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Tuesday, 2 June 2009

some thoughts on thinkers thinking on emotion

Over the last few weeks I've had three experts talking about some of the basic questions that face anyone curious about the History of Emotions. It's been interesting to see the differences and similarities in the answers, and get some learned perspectives in a simplified form.

First some clarity - what is an emotion? As I've spoken about before, I think it's noteable that all three writers agree that whatever an emotion is (as a concept it is extremely vague and laden with cultural association) it does require an element of judgement. It is not some kind of pure instinct that the person emoting has no control over.

I think we in the West fail to recognise this at our peril and allow ourselves to dodge responsibility for our actions by 'blaming' our emotions overwhelming us.

So which ones are more dominant in the West? This again is obviously a question with a massive value judgement -what is the West? At the risk of avoiding an enormous debate on that subject I was meaning largely the English speaking world with an element of Western European thrown in.

The answers are fascinating -
For Dr Dixon, desire and terror.
For Prof. Keith Oatley, contempt and romantic love.
For Prof. Rosenwein, anger and grief.

Prof. Rosenwein also points out something which I may write more about in future - that happiness is a relatively modern concept and does not figure so largely in what we can understand about the emotional lives of our ancestors.

I think this is something we as a society have to consider in very great detail on a range of levels. The American Constitution famously describes the 'pursuit of happiness' as a fundamental right and yet are we in danger of making ourselves unhappy by selling ourselves the illusion of happiness as a right? Our expectation of it as a right and not a fleeting gift to be cherished in its presenceand respected in its departure and absence may make us more unhappy than it will ever make us happy. Not least when that right for happiness is packaged into consumer desire and sold on an industrial level to the ruin of ourselves and our planet.

The other obvious thought from our experts views on the dominant emotions of the West is how negative the choices are. I mean no disrespect to the experts in those choices, indeed I think this is a fair reflection of a society that has triumphed globally through channeling these emotions into conquest within those societies and over others. Prof. Oatley's suggestion of contempt for the 'other' groups is particularly resonant here.

Personally I was a little surprised that Dr Dixon and Prof Rosenwein did not join Prof. Oatley in suggesting Romantic Love. Perhaps this is a reflection of Prof Oatley's professional immersion in literature, perhaps the other two may change their mind and include it another time. I think I would put it up there as a dominant emotion, but then my opinion is much less learned!

I could go on for a lot more though I think this is enough for one post. Some more thoughts on the Q&A's soon...

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