Chapter 19: General Theory of Emotion

James Rowland Angell

Table of Contents | Next | Previous

Further Relations of Emotion and Instinct. --We noticed in a previous chapter that our instinctive reactions are accompanied by consciousness, and we observed further that the consciousness is of the kind which is commonly designated emotional. We did not, however, point out the further fact that this emotional element varies very greatly in the several kinds of instinctive activities which we discussed. This variation characterises not only the qualitative features of the emotion, but especially and conspicuously the intensity of the mental disturbance. After the considerations of the last chapter, it is unnecessary to elaborate upon the vivid and tumultuous nature of the conscious processes in anger, fear, grief, and the reactions of this type. We observed in the cases cited that much of the stinging intensity of the experience is derived from the afferent nervous impulses originating in muscular disturbances of the digestive, circulatory, and respiratory tracts. On the other hand, in such impulsive operations as imitation and play these intra-organic disturbances may be largely lacking. The mind is, under such conditions, monopolised with the achievement of the objective act, and is affected much less definitely by the sensory stimulations of the systems just mentioned. So far as these systems do contribute to modify the condition of consciousness, it is in the direction of the creation of a feeling of gene-rat bodily well-being, emanating from the vigorous normal activities of the vital organs.

We must conclude, therefore, that even though we are obliged to admit a minimum measure of emotional tone in all

(326) instinctive or impulsive acts, which we refer forthwith to the bodily resonance aroused by all such acts, nevertheless, some instinctive activities are markedly emotional, whereas others are not. Those which are obviously of the emotional type present instances in which the motor reaction is largely confined, so far at least as concerns its immediate significance, to intra-organic disturbances. The defensive emotion of anger is the only one which regularly reveals any strong tendency to pass over into acts producing changes in the surrounding objects. Such impulses as those of play tend, on the contrary, to pass immediately over into acts affecting one's surroundings, In both the more and the less emotional forms of instinct the motor activities are supposedly determined by racial hereditary influences, but in the emotional form this determination is relatively more definite, and often more elaborate, as in fear; whereas, in the other form it is little more than a disposition or tendency to certain kinds of reaction, which are, however, highly modifiable.

While we possess, then, inherited tendencies to acts which seem to affect primarily either our own organism or the environment, as the case may be, it is the former of these tendencies rather than the latter which is ordinarily called out by obstacles to our progress. Whenever such obstructions (perceptual or ideational) are encountered, the motor discharge is thrown back upon the vital processes of the organism itself, and straightway we have an emotion, It now remains to discover, if possible, the meaning of this situation.

Genesis of Emotion.-- We described in Chapter XV. the general theory touching the origin of instincts, but we may profitably consider again, in connection with our analysis of emotion and its variable connection with instincts, the question of the genesis of emotional consciousness.

Our study of the various cognitive processes, such as perception and memory, and our study of affective phenomena, has enabled us to ascribe in every case some specific function,

(327) or group of functions, which each process serves in the general economy of mental life. The essential problem now before us is to find the real function of motion, and to account, if possible, for its specific forms. We have already noted its appearance under conditions of stress and tension requiring new conscious coordinations in order to permit progress, and we have connected this fact with the service of emotion as a general monitor reporting friction and the need of additional intelligent supervision. Can we however, locate the source of this friction and give it its intelligible setting in the history of organic evolution? Can we, moreover, discover any reason for the differences in the qualities which the emotion of fear manifests when compared with grief? If the monitory character of emotion contained an adequate explanation of its function, it does not appear why these two emotions mentioned should display any such radical differences. From this point of view all that is required is some index in consciousness which shall, with a maximum of certainty, attract attention to the difficulties to be overcome.

The direction to which we may unquestionably look for assistance in answering these questions is that hinted at in the account of the evolution of instinct. The best exposition of this theory, and the one which we shall adopt in a general way, has been given by Dewey. His theory can hardly be called conclusively proven, but it is unquestionably the most exposition of the Darwinian hypothesis, in connection with the Lange-James theory, which has been as yet attempted, and we shall certainly be wise in accepting it provisionally.

