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Review of "Master Passions"

By Mihnea Moldoveanu and Nihtin Nohria
MIT Press, 2002
Review by Cristina Bradatan on Aug 6th 2002
Master Passions

Master Passions could be considered a pledge for a relatively new direction in social sciences trying to take emotions for explanatory factors of the human behavior. Thus, the authors of this book argue that emotions, feelings and passions shape the development of social systems and culture, any human society being driven by emotions rather than by rationality. The main idea behind such a discourse is that human means rationality as well as emotions, intuitions and sensations, and all these have to play an important role in the cultural products, just because the culture is a human construct. This is why the book aims at giving a picture of how passions shape culture and civilization: ”We have aimed to write not a psychological treatise on the passions but rather a reconstruction of the passions at work” (p.33).

The book is structured in thirteen chapters, not particularly interconnected. The first chapters discuss the influence of particular psychological states on moldering culture and society (anxiety – chapter 3, envy and jealousy – chapter 5, deception and self-deception – chapter 8). The next chapters present the relationship between passions and other human characteristics (morality and emotions - chapter 9, rationality and passions – chapter 10). In the last chapter is explained how theories work in social sciences. 

There are several interesting ideas in this book, not necessarily new or original, but well presented. Three of these ideas seemed to me particularly appealing, and I will discuss them in the following: how emotions and ambition shape human culture; what is the relationship between choice and anxiety; and why envy is so important for socialism.

Emotions seem to be stronger than rationality, because they create “their own realities” and make it impossible to use rationality in order to distinguish what is real (what means, in such a case, real?) from what is induced by emotions. Envy and ambition light up our experience and “once on one of their path, we do not see that it could have been otherwise, for seeing it entails that our narrative may be invalid”(p. 56). Ambition is defined as desire, desire for a “greater causal power” (p.57). Theories, for example, “may or may not represent the world, but they certainly do act on the world, causing other minds to fall into the net of assertions and procedures for legitimizing these assertions that is cast by the scientist…[This] increases the scientist’s causal powers over the object of his subject and also over the people «in the field»”(p.59)

The various decisional situations one encounters during one’s lifetime are seen as choices between various “possible selves”. Once one has decided to follow a certain path, one “looses” the possibilities presupposed by the others paths, by all the other “possible selves”. As it were, each particular decision implies a certain loss; this is why people always want to know which is “the right way”, the “right move” (p.51), in order to minimize their loss.

Another interesting idea one comes across in this book is the notion that socialist societies are massively based on (the use of) envy. For example, the implementation of a huge bureaucratic machinery, with a discretionary power on the private life of citizens, within the Soviet society in the 1920’s, was possible by manipulating ordinary man’s envy of liberty and wealth of his fellows. The socialist economy, on the other hand, worked for so many years because it was being based on envy. Within such a context, some people are motivated to work by the “envy of [those] people whose assets are being privatize. The envious is being paid to do something that he already wants to do and provided with a story that he can tell himself. This story makes his work appear ‘moral’ or ‘rational’ in a grander scheme than that of his own private world.” (p.108)

The authors tried to write this book in such a way that to be coherent with its content. Above all, they wanted to persuade the reader of the importance of passions and emotions precisely by awaking, using and intensifying her/his feelings. On the other hand, a book like this, through its explicit program, aims, and structure, has to be a form of scientific discourse, a rational, strictly developed argument. Which results in a certain degree of uncertainty as to the exact amount of accomplishment this book brings forth.


© 2002 Cristina Bradatan


Cristina Bradatan is a Ph.D. candidate within the Department of Sociology, Pennsylvania State University. Her interests include family development patterns, Marxist theory and mathematical demography.

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