PSYC18: Ch. 1 – Approaches to Understanding Emotions
• Many thinkers have argued that our emotions are base & destructive, and that the more noble
reaches of human nature are attained when we control our passions with our reason.
• Others have warned of the perils of certain emotions: it has been thought that anger is
WHAT IS AN EMOTION? FIRST IDEAS
• Some psychologists are worried that emotions are difficult to define
o To have a good definition, you need a good theory
• An emotion is a psychological state or process that mediates between our concerns (or goals) and
events of our world.
• Sylvan Tomkins: at any one time an emotion gives priority to one concern over others – it gives
that concern urgency.
o If we are crossing the road and nearly get run over, our concern for self-preservation
takes priority and we are motivated by fear, thus, the urge is to jump back on the curb.
o If someone demeans us, we are angry, and it becomes urgent to concentrate on the wrong
that’s been done to us.
• Rather than thinking that emotions are irrational, psychologists now think of emotions as being
locally rational: their rationality doesn’t range over all possible considerations.
o Instead, emotions are rational in that they help us deal adaptively with concerns specific
to our current context: they are local to the concern that has achieved priority, and the
emotion makes it urgent.
• Emotions are the source of our values, including our deepest values: whom and what we love,
what we dislike, what we despise.
• Emotions help us form and engage in our relationships – although emotions do occur to us
individually, most of our important emptions don’t just occur to us individually.
o Emotions mediate our relationships – think of love, anger, fear of people, or sadness at
the loss of a friend.
• Psychological researchers tend to focus on trying to discover what is going on in the individual
mind & brain.
o Until recently, research on emotions was based on, the individual’s perception of facial
expressions, individual’s physiological response, and individual’s responses to questions
about their experiences.
o Now, research is about: as well as happening to us individually, most of our important
emotions happy between us and others.
• What’s the interpersonal equivalent of an emotion giving priority to a concern? It’s that an
emotion is a kind of commitment to another.
o When we love someone, even if the love is brief, and even if it is not spoken about as
love, we commit ourselves to that other, at least for a while.
o When we are angry with someone, we commit ourselves to seeing the matter through, to
a resolution, or to a parting.
• Modern ideas about emotions can be thought of as deriving from Charles Darwin, William
James, and Sigmund Freud
1 Charles Darwin: The Evolutionary Approach:
• In 1872, Charles Darwin, the central figure in modern biology, published the most important
book on emotions yet written – The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872).
• Earlier, in The Origin of Species (1859), he had described how all living things have evolved to
be adapted to their environments:
o You might imagine that Darwin would have proposed that emotions had functions in our
survival – however, this is not what he said.
• In 1838 Darwin started writing notes on his observation of emotions— at the time, the accepted
theory was that God had given humans special facial muscles that allowed them to express
uniquely human sentiments.
• A central tenet of Darwin’s theory was that humans are descended from other species: we are not
only closer to animals than had been thought, but we ourselves are kinds of animals.
• In The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals – Darwin asked two broad questions that
still guide emotion researchers:
1. How are emotions expressed in humans and other animals?
▪ Expression: Blushing, Body Contact, Crying, Screaming
▪ Bodily System: Blood Vessels, Somatic Muscles, Tear Ducts, Vocal Apparatus
▪ Emotion Example: Shame/Modesty, Affection, Sadness, Pain
2. Where do our emotions come from?
▪ Darwin proposed that emotional expressions derive from habits that in our
evolutionary or individual past had once been useful.
▪ Emotional expressions are based on reflex-like-mechanisms, and some of them
occur whether they are useful or not: they are triggered involutionarily in
circumstances analogous to those that had triggered the original habits.
• For Darwin, expressions showed the continuity of adult human emotions with those of lower
animals and with those of infancy – since these expressions occur in adults “though they may not
… be of the least use”, they had for Darwin a significance of evolutionary thinking rather like
that of fossils that allow us to trace the evolutionary ancestry of species.
• Darwin thought emotional expressions were like the appendix, a small organ that is part of the
gut but which seemingly has no function.
o Darwin proposed that this is evidence that we are descended from pre-human ancestors in
whom this organ has a use.
o Many emotional expressions have the same quality: that sneering, in which we partially
uncover the teeth on one side this preparation was functional in some distant ancestor.