Put briefly, it is this: The peculiar feeling which marks each emotion off from other emotions is Primarily due to the different reactions which various objects call forth. These reactions are in turn determined by circumstances, which may lie indefinitely far back in the early history of the race, but in each case they required for their effective manipulation

(328) special forms of coordination. The coordinations which served these ends were necessarily useful, and so tended to become fixed as organic heritages. Every emotional reaction represents, therefore, the survival of acts originally useful, either in the immediate physiological way or in the indirect biological and social way. Wundt and others also recognise forms of reaction which tend to copy already established responses to stimuli, that arouse " analogous feelings." Thus we raise the nostrils in token of moral disgust, just as we do at a nauseous odour. In the present-day individual these originally valuable reactions are not commonly executed as they once were, for they are no longer unequivocally useful. But they appear now in the form of attitudes, or tendencies to action, which are, however, in part inhibited from expression. This inhibition is due to the fact that, owing to our personal experience and our present complex structure, the emotional stimulus tends to produce two or more different motor reactions, instead of producing simply the old, instinctive, hereditary one. The emotion itself is in essence our consciousness of the conflict between the several reactions which the stimulus tends to call forth. The conflict subsides only when the two or more groups of nascently aroused coordinations are in some way unified and brought into a larger and more inclusive coordination. Were there no such tendencies to specific forms of movement originally appropriate to special conditions, undoubtedly emotions would be either all alike, or else utterly irregular and disorderly. One or two illustrations may serve, in connection with our previous analysis, to make this general hypothesis clear.

Illustration of the Principle.--Suppose that in walking across a meadow we are suddenly beset by an irate bull. So far as the bull is an interesting and unfamiliar object the visual impression which we get of him undoubtedly tends to bring about such movements as may permit us to examine him more closely. Such tendencies involve move-

(329)-ments of approach. In so far, on the other hand, as he is a roaring, devastating mass, indulging a high momentum in our direction, he equally stimulates motions of defence and retreat. Now, however it may be with the first group, this second group of tendencies is very largely instinctive in origin, and involves movements which unquestionably were originally of practical utility, whatever their present worth, e. g., the breathing temporarily checked, as on all occasions immediately preparatory to severe effort; the increasing rapidity of heartbeat, with its consequent augmentation of the circulatory efficiency, etc.; all making for the maximum chance of successful escape from danger. If either of these groups of impulses were carried over into immediate action it seems improbable that the emotion of fear, as we know it, would appear at all. Certainly the expression of the motor tendencies indicative of curious interest would not produce fear, and if the impulses looking toward retreat were absolutely alone in the field. it is altogether likely that we should have conditions akin to those which characterise the free expression of the play impulses in children, i. e., heightened sense of vitality, but no such emotion as fear. Evidently these two groups of impulses called forth by the ominously interesting bull cannot both be expressed simultaneously, and in point of fact they tend to inhibit one another. It is the organic outcome of this conflict of impulses, of which we become so keenly conscious as the " emotion." If the disposition usual in such cases finally conquers, we take to our heels, and at this point an instructive confirmation of our theory occasionally comes to light.

If we succeed in really putting our whole minds into the running, the emotion of fear is practically at an end. We may still have exhilarating, and even exhausting, mental excitement, but terror has fled with our own whole-hearted fleeing. In reality we often fail to throw ourselves thus completely into the act of flight, and, instead of this, images of

(330) the pursuing fate keep rising in our minds. We hear the thunder of footsteps, and the air is rent with savage bellowing. Each one of these sounds may stir in us a fresh emotional paroxysm, and in just the same way as the original reaction was aroused. The impulse may be now strong to turn and see how near the brute has come, and over against this tendency is the impulse to run still faster. In this man. ner recurrent waves of emotion may overwhelm us, until haply we reach the point where free and unimpeded coordinations may once more fare forth. This is most apt to occur on the other side of the bull's fence. But in any case the emotion evaporates when the mutual antagonism and inhibition of impulses cease, and not until then.

A Difficulty.-- It may occur to someone to inquire what becomes, on the basis of this theory, of the emotional outbursts of fear on the part of little children, too young to have knowledge of the objects serving as stimuli and, therefore, too young to have any of the acquired tendencies to reaction of which we have spoken, and to which we have assigned so important a part. We have , for example, previously mentioned the fear which children sometimes manifest of fur. The reply to this query is that such seizures are not, properly speaking, emotional at all in the sense in which adult life experiences emotion. True emotion distinctly implicates an element of knowledge. We are afraid of this, that, or the other thing of which we know something which inspires our dread. Such reactions, therefore, on the part of children must be altogether on a par, as conscious processes, with the first consciousness of one's organic sensations. They may be disagreeable, and probably are, but they no more deserve the name emotion, before there is a knowledge (however rudimentary) of the significance of the stimulus, than do the immediate feelings of stomach-ache, of fatigue, or of general vitality.

