Whitehead offers a philosophy of emotions. He speaks of them in Process and Reality as “subjective forms,” as illustrated in feelings of attraction and repulsion. Whitehead says that every mode of human perception, intellectual as well as physical, is clothed by emotions of one sort or another. We never experience the world in an emotionless way; we always experience the world emotionally. And he believes that other animals, living cells, and the divine reality likewise experience the world emotionally.
Whereas some might see emotions as contrary to wisdom and truth, Whitehead sees things differently, He believes that emotional experience can carry within it many forms of wisdom, and that even highly intellectual experience has an emotional quality. In Adventures of Ideas he writes;
“There is a blunt force about Truth, which in the subjective form of its prehension is akin to cleanliness—namely, the removal of dirt, which is unwanted irrelevance. The sense of directness which it carries with it, sustains the upstanding individualities so necessary for the beauty of a complex. Falsehood is corrosive.”
Additionally, in a Whiteheadian context, emotions can be transferred from one subject to another: a subject in the past to a subject in the present, for example.
“The primitive form of physical experience is emotional— blind emotion— received as felt elsewhere in another occasion and conformally appropriated as a subjective passion. In the language appropriate to the higher stages of experience, the primitive element is sympathy, that is, feeling the feeling in another and feeling conformally with another.”
Of course, Whitehead imagines the actual world as a process, which means that emotions, too, are in process and that, in principle, we humans (and perhaps other animals and spirits) can grow in emotional intelligence. We can come to understand the emotions of others; and we can understand and manage our own emotions in constructive ways. Moreover, inasmuch as, in Whitehead, God is a source of novelty in the world, we can likewise take seriously the idea that, in many circumstances, we might experience new emotions that we have not experienced before, and that our emotional lives can be creative cathartically transformed.
In Aristotle's philosophy catharsis is not a purging of emotions but a restoring of emotions to their right balance. He was especially interested in how Greek tragedies could restore two powerful emotions: pity and fear. In seeing the tragedy and being moved by it, he believed, pity and fear recover their rightful balance in the human heart.
There is great wisdom in Aristotle's idea. Many people enjoy tragedies even as they do not have "happy" endings. Something changes inside us, in a good way, after seeing a good tragedy.
There is no consensus today on the number of discrete emotions humans experience in the course of a lifetime (or a single day or hour) but one theory has it at eight:
Imagine, then, that a woman, say age 28, has a build up of these eight emotions in her past. They constitute an emotional reservoir. They are part of what process philosophers and theologians call her "the past actual world.." This world is in the past but also, through conscious and unconscious memory, in the present. What she experienced in her past, emotionally, is part of what she experiences in the present.
If this is the case, then, the cathartic impulse works with these emotions, helping restoring them into some kind of balance, so that she can move forward in her life. This is part of what we can mean by "wholeness" in a process context. It is balance in the moment at hand or, perhaps better, harmony.
In process philosophy and theology, the healing impulse within her is also an impulse beyond her. It is one way that God is present in her as a spirit of creative transformation.
Scroll to 21 minutes for a discussion of catharthis.
Catharsis in Aristotle: Not a purging of emotions but a restoring of emotions to their right balance.
"The two main strands in the history of philosophical reflection on tragedy, as a genre of art, can both be seen as having their origins in Plato's critique of tragic poetry in the Republic and other dialogues. It is there that we find their first sustained philosophical treatment; and with respect to this small part of it, at least, Alfred North Whitehead's characterization of the history of philosophy as a series of footnotes to Plato is not too fanciful.
One strand of thought focuses on the character and value of our experience of tragedy, and can be seen in Plato's charge that tragedy (and indeed mimetic poetry in general) "gratifies and indulges the instinctive desires … with its hunger for tears and for an uninhibited indulgence in grief"; that "it waters [passions] when they ought to be allowed to wither, and makes them control us when we ought, in the interests of our own greater welfare and happiness, to control them" (1987, 606a). Plato's thought that the emotional dimension of our experience of tragedy is particularly significant has been taken up in a variety of directions by other philosophers.
In the Poetics, Aristotle argued that tragedy's capacity to arouse the emotions of pity and fear in its audience, so far from rendering it intellectually and morally damaging, is in fact a source of its value: Tragedy aims at emotional effect not for its own sake, or for the sake of gratifying or indulging its audience, he argued, but rather in such a way as to bring about a catharsis of the tragic emotions. Precisely what Aristotle meant by catharsis is far from clear, and has been the topic of much scholarly debate: The notion has been understood in terms of purgation (of excessive or pathological emotion), of purification, and of intellectual clarification, to mention only some of the most influential of the interpretations that have been offered. Whatever its precise meaning may be, however, it is clear that Aristotle took catharsis to be a process or experience that in one way or another is conducive to emotional health or balance, such that our emotional experience of (well-written) tragedy is not indulgently sentimental and opposed to "our better nature," as Plato argued, but is rather an essential element in a fully comprehending attitude to what a work depicts."
Catharsis as a Creative Transformation of Emotions
In Christ in a Pluralistic Age, John Cobb identifies “Christ” with the spirit of creative transformation at work in the world. For Cobb, Christ is not Jesus alone. Christ is the Logos: the living presence of God in human life and in the natural world. In an individual human being this spirit is an inwardly felt lure, a calling presence within the mind and heart, by which a person is beckoned, moment by moment, into whatever fulness of life is available: cognitive, emotional, social .The lure takes the form of fresh possibilities in the immediacy of the moment, combined with an internally felt desire to actualize them.
These are possibilities for internalizing experiences, ideas, and emotions from the past actual world. which are “felt” or “prehended” as objects in the present. These past objects include what Whitehead calls "subjective forms" or emotions. Thus the lure of God within the human mind and heart is, among other things, a lure for emotional growth. What is tran
Consider the emotions. In the immediacy of the moment, a person can hide from the emotions, negate them, or integrate them into the present in a more holistic way, such that they are combined and harmonized into a larger gestalt or whole. Two such emotions, for example, will be pity and fear. If a person carries within himself these two emotions, God’s presence may well be to feel them and integrate them into this larger whole.
Aristotle’s point in the Poetics is that one of the functions of tragedy is to evoke and these emotions in ways that elicit catharsis. For Aristotle catharsis is not a purgation of the emotions but a creative integration of them: that is, a reorienting of them
At its best, catharsis thus understood helps a person become more whole at an individual level and, in light of the relational nature of human life, better able to empathize with others who are faced with circumstances evoking pity and fear: that is, better able to contribute to community well-being. Indeed, if “community” is understood in an ecological sense, ecology itself includes the web of life, not human life alone. In some circumstances, the spirit of creative transformation can help a person widen into an empathy for all life, which partakes of the tragic dimension of life: that is, that side of life which is immersed in missed potential and debilitating pain. The fruits of catharsis are empathy and compassion.
That is why, among other reasons, we need tragedy. We need not name the spirit of creative transformation “Christ,” as does Cobb. We can simply call if the Spirit of Creative Transformation. But if we are Christian, we will naturally name it Christ, because we see it incarnate in Jesus.