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Shame: A Philosophical Exploration

Lecturer: Sergio Mariscal

Originally Taught: Summer School 2017

We come into contact with shame in all kinds of contexts. From our experiences in the playground to seeing public figures exposed for their misdeeds. In contrast, in literature and theory, shame often appears linked to the way of life of traditional societies as opposed to the modern history of regulation through the institution of conscience. This subject proposes to open to question this contrast between shame and conscience through a philosophical dialogue with a number of perspectives on shame: anthropological, sociological, ethical, psychological and historical.

Course Schedule

Lecture 1: “The re-creation of Shame”

Historically, the appearance of conscience in modernity, narrated variously as the “cultivation of the self” (Foucault) or the “civilizing process” (Elias), has not meant the disappearance of shame culture. Even though traditional norms and rules have been devalued, shame is re-created in specific contexts. Most conspicuously the re-institution of shame takes place  through a myriad of fundamentalisms which adopt absolutist cultural standards and seek to eliminate any internal voice. This is in contrast to a parallel historical process through which the external voice has become pluralised.

Lecture 2: “Affect and Imagination”

Anthropologically, the interrogation will turn to the type of affect that shame is, beginning with Darwin’s observation that affects are remnants from the demolition of instincts that accompanies the domestication of the self. In this sense, shame is an affect that is also an empirical universal of the species and that has an indeterminable amount of possible triggers. We shall inquire as to the anthropological condition for the emergence of these triggers.

Lecture 3: “The Eye of the Other”

The line of questioning turns to the individual human being and the gap that opens in relation to the social context into which it is thrown. How does the social context constitute itself into the “eye of the Other”? How does it become the bearer of the social triggers of shame? Aside from the shame involved in acting in violation of social norms, how is it possible that the condition of being different itself becomes an emotional trigger for shame?

Lecture 4: “The dialectic of Shame and Conscience”

We take as a point of departure two ethical authorities: an external one which is the social context functioning as a moral authority; and an internal one which is the modern institution of conscience. Shame is normally understood as the form of sanction available to the external authority but its relationship to conscience raises a number of questions. How is it that, on the one hand, the external authority can become internalised (guilt), and yet, on the other hand shame and conscience can run at counterpoint and irrationalize each other?

Lecture 5: “The unity of shame and the plurality of personality”

Psychologically, the eye of the Other casts a controlling glance over the subject, something not unlike an undressing glance. Laughter for example is one rational expression of the shaming attitude on the part of the external authority. The interrogation here turns to the multiple possibilities open to the subject to confront shame: from sheer insensitivity to shame to guidance by the internal authority of moral judgement as in Horace’s stoic ideal.

The texts for this subject are selected from:

  • Benedict, R., 1947. The chrysanthemum and the sword: patterns of Japanese culture. London: Secker & Warburg.
  • Elias, N., 1994. The civilizing process: The history of manners, and State formation and civilization. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Foucault, M., 1988. The history of sexuality. 1st Vintage Books ed. New York: Vintage Books.
  • Foucault, M., 1995. Discipline and punish: the birth of the prison. 2nd Vintage Books ed. New York: Vintage Books.
  • Heller, A., 1985. The power of shame: a rational perspective. London ; Boston: Routledge & K. Paul.
  • Riesman, D., 2001. The lonely crowd: a study of the changing American character. Abridged and rev. ed. New Haven [Conn.]: Yale University Press.
  • Additionally, some literary and artistic works are recommended:
  • Masaccio's fresco “Expulsion from the Garden of Eden” (1424-1428).
  • Hawthorne, N., 2003. The scarlet letter: a romance. New York, N.Y: Penguin Books.
  • Ibsen, H., 2013. A doll’s house. London: Bloomsbury.
  • Kadare, I., 2003. Broken April. London: Vintage.
  • Shakespeare, W., 2012. Romeo and Juliet. London: Arden Shakespeare.


Second set of Lectures over 5 straight days