how to explain one’s failures, that is, of the so-called causal or ‘dispositional attribution’ for one’s failure. This sense of attribution is to be distinguished from the self-attribution just mentioned, insofar as here it is a question of exploring reasons; once there is awareness that the failure or success is my own, there is the question of what causal or situational factors it may be put down to, and what it is about oneself or one’s milieu that contributed to the failure. One influential example of this perspective is Weiner’s, which isolates different modalities that affect how causal attributions are made. These include explanatory factors such as internality and externality (locus), controllability, stability (stability and effort), globality (Weiner 2006, 8–9, 2010, 31, 34).

  55. Where shame for the frustrated act ensues from the process “wish/plan/affect/action/affect” (Nathanson 1992, 160).

  56. Sartre (1998, 324–325): “Bachelard rightly reproaches phenomenology for not sufficiently taking into account what he calls the "coefficient of adversity" in objects. (….) But we must understand that the instrumentality is primary: it is in relation to an original instrumental complex that things reveal their resistance and their adversity.”

  57. Sartre (1998, 324): “We never have any sensation of our effort (….) We perceive the resistance of things. What I perceive when I want to lift this glass to my mouth is not my effort but the heaviness of the glass—that is, its resistance to entering into an instrumental complex which I have made appear in the world.”

  58. Sartre (2004a, 330): “It is at this level that the matter to be worked, as passive resistance, makes itself a negation of man in so far as man negates the existing state of affairs; fatigue is being in so far as it is distinct from knowledge and from praxis, in so far as its inert capacity can be reduced only through an expenditure of energy.”

  59. Sartre (2004a, 85): “Resistance and, consequently, negative forces can exist only within a movement which is determined in accordance with the future, that is to say, in accordance with a certain form of integration. If the end to be attained were not fixed from the beginning, how could one even conceive of a restraint?”.

  60. Cf. Sartre (1992, 82): “We are therefore in the untenable situation that nothing comes from the outside to break up our efforts so long as they are experienced in freedom, and yet these efforts have their destiny outside of themselves” (trans. changed).

  61. Cf. Sartre (1960, 49): “When I run after a streetcar, when I look at the time, when I am absorbed in contemplating a portrait, there is no I. There is consciousness of the streetcar-having-to-be-overtaken, etc., and non-positional consciousness of consciousness. In fact, I am then plunged into the world of objects; it is they which constitute the unity of my consciousness: it is they which present themselves with values, with attractive and repellant qualities—but me, I have disappeared.”

  62. The notion here echoes an earlier finding by Husserl; while all intentionality is embodied or “bound to a body,” these intentions have no sensuous appearance or localization within the body. In other words, there is something artificial about the idea that a calculating intention would be in my head or a touching intention would be in my finger [“my finger is touching the table”] (Husserl 1989, 160–161).

  63. And this is minimally so according to Sartre: hence the notion of ‘irreflective intentions.’

  64. Sartre (1998, 61): “There is no inertia in consciousness.”

  65. Cf. Merleau-Ponty (2012, 74).

  66. Importantly for Sartre, however, this way of encountering resistance does not only hold true for practical intentions to be realized through one’s body. The same character of resistance is evinced in ‘purely’ mental acts as well. For instance, both sugar cubes and paintings can serve as a basis for imagining the Alhambra palace in Granada; neither ‘analogon’ or material ground of the image makes the imaginative intention less spontaneous than the other. Nonetheless, it is still possible to say from Sartre’s perspective that the sugar cube may put up some resistance to the imaginative act, and that the act will only be achieved with difficulty, if at all. How would such resistance, and concomitantly, the failure of the imaginative act, be experienced? Precisely as a perceptual experience of the qualities of the sugar cube, its inner shaded whiteness, its crystalline structure, and so on. Cf. Sartre (2004b, 26, 28): “The matter of the portrait itself solicits the spectator to effect the synthesis, because the painter has given it a perfect resemblance to the subject. The matter of the imitation is a human body. It is rigid, it resists. The imitator is small, stout, brunette; a woman, she imitates a man. The result is that the imitation is approximate.”

