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Review: From Passions to Emotions

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I am catching up on my reading this holiday season, and by far the most incisive and penetrating work on the emotions that I have read all year is this one, From Passions to Emotions, by Thomas Dixon. It is an eye-opening work of vast learning and scholarship. Now for some readers of this blog the advanced level of scholarship may be a turn-off (and there is nothing wrong with that!), nor is this a “how to” book with tips and techniques; still, I found Dixon stimulating and engaging in his coverage of perspectives on the emotions of which I had previously been unaware. I came away thinking, “This guy has read everything.” Short review: Two Thumbs Up. The longer review follows. 

Rage: From Charles Bell’s The Anatomy and Philosophy of Expression (1844)

I was immediately engaged to learn that the word “emotion” did not even exist in the English language prior to the 18th Century. The English philosopher David Hume (1711 – 1776) spent three years in France writing his A Treatise on Human Nature (1739). There Hume encountered Rene Descartes’ (1596 – 1650)  The Passions of the Soul (1649). The latter makes use of the French word émotion, the probable source for Hume’s “emotion. ” Descartes and Hume are the likely source of the further dissemination of “emotion” in the Scottish Enlightenment. Still, “emotion” is lightly used in Hume’s text, which favors references to “passion” and “affection” in talking about what we today regard as emotions. The meanings are dynamic. They start to spin.

For example, the meaning of the word “passion” itself has shifted from referring to the suffering of the Christian fall from grace and redemption from sin to the mechanical transformation of animal spirits and perceptions in René Descartes’ writings. The word “science” shifted from meaning the systematic inductive inquiry into all aspects of reality using introspection to the limited search for physical causes. “Nature” means the opposite of “grace” in a Christian context but the opposite of “social” or “man-made” in the context of Scottish moralists. “Will” could mean an aspect of the soul created by God, ungoverned appetites, or, in contrast, a feeling resulting from nervous activity. 

Things really get going in the 1800s with a large group of Christian, theistic, and introspective thinkers of whom few readers today has ever heard and whom few actually read. For example, today few engage with Isaac Watts, Jonathan Edwards, Thomas Reid, James McCosh, William Lyall, or George T. Ladd. Ladd had been a Christian minister and teacher for ten years before turning to psychology. 

One point that Dixon repeatedly notes is that there is no inherent inconsistency in being a Christian or theist and doing serious scientific work; it is just that the meaning of “science” itself has changed significantly from such “sciences” as theology, church history, and the study of revelation to secular disciplines such as chemistry, biology, physics – and psychology. For example, Charles Bell is best know for Charles Darwin’s (1809 – 1882) opposition to his theistic religious commitments to a monistic (not historical) designer of the universe. Bell is also known for his serious work in physiology, anatomy, and as the identifier of “Bell’s palsy.”  And yet…

Far from being the start of the use of the word “emotion,” as is frequently maintained in psychology textbooks today, Charles Darwin’s book [The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872)] and William James’s essay [“What is an Emotion?” (1884)] are the culmination of a long tradition and debate. Of course, it remains true that the end of one era is the beginning of another, and Darwin’s and James’ works were, each in their own way, highly innovative contributions. 

Today we forget – or never knew – what a large role organized religion played in academic and scientific circles in the 18th and 19th centuries. One could not even be chosen as a professor at the University of Edinburgh without being a member of the clergy. Thomas Brown (1778 – 18820), whose Lectures on the Philosophy of the Human Mind(1820), was responsible for the breakthrough in putting the distinction “emotion” on the academic and scientific map(s), was initially refused appointment as a professor because he was merely a medical doctor, not a cleric. Indeed Dixon considers Brown to be “the inventor of the emotions” as a conceptual distinction (p. 109). Brown died in 1820, and by 1860 his book had gone through some 20 editions. Impressive. Today, except for Dixon, we would not know of Thomas Brown’s enormous influence. 

