The intelligence of emotions: Philosopher Martha Nussbaum on how storytelling rewires us and why befriending our neediness is essential for happiness

by Maria Popova

“Emotions are not just the fuel that powers the psychological mechanism of a reasoning creature, they are parts, highly complex and messy parts, of this creature’s reasoning itself.”

The Intelligence of Emotions: Philosopher Martha Nussbaum on How Storytelling Rewires Us and Why Befriending Our Neediness Is Essential for Happiness

“The power of ‘the Eye of the Heart,’ which produces insight, is vastly superior to the power of thought, which produces opinions,” the great British economic theorist and philosopher E.F. Schumacher wrote in his 1973 meditation on how we know what we know. He was responding to the Persian poet and philosopher Rumi who, seven centuries earlier, extolled “the eye of the heart” as seventy-fold more seeing than the “sensible eyes” of the intellect. To the intellectually ambitious, this might sound like a squishy notion — or a line best left to The Little Prince. But as contemporary scientists continue to shed light on how our emotions affect our susceptibility to disease, it is becoming increasingly clear that our emotional lives are equipped with a special and non-negligible kind of bodily and cognitive intelligence.

The nature of that intelligence and how we can harness its power is what Martha Nussbaum, whom I continue to consider the most compelling and effective philosopher of our time, examines in her magnificent 2001 book Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (public library). Titled after Proust’s conception of the emotions as “geologic upheavals of thought,” Nussbaum’s treatise offers a lucid counterpoint to the old idea that our emotions are merely animal energies or primal impulses wholly separate from our cognition. Instead, she argues that they are a centerpiece of moral philosophy and that any substantive theory of ethics necessitates a substantive understanding of the emotions.

Martha Nussbaum

Nussbaum writes:

A lot is at stake in the decision to view emotions in this way, as intelligent responses to the perception of value. If emotions are suffused with intelligence and discernment, and if they contain in themselves an awareness of value or importance, they cannot, for example, easily be sidelined in accounts of ethical judgment, as so often they have been in the history of philosophy. Instead of viewing morality as a system of principles to be grasped by the detached intellect, and emotions as motivations that either support or subvert our choice to act according to principle, we will have to consider emotions as part and parcel of the system of ethical reasoning. We cannot plausibly omit them, once we acknowledge that emotions include in their content judgments that can be true or false, and good or bad guides to ethical choice. We will have to grapple with the messy material of grief and love, anger and fear, and the role these tumultuous experiences play in thought about the good and the just.


Emotions are not just the fuel that powers the psychological mechanism of a reasoning creature, they are parts, highly complex and messy parts, of this creature’s reasoning itself.

One of Nussbaum’s central points is that the complex cognitive structure of the emotions has a narrative form — that is, the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and what we feel shape our emotional and ethical reality, which of course is the great psychological function of literature and the reason why art can function as a form of therapy. What emerges is an intelligent manifesto for including the storytelling arts in moral philosophy.

But this narrative aspect also means that our emotions have a temporal dimension stretching back to our formative experiences. Nussbaum writes:

We cannot understand [a person’s] love … without knowing a great deal about the history of patterns of attachment that extend back into [the person’s] childhood. Past loves shadow present attachments, and take up residence within them. This, in turn, suggests that in order to talk well about them we will need to turn to texts that contain a narrative dimension, thus deepening and refining our grasp of ourselves as beings with a complicated temporal history.

Illustration by Dasha Tolstikova from The Jacket by Kirsten Hall, a sweet illustrated story about how we fall in love with books

Nussbaum considers the essential features of the emotions as they relate to moral philosophy:

Insofar as they involve acknowledgment of neediness and lack of self-sufficiency, emotions reveal us as vulnerable to events that we do not control.


Emotions seem to be characterized by ambivalence toward their objects. In the very nature of our early object relations … there lurks a morally subversive combination of love and resentment, which springs directly from the thought that we need others to survive and flourish, but do not at all control their movements. If love is in this way always, or even commonly, mixed up with hatred, then, once again, this might offer us some reasons not to trust to the emotions at all in the moral life, but rather to the more impersonal guidance of rules of duty.

