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Thursday, 11 March 2010

The direction of emotions in history

One of the biggest questions in the study of the history of emotions is in what direction are our emotions heading? Is there a grand narrative to our emotions in the way that there is a grand narrative to the history of science or to the history of religion?

One of the first attempts to describe this was by Johan Huizanga in the early 20th century which suggested that our emotions had been 'childlike' in the Middle Ages and have subsequently been in the process of becoming more civilised and mature. This was supported by writers like Norbert Elias, and at first glance is a seductive notion.

Later writers like Barbara Rosenwein have emphatically refuted this notion both by effective descriptions of the emotional communities of sub-sections of societies in the Middle Ages that show this 'childlike' emotional behaviour to be inaccurate, but also by effectively citing research into the nature of emotion showing that it is not something that is vented by individuals unable to control it.
The respected historian, William Reddy put forward the notion that societies have oscillated between control and lack of control in their emotions. This seems interesting and deserves great scrutiny.

Against such esteemed company i hesitate to put forward any grand narrative, as my learning barely registers in reflection to theirs.

However, some thoughts have been coming together of late. One thing that strikes is that in the Western tradition, there has been a journey in science and philosophy towards a seductive sense of individualism, as we separated Mind from Body under Socrates and Plato, then promoted the individual soul in our Judeo-Christian theology, and went on to emphasise the rights of individuals on the physical plane.

This was augmented by developments in logic, then science. The invention of the printing press began to make learning more democratic, and also private. It became less about group interaction and behaviour and more about individual scholarship which in turn changed the natures of those doing the learning. We existed more in our own heads than ever before.

Peter and Carol Stearns and others have written about the impact diary keeping had on individuals in the 17th and 18th centuries and how it changed their emotions, inhibiting anger and making them more self-reflective. (I mentioned something similar previously here).

Since the Industrial Revolution there has also been an astonishing increase in privacy and our understanding of it. The increase in personal wealth led to the creation of private domestic spaces unparalleled in history.

Medicine and philosophy shared and contributed to this atomisation with the notion of the subconscious from Freud and schools of philosophy like phenomenology attempting to refute John Donne's assertion that 'No man is an island."

It could be argued that despite TV and the internet opening up communication and creating shared moments, these moments are also intensely private and occur in private spaces.

Our emotional lives have been central to this. We could have chosen to retain a greater degree of sociability and communality about our behaviour, but we didn't. Our desire was for privacy and whether chosen and/or driven by our social/philosphical/cultural traditions/even our nature, we have clung to privacy and made it sacred.

What has it done to our emotions? Previously our emotions were considered in some ways less internal than they are today. Some were considered afflictions and we retain vestiges of this in phrases like 'lovesick', which harks back to a time of love potions and cures, as though it were a condition to be encouraged or treated. Now it is a feeling, something intensely interior.

This interiorising is a dangerous thing in surfeit I fear. Whilst not denying the monuments to passion the heart can construct can be glorious and wondrous things, it moves us to a position where we diminish the communal and begin to erode trust in others. How often is the phrase 'I don't know it but I feel it' uttered, especially in justification for action?

So as our emotions become more internal they also become the most important arbiters of truth and this truly is a dangerous thing. It gives justification for selfishness dressed up as emotional truth and we see this more and more in our societies as individual rights are emphasised over common benefit.

We extend our adolescence until our thirties, and this for women is often at the risk of procreation. We talk of a 'health and safety' culture that takes common sense about avoiding injury into an excuse not to have to do anything remotely difficult. Ours is a more litigious culture that means doctors can fear operating on patients and health services must devote more and more resources away from care and towards insurance for fear of being sued. The individual's right to protection and its corollary the individual's freedom from fear to the point of absurdity. In short, we are a 'Me' culture and our emotions are both driving and being driven by that.

And if we carry on in such directions, such searches for validation of our emotions may come at the expense of social cohesion and environmental sustainability. And yet we do carry on, and there is no social movement, no major cultural trends or groups addressing the impact of the internalising of our emotions and their drive towards privacy and the selfishness that it is currently allied with.

I think our emotions must come back under control by bringing out the public and social aspects of them and not getting lost in the alluring echoes and consolations of our own head. It may be a fearful enterprise but it is no less essential for that.


Maggie May said...

Fascinating! Truly! Your last paragraph is mind food.

scot in exile said...

most kind!

ER said...

I've only just discovered your blog, and am still catching up. So i don't know if you covered this already. But i was wondering what you think of John Macmurray's Reason and Emotion. I had a Jesuit professor who was a student of his, actually did his dissertation on him which would later inspire his Images of Personal Value book and course. Both were a turning point in my life, opening my eyes to a whole new way of looking at the very themes you raise here, mostly through the writings of Macmurray, St Exupery, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Macmurray, and several playrights (Miller, Mosel, Nash, O'Neill, Williams).
Thank you for creating this blog. Mind food, indeed! :) Lizzy

scot in exile said...

thanks ER, to my shame i'd heard of macmurray but never read him.

but a quick look at reason and emotion makes me smile:
"Reason is primarily an affair of emotion, and the rationality of thought is the derivative and secondary one."

tell me more about the others though, please!