Emotion Research Paper

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This research paper deals with the history of the concept of emotion, not with the validity or acceptability of particular interpretations or theories of emotion. It will, of course, be inevitable that the discussion will deal with theories of emotion, that is, where the concept is lodged. The emphasis is, in part, on the historical situation and development of these theories, which were situated in the sociocultural temper of the times. The story starts with a survey of ancient Greek thought and its successors, mostly in the context of insightful premature speculations that, in the fashion of the times, mix quasiscientific thought with practical, in this case ethical, considerations. We then jump to the Renaissance and Rene Descartes, with the not unexpected claim that the new sciences were replacing all that went before. This is followed by the scientism of the nineteenth century leading up to the last great philosopher-psychologist, William James, who was able to combine humanistic insights with scientific rigor. James and Wilhelm Wundt lead us into the modern period and the need for analysis and synthesis.

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Early intellectual history was preoccupied with rationality, and when emotions were discussed they tended to be identified more with the magic and mysteries of human life. The Orphic mysteries dominated much of thinking; submission to the supernatural involved too many emotional attitudes to make it possible to speak clearly about feelings and emotions. In addition discussions of the feelings and emotions— when they did occur—were confounded with considerations of ethics and aesthetics. Emotions were discussed in the context of how to control and how properly to use them. They were part of a philosophy of life, and codes of behavior used the emotions as their foundation. This was especially true of the pre-Socratic thinkers but persisted long afterwards, after the Aristotelian interruption.

With notable exceptions, and Aristotle stands out among them, these discussions of the emotions from pre-Socratic to modern, i.e., Cartesian, days centered on their distracting influences on the intellect, on ways of controlling them (see, for example, Empedocles and Heraclitus). Later on, the emphasis in Plato and the early Greeks is on the intellect, how we know, and what we can know. But the theme of the distracting emotions was not forgotten and even medieval scholastics such as St. Thomas Aquinas were concerned with the way emotions interfere with pure thought and how one might control them.

In the Timaeus Plato had postulated three different faculties of the mind—thought, spirit, and appetite. This compartmentalization, and the previous positioning of the emotions as distinct from the mental, intellective faculties, was discarded by Aristotle. He unified the mind and its effects and influences. Mind cannot be conceived without the body and—importantly—the converse is asserted as well. This biological context allows Aristotle to consider feelings as natural phenomena. But Aristotle does not allow for simple, pure, affective processes. Rather he requires a cognitive element of a percept or idea, as well as an affective component of pleasantness unpleasantness, and a conative effort or activity (cf. Hammond 1902).

The middle ages were in the hands of the scholastics and speculations about the emotions relegated them often to mere expressions of animal spirits and to a position very distinct from the spirit and the intellect. With the advent of Descartes and the modern age all that changed. In 1649 in his Les passions de l’ame (The passions of the soul), Descartes discarded the work of the ancients as ‘defective’ and emphasized the modernist credo to start afresh. Whereas his predecessors frequently had speculated on the number and character of the emotions that constituted the emotional life, Descartes was the proper seventeenth-century scientist and postulated six primary passions, with all the rest constructed of those six: wonder, love, hate, desire, joy, and sadness. This approach to passions has stayed with us unabated for three and a half centuries, though Descartes’s love, desire, and wonder have fallen by the wayside to be substituted by other, more contemporary states. And the centuries have failed to solve the question of ‘how many?’—the answer ranges between three and 18 (Ortony and Turner 1990).

The next major change in the conception of emotion came later in the seventeenth century with Spinoza’s detailed analyses of the various emotions based on the insistence that they must be taken as natural and lawful phenomena rather than as a bothersome intrusion into mental life. In the next century Kant followed that trend and gave feelings the status of a special class of psychical processes—a distinction that held well into the twentieth century. Much of the nineteenth century was devoted to the detailed classification of the emotions—a refinement of the enumeration approach. Dominant among the classifiers was Wundt, whose system went from simple to complex feelings and then to true emotions. The composite feelings are often temporary; when permanent they represent moods. Combining composite feelings into a unitary whole results in the emotions. This simplified version does not do justice to a system where an emotion such as grief may be analyzed in terms of a half dozen or more types and tokens of feelings. The late nineteenth century occasioned several equally complex and in the end ineffective classificatory schemes. All this was brought to an end by a theory that arose in three different countries and dominated the psychology of emotion for decades to come—the James–Lange–Sergi theory.

The theory is generally attributed to William James, though the name of the Danish physiologist Carl Georg Lange is frequently included. James published his theory in 1884 in the journal Mind, followed by some elaboration in his Principles of Psychology in 1890 and an important defense in 1894. Lange published in a monograph in 1885 in Danish and two years later in German, and the Italian Guiseppe Sergi presented his ideas in a book on pleasure and pain in 1894, followed by a more specific treatment in 1896. There is no indication that any of the three had much knowledge of the others when they presented their ideas. In brief, James claimed that bodily reactions (including both autonomic and skeletal ones) were produced by some inciting fact and that the perception/feeling of these changes is the emotion. Lange similarly noted that the emotions were nothing more that the sensations produced by the vasomotor system, and Sergi noted that visceral/autonomic functions are stimulated directly and produce the emotions. And those three were not alone; there were similar suggestions from different parts of the globe. What was it about the end of the nineteenth century that engendered this particular point of view in such disparate places? Probably the commitment to an explicit materialism that pervaded scientific thinking. In psychology such an approach demanded implicitly that mental states should—whenever possible—be derived from observable physical events. The road went straight from physiology to experience, and it was not until the turn of the century that psychological theory languages were developed sui generis. In the process the definition of James’s exciting facts that generated bodily reactions was neglected, though current thought has caught up with the question and primarily assigns these to cognitive evaluations. (For a discussion of these developments and the psychology of emotion during the subsequent century see Mandler 1979.)

