The Meaning of Disgust
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Disgust has a strong claim to be a distinctively human emotion. But what is it to be disgusting? What unifies the class of disgusting things? Colin McGinn sets out to analyze the content of disgust, arguing that life and death are implicit in its meaning. Disgust is a kind of philosophical emotion, reflecting the human attitude to the biological world. Yet it is an emotion we strive to repress. It may have initially arisen as a method of curbing voracious human desire, which itself results from our powerful imagination. Because we feel disgust towards ourselves as a species, we are placed in a fraught emotional predicament: we admire ourselves for our achievements, but we also experience revulsion at our necessary organic nature. We are subject to an affective split. Death involves the disgusting, in the shape of the rotting corpse, and our complex attitudes towards death feed into our feelings of disgust. We are beings with a "disgust consciousness", unlike animals and gods-and we cannot shake our self-ambivalence. Existentialism and psychoanalysis sought a general theory of human emotion; this book seeks to replace them with a theory in which our primary mode of feeling centers around disgust. The Meaning of Disgust is an original study of a fascinating but neglected subject, which attempts to tell the disturbing truth about the human condition.
relative property.20 Humans ﬁnd feces disgusting and crystals nondisgusting; but suppose that Martians invert this pattern of response—feces are lovely for them, while crystals bring nausea and the other symptoms of disgust. Let us suppose that the Martians really do feel the very same sensation in the presence of crystals that we feel when confronted with feces. Should we say that neither of us is wrong in our reactions, since to be disgusting just is to seem disgusting (to normal subjects in a
transparently combines both: the vital and the nullifying. As we will see shortly, this structural antinomy repeats itself with respect to other disgust objects. One more piece needs to be added to the picture sketched by Kolnai and developed here: it concerns the precise understanding of the notions of life and death that are operative in the complex of reactions that constitute disgust. Is it simply the notions of life and death that might apply to a plant that are in play, or is it something
already to have taken up residence. We accordingly feel a kind of terrible tenderness toward such aged individuals. In them, we see death impinging on life, overlapping with it, yet heroically held at bay. Such a person is indeed often described as “having one foot in the grave.” 110 | THE MEANING OF DISGUST exposure, and the exposure itself threatens the integrity of the organ. Evisceration is the extreme case. Thus disgust correlates with a breakdown of functioning, which correlates with
purpose is? Only if we know its function can be know why it arises. What kind of adaptation is it? Is it perhaps a by-product of some other direct adaptation? Nor should we expect that its function, assuming it has one, is anything simple— as fear has the simple function of motivating the animal to avoid danger. Disgust might play a more complex role in the overall human psychological and biological economy. In this section I propose to make some exploratory remarks, nothing more, about this very
despite their discontinuities of coloration, analogous to birth marks, are regarded with equanimity, though here cultural changes have played a signiﬁcant part in the tolerance of the tattoo. Piercings hover on the edge and can slide easily toward the disgusting (the tongue, the nipples, the genitals), but a pair of earrings inserted through pierced lobes have never been known to excite much in the way of revulsion. Nor has ordinary make-up raised the talons of disgust, even when it has broken