December 02, 2015

The History of Emotions: Foundations

Every now and again I run into a wall. Great and sustained bursts of writing resolve themselves into deep depressions of inactivity. The marathon runner in me knows the importance of rest and recovery after a hard slog, but that knowledge makes the days of low productivity no less easy to deal with. It’s always a bit of a mystery to me how the spark gets to be reignited. I think one has to look for inspiration, not wait for it to come.

At the moment I’m trying to come up with a rigorous justification of, and outline for, the history of emotions. At the same time I am documenting the modern origins of the notion that emotions are historical. It seems, of late, that every time I think that emotional historicism is gaining some traction among emotions scholars, someone comes along and hits me over the head with the most rank essentialism. I am mining rich seams of historical evidence for emotional change over time; others simply point to their endocrine systems, spilling their guts about biological determinism. The experience is dispiriting.


It is, therefore, somewhat joyous to find an historical source to break me out of a funk. George Henry Lewes – life partner of George Eliot, critic, private experimentalist, radical, polymath – foreshadowed the debates that preoccupy emotions scholars as long ago as 1879. He saw the essentialising tendencies in psychology and physiology; he understood the links between emotions and morality. He was, perhaps better than most of his contemporaries, well versed in evolutionism and sensibly critical of it, though he recognised that humans were humans wherever and however one found them. Is not the passage below an elegant and still relevant statement of both the historicity of emotions and a compelling justification for studying the history of emotions? 
Because Psychology is interpreted through Sociology, and Experience acquires its development mainly through social influences, we must always take History into account. It shares with Society the distinctive character of progress. It is for ever germinating, for ever evolving. The physiologist recognises the same organs and functions in the savage and the civilized, in Greek, Hindoo, old German, or modern European; but not the same thoughts and sentiments. The brain of a cultivated Englishman of our day, compared with the brain of a Greek of the age of Pericles, would not present any appreciable differences, yet the differences between the moral and intellectual activities of the two would be many and vast. These are not to be assigned to the organism and its functions. The co-ordination of sensory processes in the brain of the Greek was doubtless as perfect as that in the brain of the Englishman; but the quality of the moral feelings and the range of conceptions, so far as we could test them objectively, would be very different…. Thus, while the laws of the sentient functions must be studied in Physiology, the laws of the sentient faculties, especially the moral and intellectual faculties, must be studied in History. The true logic of Science is only made apparent in the history of Science.
George Henry Lewes, Problems of Life and Mind
3rd series, 1 (London: Trübner & Co., 1879) 


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