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A Rumor of Empathy in Brené Brown’s Atlas of the Heart (Reviewed)

Review: Brené Brown, (2021). Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience. New York: Random House, pp. 304. 

This is three books in one. It is a psychology “how to” book filled with tips and techniques about how to identify and name emotions, feelings, affects, and their triggers and consequences. This inquiry is engaged in order to build connections and community. It works.  People who are able to name their emotions and feeling experience expanded power in getting what they want and need from other people. They also get expanded power in contributing to building meaningful connections and community. 

Second, the Atlas is a research report on what might be described as “crowd sourcing” (my term, not Brown’s) what emotions were important to some 66,625 persons in Brené Brown’s massive online classes in 2013/14. 

Comments and narratives were solicited from the participants. This input was anonymized, color coded, aggregated, filtered, subjected to expert selection as to which emotions and emotion-related experiences were significant in promoting “healing.” The terms were then defined using 1500 academic publications. What falls out of this complex and interesting, though not entirely transparent process, are emotions, emotional triggers, emotional consequences, experiences, lots of experiences, and, well – an atlas of the heart. Readers are all the richer for it. 

Cover art: Atlas of the Heart by Brené Brown

Finally, Atlas is an art book. The text on high quality paper is interspersed with color photos, cartoons, and enlarged quotations of key phrases such as one would find on social media. Take a tip or technique and using large and colorful type, put it on a page by itself: “I’m here to get it right, not to be right [p. 247. Note: there is no close quote. Is that a typo or poetic license?] 

I especially liked the photos of Brown’s hand written journal (or college essay?), saying “throughout our lives we must experience emotions and feelings that are inevitably painful and devastating” (October 9, 1984). Early on, Brené showed promise, and she movingly shares her struggles and what she had to survive in her family of origin. The photo of the dog with the guilty, “hang dog” expression, next to the torn up upholstered chair was genuinely funny. Never let it be said that dogs don’t experience emotions! The artistic aspects will be deemphasized in this review, but the book definitely has possibilities for placement on the “coffee table” to invite browsing and conversation prompts.

The book succeeds in all three of its aspirations, though to different degrees. 

At this point, an analogy may be useful. People are not born knowing the names of colors. Children applying to start kindergarten are quizzed on such basics as the names of the letters (ABCs), their address and phone number, and the names of the colors. The spectrum from red through orange, yellow, green, blue, to violet is indeed a marvelous thing. But no one assumes anyone knows what these distinctions are called without guidance. Why then is it that children (and of all ages) are assumed to know the difference between basic emotions fear, anger, sadness, high spirits, much less more subtle nuanced feelings such as envy, jealousy, resentment, shame, guilt, and so on? 

This is the first challenge that Brené Brown addresses with her book. She provides a guide, an atlas of the heart, to people struggling to identify the emotions and emotion-ladened experiences they are feeling, sensing, or trying to express. Even though Sesame Street, Mister Rogers, and Mary Gordon’s Roots of Empathy, have taken decisive steps to put this aspect of emotional intelligence – x identifying and naming the emotions – on the school curriculum map, large numbers of people of all ages struggle with the basics. What is this feeling that I am feeling? What is this emotion, if it is an emotion, that I am experiencing?

Brown begins with a nod to the innovative body of work on the emotions by Paul Ekman (e.g., Emotions Revealed. New York: Owl (Henry Holt), 2003). Ekman put facial micro-expression on the map as the key to emotions with a seven year plus study resulting in his Facial Action Coding Scheme. According to Ekman, a relatively small set of some seven basic emotions are universal, evolutionarily based, and part of a biological affective program that is “hardwired” into our mammalian biology. These basic emotions (sadness, anger, agony, surprise, fear, disgust, contempt, and maybe enjoyment) get elaborated and transformed in a thousand ways by social conventions, community standards and cultural pretenses. 

