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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