Jenny Chowdhury took the ‘Philosophical Britain‘ module at Queen Mary in 2016. In this post she writes about ‘Emotion’ as a philosophical keyword, especially in the context of British culture and history.
Can we confidently admit to knowing what ‘emotion’ means? If someone asked you about its definition, what would you say? You could give examples of it such as happiness, sadness and anger. But what does it mean and how do we understand the term today?
Our use of the term ‘emotion’ today is connected to the use of emoticons on social media, not only do we use it on a day-to-day basis, but I want to argue that the younger generation, especially, are overusing it to the extent that we no longer genuinely feel the emotions that we portray on social media. Last year, Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year was . The use of emoticons/ emojis is clearly taking over our use of language! This is an interesting concept linking to the study on the philosophy of emotion which covers a number of different fields, making the definition even harder to grasp.
To give you a quick history of emoticons and where it came from I came across an interesting article by Tim Slavin. Slavin states that ‘the modern history of emoticons grew out of an interesting side effect of technology: typed messages on a computer screen appear neutral and can be difficult to translate emotionally.’[i] Amy-Mae Elliott expresses how a satirical magazine called Puck used emoticons a hundred years ago when writing about passion and emotions. Some argue that Scott Fahlman, a computer scientist was the first to use symbols to convey emotions through text. Our increasing need for using emoticons when communicating with our friends indicates a new level of expressing ourselves. The term ‘emotion’ appears in a number of discourses such as science, philosophy, popular culture and psychology.
The key thinkers behind the philosophy of ‘emotion’ in Britain are Thomas Brown and Charles Bell during the 1800s. Recently, Thomas Dixon and Fay Alberti have researched the history of emotion. Dixon concentrates on how the term has been in crisis since its connection with psychology in the nineteenth century.
The Greeks used pathos as an alternative to emotion; ‘that which happens to a person or thing.’[ii] ‘Emotion’ derived from the French word ‘émotion’ which meant physical disturbance and bodily movement in the seventeenth century. The term was first used by John Florio who was a translator of Michel de Montaigne’s essays. During the eighteenth century the definition of ‘emotion’ moved from bodily movements to mental states and instinctive feelings such as pleasure and grief. Close attention was given to the term in the eighteenth century where it was connected to mental experiences. Its theoretical use was influenced by Thomas Brown, Charles Bell and William James in the nineteenth century. Bell’s Anatomy of Expression focused on the artistic portrayal of emotion.
In 1836, William Whewell stated how his notion of desires of human nature being linked to emotions was not accepted. The history of ‘emotion’ dates back to the time of the Stoics who believed that emotions were diseases of the soul which could only be cured through reason. However, for Thomas Aquinas, passions and affections were different parts of the soul where one is the sense appetite and the other is intellectual appetite.[iii]
During the eighteenth century, there was a move towards sensibility alongside passions. Human feelings were categorised into either a violent type of ‘passion’ or a milder ‘moral sentiment’.[iv] A new category for ‘emotion’ in the nineteenth century was invented by Thomas Brown. Brown used the previous connotations such as passions and affections to put them all under one category of ‘emotions.’ This new category dwells on the science of the mind and how ‘emotion’ was used to understand feelings, pleasures, affections, etc.[v] Brown’s definition for ‘emotion’ was that ‘they may be defined to be vivid feelings, arising immediately from the consideration of objects, perceived, or remembered, or imagined, or from other prior emotions.’[vi]
Charles Bell is an important figure as he linked ‘emotion’ to a movement of the mind where affections of the mind were made visible through signs on the face or body. Bell and Brown differed in their opinions towards what constituted an emotion, whether it was primarily mental or bodily. Discussions are still taking place on whether the heart of emotions lie in the heart or the brain.[vii]
Charles Darwin was interested in Charles Bell’s illustrations in his Anatomy and Philosophy of Expression’. However, he noticed that Bell did not explain why different muscles are used for different emotions, for example the arching of eyebrows and mouth expressions. ‘The movements of expression give vividness and energy to our spoken words. They reveal the thoughts and intentions of others more truly than do words, which may be falsified.’[viii]
William James wrote an article called ‘What Is an Emotion?’ in 1884 which opened it up to the public and still to this day there is no definitive meaning behind ‘emotion’. He concluded that emotions were mental feelings brought about by the perception of an object in the world. However, this was not agreed to universally. Dixon’s article, ‘“Emotion”: The History of a Keyword in Crisis’, puts forward an interesting case for the importance of keywords which pose as mirrors and motors for showing social and intellectual change. Concepts are created through giving new meanings to words that are already in our vocabulary.
