The audience in shame


Many experiences of shame centrally involve exposure. This has suggested to a number of writers that shame is essentially a social emotion that involves being exposed to the view or appraisal of an audience—call this the Audience Thesis. Others reject the Audience Thesis on the basis of private experiences of shame that seem to involve no exposure. This disagreement marks a basic fault line in theorizing about shame. I develop and explore a simple but effective way to shield the Audience Thesis from the private shame objection, by understanding the notion of an audience in a very minimal way. Rather than conceiving of the audience in terms of an other whose appraisal is an element in shame, we can conceive of shame generally as a response to appraisals of the subject—either by others or by the subject herself. On this view, shame requires an audience in the sense that it is not a first-order self-appraisal—like disappointment in or disapproval of oneself—but rather an appraisal of appraisals. This approach yields substantial benefits: it renders the private shame objection harmless; it explains why exposure cases strike us as particularly paradigmatic instances of shame; it clarifies what is happening when we feel shame before appraisals with which we do not agree; it helps to understand how it may be possible to feel shame in the face of neutral or even positive appraisals; and it captures a significant but neglected sense in which shame might be considered a social emotion.

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  1. 1.

    I have in mind particularly Gabriele Taylor’s (1985) and Sarah Buss’s (1999) accounts of shame, discussed below in Sect. 4.

  2. 2.

    For instance, in a recent and significant book-length treatment of shame, a critical discussion of the claim that shame requires an audience considers three different ways of understanding this claim, none of which correspond to the understanding proposed here (see Deonna et al. 2012: 27–33; cf. Deonna and Teroni 2011: 195–196).

  3. 3.

    In this way, shame can serve as a case study for a possible broader inquiry into a class of “social” emotions defined in this way.

  4. 4.

     In addition to Aristotle, Deigh cites Aquinas, Descartes, Spinoza, Darwin, and Sartre as incorporating a concern for others’ opinions into their definitions of shame (1996: 240). Allegiance to the Audience Thesis thus cuts across philosophical traditions. Sartre, for example, writes that shame “is in its primary structure shame before somebody … shame is shame of oneself before the Other” (1943: 302–303).

  5. 5.

     See also, e.g., Maibom (2010: 569) and Galligan (2014: 64). The Audience Thesis also has proponents in the psychological literature. See particularly Leary (2007: 45), and also, e.g., Baldwin and Baccus (2004), Kemeny et al. (2004) and Elison (2005).

  6. 6.

    See also Deonna et al. (2012: Chap. 5). This position is again also represented in the psychological literature. See, e.g., Tracy and Robins (2007: 11).

  7. 7.

    See also, e.g., Nussbaum (2004: 184) and Mason (2010: 418–419). The psychologists Tracy and Robins similarly characterize shame in terms of personal ideals (2007: 11).

  8. 8.

    A related family of views consists of what might be called self-esteem accounts. John Rawls, for instance, defines shame as “the feeling that someone has when he experiences an injury to his self-respect or suffers a blow to his self-esteem” (1971: 442); see also Galligan (2014). For reasons of space I focus here on personal-ideals accounts.

  9. 9.

    For examples of this sort of case and discussion, see Calhoun (2004: 128, 135–138), Deigh (1996: 233–235, 238), Maibom (2010: 572–573) and Galligan (2014: 66).

  10. 10.

    For instance, an ideal of being able to control one’s self-presentation. For an account of shame that gives this ideal a central role, see Velleman (2001).

  11. 11.

    For an example of this strategy for accommodating exposure shame within a personal-ideals account, see Deonna and Teroni (2011: 208) and Deonna et al. (2012: 129–131).

  12. 12.

    For discussion of this point, see Deigh (1996: 231–232) and Deonna and Teroni (2011: 211).

  13. 13.

