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The art of feeling: Cultivated Emotions in Early Chinese and Græco-Roman thought

English title The art of feeling: Cultivated Emotions in Early Chinese and Græco-Roman thought
Applicant King Richard
Number 162712
Funding scheme Project funding (Div. I-III)
Research institution Institut für Philosophie Universität Bern
Institution of higher education University of Berne - BE
Main discipline Philosophy
Start/End 01.01.2016 - 31.12.2018
Approved amount 327'885.00
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All Disciplines (2)

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Keywords (9)

Greco-Roman ethics; Chinese philosophy; cultivation; emotions; Chinese; Greco-Roman; ethics; Art; antiquity

Lay Summary (German)

Die Philosophie der Gefühle ist eines der lebendigsten Forschungsgebiete des letzten Jahrzehnts. Dieses Projekt setzt sich zum Ziel, eine neue Auffassung der menschlichen Gefühle zu erproben, indem es ausgewählte Texte aus der altchinesischen und antiken griechisch-römischen Philosophie in ihrem historischen und kulturellen Kontext interpretiert.
Lay summary

Gemäss dieser Auffassung gibt es eine Kunst des Fühlens, wobei sich die einzelnen Gefühle als bessere oder schlechtere Ausübungen dieser Kunst betrachten lassen. Dieses Modell anerkennt sowohl den habituellen, als auch den intellektuellen Aspekt von Gefühlen, ohne gleichzeitig die Gefühle auf Habitus oder Meinung zurückzuführen. Weil dabei die Gefühle selbst als mehr oder weniger verständige Leistungen aufgefasst werden, die nicht kontrolliert sondern erlernt werden müssen, dies könnte auch als konstruktiver Beitrag in Bezug auf den Versuch, den Zwiespalt zwischen Vernunft und Gefühl zu überwinden, gewertet werden. Der Fokus auf die antiken Texte sollte zudem bewirken, dass diese als relevantes Material für die gegenwärtige Forschung anerkannt werden. Gleichzeitig soll damit klargemacht werden, dass besonders die chinesische Tradition nähere Aufmerksamkeit verdient.

Das Projekt vollzieht sich in zwei Schritten. Der erste Schritt umfasst die Veröffentlichung vier kürzerer Aufsätze, die eine neue Interpretation einzelner griechisch-römischer und chinesischer Texte aus geschichtsphilosophischer Perspektive anbieten werden. Diese Ergebnisse werden dann als Basis für den zweiten Schritt dienen, bei dem diese Interpretationen in einer Monographie zusammengebracht und einige Konsequenzen aus systematischer Perspektive entfaltet werden.
Direct link to Lay Summary Last update: 29.01.2016

Responsible applicant and co-applicants



Did Seneca accede to μετριοπάθεια in his consolatory texts?
DavidMachek (2018), Did Seneca accede to μετριοπάθεια in his consolatory texts?, in Ancient Philosophy, 38(2), 383-408.
Carving, taming or gardening? Plutarch on emotions, reason and virtue
Machek David (2017), Carving, taming or gardening? Plutarch on emotions, reason and virtue, in British Journal for the History of Philosophy, 26(2), 255-275.
Two Stoic accounts of the conflict between reason and passion
MachekDavid, Two Stoic accounts of the conflict between reason and passion, in Ancient Philosophy, 40(2), N/A.
Virtuosity in Skills and Virtuosity in Emotions in the Zhuangzi.
DavidMachek, Virtuosity in Skills and Virtuosity in Emotions in the Zhuangzi., in Lai Karyn (ed.), Rowman & Littlefield, London, N/A.

Scientific events

Active participation

Title Type of contribution Title of article or contribution Date Place Persons involved
2nd Bi-ennial Conference of the European Association for Chinese Philosophy Talk given at a conference Mengzi, Zhuangzi and Xunzi on the structure of the self: Some preliminary remarks 08.09.2017 Uni Basel, Switzerland Machek David;
The Good Life and the Art of Feeling: Emotions as Skills in Chinese and Graeco-Roman ethics Talk given at a conference Aristotle on akrasia and eating sweets in theatre 07.06.2017 Schwand Münsingen, Switzerland Machek David;
Mengzi and Zhuangzi on feelings without desires Individual talk Mengzi and Zhuangzi on feelings without desires 08.12.2016 Uni Oslo, Norway Machek David;
Stoics on the recalcitrance of emotions Individual talk Stoics on the recalcitrance of emotions 17.11.2016 Uni Genf, Switzerland Machek David;
Stoics on the idea of expert perception Individual talk Stoics on the idea of expert perception 25.04.2016 Akademie der Wissenschaften, Prag, Czech Republic Machek David;


