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Saturday, 16 May 2009

A Question of Emotion pt2: Q&A with Prof Keith Oatley

As promised, Prof Keith Oatley, author of 'Emotions: A brief history' very kindly agreed to a blog Q&A for me and here is his response. It's a good read, and I find it interesting that he feels there are different dominant emotions in the West to Barbara Rosewein. This is not to say either is wrong, but i wonder what does it say about the West that neither argue the case for happiness being a dominant theme?

Anyway, on with the Q&A:

How would you describe an emotion?
An emotion, I think, has a personal and an inter-personal aspect; research on emotions has tended to concentrate on the former, and a good way of describing an emotion from this point of view follows Aristotle. An emotion is a kind of judgement, an evaluation of an event in relation to a concern. As Nico Frijda says, it sets up a priority as a readiness to act in a particular kind of way. I think of emotions as communications to ourselves and others: so an emotion communicates to ourselves that something significant has happened to us. Whereas an emotion is a change in readiness, a mood draws on the same processes and is a maintained state.

More importantly, emotions are interpersonal; they set up particular kinds of relationships with other people. Happiness sets up a relation of cooperation, sadness involves, typically, withdrawal from something or someone lost, and also elicits others' sympathy, anger sets up a relationship of conflict, fear tends to spread socially, and engender in others a wariness of danger, and so on.

I think of an interpersonal emotion as something like the inverse of a script that actors use in the theatre. An actor learns the words of a script and has to supply a depiction of the emotions and relationships with other characters. By comparison, in ordinary life, an emotion sets up a relationship, and the individual supplies the words.

Are some emotions more dominant in Western culture?
I think this is very hard to say. Over the last thousand years, contempt for others who are members of out-groups seems to have been rather dominant in Western culture. This history, for instance, includes the Crusades against Islamic peoples, the Spanish obliteration of the culture of native Americans, European colonial exploitation worldwide, the European and American slave trade, the Stalinist purges in Russia, the legalized setting up of the Nazis in Germany and the Holocaust, the wholesale aerial bombing and burning by America of the small country of Vietnam, and most recently the illegal tortures carried out by the Bush government. As Karl Popper said, the history we learn in school is largely the history of international crime.

On the other hand romantic love has become also rather important in Western culture, deriving from courtly love in medieval times, and coming to full exemplification in Dante's love for Beatrice. It has distinctive Western features that include sudden onset on meeting a stranger, worshipping the other as almost divine, strong altruism towards the other, transformation of the self towards becoming a better person.

This is not to say that contempt and erotic love do not occur in non-Western cultures, but a case can be made I think that in the West they have taken on a certain dominance and distinctiveness.

Has that changed historically?
Yes, both contempt and love have changed historically in the West. Contempt, has in the last century started to be moderated by the women's movement and the civil rights movement, as well as by media coverage of wars that tends to prompt empathy for victimized people. As to Romantic love, there is a clear arc from medieval times to Hollywood movies.

What are the best resources for understanding this history?
I think we have to rely on all the usual historical and archaeological sources. I think, however, that in the case of the history of emotions, fictional literature is especially important because it tends to concentrate on emotional issues. In relation to Romantic love, for instance, Dante's Vita nuova is an essential source.

Is there a big story, or grand narrative to our emotional history?
In my 2004 book Emotions: A brief history, I proposed that there are three grand narratives that are superimposed on each other. First there is the narrative of the evolutionary history of emotions, that was begun by Darwin, and is discovered from biology and archaeology. This narrative, for human beings, is of the movement from being purely biological beings to becoming social and cultural beings.. Second is the cultural history of emotions that we discover mainly from written documents and, as I mentioned above, especially from fiction. I think the narrative here is of a gradual growth of consciousness, from the earliest surviving written stories such as The epic of Gilgamesh to last year's favourite novel in English, Netherland. The grand narrative here overlays the evolutionary narrative, and is about the cultural growth of consciousness of selves and the emotions of selves in relation to others. The third grand narrative is the history of each person's individual life, growing up in a historically derived culture, again a story of emerging from unconsciousness, becoming aware of others, coming to understand them in relation to oneself, coming perhaps to educate one's emotions in a process of self-improvement. Thus, for instance, one might hope that the current top news story in the UK, of the anger of the public and shame of Members of Parliament discovered to be fiddling their expenses, i.e. stealing from the taxpayer, when so many in Britain have almost nothing to live on, would prompt an emotional change in Members of Parliament towards greater responsibility in relation to the people whom they represent.

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