The Case of Satisfaction.-- We may take, as an antithetical illustration to put alongside of our description of fear, the

(331) emotion of satisfaction, where it might seem that we have necessarily an essential absence of conflict and inhibition. But if we examine a specific instance of emotional elation, such as that which arises from victory in an athletic contest, we instantly meet evidence confirmatory of our view. Up to the moment of final success there has, we may suppose, been an oscillation between anxiety and exultation, as the tide of victory has ebbed and flowed. On the whole, however, if the contest has been close, anxiety and tension have probably dominated in consciousness. Now that the issue is closed, and the die is cast, a tide of riotous joy surges over us. We shout, laugh, and jump, wave hats, canes, umbrellas, whatever comes to hand; our next neighbour is the recipient of jovial thumps and punches, and our whole nature expands triumphantly in unconstrained complacency.

All these performances we think of as expressions of the emotion, and the analysis of the previous chapter implied that our consciousness of these movements constitutes the essential differentia of the emotional psychosis from other states of mind. The point we make here is that we should not become so vividly aware of the movements were there not a tendency to inhibit them, exercised by tendencies to make other movements. All consciousness, to be sure, seems to be toned more or less by the sensory reactions which arise from the constant overflow of neural excitement into the muscles, and in so far every psychosis has an element of emotion in it. But it is in connection with the conflicts sometimes encountered in the expression of our racially hereditary impulses that we get the full, clear case, to which the term " gross emotion " is occasionally applied. In the instance of our illustration the inhibitive tendencies mentioned are primarily those expressive of our anxiety, and careful introspection will unquestionably show that the real feeling of joy and satisfaction is precisely contemporaneous with our mental portrayal of the strife and furor of the contest. When we cease to live

(332) over again in memory the crucial moments of the game the emotion of joy has given way to some other more negative and quiescent state of bodily lassitude and content. It must, of course, be recognised that much which we commonly think of as mental satisfaction is really an altogether unemotional condition of placid vegetation. We stretch ourselves out after a good meal, and are at peace with the world. We are satisfied. But this condition must not be confused with the thrill and tension of real emotion, however undiscriminating our descriptive language may be in calling both experiences states of satisfaction.

The Case of Joyous Emotion. -- A precisely similar situation will be found in every case of joyous emotion, whatever its cause. The lover who has at last carried love's citadel; the business man who has cornered his market; the scientist who has proved his theory-one and all get the thrill and poignancy of joy from the stress and eagerness of conflicting impulses in which the whole nature is enlisted. On the one hand are tendencies expressive of doubt, hesitancy, conservative retreat; on the other the expressions of forceful advance, of success and victory. The two sets of motor reactions are in unstable equilibrium, mutually inhibiting one another. The consciousness of our organic activities involved in this condition gives the mental background for our recognition of success, and the total psychical result is the emotion of joy. Once the victory is clearly recognised as won, and the game felt to be wholly over, our joy promptly begins to pale and fade. Moreover, let it not be supposed that intense joy is wholly unalloyed pleasure. Quite the contrary; such joy has its pain.

" Our sincerest laughter

With some pain is fraught."

To be sure, the affective tone of joy is dominantly pleasurable, and the reasons for this condition are not far to seek, as we shall presently see. But the emotion is a state of ten-

(333)-sion, and this fact is all too likely to be submerged from notice in our disposition to emphasise the objective basis of our joy, rather than the mental experience in which it is apprehended.

Why should these special expressions, however, characterise joy rather than others-say those which characterise grief ? What utility have these reactions now, or could they ever have possessed, by virtue of which they appear in us as hereditary attitudes? The typical expression of joy is laughter, but laughter, let it be remembered, is also expressive of many other things, e. g., surprise, derision, contempt, and even the more paroxysmal forms of grief -a circumstance which appears anomalous in the light of any theory other than the one herewith set forth. In all these cases the laugh is the motor activity which inevitably accompanies the explosive release from sustained tension, with its suspended breathing. In our account of the attentive processes in consciousness we remarked the holding of the breath as one among other adaptive motor arrangements, all of which involve muscular tension. In joy, in the appreciation of humour, in surprise after expectation, we meet precisely this suspension of breathing suddenly cut short. The innervation of the vocal, facial, and breathing muscles which this involves is the laugh. Stress has often been laid upon the rhythmic nature of laughter, and undoubtedly this is an essential feature of it. But this does not distinguish it from other effective coordinations which are always rhythmic, and of which we shall have more to say in another chapter. Joy is, then, an emotion which, taken in its entirety, involves a measure of antecedent tension, to which the motor reaction involved in laughter and its accompanying gestures constitutes a necessary relief. The stimulus to these tensions is suddenly transformed, we behold it in a new light; the tension may, therefore, be released, and our consciousness of the process by which the release is progressively procured, as we apprehend the stimulus in a