The human face is an emotional “hot spot,” according to Ekman. The micro-expressions are the “tells” that disclose a person’s underlying feeling or attitude, regardless of the facial expression the person may be adopting for social display purposes. Thus, a person may smile to express agreement with his friends, but his eyes do not participate in the smile (also called a “Duchenne smile”) and something looks not quite sincere. More concerning, the would-be suicide bomber puts on a calm, happy face, but a micro-expression of contempt momentarily steals across his face, expressing his hatred for the system he is about to try to destroy. Notwithstanding Ruth Ley’s penetrating and trenchant critique of loose ends in Ekman’s approach (see Ley, The Ascent of Affect. Chicago: University of Chicago press, 2017), his approach remains today the dominate design in emotion research. Enter Brené Brown’s contribution. 

For example, Brown’s first constellation of emotions engaged include “stress, overwhelm, anxiety, worry, avoidance, excitement, dread, fear, vulnerability” (p. 2). She quotes the American Psychological Association Definition of anxiety (so we know where that definition came from!): “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increase blood pressure” (p. 9). 

Worry and avoidance, not exactly emotions as such, are ways of dealing with the painful aspects of anxiety. Excitement seems to be the physiological aspects of anxiety given a positive spin, valence, or trajectory. Add “negative event approaching” and “present danger” and you’ve got dread and fear. Stress and overwhelm are the again physiological aspects of anxiety, elaborated, for example, by having to be a waitress in a restaurant at its busiest (as was Brown while working her way through college). “Stressed is being in the weeds; overwhelm is being blown.” 

For Brown, vulnerability is a key emotion, since it initially shows up as a weakness to hide, but has the potential, when approached with a willingness to embrace risk, to be transformed into courage, accomplishment, and what people really want from inspirational speakers – inspiration. Never was it truer, our weaknesses are our strengths. Dialectically speaking. 

At this point, I am inspired by Brown’s contribution, and will not split hairs over what is an emotion and what an emotional fellow traveler. Vulnerability is the perception and related belief, thought, or cognition, whether accurate or not, that the person is able to be hurt whether physically or in social status. Keep your friends close but your enemies, including your near enemies such as flatterers and people who ask you to lend them money, closer?

This is a good place to point out that if you really want to “get” the emotions, you may usefully engage with Brown. Definitely. But do not overlook Paul Griffiths, What Emotions Really Are (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997). Emotions may not even be a natural kind. A mammal (for example) is a natural kind, emotions arguably are not. Emotions are a “kludge” cobbled together by the scientific community from an evolutionary affective program, moral sentiments such as righteous indignation in the face of social injustice (a strategic, energetic, passionate reaction to enforce the social convention of promising among distrustful neighbor), and social pretence such as romantic love. 

In a famous one line statement in Martin Heidegger’s magnum opus, Being and Time (1927: H139), he says that the study of the moods, affects, and emotions has not made a single advance since Book II of Aristotle’s Rhetoric (347? BCE). He then proposes that anxiety is the way the world is globally disclosed as a limited finite whole. It is tempting for purposes of being collegial to write, “Finally an advance on Aristotle, Brené!” but she would surely be the first to acknowledge that would indeed be a high bar. Suffice to say, Brown’s contribution is significant and in many ways, impressive. Aristotle is still Aristotle. (See Agosta 2010 in the References.)

Since this is not a softball review, and in spite of saying a lot of interesting things about love, it is not defined in Brown’s book. I applaud Brown’s decision to leave the definition of love to the poets and artists, whether intentionally or by omission. Anyone who tries to define love is likely to end up with more arrows in the back than Cupid has in his quiver.

A definition would be something like Freud’s statement: Love is aim-inhibited sexuality. Or Aristophanes narrative that love is the search for one’s other half and the joining with that half if/when one finds it. Or Bob Dylan’s “love is just a four letter word.” No inhibition here; just hormones all the way down. 

The research challenge present here is how to finesse the canonical interpretation of the data by her team of experts, assembled from her extensive network of colleagues, which data after all is highly survey-like yet without controls, randomization, or rigorous sampling dynamics. The outer boundary of the demographic respondents seems to be the 66K plus followers who signed up for her massive online courses. 

