Tuesday 15 February 2022

Lost for Words: Anxiety, Well-being, and the Costs of Conceptual Deprivation

Today's post is by Ditte Marie Munch-Jurisic (University of Copenhagen).

Ditte Marie Munch-Jurisic

A wave of influential voices in philosophy and psychology have argued that negative affective states like stress, discomfort, and anxiety are not necessarily detrimental for mental health, but that they can, under certain conditions, take productive forms that may broaden our epistemic horizons (Kurth 2018; Applebaum 2017; Harbin 2016; Bailey 2017; Medina 2013; Lukianoff and Haidt 2018; Jamieson, Mendes, and Nock 2013) and even contribute to social mobility (Munch-Jurisic 2020a). 

In my new article for the Synthese topical collection "Worry and Wellbeing: Understanding Anxiety", I identify one epistemic problem which has not been properly addressed by this new wave of research; to benefit from a surge of negative affect, agents need to be able to conceptualize and make sense of their internal, physiological states (Berntson, Gianaros, and Tsakiris 2018). Whether agents will understand their stress as potentially productive, or distressing (and potentially harmful) will depend on what hermeneutic equipment they have available to discern their emotional and physiological responses. 

By hermeneutic equipment, I am referring to the interpretive tools we rely on to understand the world and ourselves, i.e. the words, names, and concepts we apply to our emotional states both through (i) slow, deliberate processes of conscious thought and reflection and (ii) fast, automatic processes where we rely on mental short-cuts like cognitive biases, scripts, and other heuristics (Evans and Stanovich 2013).

In the paper I argue that the process of experiencing, interpreting, and applying our hermeneutic equipment to a specific set of affective states cannot be understood as an individual matter. Not only does the broader political, cultural and socio-economic context of agents shape the kinds of stressors they are exposed to (Ong, Deshpande, and Williams 2018), it also delineates the hermeneutic equipment that agents have available to interpret their experiences. To explain this specific problem of conceptual deprivation, philosophical and psychological theories on well-being and anxiety need to move beyond individualist perspectives.

Our hermeneutic equipment helps us orient ourselves in the world, and this form of orientation is inherently normative. It gives us guidance for how to properly understand and conduct ourselves. When there are no helpful concepts, words, or names to apply to an uncomfortable affective state, agents may lose their orientation; for some, this may have grave mental health consequences.

In a very basic sense, conceptual empowerment is key for our well-being. But some applications of our hermeneutic equipment may be personally beneficial (easing an agent’s stress and increasing their personal well-being) but morally corrupt and antithetical to social progress. 

Self-reflection and conceptual empowerment can benefit an individual while causing and perpetuating great harm to others—I detail this darker side of emotion regulation in my forthcoming book, Perpetrator Disgust: The Moral Limits of Gut Feelings. In this further sense, an individualist focus is insufficient. The substance of our self-reflections, deliberations, and conclusions draws on the environment around us while at the same time contributing to shape it.

1 comment:

  1. This concept of "conceptual empowerment" interests me clinically, for the most part. Can you offer some examples of the sort of interpretative tools that are needed to enable stress/anxiety to be filtered in empowering ways? Thank you!


Comments are moderated.