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Thursday, 27 November 2008

Emotional Progress?

Is humanity's emotional history a story of maturity, of improvement to the self, community and environment? Is our emotional narrative moving us away from destructive impulses towards a framework that improves our well being in the world and the world itself?

One would certainly like to think so, but I fear it is not so straightforward.

Almost certainly we have learned at some points in our history that some emotional norms of behaviour are no longer suitable and we have evolved our emotions in part to deal with our fast changing world. Many of these involve dealing with the consequences of the emotions we consider 'negative'. For example our desire for revenge is in some ways curtailed by the removal of the death penalty. Society is 'civilised' by the curtailment of anger and its corollary, violence. Our emotional responses change, and no longer is anger sated by watching a man swing for the theft of a loaf. Disgust has risen to combat anger as such sights become abhorrent.

Can one say the history of the West is the history of increasing emotional restraint?

One essay recently caught my grey eyes on such things. 'Worrying about emotions in history' by Barbara Rosenwein, a professor of Medieval History at Loyola University in Chicago. She damns the notion of a simple grand narrative based on a flawed notion of emotions as wild humours that are either controlled or uncontrolled, when they are of course so much more than that. It doesn't help that our language is filled with expressions to describe them in such terms - one can be overwhelmed by rage, or hold back one's fear, or overflow with love - but our emotions are more sophisticated that such expressions suggest.

To quote Rosenwein:
"...emotions are part of a process of perception and appraisal, not forces striving for release. Denying that emotions are irrational, cognitive psychologists see them as resulting from judgments about "weal or woe"—that is, about whether something is likely to be good or harmful, pleasurable or painful, as perceived by each individual.

As such, any notion of progression is rooted in a flawed understanding of our emotions as things desperate for release. That means we will fail to understand our past if we imagine it to be largely nasty, brutish and violent. Whilst the past may have been those things in part, it has much more to tell us.

Our emotions are not going forward then. Or at least in a straight line.


jiggins said...

Here is a couple of relevant quotes - "We don't need to complicate all the "reasons" behind our emotions. It's much simpler than that. Two categories .. good feelings, bad feelings" & "Thought = creation. If these thoughts are attached to powerful emotions (good or bad) that speeds the creation"

I think there is nothing linear about emotional thought.. they are a control factor and a result f our lives. They are as liner as time itself. That's my take.

scot in exile said...

do you mean good feelings or bad feelings are in part judgements? i do think they are myself.

if a carnivore and a vegetarian both look at a steak they may feel opposite emotions, pleasure and disgust. how did they get to be so different?

Keith Oatley said...

Thanks, Scot-in-Exile, for putting me on to "Worrying about Emotions in History." I thought at first it was a book, but then I saw it was an article, and found it was a very fine article too. Barbara Rosenwein has it exactly right, I think, to be skeptical of a grand narrative in which, from the medieval period onwards, emotions have come to be under increasing societal restraint. There has been a huge amount of research on emotions and, although emotions can be troublesome, few researchers, I think, would now see them primarily as unruly forces needing to be kept in, tamped down, kept under control. Rosenwein's idea that we need, instead, to see emotions as having different kinds of lives in the different communities in which we live—in the family, at the shops, in the workplace, in political forums, etc.—seems much more apt.

scot in exile said...

It's those kind of emotional communities I'm keen to find out about. Is most of the research European and American is there more widespread work available?