Other features of the book that became wearing for this reviewer were the seemingly endless rhetoric of stipulation, how inspiring to her has been everyone else’s research from which she liberally borrows, always with a slew of well-crafted footnotes, and an epidemic of near enemies to authenticity and courage. This is perhaps inevitable when one has to give 87 definitions. 

Still, the question invites inquiry: Where after all did the definitions of these 87 emotions and experiences really come from? I cannot figure it out. My best guess is “the team” made it up based on reading 1500 research articles and extensive input from the “lead investigator,” Brené Brown. To be sure, Brown is generous with her recognition and acknowledgements of a long list of thinkers, mentors, scholars, spiritual guides, and researchers. She really lays it on thick with how much she has learned from her friends and colleagues; and it indeed must be thrilling to have one’s name called out by a celebrity academic. I am green with envy – not one of the positive emotions – that I am unlikely to make the short list with my seven books on empathy, especially given this review. 

Still, Brown’s contribution is a strikingly original synthesis of existing ideas. I have been known to say, “Research also includes talking to people.” Yet the risk is scientism. The air of scientific authority without the fallibility of human subjectivity and idiosyncrasy. It may not matter. The value lies in the tips and techniques that can be used to build community and connection. If it is scientism, then it is scientism at its best. 

Once again, since this is not a softball review, I join the debate about one of the most troubling of emotions, anger. Brown properly raises the issue of whether anger is fundamental or derivative. Anger often seems to be a front for something else = x, such as shame, guilt, jealousy, humiliation (this list is long). In spite of the dramatic display of being angry, there is something inauthentic about anger. Anger is a burden to those who experience it, and this burden often gets discharged in maladaptive and self-defeating ways by acting out aggression and violence. Brown’s position is a masterpiece of studied ambiguity. I agree. 

My take on this? If you want to see or make people angry, then hurt their feelings. If you see an angry person, ask: Who hurt the person’s feelings and/or did not give the person the respect, dignity, or empathy that the person deserves or to which the person feels entitled. You see here the problem? Entitlement, legitimate or otherwise. 

This was Heinz Kohut’s point: When people don’t get the empathy they need and deserve, they fragment emotionally – and one of the fragments is narcissistic rage (extreme anger). From this perspective, empathy is not a mere psychological mechanism but the foundation of community, connection and intersubjectivity. Donna Hicks makes the same point in Dignity (New Haven and London: Yale University press, 2011). If you see anger in the form of conflict, substitute the word “dignity” for “empathy” – someone has experienced a dignity violation, a breakdown, a loss of dignity, which loss must be restored to have any hope of resolving the conflict (whether in Northern Ireland or the bedroom). 

As regards empathy, Brown engages it along with compassion, pity, sympathy, boundaries, and comparative suffering. Like many psychologists, Brown regards empathy as a psychological mechanism not empathy as a way of being and the foundation of community. For the latter, the foundation of community, like a good Buddhist, she privileges compassion. Nothing wrong with that as such. Heavens knows, it is not an either-or choice – the world needs both expanded empathy and compassion. 

Another point of debate. When Brown says that taking a walk in the other person’s shoes is a myth that must be given up, she is rather overthinking what is a folk saying. Key term: overthinking (occupational hazard of all thinkers and academics). 

“Talking a walk in the other person’s shoes” is the folk definition of empathy. Consider the situation from the perspective of the other person, especially if that individual is your critic, opponent, or sworn enemy. Especially if the latter is the case. 

This is folk wisdom and appreciating the point requires a folkish charity. Key term: charity. It is uncharitable to take a saying and read it in a way that willfully distorts or makes it sound implausible or stupid. Ordinary common sense is required. This is what Brown properly calls a “near enemy” – for example, the way “pity” is the “near enemy” of empathy – a way of dismissing it. 

Therefore, when one says take a walk in the other’s shoes, this is not a conversation about shopping therapy or shopping for shoes. It is a conversation about taking the other person’s perspective with the other’s life circumstances in view in so far as one can grasp those circumstances. If one wants to unpack the metaphor, the idea is to get an idea where the other person’s shoe pinches or chafes. One might argue that the metaphor breaks down if one uses one’s own shoe size. It does. It breaks down into projection, which would be a misfiring or breakdown of empathy. In being empathic, I do not want to know where the shoe pinches me, but rather where it pinches the other individual. 