One “Ah ha” moment among many for me as a reader of Dixon was that “emotion” has come to include such strong and disruptive passions as anger, fear, sadness as well as delicate and fine-grained affections such as fondness for one’s children, warm feelings towards friends, appreciation of music and visual art, or love of God (if one is so inclined). 

Thus, “emotion” has legs on both sides of the mind-body distinction with the fine-grained affections such as love of wisdom and God that Saints Augustine and Aquinas saw as an essential part of the soul migrating in the course of history to a third, stand-alone, faculty – sometimes called the faculty of judgment, [aesthetic] taste, or simply affectivity – alongside cognition and volition. For example, the philosopher Immanuel Kant’s approach to the finer feelings and affects actually gets subordinated to his theory of aesthetic taste of the beautiful and sublime. 

In terms of contemporary debating points, Dixon initially pushes back against Paul Griffiths’ [What Emotions Really Are (1997)] detailed argumentS that “emotion” is not a natural kind, not even a family resemblance, but an ad hoc label for three diverse unrelated phenomena. 

At the risk of oversimplification, in Griffiths, these three distinctions are “affect programs” such as basic anger, sadness, fear, high spirits (“happiness”), and a few others (as identified by Paul Ekman); reactive passions such as righteous indignation at unfairness (as identified by Robert H. Frank); and socially constructed conventions such as romantic love (see James Averill and Rom Harré). The net of it? “Emotion” is a kludge. 

Griffiths is particularly at pains to provide counter examples to Anthony Kenny’s assertion that the defining characteristic of authentic emotions is their being a propositional attitude – being about some something or situation. Had the authorities read Griffiths carefully, this would have pulled the rug out from under the celebrated late Peter Goldie even before Goldie was published. 

For example, the instances of cognitive impenetrability belong here: a person knows that flying is safer than driving, but he is still afraid of flying. A person knows the food is wholesome but the shape of the pasta still reminds him of grubs, which he finds disgusting. Dixon does not explicitly comment on the cognitive impenetrability of the emotions, but, as far as I read him, nothing Dixon says flat out contradicts Griffith. 

And yet there is a long Christian tradition of affections being cognitive acts or volitional activities, including the highly cultivated love of the Creator, contemplation of the wonders of nature, appreciation of art, forms of friendship, fervent desire of virtue and the good, and so on. 

Meanwhile, Charles Darwin – who studied to be a cleric after abandoning medical school (though he eventually ended up as a committed agnostic) –  got himself entangled in intellectual knots in (1872) deciding to argue that emotions were vestigial behaviors (analogous to the appendix in man), which were neither expressive in the authentic, full sense nor adaptive. Not adaptive?

The scandal is that Darwin then had to fall back on the [Lamarckian] inheritance of acquired characteristics (not natural selection!) to account for the continuum between the “expression” of emotion in man and animals. Animals such as dogs and chimps were indeed expressing their emotions; but man was performing habitual behaviors without purpose that had taken on a fossilized life of their own in the species. The scandal grows as for Darwin the emotions are not expressive – they are vestigial gestures.

Dixon argues persuasively that Darwin’s work on the emotions took considerable pains to disagree with and refute Charles Bell’s assertion that the emotions were purposeful, showing us the wisdom of the ultimate designer of the clockwork universe, the God of the deists and quasi-Unitarians. Apparently the emotions could not be both purposeful and the work of Darwin’s own quasi-divine first principle of adaptation, natural selection. 

While one may disagree with Darwin and even try to rationally reconstruct what makes sense in Darwin’s highly-nuanced position, Dixon makes the powerful point that the reader will never understand Darwin work on the emotions without engaging with the religious (theistic) dimension represented by Bell against whom Darwin was arguing.

The irony is that the emotions Darwin identified were purposeful in animals such as dogs and chimps, but no longer so in that higher animal, man. Darwin takes this position because, if such emotions were thus purposeful in man, it would show forth the wise hand of Bell’s theistic creator in furnishing such a subtle mechanism; whereas, in contrast, if the emotions in man had no purpose, but were vestigial behaviors, then Bell would be wrong and Darwin right. 