(334) new way, is the emotion. The utility of the attitude of joy should accordingly be sufficiently obvious.

Utility of Emotional Attitudes.-- If space permitted, and had we not already touched upon essentially the same matter in discussing instinct, we might in a similar manner illustrate the original utilities of the attitudes peculiar to anger, grief, and the other rudimentary emotions. Thus, Darwin has suggested that the rolling up of the upper lip in anger is a vestige of habits which belong to the days when men fought with their teeth. The clenching of the fists has an unmistakable implication. The sigh in grief and the sobbing which also belong to this emotion are explicable along lines resembling those we have described in connection with joy. It would undoubtedly be interesting to canvass the expressions of such familiar emotions as reverence, hope, remorse, gratitude,, shame, bashfulness, disgust, etc., but we must forego this. The reader must not forget, however, that the utility of these emotional attitudes is generally most evident in connection with their function in primitive conditions of life. This is certainly true of the reactions which have a definitely biological and social value in distinction from a merely physiological value.

The various acts which we call expressions of emotion are simply acts which are, or once were, useful under the circumstances calling forth the activity. It is, therefore, a genetic fallacy to speak as though the emotion first existed, and then sought an appropriate expression. The expressiveness of such acts is primarily a thing which exists only for some observer. The acts are, or at all events originally were, means toward the realisation of some end which the individual has in view. The movements of my hand, as I write, are not to me expressions of my thought. They are simply means to the end. No more are the emotional reactions primarily expressive to the person making them. When for any of the various reasons we have remarked, and we have wholly over-

(335)-looked many, the tendencies toward these movements come into relations of conflict with other motor tendencies, we have emotion. This conflict ultimately gives way to a coordination in which both tendencies are brought together, or one suppresses the other, or both are displaced by a third. In any event, consciousness moves on, and that particular emotion with which we started out is at an end.

Mood and Temperament.-- While emotions are called forth by specific objects, we are all familiar with the fact that for considerable periods of time we often find ourselves especially susceptible to certain forms of emotion. After receiving a piece of good news we may find every event for hours afterward tending to take on a bright and humorous colouring. On the other hand, it is an equally common experience to find that a fit of indigestion will cast a saffron hue over the most welcome fortune. This predisposition to special forms of emotion we call mood. It seems to rest upon definite organic conditions, which sometimes appear to be originated purely by intra-organic physiological disturbances, but which sometimes are evidently due to the residual effects of past emotions. In the latter case they are practically recurrent, or continuous, emotions. In either case they afford nothing essentially novel for our inspection. Under certain conditions of intense and relatively permanent emotion we speak of the condition as one of passion. Passion, however, is a term which is used very loosely in several other connections.

When we compare individuals with one another, one of the striking differences which we observe concerns their inherited susceptibilities and predispositions to certain forms of emotional response. This characteristic is one of the most important elements in the constitution of what we call temperament. Whereas mood indicates a relatively transitory disposition toward a certain emotional tone, temperament refers to a permanent tendency, contributing to the very warp and woof of character. In the conception of temperament

(336) intellectual and volitional attributes are also included, but the emotional factor is, perhaps, the most significant. The classical division of temperaments into sanguine, choleric, melancholic, and phlegmatic may be recalled.

Sentiment.-- Emotions are not dependent upon bodily conditions alone for a soil favourable to their development. Indigestion may, indeed, render us prone to irrational irritation and depression, and blooming health may constitute an auspicious prologue to emotions of joy. But another circumstance must be added, if we are to include all the conditioning factors. This additional consideration is found in the trains of ideas which possess our consciousness at any moment, and particularly in those general habits of thought and reflection which characterise our more distinctly intellectual life. If our customary habit of thought is of an altruistic and optimistic turn, there can be no question but that we shall more readily respond to emotional stimulations of the sympathetic type than if our minds are sicklied o'er with a paler and less human cast. These relatively permanent dispositions are what we designate our sentiments. Love, friendship, enmity, etc., are the names by which we know such characteristics. It will be obvious at once that the relation between sentiment and emotion is in a sense reciprocal. Our sentiments predispose us to certain kinds of emotion,--or put more truly, are the predispositions to such emotions,-- whereas the cultivation of any emotion tends as a rule still further to fix the disposition which it reflects.