• Darwin traced other expression to infancy: crying, he argued, is the vestige of screaming in
infancy, though in adulthood it is partly inhibited
o He described screaming in young babies, and gave an argument for the function of
closing the eyes and the secretion of tears to help protect them when this occurred.
▪ When adults cry they still secrete tears, but adult tears no longer have a protective
o Patterns of adult affection, are based on patterns of parents hugging young infants.
• For Darwin, our emotions link us to our past: to the past of our species and to our own infancy.
o He helped provide descriptions of facial expressions, and he argued for the universality of
• Darwin thought that emotions have useful functions; they help us navigate our social
2 William James: Physiological Approach:
• In his book, The Principles of Psychology (1890), William James argued against the
commonsense idea that when we feel an emotion it impels up in a certain way, that if we were to
meet a bear in the woods, we would feel frightened and run
o James instead proposed that when we see the bear, “the exciting fact”, as he put it, the
emotion is the perception of changes of our body as we react to that fact.
• James’s idea is about the nature of emotional experience – he stressed the way in which emotions
move us bodily: we perspire, our heart may thump in our chest, or breathing may be heavy.
• The core of an emotion, James contend, is the pattern of bodily responses – this proposal guided
the study of emotion in two ways:
1. James concentrated on experience, and argued that this experience is embodied: he
proposed that our experience of many emotions, from joy to fear, involves changes of the
autonomic nervous system and changes from movements of muscles and joints.
2. James proposed that emotions give “color & warmth” to experience – without these
effects, everything would be pale.
▪ We speak of “rose-colored glasses” or a “jaundiced view of life” to show our
emotions affect our perceptions.
Sigmund Freud: Psychotherapeutic Approach:
• Freud proposed that certain events can be so damaging that they leave emotional scars that can
shape the rest of our lives.
• Freud was one of the first to argue that emotions are at the core of many mental illnesses.
o Katharina, an early patient, described how she suffered from attacks in which she thought
she would suffocate.
▪ Freud was clear that the attacks were anxiety, and that she would be diagnosed as
suffering from panic attacks.
• Like Darwin, Freud thought that an emotion in the present could derive from one in the past, in
the patient’s early life.
o Him aim in therapy for Katharina was to discover how her attacks had started, and who
the feared person was.
• The method Freud developed was called “psychoanalysis”, and in Katharina’s case, we see
elements of how this kind of therapy developed: the telling by a patient of her/his life story, which
is found to have gaps (in this case the gaps of having no idea whose faced appeared to her in her
attacks), the filling of such gaps by “interpretations” of the therapist, and the insight of the person
receiving the therapy, who realizes something of which he/she had been unconscious.
• Although psychoanalysis was one of the earliest and most influential psychological therapies, it
was often criticized by therapists who prefer newer methods, such as CBT.
• Most importantly for our understanding of emotions, Freud’s work suggests that the emotional
life of adulthood derives from relationships we had in childhood with parents or caregivers.
o This idea was the foundation of John Bowlby’s work, who developed the theory of
attachment – the love between an infant and its mother or other caregiver – and this idea
that all later social development derives from this emotional base.
• Freud’s theories were also critical to the influential theorist Richard Lazarus, who combined them
with the Darwinian evolutionary idea of adaption to propose that emotions derive from how we
evaluate events in the environment in relation to our goals.
3 PHILSOPHICAL & LITERARAY APPROACHES
• Although Darwin, James, Freud laid important foundations in the study of emotions, they
weren’t the first in the Western tradition to think about emotions.
Aristotle and the Ethics of Emotions:
• Aristotle, who lived from 384-322 BCE, offered some of the first systematic analyses of emotions.
o His most fundamental insight was that whereas many assume that emotions happen to us
outside of our control, really they depend on what we believe – in this way, we are
responsible for our emotions b/c we are responsible for our beliefs.
• In his book, Rhetoric, Aristotle discussed how different judgments give rise to different
o “Anger” – “may be defined as an impulse, accompanied by pain, to a conspicuous
revenge for a conspicuous slight directed without justification towards what concerns
oneself or towards what concerns one’s friends”
▪ The emotion is defined cognitively in terms of our belief that a slight has occurred
– to be slighted is to be treated with contempt, or thwarted, or shamed.