And that is a useful misunderstanding – as noted, what Brown elsewhere calls a “near enemy.” Empathic interpretation breaks down, fails, goes astray as projection. If I do not take into account differences in character and circumstances, then one is at risk of attributing one’s own issue or problem or emotion to the other person. It may be that we have to dispense with the word itself. “Empathy” has become freighted with too much semantics and misunderstanding. That is okay – as long as we double down and preserve the distinction empathy as a way of being in community and authentic relatedness, what Brown elsewhere calls meaningful connectivity. Still, the word “empathy” has its uses, and if the reader substitutes “empathy” for “meaningful connection” the sense is well preserved in both directions. Okay, keep the word. 

If you have seen Brené Brown’s Netflix presentation (The Call to Courage”), then you know this woman is funny. Not standup comedy funny, she is after all an academic who broke out of the ivory tower into organizational transformation and motivational speaking. She knows how to tell a good story, often in a funny self-depreciating way, that makes one laugh at one’s own idiosyncrasies. Like packing three books for a vacation with the kids at Disney World. Who is one kidding, once again, except perhaps oneself? This approiach does not translate as well into print as one might wish. No one is criticizing Brown for not being Dave Barry, but, unless you are familiar with her “in person” routine, much of the humor is lost in translation. The author is sooo compassionate, that by halfway through the work, I was actually starting to experience compassion fatigue.

However, notwithstanding Brown’s aspiration to rigorous science, and she does have a claim to “big data.” For me, this is not the most valuable part of her contribution. I have been known to say, “We don’t need more data, we need expanded empathy.” The good news is that Brown displays both in abundance. As noted, one could substitute the word “empathy” for her uses of “connection” and “meaningful connection,” the topics of her dissertation and research program, and not lose any of the impact, meaning, or value. Empathy is no rumor in Brené Brown. Empathy lives in Brené Brown’s contribution. 

References

Lou Agosta. (2010). “Heidegger’s 1924 Clearing of the Affects Using Aristotle’s Rhetoric, Book II.” Philosophy Today, Vol. 54, No. 4 (Winter 2010): 333–345. [Download paper: https://philpapers.org/rec/AGOHC-2 ]

© Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project

Review: A Silvan Tomkins Handbook: Foundations for Affect Theory by Adam Frank and Elizabeth Wilson

Silvan Tomkins (1911 – 1991) is an innovative, ground-breaking interdisciplinary psychologist. Tomkins’ four volume Affect, Imagery, and Consciousness is a Mount Everest of the study of affects and the emotions. Like Mount Everest itself, Tomkins’ work is on the border of several gigantic kingdoms, extending from philosophy to psychology, neurology to evolutionary psychology, data rich empirical research to high speculation, phenomenology to an early version of critical theory, behaviorism to personality theory and psychoanalysis. 

The result of the complexities and multidimensionality of Tomkins’ contributions is that his work has remained less well known, for example, than Tomkins’ student Paul Ekman, and Tomkins is regarded as hard to read, dense, difficult and even inaccessible. Until now. 

A Silvan Tomkins Handbook: Foundations for Affect Theory by Adam J. Frank and Elizabeth A. Wilson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2020, 105 pp.) provides a sophisticated roadmap into the

complex terrain and intricacies of Tomkins’ innovative approach to the affects. Without oversimplifying and with admirable conciseness, Frank and Wilson engage with the tough issues and reliably clarify and illuminate them: the relation of Tomkins to Darwin – continuity or innovation; the philosophical deep structure of Tomkins thinking, including his PhD dissertation in philosophy on the Scottish enlightenment figure Bishop Butler; his work with W.V.O. Quine in logical empiricism and pragmatism; the debate about the affects as the bearers of propositional content; the relationship to Spinoza and the latter’s theory of desire, passion, and value; the adversarial relationship to Freud’s drive theory, while using psychoanalytically-informed listening to describe the affects in their intersubjective context; what happens to the affects in the human context of community, namely, affect control scripts. 