With the advent of the commanding Jamesian position, the philosophy of emotion became an adjunct rather than the a ant garde of emotion theory. For the next century philosophers would list, from different vantage points, specific factors as essential to emotion, such as: certain feelings, positive and negative cognitions, bodily sensations, facial and bodily expressions, and action tendencies. Increasingly psychological evidence was used to buttress one or another position. In the flavor of the century and in keeping with the complex common-sense meaning of emotion a Wittgensteinian position has often been invoked, which gives emotions the characteristic of family resemblances with one or more of the above factors relevant from case to case.

The Jamesian position demanded that for each different emotional experience there should be an appropriately different bodily/visceral precedent. However, a century of studies has failed to show any evidence that different emotional states are preceded by different bodily states. That fact was central in the extensive and crucial critique of the James–Lange position by Cannon (1927). Even though James did not restrict ‘bodily events’ to the viscera, Cannon noted that visceral autonomic changes were not differentiated or fast enough to account for emotional experiences, nor can visceral changes alone produce emotional experiences. It is this last observation that starts the bridge to the current scene.

In 1924, the Spanish physician Maranon had shown that productions of sympathetic nervous system arousal (by the injection of adrenalin) produced either descriptions of bodily symptoms or ‘as if’ reports, experimental subjects claiming they felt as if they experienced some emotions. Stanley Schachter picked up the thread imaginatively in 1962 when he (with Jerome Singer) showed that adrenalin injections together with the experimental induction of cognitive states related to specific emotions produced true emotional states or experiences. Essentially the Schachter experiments established what has since been called the ‘constructivist’ approach to emotional states. The states are the result of potentially independent cognitive and visceral arousing events experienced as subjectively unified conscious emotions. The notion that cognitive factors played an important part in emotional life had been considered since Aristotle, but now became close to established gospel. The cognitive opening also made possible a new and wide variety of analyses of emotional phenomena and during the last quarter of the twentieth century many different theories of emotion emerged. (For a review of the state of affairs before the proliferation of theories, see Arnold 1970.) More important perhaps was the realization that these evaluative cognitions may well differ from one culture to another (see, for example, Lutz and Abu-Lughod 1990). A field that had been relatively quiescent during the earlier decades of the century erupted with new theories, several new journals, and new organizations. Emotion became—in some of these approaches—all-embracing, with some mental states devoid of any visceral involvement becoming candidates for emotional status. Given the large number of possible cognitive states, enumeration of emotional states became popular once again, though James, for example, had already argued that any such attempt reflected subjective sociocultural prejudices. As the number of theories multiplied, current fashions dictated neurophysiological projections as well as evolutionary speculations.

When the core of the emotion concept moved from ethics into the realm of science there arose an increasing insistence on the importance of visceral, i.e., sympathetic nervous system, activity as part of any reasonable definition of this common language concept. The nineteenth century showed that such activity can be dissociated from the other, cognitive, component of emotional experience. We are left with a question raised specifically in recent years: what— apart from an interminable list—in principle produced the visceral arousal. Questions about a principled source of all emotions had been raised in the nineteenth century by John Dewey in the US and Frederic Paulhan in France who noted that emotions are preceded by conflict, for example, among action tendencies. Current speculations about the source of visceral arousal have come from both psychological and physiological sources. Psychologically it has been proposed that any event or situation that is inconsistent with the individual’s expectations (such as to continue some action or perceive an expected sequence) produced SNS arousal. What is proposed is a difference detector linked to the sympathetic nervous system (Mandler 1984, 1992). Physiologically, the research program has been in response to the question

‘how is the initial state of bodily arousal evoked?’ The most promising proposal is that ‘the amygdala detects and/organizes responses to natural dangers (like predators) and learns about novel threats and the stimuli that predict their occurrence’ (LeDoux 1998). Neurophysiology has been a widely favored discipline during the last decade of the twentieth century, and recent proposals have mirrored that approach to a psychology of emotion. At the same time there has been an increasing awareness of cultural determinants of different emotional states, and the concurrent realization that so-called cognitive determinants are reflections of sociocultural forces. Is it sheer fin de siecle optimism that we can look toward a new synthesis of a neuropsychology of arousal and a cultural analysis of cognitive values?


  1. Arnold M B (ed.) 1970 Feelings and Emotions: The Loyola Symposium. Academic Press, New York
  2. Cannon W B 1927 The James–Lange theory of emotions: A critical examination and an alternative theory. American Journal of Psychology 39: 106–24
  3. Hammond W A (ed.) 1902 Aristotle’s Psychology: A Treatise on the Principles of Life (De anima and Paranaturalia) [trans. Hammond W A, Sonnenschein S]. London
  4. LeDoux J 1998 Fear and the brain: Where have we been, and where are we going? Biological Psychiatry 44: 1229–38
  5. Lutz C A, Abu-Lughod L 1990 Language and the Politics of Emotion. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
  6. Mandler G 1979 Emotion. In: Hearst E (ed.) The First Century of Experimental Psychology. L Erlbaum Associates, Hillsdale, NJ
  7. Mandler G 1984 Mind and Body: Psychology of Emotion and Stress. WW Norton, New York
  8. Mandler G 1992 Emotions, evolution, and aggression: Myths and conjectures. In: Strongman K T (ed.) International Review of Studies on Emotion. Wiley, Chichester, UK
  9. Ortony A, Turner T J 1990 What’s basic about basic emotions? Psychology Review 97: 315–31
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