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The emotion of Shame in Medieval Philosophy

The emotion of Shame in Medieval Philosophy

By Simo Knuuttila

SpazioFilosofico, No.5 2012

Abstract: In her book Pride, Shame and Guilt (1985) Gabriele Taylor argues that there are two factors in each case of shame: a self-regarding adverse judgement that one is degraded and awareness that one ought not to be in the position of being seen by a possible detached observer. Taking this as a starting-point, I first show, perhaps unsurprisingly, that there is a tradition in ancient and medieval philosophy in which the emotion of shame is understood in roughly the same way as in Taylor’s book. This is exemplified by Aristotle and Aquinas. My second point is that there is another tradition in which shame involves the thought of being degraded which, however, does not include the standpoint of an objective observer. This is Augustine’s theory of shame as a common feature of human consciousness. I also comment on Richard of Saint Victor’s twelfth-century theory of good shame, which combines elements of caution, guilt, and modesty.

Introduction: In her Pride, Shame and Guilt (1985) Gabriele Taylor discusses the emotions mentioned in the title of the book as those of self-assessment. She argues that the experience of such emotions involves beliefs about the self, its relations to social norms and its consequent standing in the world. Since Taylor’s work, many authors have published philosophical books or articles about shame and guilt in English, for example, Patricia Greenspan, Practical Guilt: Moral Dilemmas, Emotions, and Social Norms (1995), Phil Hutchinson, Shame and Philosophy (2008), and Julien A. Deonna, Raffaele Rodogno, and Fabrice Teroni, In Defense of Shame: The Faces of an Emotion (2012). The social, cognitive and neural aspects of the emotions of pride, shame, and guilt are discussed by many scholars in The Self-Conscious Emotions: Theory and Research, ed. Jessica L. Tracy, June Price Tangney and Richard W. Robins (2007).

In the first chapter of her book, Taylor comments on Hume’s view of pride, which has been a popular subject among Anglo-American authors. The second chapter, which is about shame, begins with a brief explanation of the famous anthropological distinction between a shame-culture and a guilt-culture. The distinguishing mark of the former is that public esteem is regarded as the basic value and public respect and self-respect stand and fall together, as in the heroes of Homer’s Iliad. Loss of honour in a shame-culture means that one has failed to meet the demands of the social group of which one is a member. Since people share the point of view of the group, they have failed in their eyes as well. Earlier in her book Taylor refers to medieval feudal chivalry, which exemplifies the social notions of pride and humility in a shame culture as well. While shame was an essential part of the medieval knightly system (Flannery 2012), the discussion of the emotion of shame in medieval scholarly treatises did not have many links with this social context.

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