    For one attempt to respond to these problems from the perspective of a personal-ideals account, see Deonna et al. (2012: 114–118). Very roughly, Deonna et al. suggest that negative self-appraisals like disappointment are generally “less severe” than shame (2012: 115). This strikes me, at least, as doubtful.

  14. 14.

    Thomason considers that this is true of at least many instances of shame, but remains agnostic as to whether it is a necessary condition of shame (2018: 83).

  15. 15.

    Influential psychoanalytic accounts of shame include Piers and Singer (1953) and Lewis (1971).

  16. 16.

    Thanks to Alex Sarch for help in formulating this problem. For a different criticism of Wollheim’s account of shame, see Deonna and Teroni (2011: 199) and Deonna et al. (2012: 129).

  17. 17.

    The dilemma I have just described (minus the concern about the internal/external status of Wollheim’s internal critic) is also succinctly stated by Tracy and Robbins (2004: 173).

  18. 18.

     This raises yet a third question not addressed here, namely what it means for an appraisal or attitude to be about the subject, in the way that is relevant for shame. It seems clear, for instance, that the attitude need not make direct reference to me in order for it to be about me in the relevant way. I could feel shame when I learn that someone has contempt for those who share my ethnicity or religion, even when that person has no idea that I exist.

  19. 19.

    Thanks to Cecilea Mun for urging me to reconsider the significance of Taylor’s view.

  20. 20.

    Indeed, Deonna et al., in the course of arguing that shame is not an essentially social emotion, consider Taylor’s claim that shame relies on the concept of another, and offer arguments to refute this claim; but they simply ignore the structure of Taylor’s account and the distinct sense in which this structure makes shame a social emotion (2012: 146–149).

  21. 21.

    To take an extreme sort of example, a perversely motivated individual can pursue or continue a course of action knowing full well that it is a source shame, and indeed even do this precisely because it is so—for instance because she wishes to prove that she will not be cowed by shame. The behavior of the father, Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov provides abundant, vivid examples of this sort of perversity. (For similar criticism of the idea that shame essentially involves a dramatic revelation, see Deonna et al. 2012: 149–150).

  22. 22.

    Buss assigns shame a central role in her account of how it is that we ordinarily develop a sense of respect for other persons generally; shame is, according to her view, one of the chief ways in which we come to recognize that others’ evaluative perspectives are independent sources of reasons for us (1999: 525–527).

  23. 23.

    And to reiterate, some critics of the Audience Thesis have effectively done exactly this—see footnote 20 above.

  24. 24.

    This is the other way, anticipated in the previous section, in which Buss makes more out of the notion of the audience than is necessary for my purposes. By contrast, Taylor’s treatment of this issue and mine are similar (1985: 60, 64–65).

  25. 25.

     This case, originally concocted by Max Scheler, was, as far as I know, introduced into the English-language literature by Taylor (1985: 60–61), and is also discussed by Williams (1993: 220–221) and Wollheim (1999: 159–160).

  26. 26.

    As Taylor also observes (1985: 61).

  27. 27.

    Note that this class of cases involves a confounding factor that is absent from the unwelcome exposure cases (including the model case), namely that in these cases the subject of shame sees the circumstance that is the ground for others’ admiration as a reason for negative self-evaluation (independently of others’ admiration). This means that the former bigot might also feel shame before her own disapproval.


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Special thanks to Erik Encarnacion, Andrei Marmor, Jon Quong, Alex Sarch, Mark Schroeder, Beth Snyder, Gary Watson, Aness Webster, and an anonymous reviewer for this journal, as well as to an audience at the 2017 Pacific APA and to Cecilea Mun for helpful comments on that occasion. This work has been supported in part by a University of Southern California Provost’s Ph.D. Fellowship and by an Irving and Jeanne Glovin Award given by the Oskar Schindler Humanities Foundation.

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Bero, S. The audience in shame. Philos Stud 177, 1283–1302 (2020).

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  • Shame
  • Audience
  • Self-assessment
  • Social
  • Emotion