Research Projects


Contempt in Literature

This interdisciplinary project focuses on one specific emotion: contempt. This emotion is important in Aristotle’s Politics; it has been analyzed by Descartes and Hume, has been recently studied in philosophy and psychology (R. C. Solomon 1993; P. Ekman and K. G. Heider 1988; P. Rozin1999). Most literature on the subject shows that contempt is, like shame and guilt, a moral emotion based on the response to violations of the social order. But some recent studies hint at a different vision of contempt, considered as an attitude - and not necessarily a bad one (2003 Mason, “Contempt as a Moral Attitude”. Ethics 113/2; 2013 Bell, Hard Feelings: The Moral Psychology of Contempt).

The project concentrates on some historical and theoretical accounts of contempt, its objects and modes of expression (in literature: Swift, Johnson, Voltaire, Diderot, Baudelaire, Flaubert, Huxley etc.; in philosophy: Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Kant etc.; in psychology: J. Haidt, W. Miller, etc).

Literature provides many examples of the representations of contempt (as negative or positive attitude, as a cold or a hot emotion), of its formal object (the despicable) and of related emotions (anger, moral disgust, disdain, hatred, and indignation) through irony and the form of satire.

The project investigates:

-The cycle of contempt: being the object of contempt leads to the contempt of those who hold us in contempt.

-The effects of contempt: humiliation, feeling of inferiority; resentment (“Sour grapes”).

Important working hypotheses are that:

- Contempt, unlike disgust and anger, is more than a mere emotional episode but an enduring attitude with a temporal development of its own which manifests itself in various emotions. - - Contempt involves a double appraisal (“she is selfish and therefore contemptible”. Hazlitt and Stendhal on Rousseau: “He is self-complacent and therefore contemptible”).

- The creative potential of contempt as an aesthetic emotion: the scorn for some writers or artists and their style often leads writers and artist to find their own ideals and style (Baudelaire, Flaubert, Blake).


Patrizia Lombardo
Professor at Department of Modern French

Institution : University of Geneva