• In Aristotle’s discussion of the role of emotions in persuasion, we see the message echoed by
Shakespeare’s quotation from Hamlet: that our emotional experiences are shaped by our
judgments and evaluations … our experience depends on our judgment.
• In Poetics, which is about narrative writing about tragedy, Aristotle concerned himself with
questions of emotions.
o Drama is about human action, and what can happen when human actions miscarry and
have effects that were unforeseen … we are humans, not gods, we do not know enough to
predict the consequences of everything we do this is the root of human tragedy, we are
responsible for our actions.
• Aristotle noticed two important effects of tragic drama:
1. At the theater, people are moved emotionally.
▪ As the principal character grapples with consequences that were unforeseen and
uninvited, we see the somber spectacle of a person who is good being tortured by
circumstances to which he/she has contributed but cannot control.
▪ We are moved to feel sympathy or pity, for a person, and to fear for ourselves,
because in the universal appeal of these plays we know that the principle character
is also ourself.
2. We can experience “katharis” of our emotion – this term is mistranslated as purgation or
purification, as if one goes to the theater to rid oneself of toxic emotions, or to elevate
▪ Martha Nussbaum argues, for Aristotle katharisis really it meant clarification –
the clearing away of obstacles to understanding.
▪ By seeing predicaments of human action at the theater we may come to
experience emotions of sympathy & fear, and understand consciously for
ourselves their relation to the consequences of human action in a world.
- Based on these two effects: emotions are evaluations and depend on
• After Aristotle’s death, two important schools of philosophy grew up:
1. Epicureanism, based on the teachings of Epicurus, who lived near Athens around 300 BCE
in a community of like-minded friends.
2. Stoicism, which is named after “stoa”, where the philosophers of this school taught; the
stoa was a colonnade, a bit like a cloister, that ran alongside the marketplace in Athens.
• Though dictionaries tell us that epicurean now means “devoted to the pursuit of pleasure”, and
stoic means “indifferent to pleasure or pain”, these meanings are distant from their origins.
• Epicureans and Stoics were the first emotion researchers in the West.
4 o The doctrines of these schools had important influences in the development of Western
o The Epicureans developed ideas of natural human sociality that influenced both the
American & French Revolutions.
o The idea that human beings have a right to the pursuit of happiness is distinctively
Epicurean, and is the idea of living naturally.
o The ideas of the Stoics are thought to have influenced the acceptance of Christianity by
the Romans following the conversion of the Emperor Constantine.
• The Epicureans taught that one should live in a simple way and enjoy simple pleasures, like food
and friendship, rather than chasing after things that make one ‘anxious’, like wealth, or are
‘unnatural’, like luxuries, or are ‘ephemeral’, like fame.
o To allow ourselves to have such goals can only lead to painful emotions: anger when
someone frustrates one’s will, greed at wanting more and more, and envy at someone
having something we do not.
▪ Epicureans recommended shifts in attention from such irrational desires to more
• The Stoics were more radical than the Epicureans, they thought that because emotions derive
from desires, to free oneself from crippling and destructive one should extirpate (destroy) almost
o The only values that are outside the vagaries of chance or the control of others, and thus
are subject to one’s own will, are one’s own rationality and good character.
o The Stoic understanding was that most emotions, especially such as anger, anxiety, and
lust, are damaging to the self and to society, and so should be disciplined out of our daily
o As Christianity began to spread, the bad desires & bad thoughts that the Stoics sought to
eliminate became the “Seven Deadly Sins”.
• Epicurean and Stoic philosophy is called ethical because the members of these schools did not
only have the goal of understanding how emotions work, but also the goal of understanding how
one could shape one’s life for the better.
o Ethical does not mean knowing what one should do, it is about all the considerations we
might have as to how best to structure our own life in relation to others.
o There are only two real choices in life: the epicureanism, living in a way that is
pleasurable though moderate, and stoicism, living so that rationality is the highest virtue.