This is par for the course. Dixon goes on to provide overwhelming scholarly evidence that “emotion” is used in a diversity of ways by Christian, theistic, introspective, physicalist, psychological, and physiological authors throughout the 19th century. In conclusion, Dixon both agrees and side-steps Griffiths that “emotion” is an “overly broad category,” without actually touching Griffiths’ position about emotion as a natural kind. Good enough?

William James (1842 – 1910) made an enduring splash in “What is an Emotion?” published in Alexander Bain’s journal Mind in 1884. James’ innovation was to assert that the conventional view of the emotions was exactly backwards. One thinks one endures a loss, feels sad, and then expresses the emotion by crying; one thinks one sees an angry bear, feels fear, and expresses the fear by taking flight are shaking with fear. But, James asserted, the causality is just the reverse: one endures the loss, one is overcome with visceral bodily experiences of crying, and only then does one experience the sadness. One sees the bear, experience visceral bodily awareness of trembling and taking off running, and only then does one experience fear. The triggering event and the visceral reaction precede the introspective awareness of what we come to call the emotion in question. 

While powerful in its boldness, and perhaps applicable to those emotions that are most reflex-like in activating an immediate fight/flight physical response, James’ theory was immediately refuted by counter-examples and logical inconsistencies. 

First, the relation between the emotion and its expression is not really causal. Fear or deep sadness are not to be distinguished from the flight reaction or melancholic flood that overtakes the individual. Sadness and its expression in crying are not causally related. The feeling and the expression are part of one and same behavioral-affective-expressive constellation.

Nor James’ theory differentiate between different emotions. For example extreme joy and intense grief are both accompanied by weeping. “Tears of joy” are a common place. Furthermore, worry and other form of cognitive expectation provide evidence that thinking about the circumstances that call forth an emotion actually do call it forth, providing an explicit counter-example to James’ proposed direction of causality. 

According to Dixon, James’ compelling oversimplification is a major source of what Robert Solomon (The Passions: Emotions and the Meaning of Life (1993) – Dixon’s ultimate target) calls the myth of reason versus the passions. In working on rehabilitating a certain wisdom of the emotions, Solomon (and many others) overlook the contribution of many Christian thinkers – especially in the Scottish and English Enlightenments – that the affections are a significant source of wisdom.

It is “a bum rap” to accuse Christian philosophers and thinkers to set up an irreconcilable dichotomy here as Solomon does. 

The kinder affections of neighborliness and the moral sentiments have been a solid part of the Christian canon at least since the Parable of the Good Samaritan. These get pushed down and pushed back in Solomon (and James). True, the war between the spirit and the flesh (and the latter’s sexual and aggressive tendencies) lives on. Human beings are a difficult species. 

The emotions are much more than the disruptive passions such as appetite and desire and anger (and so on), since the emotions have come to include feelings of neighborliness, sentiments of kindness, pleasure in music and intellectual inquiry, and so on. 

Joseph Butler (1692 – 1752), as much a deist as a Christian notwithstanding his critique of the former, argued persuasively against Hobbes’ war of all against all that people are as interested in others as they are interested in themselves. Whether other-interest is just a more refined form of self-interest continues to be debated, but there is no logical contradiction in the two reciprocally reinforcing one another. Results and success in commerce, business, science, and life require cooperation as well as competition. 

“Emotion” has come to mean cognitive acts of the soul, phenomenal feelings reducible to either cerebral or visceral activity, socio-cultural phenomena that have displaced basic biology in the experience of community. Just as “phlogiston” [a supposed quantity of heat] of proto-chemical natural philosophy has been dropped from today’s scientific chemistry, the “passions and affections” of the soul no longer occur in psychological or physiological models. Yet the passions and affections of the soul cast a long shadow over our current psychological paradigms and the use of the word “emotion” in emotional language. 


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