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Review of "The Vehement Passions"

By Philip Fisher
Princeton University Press, 2002
Review by Demian Whiting, Ph.D. on Sep 11th 2002
The Vehement Passions

In The Vehement Passions Philip Fisher sets out to show that the passions play an imperative role in providing us with certain valuable information about the world. For this reason Fisher is throughout his book critical of philosophers and other thinkers (from the Stoics onwards) who assert that the passions (like bodily diseases) are best rid off, and therefore primarily a matter for therapeutic intervention.  

Chapters One to Six largely focus on what Fisher considers to be some of the salient features of passion (as perhaps opposed to emotion, feeling, or mood) – so, for instance, passions, Fisher claims, are ‘modeled’ on fear and anger, are ‘isolated, free-standing states’ (that is, they do not admit of opposites), may ‘block’ other passions (anger, for example, blocks fear), will often lead to other passions (fear, for example, often gives rise to shame), are best described as ‘thorough’ states (they possess the self completely, are not receptive to ambivalence, they blind the subject to demands made by others), are public states (they are expressed immediately, not a matter of choice), relate only to the immediate past or imminent future (for example, we feel mourning for a death we have learnt has just occurred), are ‘strongly marked by an appropriate duration’ (for example, mourning ended too quickly is not mourning at all), and are states that give rise to rash and irreparable acts (for example, a curse or an act of murder in the case of anger). In these chapters (and throughout the book) Fisher draws heavily on philosophy (in particular Aristotle and Hume) and literature (in particular, Homer and Shakespeare).

In the second half of The Vehement Passions Fisher seeks to develop some of his more substantial claims, focusing primarily on the passions of fear, anger, and grief. Fisher devotes two chapters to the study of fear. In the first chapter Fisher distinguishes between what he calls the ‘forward-looking economic model of fear’ (which is basically Robert Nozick’s ‘general anticipatory fear’) from the ‘backward-looking legal model of fear’ (which Fisher claims involves a fear experience concluding in a verdict: coward or hero), and in the next chapter Fisher seeks to show how the backward-looking model of fear is relevant to aesthetics and the law. It should be said, however, that I found a number of claims made in both chapters very difficult to follow – and, in particular, it struck me that Fisher’s backward-looking model of fear may have confused the experience of fear with the events (say, the choice of fight or flight, and consequent verdict) that often follow on from that experience (cf. pp 117-119). The chapters on anger and grief I found to be more coherent and cogent. In these chapters Fisher develops in detail his claim that the passions have an essential role to play because they reveal certain important information about the (agent’s) world. So, drawing heavily on Aristotle, Fisher argues that feeling anger informs us that an injustice has been committed (or that we have been slighted in some way), and also the extent to which the person who has angered us matters to us (for we generally only feel anger if we value the other person or his opinions). And in the case of grief Fisher argues that by experiencing (or failing to experience) grief we also come to realise who is (or is not) important to us.

The Vehement Passions is not an easy book to read.  Insufficient attention, I believe, has been paid to ensuring clarity of argument and linguistic expression. Moreover, a number of Fisher’s claims often seem brashly or strongly stated, but insufficiently argued for. So, for example, Fisher seems to simply assert rather than argue for the claim that only the passions – and not reason or calm reflection – can give us certain knowledge about the world (cf. p194). Nevertheless, Fisher does make a number of interesting and thought-provoking claims about the passions (often backed up with appropriate and enjoyable literary examples), and this book should therefore be of some interest to those seeking to understand what the passions are and whether they can give us valuable knowledge about the world.


© 2002 Demian Whiting


Demian Whiting was awarded a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Sheffield in March 2002. His research interests lie in the areas of emotion, psychopathology, and applied ethics. Demian is the author of ‘Emotional Disorder’, Ratio, forthcoming.