  67. This explains Sartre’s insistence on the strong link between instrumentality and resistance. Such instrumentality has a double significance for any experience of resistance; on the one hand, there can be no resistance without ‘projecting/intending of an end,’ and on the other, there can be no resistance other than what appears as the ‘as/to’ of that end, namely the instrumental qualities of that means. Cf. note 21 above.

  68. Sartre (1960, 48). In this regard, our understanding of effort according to Sartre differs from Peckitt’s (2010), for whom the experience of pain would constitute an important challenge to the Sartrean thesis. On our view, Peckitt too readily assimilates pain with effort, and the pain felt within one’s own body with the way actions may appear to be painful.

  69. That is, how Sartre would account for the (non)experience of effort as a passive quality of the ego within the framework of analysis of Sartre (1960). It would moreover be worthwhile to contrast this Sartrean standpoint on failing with Heidegger’s view of a similar phenomenon, which comes down (for Heidegger) to a confrontation with a form of understanding or ‘primordial cognition’ that underlies all comportment or intention: “When we merely stare at something, our just-having-it-before-us lies before us as a failure to understand it any more. This grasping which is free of the ‘as,’ is a privation of the kind of seeing in which one merely understands. It is not more primordial than that kind of seeing, but is derived from it” (Heidegger 1962, 190).

  70. Sartre (1998, 488–489): “Thus, the world by coefficients of adversity reveals to me the way in which I stand in relation to the ends which I assign myself, so that I can never know if it is giving me information about myself or about it”.

  71. Buss (1999, 527).

  72. Sartre (1998, 384, emphasis added).

  73. In this respect we are going beyond related accounts of Sartre that posit such a need for evaluation as “coming naturally to us” (Buss 1999, 529) or the product of an undesirable if inexplicable tension between “identity and self-conception” (Thomasen 2015, 13), while at the same time establishing a link with Calhoun’s central claim that shame stems from the practices of social life (2004, 145).

  74. For an interesting related account, cf. Mui (2005).

  75. Sartre (1998, 473–474).

  76. Piper (1996, 85, 79).

  77. Piper (1996, 76).

  78. Piper (1996, 78–79).

  79. Cf. the study by Lindsay-Hartz et al (1995), reported by Gilbert, on the connection between falling short and shame, in which “participants [when ashamed] talked about being who they did not want to be. That is, they experienced themselves as embodying an anti-ideal, rather than simply not being who they wanted to be” (2004, 19).

  80. Piper (1996, 78).

  81. Calhoun (2004, 145), On Calhoun’s position on how emotions are disconnected from knowledge or belief, cf. Calhoun (2003, 246–247). This notion of a desire for social integration animating or underlying shame is also not far removed from Maibom’s GCV, which locates in “proto-shame” a similar need for individuals to be cleansed and thereby (re-)integrated into the social group (2010).

  82. Cf. Sartre (1998, 222): “Shame is an immediate shudder which runs through me from head to foot without any discursive preparation. In addition the comparison is impossible; I am unable to bring about any relation between what I am in the intimacy of the For-Itself, without distance, without recoil, without perspective, and this unjustifiable being-in-itself which I am for the Other.” On shame as experience of the “limited self,” cf. also Sartre (1998, 286).

  83. Brison (1993, 13, 6).

  84. In this way, our account allows for a reading of Sartre that goes beyond the ‘actually present witness’ model of shame for which he has been criticized most notably by Taylor (1985, 58). As well, it may shed more light on the social relevance of Sartre’s earlier, phenomenological work.

  85. One contrast here would be Buss’s account, in which an individual’s sense of freedom could only be indicative of a kind of indifference to or negation of the social ties underlying shame (1999, 527).


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Vassilicos, B. Piper’s question and ours: a role for adversity in group-centred views of non-agentive shame. Cont Philos Rev 52, 241–264 (2019).

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  • Shame
  • Adversity
  • Oppression
  • Violence
  • Participation