While interest in the emotion of awe has surged in psychology (especially positive psychology), philosophers have yet to devote a single self-standing article to awe’s conceptual contours and moral standing. The present article aims to rectify this imbalance and begin to make up for the unwarranted philosophical neglect. In order to do so, awe is given the standard Aristotelian treatment to uncover its conceptual contours and moral relevance. Aristotelianism typically provides the most useful entry point to ‘size up’ any emotion – more problematically here, however, as Aristotle did not himself explicitly identify awe. The article critiques and proposes to improve upon existing psychological conceptual analyses of awe, probes the question why Aristotle ignored it and addresses an often-presumed link between awe and humility which bears on its moral status.
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Reverence for a person (human or divine) is sometimes described as ‘awe’ (see e.g. Krause and Hayward 2015, on ‘awe of God’), but I find that an infelicitous extension.
There is obviously a large literature in philosophical aesthetics that explores Kant’s notion of the sublime, and some of that literature would be relevant for the analysis offered in this article (see e.g. Ivanhoe 1997). For reasons of space, however, I leave Kant out of further consideration here.
Indeed, Aristotle seems to have considered most emotion types to be of mixed valence rather than entirely ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ (see Kristjánsson 2007).
Obviously the complaint is not that Aristotle did not embrace self-transcendence understood in a ‘horizontal’ sense: as accommodating other people into one’s sense of moral selfhood. Given his foregrounding of compassion (eleos) and friendship (philia), he is the self-transcendent moralist par excellence. However, Aristotle was a ‘people person’ (as explained well in Vogler 2016), and arguably did not accommodate self-transcendence in a ‘vertical’ sense, as awe-inspired attraction to transpersonal ideals (Kristjánsson 2016).
See e.g. findings reported in Huta and Ryan 2010, on elevating experiences and eudaimonic well-being.
This may seem to create an unnecessary overlap between humility and modesty; why not stick to the latter term for the non-overestimation conception, to avoid ambiguity, as some people will continue to understand humility in the ‘old’ way? The reason seems to be that modesty is often taken to cover only behavioural aspects of self-estimation; one may really be arrogant deep down (with respect to one’s true beliefs and emotions) although one puts up a credible appearance of modesty.
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I would like to thank Robert C. Roberts, Howard Curzer, Sophie Vasalou, Blaire Morgan and Liz Gulliford for helpful comments on an earlier draft. This paper also benefited from input from scholars in the Virtue, Happiness and Meaning of Life Project (University of Chicago), under whose umbrella it was first presented.
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Kristjánsson, K. Awe: An Aristotelian Analysis of a non-Aristotelian Virtuous Emotion. Philosophia 45, 125–142 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11406-016-9741-8