Aaron Ben-Ze'ev

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Aaron Ben-Ze'ev (born 30 July 1949) is an Israeli philosopher.


Aaron Ben-Ze'ev and his two older brothers Yehuda and Avinoam were born in Israel to Israel and Haika (Weinkrantz) Ben-Ze'ev and were raised on Kibbutz Ein-Carmel. When Aaron was 18, his eldest brother Yehuda was killed in the Six Day War, at the age of 32. Aaron is married to Ruth with two sons, Dean and Adam.

Ben-Ze'ev received his B.A. in Philosophy and Economics (1975) and his M.A. in Philosophy (1977), both from the University of Haifa. He was awarded his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago (1981).).[1] His doctoral thesis was entitled "Perception as a Cognitive System"; his doctoral studies advisor was Stephen Toulmin; Alan Gewirth, Robert Richards, and William Wimsatt served on the doctoral committee. Michael Strauss (his M.A. thesis advisor) and Stephen Toulmin have greatly influenced his philosophical views. Their thinking is marked by a unique combination of a broad outlook on the very profound issues of philosophy (and life), a careful analysis of the details, and the ability to concretize their discussion in everyday issues. Despite such similarity, they came from different backgrounds: While Strauss, like his grandfather Martin Buber, was submersed in the German tradition and his important writings are in German and Hebrew, Toulmin, a pupil of Ludwig Wittgenstein, grew up within the English analytic tradition.

The philosophers whose writings have made the greatest impact upon Ben-Ze'ev are Aristotle, Baruch Spinoza and Immanuel Kant. Kant’s main influence is most evident in Ben Ze'ev's discussions on epistemology and perception. Aristotle’s and Spinoza’s impact is more apparent in his discussions of the mind–body problem and in his work on the emotions.

Ben-Ze'ev's major books are The Perceptual System (Peter Lang, 1993); The Subtlety of Emotions (MIT UP, 2000); Love Online: Emotions on the Internet (Cambridge UP, 2004); In The Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and its Victims (with Ruhama Goussinsky, Oxford UP, 2008); Die Logik der Gefühle: Kritik der emotionalen Intelligenz (Suhrkamp, 2009).

Ben-Ze'ev has held several academic positions at the University of Haifa, including: President (2004–2012); Rector (2000–2004); Dean of Research (1995-2000); Philosophy Department Chairperson (1986–1988); Chairperson of the Humanity Division, Oranim-School of Education (1991–1994); Chairperson of the Association of University Heads, Israel; Head of the University of Haifa Press; and Head of the Academic Channel. He established the Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Emotions at the University of Haifa. He is currently the President of the newly established European Philosophical Society for the Study of Emotions.[2]


Explanatory tools

The choice of conceptual tools determines the nature of our explanations. In light of the complexity of psychological phenomena, the tools that we use to explain them should be flexible enough to accommodate the complexity of reality. Three such tools, which are evident throughout Ben-Ze'ev's writings, are the distinctions between various levels of description, prototypical and binary categories, and intrinsically and extrinsically valuable activities. The distinction between various levels of description reflects his Stratification Approach concerning the body–mind problem. This approach has three basic assumptions: (a) the mind consists of dispositional and actualized states and not of internal isolated entities; (b) physiological and mental states are not actually separate but belong to two different levels of description—the relationship between them is one of stratification rather than of causality; and (c) mental and physical states emerge along a continuum that ranges from simple to more complex states. This approach is close to Aristotle, Spinoza, and the advocates of the emergent view of mental properties. This issue is discussed in detail in his book on perception. Ben-Ze’ev further believes that prototypical categories, which have no clear-cut boundaries and no equal degree of membership, are generally more appropriate to the psychological realm, and hence clear-cut definitions of emotions are of little value, and general characterizations should be given preference. Furthermore, we should expect many grey areas. When discussing human activities, Ben-Ze'ev emphasizes the importance of intrinsically valuable activities for long-term happiness and profound love. The combination of all three distinctions is significant in explaining psychological, and in particular emotional, phenomena. Despite his use of complex conceptual tools, on many issues Ben-Ze'ev remains close to a critical yet commonsense view.