In a sentiment that psychoanalyst Adam Phillips would come to echo more than a decade later in examining the essential role of ambivalence in love, Nussbaum points to the particular case of romance as an acute manifestation of this latter aspect:

Personal love has typically been thought too wonderful to remove from human life; but it has also been seen (not only by philosophers) as a source of great moral danger because of its partiality and the extreme form of vulnerability it involves, which make a connection with jealousy and anger virtually inevitable.

She returns to the role of the emotions as acknowledgements, both necessary and disorienting, of our neediness and lack of self-sufficiency:

Emotions … involve judgments about important things, judgments in which, appraising an external object as salient for our own well-being, we acknowledge our own neediness and incompleteness before parts of the world that we do not fully control.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of Alice in Wonderland

She revisits the rationale behind the book’s title:

Emotions should be understood as “geological upheavals of thought”: as judgments in which people acknowledge the great importance, for their own flourishing, of things that they do not fully control — and acknowledge thereby their neediness before the world and its events.

But this neediness — a notion invariably shrouded in negative judgment and shame, for it connotes an admission of our lack of command — is one of the essential features that make us human. Nussbaum writes:

Human beings appear to be the only mortal finite beings who wish to transcend their finitude. Thus they are the only emotional beings who wish not to be emotional, who wish to withhold these acknowledgments of neediness and to design for themselves a life in which these acknowledgments have no place. This means that they frequently learn to reject their own vulnerability and to suppress awareness of the attachments that entail it. We might also say … that they are the only animals for whom neediness is a source of shame, and who take pride in themselves to the extent to which they have allegedly gotten clear of vulnerability.

And yet neediness, Nussbaum argues, is central to our developmental process as human beings. Much like frustration is essential for satisfaction, neediness becomes essential for our sense of control:

The process of development entails many moments of discomfort and frustration. Indeed, some frustration of the infant’s wants by the caretaker’s separate comings and goings is essential to development — for if everything were always simply given in advance of discomfort, the child would never try out its own projects of control.


The child’s evolving recognition that the caretaker sometimes fails to bring it what it wants gives rise to an anger that is closely linked to its emerging love. Indeed, the very recognition that both good things and their absence have an external source guarantees the presence of both of these emotions — although the infant has not yet recognized that both take a single person as their object.

But while these formative experiences can nurture our emotional intelligence, they can also damage it with profound and lifelong consequences, as in the case of one patient Nussbaum cites — a man known as B, whose mother was so merciless in requiring perfection of herself that she construed her infant’s neediness as her own personal failing, resenting every sign of basic humanness and rejecting it as imperfection in both her child and herself. Nussbaum traces the developmental repercussions:

As B makes contact with these memories of a holding that was stifling, the patient gradually becomes aware of his own demand for perfection in everything – as the corollary of his inability to permit himself to be a needy child. Because his mother wanted perfection (which he felt as a demand for immobility and even death), he could not allow himself to be dependent on, or to trust, anyone.

Illustration by Sophie Blackall from her book The Baby Tree

Above all, emotionally skillful parenting — or “holding” — early in life awakens the child to a simultaneous sense of being omnipotent and being thoroughly dependent:

The parents’ (or other caregivers’) ability to meet the child’s omnipotence with suitably responsive and stable care creates a framework within which trust and interdependence may thus gradually grow: the child will gradually relax its omnipotence, its demand to be attended to constantly, once it understands that others can be relied on and it will not be left in a state of utter helplessness. This early framework of steadiness and continuity will provide a valuable resource in the later crisis of ambivalence. On the other hand, to the extent that a child does not receive sufficiently stable holding, or receives holding that is excessively controlling or intrusive, without space for it to relax into a relationship of trust, it will cling, in later life, to its own omnipotence, demanding perfection in the self and refusing to tolerate imperfection either in object relations or in the inner world.


