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UAL Research Online

The puzzle of human emotions: some historical considerations

Albano, Caterina (2008) The puzzle of human emotions: some historical considerations. Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology, 50 (7). pp. 494-497. ISSN 1469-8749

Type of Research: Article
Creators: Albano, Caterina

Emotions are both central to life experience itself and highly pertinent to various disciplines, including neuroscience, psychology, social studies, philosophy, and the arts. The definition of emotion lies at the interface of nature and culture reflecting an understanding of the components that shape emotional states and experiences across time and cultures. This review describes how the concept of emotion developed in Western thought, from the Renaissance notion of the passions to the 19th century idea of ‘emotion’.

In 1884, William James (1842–1910) famously asked, ‘What is an Emotion?’1 Such a question still resonates today. If asked what an emotion is, most of us would have an idea based on our own experiences of fear, anger, or happiness, and we may recognize these emotions in others (whether in their expression, or reactions). Emotions are integral to the perception and construction of the self, as well as being part of the bargaining material of social interactions, shaping how we relate to others, and affecting the way we move in and relate to the external world. Yet, it is contentious whether emotions are uniquely determined physiologically and psychologically or whether sociocultural components also affect the emergence and manifestation of emotional states. Without entering the debate on the definition and functions of emotions, the focus of this review is on the significance of the sociocultural components in the experience of emotions across time, and within different theories of the body and the mind in the Western tradition. The purpose is to suggest the relevance of the cultural, social, and political contexts in the manifestation and understanding of psychological states, including emotions.

The sociologist Sara Ahmed suggests that emotions are key in defining body boundaries because they help to shape how we relate to each other, creating a cycle of affective actions and reactions. Ahmed’s relational model removes the distinction between the psychological and social, individual, and collective nature for emotions arguing that, ‘emotions are not “in” either the individual or the social, but produce the very surfaces and boundaries that allow the individual and the social to be delineated as if they are objects’.2 From historical and cultural perspectives, the boundaries described by Ahmed are interwoven with the meanings and associations attributed to the feeling of fear, sadness, or anger, and to the appropriate ways of showing one’s feelings. By considering the cultural and historical dimension of emotions, this article presupposes an interaction between biology and culture and describes some of the aspects of the historical coming into being of the concept of emotion. The limited scope of this review constrains it to only a few authors belonging to the Anglo-Saxon tradition. Though restricted, this tradition is nonetheless indicative of relevant historical changes and trends and the importance of not regarding emotions to be uniquely natural. The review first considers the etymology of the term ‘emotion’ and relates it to the 17th century understanding of the passions. It further looks at the secularization of the passions in the 18th century theory of the nerves, and 19th century perspectives on the theory of emotions as described by authors such as Charles Bell, Alexander Bain, Herbert Spencer, and Charles Darwin. The contribution of these authors was influential, especially within an Anglo-Saxon context, and it is representative of the broader contextual framework of the emergence of the modern concept of emotion and its cultural significance.

Official Website: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1469-8749.2008.03006.x/full
Your affiliations with UAL: Colleges > Central Saint Martins
Date: July 2008
Digital Object Identifier: 10.1111/j.1469-8749.2008.03006.x
Date Deposited: 22 May 2012 11:34
Last Modified: 22 May 2012 11:34
Item ID: 5331
URI: https://ualresearchonline.arts.ac.uk/id/eprint/5331

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