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What “Emotions” Have Been (for Two Millenia)

What is an emotion? We’ve all read about how this question has puzzled psychologists for over a century, notably since the publication of William James’ famous article of the same name. The same question apparently intrigued theologians, philosophers, and physicians for centuries prior to James’ work, as expounded in Thomas Dixon’s recent book, From Passions to Emotions: The Creation of a Secular Psychological Category (2003; Cambridge UP). Dixon digs deep into the annals of the study of emotion, and although he notes a number of shifts in how emotions have been conceptualized over time, striking continuities emerge regarding the questions and debates that have surrounded emotion for the better part of two millennia. For example, Dixon traces the study of the passions back as far as St. Augustine of Hippo in the 4th and 5th centuries and St. Thomas Acquinas in the 13th century, and demonstrated how both of these men identified subtypes of discrete passions that could be identified based on their associated thoughts, actions, and objects. Dixon next follows the study of the passions through Christian thought in the 1700s, surprisingly uncovering sects that vouched for emotions as involving coordinated reason and passion—as opposed to viewing passion as a sinful phenomena. Dixon then shows how these discourses gave way to early 1800s Scottish Philosophy, including Thomas Brown, who was one of the first to argue that emotions were a mental category deserving of scientific study. Finally, Dixon describes the advent of modern emotion thought that occurred in the 1800s, involving an onslaught from the new empiricist camp, including both British physiologists such a Herbert Spencer and Charles Darwin and American experimentalists such as James. Most fascinating in this final section are the parallels between arguments and critiques from the 1800s and those of today; theorists then and now posited evolutionary, innate, and most of all entirely physiological accounts of emotion, and critics then and now responded that emotions are nonetheless shaped by conscious willpower, intervening cognitive processes, and socially constructed moral concerns. Dixon’s discussion of Darwin and James is particularly intriguing; he discusses how both men erected rigid theories of innate, physiologically based emotions in part to shed psychology’s long-standing association with theological and moralistic philosophy and to push psychology in an increasingly empirical—and, as we know now, modern—direction. The book is great read for any emotion researcher.

p.s., Dixon recently published an article in Emotion Review that serves as a mini-cliff notes version of his book.

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