The Delights of Disgust

Justin E. H. Smith in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

5919-DisgustOf no small interest to Darwin and, after him, to Freud and all those working in his wide cultural shadow, disgust as a topic of theoretical inquiry would go into retreat for much of the latter part of the 20th century. Sartre's Nausea, published in 1938, seems to have identified and described what would come to be the defining passion of the 1950s and 60s, and the difference between it and disgust might serve as a good measure of how much the world has changed since then. Nausea, like melancholy or anomie, is generalized, diffuse, often without an object; disgust, by contrast, is generally set off by very specific triggers: a misplaced hair, for example, or an undercooked steak. It is a passion better suited to narrow research programs than to existential pondering.

It is also the subject of numerous recent works in widely different areas of philosophy, including moral and legal philosophy, aesthetics, and the new iteration of what is being called “experimental philosophy.” Perhaps because disgust is a focused passion, the most fruitful recent work on it has come from the sort of research that is of interest to the new experimental philosophers. Scholarly attention to disgust from the point of view of aesthetics trails behind, yet is not without interest. The recent treatment of disgust as a problem of moral and legal philosophy, finally, has been held back by a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the passion under discussion, and of the role it plays in the human experience of the social and natural worlds.

Take, for example, Martha Nussbaum's book From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law (Oxford University Press, 2010), which appears to have been written for a high-school civics course.

More here.

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