• Just as medicine sought a cure for bodily ills, so the Epicureans and Stoics thought of philosophy
as a cure for the soul, and focused on emotions as the chief sources of the soul’s diseases.
• Two thousand years after the Epicureans and Stoics, people who think about emotions (including
philosophers) and their contribution to our ethical behaviour and pursuit of happiness tend to
seek answers in psychology.
Renè Descartes: Philosophically Speaking:
• Renè Descartes is regarded as the founder of modern philosophy and of the scientific view of the
• Descartes focuses on the emotions in The Passions of the Soul (1649), which offers a detailed
discussion of sensory and motor nerves, reflexes, and memory.
o Emotions then called the passions
• What new insights did Descartes offer? He claimed that 6 fundamental emotions – wonder,
desire, love, hatred, and sadness – occur in the thinking aspect of ourselves, which he called the
o At the same time they are closely connected to our bodies, for example, to our heart
beating rapidly, to blushing, or to tears.
5 • Descartes differentiated emotions from perceptions of events that happen in the outside world
and perceptions that arise from events within the body, such as hunger & pain whereas,
perceptions tell us about the outer world, and bodily states like hunger & pain tell us about
critical events in the body, emotions tell us what is important in our souls – as in our real selves,
in relation to our concerns and our identities.
• Having identified the origins of the emotions in our souls, Descartes then describes how
emotions cannot be entirely controlled by thinking, but they can be regulated by thoughts,
especially thoughts that are true.
• Like Aristotle, Descartes suggests that the emotions depend on how we evaluate events.
• Descartes was also one of the first to argue that emotions serve important functions.
• Descartes’s idea – a perspective one – is that our emotions are usually functional but can
sometimes be dysfunctional.
• Descartes was a contemporary of William Henry, who discovered the circulation of the blood,
which formerly had been thought to be one of the four humors.
o Ideas of these humors derived from Greek doctors, such as Hippocrates and Galen, who
thought that disease was caused by imbalance among the humors, with an increase of
each humor giving rise to a distinct emotional state.
o Blood gives rise to hope & vigor, and from it comes the term sanguine; phlegm gives rise
to placidity, and from it comes from the term phlegmatic; yellow bile gives rise to anger,
and from it comes the world choleric; black bile gives rise to despair, and from it comes
the word melancholy.
o Before the mid-17 century, it was thought that the very release/secretion of these
humors were the experience of each kind of emotion, that we become melancholy from
an excess of black bile, which gives off the experience of sadness as a stagnant pool gives
off a stench.
• In the physiology that he contributed, emotions arise in the mind, functionally enable our plans,
and affect our bodies.
George Eliot: The World of the Arts:
• The writing of George Eliot (pen-name of Mary Ann Evans) offers some of the most impressive
ideas regarding emotional experience and its place in intimate relationships.
• In 1856, George Eliot wrote an essay for the Westminster Review, entitled “The natural history of
o In this, she reviewed two books by von Riehl, a pioneer anthropologist, who described
the life of German peasants.
o Her essay was a kind of manifesto for her own novels.
o Although she didn’t include the word emotion in her book – it showed that emotions are
not just between individuals but between people.
▪ Eliot said, “sympathies” – emotions that connect us to each other –can be
extended by novelist and other kinds of artists to people outside our usual circle of
• In the years 1871-1872, Eliot published Middlemarch, a novel about emotions, which portrays
experience from inside the person’s own consciousness.
o Each character has aspirations and plans, but each is affected by the unforeseeable
accidents of life.
o Eliot’s question is this: If we are unable to foreseen the outcomes of all our actions, if
there is no fate or divine force guiding us toward an inevitable destiny, how should we
find our way in life?
6 ▪ Her answer is that our emotion can act as a sort of compass; it is also the principal
means by which we affect other people.
• Eliot had ideas about how emotions arise and are communicated: they are what relationships are
made of – they have powerful effects upon how we perceive other people and situations in which
we find ourselves.
o We come to understand that we experience our own emotions differently from how
people see them.
BRAIN SCIENCE, PSYCHOLOGY, SOCIOLOGY
• During the first half of the 20 century there was resistance to its study from behaviourism,
which saw only overt behaviour as worthy of psychological inquiry
• Over the past