Tomkins’ life spanned the time when the dominant design paradigms in psychology were behaviorism and psychoanalysis. As the authors, Adam J. Frank and Elizabeth A. Wilson, note, Tomkins himself underwent a seven-year psychoanalysis with Ruth Burr (p. 138), and said that it had cured him of his neurosis. 

As usual, the devil and the innovations are in the details. The conventional wisdom is that a straight line exists between Darwin, Tomkins, and Ekman. Frank and Wilson demonstrate decisively that it is a best a zigzagging dotted line. 

A biological dimension exists to the affects – neurological, glandular, muscular, parasympathetic, visceral, and so on. How society and community then take and elaborate, magnify, and transmute that biology are of the essence. 

The difference between Darwin and Tomkins is substantial. Darwin sees the human smile (among many things) as a vestigial remnant of our canine ancestors baring their teeth to express the mixed message “I am friendly enough but also know how to be aggressive and bite” [or a sentiment to that effect]. If the smile expresses anything for Darwin, it is as a fossilized remainder of mammalian behavior, thereby making Darwin’s key argument of continuity between man and animals. 

According to Frank and Wilson, while Tomkins does not contest Darwin’s finding, Tomkins’ thinking moves forward and perhaps at right angles. Tomkins endorse a “stored affect program” but does not reduce “affect complexes” to such a program (p. 35). Most authentically, Tomkins innovates an “inverse architecture” to the emotions whereby the affect of interest and excitement (“happiness”) is literally in the smile itself. Nothing is hidden. The affect lives in the smile. 

Tomkins is just getting warmed up here: “the affects are also always necessarily social, conscious, facial, scripted, ideological, and interpersonal (p. 33). It is not even clear that Tomkins is a proper Darwinian: “What is evolutionarily basic for Tomkins is not fitness but rather the capacity to conjoin and disjoin and cleave” (p. 34), which provides the complexity of affects transmuted into emotions in real life social situations. 

Neither Frank nor Wilson – nor Tomkins – are responsible that Darwin’s classic, innovative, ground breaking work on the emotions is deeply flawed. 

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

Though this goes momentarily beyond the confines of Frank and Wilson, the matter is of the essence. The scandal is that Darwin, after banishing purpose from the human emotions to link them with the animals, 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 continuous with the behaviors of dogs and chimps without purpose that had taken on a fossilized life of their own in man in the species homo sapiens. The scandal grows as, for Darwin, the emotions are not even expressive (in a work with that title!) – the emotions are vestigial gestures. 

Tomkins may have had an appreciation of the nuances of Darwin’s position that even Darwin lacked thanks to Tomkins’ work on Bishop Butler and the other Christian and deistic divines of the Scottish Enlightenment. But Tomkins never made explicit the noted limitation or background controversy. 

Meanwhile, Paul Ekman has built on the work of the giant, Tomkins, that came before him. Ekman states he spent seven years on a potentially career ending research project to map Tomkins’ example that, in effect, happiness lives in the microexpressions of the smile on the face. Until his retirement, Ekman broke out of the academy and was consulting to the FBI and other large law enforcement organizations about how to tell if the would-be suicide bomber is unwittingly expressing his contempt for the capitalist dogs by focusing on the barely conscious microexpressions of contempt that provide “tells” of a hidden affect. 

Given the authors sustained discussion of Tomkins interest in computers, cybernetics, automation, science fiction accounts of biological robots in Philip K Dick, they will be interested to learn (but do not note) that a version of Ekman’s facial action coding scheme has indeed been implemented by a company called Affectiva. To their credit, Affectiva has refused to do business with totalitarian governments, but that does not prevent the latter from trying to steal or reverse engineer the algorithms. The genie is out of the bottle. 