In his various writings on perception (in particular, The Perceptual System), Ben-Ze'ev rejects the indirect view of perception and argues for the presence of direct, non-pure perception. He rejects naïve realism as well as extreme subjectivism, and argues for a critical realism. Such realism considers perceptual qualities as properties of the perceptual environment, which is a relational environment that presupposes the existence of a perceiver. Within the perceptual environment, perception is direct, as it involves direct awareness of events in the environment, but in light of the relational nature of this environment, perceptual awareness merely provides partial information about the world—that part which is influenced by the subject’s characteristics. In his view, perception is direct in two major senses: it is perception of the objects themselves, not of internal mental representations, and it is not preceded by mediating inferential processes. Ben-Ze'ev's book The Perceptual System received an excellent review in The Review of Metaphysics, with the reviewer, Jack Ornstein, stating that Ben-Ze'ev's view is “the only remotely plausible approach” to the mind–body problem: “Finally, we have a theory of perception and the mind which any scientifically-minded, critical philosopher can live with.”[3] Together with his work on perception, Ben-Ze'ev has pursued related issues in the philosophy of psychology, such as the body–mind problem and memory, and has written on various philosophers, in particular Aristotle and Thomas Reid.


Five years after finishing his Ph.D. thesis, Ben-Ze'ev began to study the emotions, a topic that remains at the center of his research today. In this field he was particularly influenced by Aristotle (mainly his analysis of emotions as evaluative attitudes) and by Spinoza (in particular, his emphasis on the importance of change in generating emotions). The psychological work that has most influenced his thinking has been The Cognitive Structure of Emotions (1988) by Ortony, Clore and Collins. Ben-Ze'ev has published many articles in this field, as well as several books: The Subtlety of Emotions (MIT 2000), Love Online: Emotions on the Internet (Cambridge 2004)),[4] In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and its Victims (Oxford: 2008; written with Ruhama Goussinsky), and Die Logik der Gefühle: Kritik der emotionalen Intelligenz (Suhrkamp, 2009).

The Subtlety of Emotions, his major work on emotions, is divided into two major parts: the first presents an overall conceptual framework for understanding emotions and the second discusses individual emotions. He considers emotion to be a general mode of the mental system and suggests that the typical cause of emotions is a perceived change, the typical emotional concern is a comparative concern, and the typical emotional object is a human being. Typical emotions are considered to have certain basic characteristics—instability, great intensity, a partial perspective, and relative brevity—and four basic components—cognition, evaluation, motivation, and feeling. Emotions are regarded as having a significant practical and moral value.

Romantic Love

Romantic love has been the major emotion discussed by Ben-Ze'ev. In his book, Love Online, he demonstrates the value of his conceptual framework for understanding emotions on the Internet, and in particular romantic relationships in cyberspace. No new emotion has been created on the Internet, but the generation of emotions is often different—for example, in the speed at which such emotions are generated. He argues that the chaotic and dynamic nature of cyberspace will not replace the more stable nature of actual-space, as we cannot live in complete chaos. The test of the Internet will be whether it can complement ordinary romantic activities, just as the telephone complements ordinary social activities, or whether it will merely replace them with less valuable activities, as the television frequently does.

The book In the Name of Love is about our ideals of love as expressed in the Romantic Ideology, our experiences of love, and the disparity between the two. This ideology, which assumes that love is comprehensive, uncompromising, and unconditional, may lead to extreme behavior such as is found in men who murder their wives (or partners) allegedly out of love. Although Romantic Ideology may have a negative impact on many people in different circumstances, it still has the positive function of a guiding ideal. At the basis of Ben Ze'ev's proposed Nurturing Approach lies the assumption that in order for romantic love to be maintained, the lover should not merely ensure that the beloved feels good; it is imperative, too, that the lover is profoundly satisfied with the way in which the relationship enhances her own development and flourishing. Only a profoundly satisfied person can enhance the flourishing of the other and of their togetherness. In many current societies, love is on the mind of an ever-greater number of people and its presence is a major criterion for relationships. Love can no longer be dismissed as a silly fantasy; it is perceived as realistic and feasible for an increasing number of people.

In recent years, Ben-Ze'ev’s research has been focused on romantic compromises and related issues such as the profundity of love, the relationship between love and sex, and love and time. In romantic compromises, people relinquish a romantic value, such as romantic freedom or intense sexual desire, in exchange for a nonromantic value, like the wish to live comfortably. He considers such compromises to be the most common and painful syndrome in intimate relationships. Nevertheless, he argues for the existence of good romantic compromises where there is a value convergence between the two lovers and the lovers' minds are at rest as their togetherness has an intrinsic value.


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