A century ago, Britain was known for its ‘stiff upper lip’ from the death of Charles Dickens in 1870 until the death of Winston Churchill in 1965. People of this period did not show their emotions. Dixon covers the gendered nature of tears in Weeping Britannia: Portrait of a Nation in Tears. ‘The idea that there was something feminine about tears was never entirely erased.’[ix] Ute Frevert argues that gender ‘“naturalised” emotions while at the same time connecting them to distinct social practices and performances.’[x] Both genders had emotions but they differ in intensity. She argues that ‘emotions, above all social or “relational” emotions, are deeply cultural.’[xi] ‘When humans label their own feelings, those labels begin to give their feelings shape and direction. This is what culture and language do for and to us.’[xii]
In particular regards to the period after the Second World War, a youth group of angry young men emerged in popular culture. British novelists and playwrights expressed their dissatisfaction with the government and class system. John Osborne’s play, Look Back in Anger, represented this new movement. The focus was on the lives of the working class and their typical daily tasks. It shocked the audience as kitchen sink realism was a developing cultural movement in the late 1950s.
Kleenex ® commissioned SIRC to find out how British people felt about displaying [emotions] [http://www.sirc.org/publik/emotion.shtml] publicly. This emphasises the change in attitudes from a previous ‘stiff upper lip’ stance where it was shameful to show any type of emotions, especially for men. The questions that arises are; is it acceptable to cry and is there a gendered aspect to it? Should emotions be kept private? The report discusses reality shows such as X Factor and Big Brother which publicise a range of different emotions. How do the audience respond to the extent of their emotional journey? There have been studies which conclude that letting out pain and relief through tears works towards improving your well-being, so why is there such a taboo over being too emotional? Should we break out of the conventional view and be able to fully express how we feel in the world that we live in today? The report states that ‘71% of women have ‘let it out’ in the past 6 months by crying compared with 28% of men.’[xiii]
‘We are better at talking about our emotions than in previous generations.’[xiv]
Do you agree with this statement, and if you do, why? Do you think Britain has finally given in to emotions?
I typed in ’emotion’ on YouTube and a number of songs were listed. I have chosen a recent song for this post for you to ponder about. The chorus focuses on emotion and the intensity of feelings can be experienced through her voice. Have a listen and let your emotions run wild.
[ii] A. W. Price, ‘Chapter 5: Emotions in Plato and Aristotle’, The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Emotion ed. Peter Goldie (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 121.
[iii] Thomas Dixon, ‘“Emotion”: The History of a Keyword in Crisis’, Emotion Review, Vol. 4, No. 4 (October 2012), p. 399.
[iv] Ibid., p. 399.
[v] Ibid., p. 340.
[vi] Thomas Brown, Thomas Brown: Selected philosophical writings ed. T. Dixon (Exeter: Imprint Academic, 1820/2010), pp. 145-6
[vii] Fay Bound Alberti , Matters of the Heart: History, medicine, emotion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).
[viii] Charles Darwin, The expression of the emotions in man and animals (London: John Murray, 1872) p. 366.
[ix] Thomas Dixon, Weeping Britannia: Portrait of a Nation in Tears (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 98.
[x] Ute Frevert, Emotions in History – Lost and Found (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2011), p. 11.
[xi] Ibid., p. 211.
[xii] James M. Jasper, ‘Emotions and Social Movements: Twenty Years of Theory and Research’, Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 37 (April, 2011) p. 298.
[xiii] ‘Britain: A nation of emotion?’, Social Issues Research Centre (January 2007).
‘Angry Young Men’, Encyclopaedia Britannica <http://www.britannica.com/topic/Angry-Young-Men>.
Fay Alberti Bound, Matters of the Heart: History, medicine, emotion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).
‘Britain: A nation of emotion?’, Social Issues Research Centre (January 2007).
Thomas Brown, Thomas Brown: Selected philosophical writings ed. T. Dixon (Exeter: Imprint Academic, 1820/2010).
Thomas Dixon, ‘“Emotion”: The History of a Keyword in Crisis’, Emotion Review, Vol. 4, No. 4 (October 2012), pp. 338 – 344.
Thomas Dixon, Weeping Britannia: Portrait of a Nation in Tears (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2015).
Amy-Mae Elliott, ‘A Brief History of the Emoticon’, Mashable (September 2011).
Emotion Review <http://emr.sagepub.com/content/4/4/338.abstract>.
Ute Frevert, Emotions in History – Lost and Found (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2011).
S. Jacyna, ‘Bell, Sir Charles(1774–1842)’,Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008.
James M. Jasper, ‘Emotions and Social Movements: Twenty Years of Theory and Research’, Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 37 (April, 2011), pp. 285-303.
‘emotion, n.’, OED Online (Oxford: Oxford University Press, February 2016).
W. Price, ‘Chapter 5: Emotions in Plato and Aristotle’, The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Emotion ed. Peter Goldie (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).
Tim Slavin, ‘The History of Emoticons’, Off Beat (May 2014).