The infant’s ambivalent relation to its own lack of omnipotence can be shaped for better or worse by interactions that either exacerbate primitive shame or reduce it. A primitive shame at one’s weakness and impotence is probably a basic and universal feature of the emotional life. But a parent who takes delight in having a child who is a child, and who reveals in interacting with the child that it is all right to be human, eases the ambivalence of later object relations

This quality of parental response to neediness in the first few months of life, Nussbaum argues, imprints us deeply and lastingly. It shapes how we relate to neediness in ourselves — we come to see it either as a shameful sign of helplessness, with absolute and therefore unattainable perfection as the only admissible state of which we continually fall short, or as a natural and wholly acceptable part of the human experience. (Lest we forget, the sixth of Neil Gaiman’s eight rules of writingapplies not only to literature but to all of life: “Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.” Pathological perfectionism, after all, is how we keep ourselves small.)

Nussbaum considers the complexities of shame, which becomes the dominant emotional response to our own neediness under the tyranny of perfectionism:

All infant omnipotence is coupled with helplessness. When an infant realizes that it is dependent on others, we can therefore expect a primitive and rudimentary emotion of shame to ensue. For shame involves the realization that one is weak and inadequate in some way in which one expects oneself to be adequate.58 Its reflex is to hide from the eyes of those who will see one’s deficiency, to cover it. If the infant expects to control the world, as to some extent all infants do, it will have shame, as well as anger, at its own inability to control.

Notice, then, that shame is far from requiring diminished self-regard. In a sense, it requires self-regard as its essential backdrop. It is only because one expects oneself to have worth or even perfection that one will shrink from or cover the evidence of one’s nonworth or imperfection. To the extent that all infants enjoy a sense of omnipotence, all infants experience shame at the recognition of their human imperfection: a universal experience underlying the biblical story of our shame at our nakedness. But a good development will allow the gradual relaxing of omnipotence in favor of trust, as the infant learns not to be ashamed of neediness and to take a positive delight in the playful and creative “subtle interplay” of two imperfect beings.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for The Juniper Tree: And Other Tales from Grimm

This interplay of two imperfect beings is, as Joseph Campbell memorably observed, the essence of romantic love. An intolerance for imperfection and for the basic humanity of our own neediness, Nussbaum notes, can impede our very capacity for connection and make our emotions appear as blindsiding, incomprehensible events that befall us rather than a singular form of our natural intelligence:

The emotions of the adult life sometimes feel as if they flood up out of nowhere, in ways that don’t match our present view of our objects or their value. This will be especially true of the person who maintains some kind of false self-defense, and who is in consequence out of touch with the emotions of neediness and dependence, or of anger and aggression, that characterize the true self.

Nussbaum returns to the narrative structure of the emotions and how storytelling can help us rewire our relationship to neediness:

The understanding of any single emotion is incomplete unless its narrative history is grasped and studied for the light it sheds on the present response. This already suggests a central role for the arts in human self-understanding: for narrative artworks of various kinds (whether musical or visual or literary) give us information about these emotion-histories that we could not easily get otherwise. This is what Proust meant when he claimed that certain truths about the human emotions can be best conveyed, in verbal and textual form, only by a narrative work of art: only such a work will accurately and fully show the interrelated temporal structure of emotional “thoughts,” prominently including the heart’s intermittences between recognition and denial of neediness.

Narrative artworks are important for what they show the person who is eager to understand the emotions; they are also important because of what they do in the emotional life. They do not simply represent that history, they enter into it. Storytelling and narrative play are essential in cultivating the child’s sense of her own aloneness, her inner world. Her capacity to be alone is supported by the ability to imagine the good object’s presence when the object is not present, and to play at presence and absence using toys that serve the function of “transitional objects.” As time goes on, this play deepens the inner world; it becomes a place for individual creative effort and hence for trusting differentiation of self from world.

In the remainder of Upheavals of Thought, which remains a revelatory read in its hefty totality, Nussbaum goes on to explore how the narrative arts can reshape our psychoemotional constitution and how understanding the intelligence of the emotions can help us navigate the messiness of grief, love, anger, and fear.

Complement it with Nussbaum on how to live with our human fragility and her terrific letter of life-advice to the young, then revisit the social science writer John W. Gardner on what infants teach us about risk, failure, and personal growth.