Tortoise Tuesday: Orientation and Motive in “The Aptness of Anger”

In one of my courses this semester, “Philosophy and Psychopathology,” we spent some time trying to understand anger. The concept, we learned, has been the subject of philosophical debate for a long time, but the importance of anger is only starting to be understood as it pertains to particular avenues of expressing emotions. One optional reading was Amia Srinivasan’s article, “The Aptness of Anger,” which discusses anger in the context of political philosophy.

Srinivasan begins her article with a historical incident that illustrates two sides of a debate about politics and anger: In 1964, James Baldwin argued that “the American dream has been achieved at the expense of the American Negro,” and William F. Buckley responded with a “pragmatic challenge”: “What in fact shall we do about it?” Buckley’s argument, Srinivasan explains, is part of a long tradition that finds anger wrong because it is counterproductive. Beginning with the Stoics and moving up through history to modern philosophers, she gives a historical overview of the “counterproductivity critique.” Then, in contrast, she cites the opposing view in political philosophy, the one Baldwin demonstrates with the quoted argument: Anger actually is productive as an aid to clarifying a problem and as an impetus to social change. This view, she writes, is often held in Black and feminist thought.

At the end of her first section, Srinivasan steps back from the established debate she has presented and writes that the debate “tends to obscure something specific about anger.” She wants to take the question of anger in another direction. She does not want to consider anger from the perspective of whether it is effective in bringing about change or in achieving goals, which has been long-debated. She wants to ask the philosophical question about the emotion or reaction itself: is it ever, even if not effective, apt in a normative sense?

Srinivasan is successful at orienting the reader into the scholarly conversation that considers anger, and she uses that orientation directly to motivate her own argument, claiming that both sides miss an important point in the conversation. She does this orienting and motivating in an engaging way, with her example right at the beginning and several others as she explicates the standing positions. That overlap between the orientation and the motive is ideal in writing: the two should always be directly linked and lead logically from one to the other.

“[T]his debate between critics and defenders of anger’s productivity tends to obscure something significant about anger. There is more to anger, normatively speaking, than its effects. For any instance of counterproductive anger we might still ask: is it the fitting response to the way the world is? Is the anger, however unproductive, nonetheless apt?”

–Tess Solomon ’21

Srinivasan, Amia. “The Aptness of Anger.” The Journal of Political Philosophy, Vol. 26, No. 2, 2018.