We observe that although emotions are conscious experiences which have their proximate causes in the immediately surrounding objects, they are profoundly modified by ideational processes and by antecedent organic conditions, certain of which may be due to temporary bodily derangements, certain others of which may arise from our peculiar personal constitution, and all of which are ultimately derived from our racial heritage.


Relation of Emotion to the Rest of Consciousness. -- If we undertake to connect our analysis of emotion with the account we have already given of other mental processes, it will at once be evident that we have been dealing with a very complex psychical condition. Clearly there must always be a cognitive element in emotion. We apprehend some object, some circumstance, which is what we call the cause of the emotion. This apprehension inevitably involves attention and the assimilative, or associative, activities which we remarked as invariably accompanying cognition. Furthermore, we have repeatedly emphasised the strong affective tone which emotions display' and many of the emotions to which we have referred had already been mentioned as " feelings." It seems desirable to dwell a moment upon the nature of this identification of certain emotions and feelings. It must be definitely understood at the outset that all emotions are feelings in the meaning assigned by us to the term feeling. The question we are now briefly to consider is simply that of the precise implication of certain of these emotions to which we had previously accorded a classification as feelings.

Feeling and Emotion.--When we speak of sympathy we sometimes mean to indicate a definite feeling which has many of the characteristics of emotion, and sometimes we refer simply to a sentiment, to a general attitude of mind. The same ambiguity attaches to our use of the opposite condition, i. e., antipathy, and to many other so-called feelings, e. g., pride, humility, love, and hate. The moral feeling of obligation, or the feeling of conscience, affords a further instance of an emotional psychosis. The feeling of dependence, which plays so essential a part in religious phenomena, the feelings of reverence and of faith, all have at times an emotional colouring which cannot be questioned.

The aesthetic consciousness offers repeated instances of feelings which are tinged with emotion, although it must be frankly confessed that much which masquerades as aesthetic

(338) appreciation is, even when sincere, far too cold-blooded, far too strictly intellectual, to lay any claim to an emotional character. The orchestral rendition of a Mendelssohn symphony may fill us with the most genuine and delightful emotion, it may interest us merely as a superlative achievement of technique, or it may, frankly, bore us. Evidently its claim to the production of a positive and unmistakable emotion will depend, in part at least, on such circumstances as our mood and our musical development. But it must not be supposed that intellectual activities are, as such, necessarily devoid of all emotional context. We already know that they may possess marked affective tone. The experience of wonder is often a genuinely emotional one and it is distinctively an emotion belonging to cognitive processes. Belief, too, is often a distinctly emotional experience. Yet belief is essentially a judging process with a complicated development and an intimate dependence upon volition.

The fact of the matter is that such forms of mental life as these which we have just been mentioning are astoundingly elaborate products of our developing consciousness, and although we find evidences here and there in them of native emotional reactions, they are, in our adult life, anyhow, inextricably intertwined with the results of previous personal experience. This makes it impossible to regard them merely as emotions of the purely hereditary type to which the earlier analysis in this chapter has been mainly devoted. But despite this qualification, we see at once whence it is that they get their astonishing impulsive power over us. However small the seed, there can be no doubt that each of these feelings, for which our language has so complex a system of titles, contains within itself the hereditary racial tendencies which constitute and explain the imperiousness of emotion. The truth of this assertion is confirmed by the essentially social character of the most important of these feelings. The social nature of ethical feeling hangs together with the necessarily

(339) social character of righteousness. The religious feelings are not less social, so far as they may be conveniently distinguished from the moral feelings. But they find their application in a social order which transcends in part at least the imperfections of life as we know it here. The aesthetic feelings might appear to be purely personal. But a further study discloses the fact that the social element is fundamental here, too. This is, of course, exactly what we should expect of any conscious process which betrays an emotional cast, for the emotions reflect racial habits, and these must inevitably have a social basis.


No notes

Valid HTML 4.01 Strict Valid CSS2