Title Date Place
The good life and the art of feeling. Emotions as skills in Chinese and Greco-Roman ethics 05.06.2017 Schwand Münsigen, Switzerland

Associated projects

Number Title Start Funding scheme
173702 The good life and the art of feeling. Emotions as skills in Chinese and Greco-Roman ethics 01.06.2017 Scientific Conferences
158109 Analogies, models and images in ethics in early China and Graeco-Roman antiquity 01.12.2014 Scientific Conferences


The good life requires good action and good emotions. A sharp dichotomy between reason and emotions, and the idea that emotions are irrational forces interfering with rational agency, have had a strong presence in the history of Western thought. However, philosophers working recently on emotions have questioned that dichotomy and tried to offer a more positive assessment of the role of emotions in human agency. We shall propose that a joint examination of Chinese and Græco-Roman theories of emotions can contribute to this development. Methodologically, this project is unique in using expertise in two different intellectual traditions to make a claim with broader philosophical impact. Our basic hypothesis is that all major thinkers in both these ancient traditions - including the notorious anti-emotionalists such as Stoics - believed that the good life requires an “art of feeling”: a disposition to feel in the right way. Rationality is only one of several norms operating here. Even those Greek philosophers who divided the human soul into rational and non-rational part(s), most notably Plato and Aristotle, envisaged the good life in terms of a close cooperation between reason and emotions. The Chinese material is particularly relevant for this project because emotions were not juxtaposed with “reason”. Moreover, qing ?, the approximate equivalent for “emotion” in early Chinese, originally means “true nature”, so emotions were typically associated with a positive expression of what is authentic.This ability to feel is best understood as an art, like playing tennis. Both are 1) relatively stable, long-term dispositions that, 2) can be learned; and indeed must be learned if we are to possess them. Both are 3) objectively assessable in terms of performing better or worse. This assessment relates 4) to the appropriate intensity of the performance or 5) the appropriate approach. The art of feeling, therefore, is not an art of regulating or constraining feelings where the art corresponds to reason, and feeling to the object or material of reason. Rather, it is feeling itself which has been developed so that it has its own wisdom, just as the virtuoso player does not blindly obey the instructions of his trainer but himself knows how to do things, sometimes in a manner that even a good trainer is not able to explain. To do justice to this view, we prefer to talk about “feeling” (in singular) as a fundamental way of being active in relation to the world rather than about (the multiplicity of) “emotions” as alien forces or passive states into which we fall. Instead the idea of reason that regulates or constraints emotions we prefer to talk about feeling that has its own reasons. We can, of course, be paralyzed by our emotions (or feelings) but such cases - perhaps except some exceptional circumstances, in which we think it is appropriate to be fully overwhelmed by a feeling, which is the sort of decision that only a virtuoso of feeling can responsibly make - can be assessed in terms of a failure to exercise our activity of feeling in the right way. One reason this perspective is adequate with regard to the ancient material is that the ancient thinkers often considered emotions as long-term dispositions rather than fleeting episodes. Firstly, this project will provide a better historical understanding of different Græco-Roman and Chinese theories of emotions in the context of their time and tradition. On the Chinese side, we shall work with Warring States texts (475-221 BCE), including the texts excavated recently at Guodian; on the Græco-Roman side, we shall work mainly with Hellenistic and early Imperial texts (3rd c. BCE - 1st c. CE). Our hypothesis is that in both traditions these frameworks fall roughly into two groups: dualistic and holistic. According to the dualistic view, embraced by Xunzi or Plutarch, feelings are akin to desires and should be cultivated by being moulded by a structure external to them: typically this is “reason” in the Græco-Roman tradition, and “ritual” (li ?) in the Chinese tradition. The holistic view (Stoics, Mengzi, Zhuangzi) says that feelings are closely linked to value judgments: mastering the art of feeling is transforming the beliefs informing these feelings. We shall try to assess what actually is the difference between the dualistic and holistic models, given that the result of the process is unitary in both cases. Secondly, these parallels between different models of the art of feeling in both traditions will provide a basis for achieving the comparative objective: to use the “art of feeling” to establish broader similarities and differences between both traditions. Finally, and thirdly, the historical and comparative analyses will reinforce the plausibility of the “art of feeling” as a basis for a new philosophical theory of emotions. This is the philosophical pay-off of this project