Frank and Wilson point to the speculative deep structure of Tomkins’ thinking in the work of Spinoza. The crosscurrents and parallels are abundant – including quotations that echo one another: “It is our theory of value that for human subjects value is any object of human affect. Whatever one is excited by, enjoys, fears, hates, is ashamed of, is contemptuous of or is distressed by in an object of value, positive or negative (1:329)” 9p. 76). Freud was a secret – and not so secret – admirer of Spinoza, whose therapeutic project gives aid and comfort to all those fellow travelers seeking to extend the bounds of self-knowledge in transmuting affects into action, not mere cognitions. 

Frank and Wilson consistently push back against the assertions of Ruth Leys on the rise of affect. Now one should never dismiss Leys’ penetrating and incisive commentary. If one is going to hunt and look to bring down big game, it makes sense to go after Ekman and Tomkins. No one is interested in refuting, for example, the author of this review, because few have heard of him (i.e., me). No glory there. 

Frank and Wilson defend Tomkins against the assertion that he initiates the anti-internationalist movement (which, presumably, accelerates with Ekman). I summarize the defense: because affects are born in an unintentional (“non propositional”) context does not mean that they remain there. 

Building on Tomkins’s account of affects, his theory of imagery and consciousness recruits significant propositional content in a powerful and therapeutically informed context of scripts. Frank and Wilson perform an admirable job of explaining the non-intuitive subtleties of affect control scripts. I provide an example:

Consider, for example, the section titled “Production of a Total Affect-Shame Bind by Apparently Innocuous and Well-Intentioned Parental Action” (2: 228), which begins, “Our hero is a child who is destined to have every affect totally bound by shame.” Over two pages, Tomkins sketches an excruciating set of hypothetical scenes that take place around a 1950 American dinner table in which a child is shamed by his parents for expressing each of the primary affects: “Don’ ever make that face again at the table – it’s disgusting” (2: 229), “Oh, Robert, you’d think you hadn’t eaten in a week, really!” (2: 229), “Robert, where are your manners? Sit up (2:229 – 30), “Robert, you could be a little more attentive, you don’t have to sit there like bump on a log. Say something” (2:230).” 

This does indeed set up a script – an affect “out of control” script. As I read them, each of these is a micro-narrative – a script – in which a breakdown in empathy occurs, inflicting micro-aggressions in a context of affect amplification, psychological magnification, and a script for ongoing emotional disequilibrium. I hasten to add that the word “empathy” does not occur in Tomkins, but it lives there nonetheless in this and many other dramatic sections.

To tie together nonintentional affects with the propositional content of affect control scripts, an account of emergent processes, properties, and relationships is required. Although elements of such an account are to be found in the systems thinking, and feedback mechanisms that inspired Tomkins in the works of Norbert Wiener and the early cyberneticists, I do not believe a complete or satisfying answer is to be found there – or, for that matter, in any philosophy of science or design paradigm. This is not a criticism of Tomkins or the fine work of Frank/Wilson; but points to one of the great intellectual challenges of our time – a coherent account of emergent properties in context. 

Another one of the take-aways from my reading of Frank and Wilson is that some of the best work being done in psychoanalytically-oriented circles is occurring in comparative literature, gender studies, and the like. While not narrowly psychoanalytic, this work is an example of that latter. 

Psychoanalysis as a clinical practice continues to succumb to self-inflicted wounds of arrogance, elitism, cost, scheduling, and intermittent dogmatism. Today’s analysts are simply practicing cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and asking clients about their dreams between homework assignments. 

Psychiatry does allow for some simple affects as anxiety (fear), low spirits (depression), high spirits (mania), or anger; but, notwithstanding Panksepp or LeDoux, psychiatry lacks a sufficiently complex or nuanced account of the affects. “My amygdala made me do it” may indeed be true in specific instances of traumatic activation or “being triggered,” but it does not clarify the rich affective detail, nuances, human blind spots, struggle and effort in people’s lives, relationships, communities, and, ultimately, it demonstrates you’ve just got the wrong philosophy of science. A better one based in systems theory that allows for the emergent properties of the affects in their richness and complexity in biological and sociopsychological context is brought forth in the course of Tomkins’ contribution and this guide to it. 

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project

Review: From Passions to Emotions

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.