Monday, March 10, 2014

Non-hedonic what?

After having written a few articles on hedonism and pleasure in relation to games, I was interested when I found, in the latest issue of Journal of Communication, two articles discussing hedonism in relation to communication. While saying you are a hedonist today means saying you are focused only on indulging yourself, hedonism in the original meaning was not about indulgence, but about taking pleasure in your life. This pleasure could be had from many different sources, and one of the frequently discussed topics in antiquity, was if this pleasure was in itself a virtue to be strived for, or if it involved and possibly even was dependent on virtue. Plato, Socrates, Epicurus and Aristippus, among others, did not promote senseless indulgence, what they discussed was a life free of fear, and low on pain, and rather more filled with good things. If they came out on the less fear and pain, more peace and joy side, they argued this had been a good life. The rest was a matter of how to get there.

One of the discussions involved eudaimonia. Since this involved Aristotle and the stoics, both parties high on the virtue scale, we popularly tend to read this as the opposite of hedonism. This is also how Hofer, Allemand and Martin defines it:
From a process-based point of view, Oliver and Bartsch (2010) introduce the concept of appreciation, which is defined as "the perception of deeper meaning, the feeling of being moved, and the motivation to elaborate on thoughts and feelings inspired by the experience" (Oliver & Bartsch, 2010, p 76). This nonhedonic gratification is conceptualized... (Hofer, Martin & Allemand, 2014, p 62)
Hofer and friends here makes the leap from something being different from hedonism to something being not hedonism, and defines it by the absence of something, in this case, by defining hedonism as pleasure, as the absence of pleasure. This is not the Aristotelian nor the stoic definition of eudaimonia. Let us go to what we, for simplicity's sake, can assume is an authority, and check Encyclopædia Britannica: "eudaemonism, also spelled eudaimonism, or eudemonism,  in ethics, a self-realization theory that makes happiness or personal well-being the chief good for man." Encyclopædia Britannica's descriptions of both epicurean hedonism and utilitarian hedonism, they are obviously not such strong opponents that they exclude each other. Rather, eudaimonia is a way of experiencing pleasures that are closer to utilitarian hedonism than to epicurean hedonism, but which is still a pleasure-based ideal of the good life.

This also makes reasonable sense if we look at the definition of eudaimonic vs hedonic entertainment as used by Iliver and Raney, cited by Hofer et. al. Here eudaimonic entertainment is driven by a desire for insight and meaning, while hedonic entertainment is more purely for the pleasure. We are back to what appears to be related to the virtue-discussion of the old Greeks, where in this case insight and meaning is deemed more virtuous and hence nore in the line with the teachings of the stoics.

The error that got me started on all of this is the idea that eudaemonism and hedonism exclude each other to the point that the one becomes not hedonic. That is a leap too far. Just consider the viewing habits of those who watch so-called eudaimonic entertainment, that is entertainment that makes you think, where you learn something and understand something about yourself. There is personal growth and there is a sense of meaningfullness. Doesn't this bring pleasure? Even if the movie is sad, don't the viewers enjoy them? Personally, while I thoroughly enjoy silly movies, comedy and easy television series I can fall asleep to, I also love being challenged and forced to think and question. Actually, I will claim that when I take time to consider a very difficult concept, read a book that I need to read and reread to understand, and then perhaps even get so far as writing a scholarly article about it, I am extremely happy! I experience a very high level of pleasure, and feel like I have indulged indeed.

To me, that is a hedonistic experience. I am quite willing to claim it is also a eudaimonic experience. I am not, however, ready to say it's non-hedonic. For it to be non-hedonic, it would have to be pure pain. I occasionally do those things too, it's normally called "chores". But even those have an aspect of utilitarian hedonism, as me finishing my chores tend to lead to other good things, like the happiness of others (more hedons for the world!) and future happiness of myself. And so it goes, as a professor expressed it at a vaguely recollected lecture on philosophy more than 30 years ago: "If you ask why we do something for long enough, the final response is - because I want to be happy." And there it is.

By the way, the other article mentioning hedonism in that journal issue, the one about how narratives persuade, the suspension of disbelief and didactic vs hedonistic processing? That one made me very happy, and I will most likely be citing it in a hopefully soon to be seen article. Don't hold your breath though - academic publishing is very close to creating more dolors than hedons all around.

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