What does anthropology say about the emotional lives of others?

By | July 9, 2019

Andrew Beatty writes:

In his classic thought experiment set out in ‘What Is An Emotion?’ (1884), William James, pioneer psychologist and brother of the novelist Henry, tried to imagine what would be left of emotion if you subtracted the bodily symptoms. What, for example, would grief be ‘without its tears, its suffocation of the heart, its pang in the breastbone? A feelingless cognition that certain circumstances are deplorable, and nothing more.’ James’s resonant conclusion that ‘a purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity’ launched a century of debate in which emotions have been dissected and analysed, modelled in the lab to determine causal sequences, and evoked in experimental subjects (mostly, obliging undergraduates).

The anthropologist comes at things from another direction. The problem of definition – of what emotions are – looks different if you start with the real-life episodes in which love, anger and sadness are embedded. And to James’s thought experiment, they can pose a rejoinder. Try to imagine an emotion without its cultural and social context – the warp and weft of its occurrence, its very form and meaning. What would be left? The mind stripped bare? The naked heart? Or nothing? If, like me, you spend time in places where emotional lives are quite different, the possibility of a standardised definition, a universal recipe for ‘anger’, ‘sadness’ and ‘love’, recedes still further. The very category of emotion starts to look shaky. [Continue reading…]

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