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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

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.