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A Short History of “Emotion”

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In the premodern Christian tradition, love as an affection could therefore be appropriate or inappropriate, since love could be rightly or wrongly directed. The object of desire determined if it was right to desire such a thing, and necessarily dictated the moral quality of the affection. This changed in the 1700s. In eighteenth-century Germany, a third faculty of the soul, in addition to understanding and will, was introduced—that of feeling. This was endorsed in works by Kant and Schopenhauer, who promoted the idea of irrational and involuntary feelings. British moralists of the same period began departing from a will-centred affective psychology and tacitly introduced a three-faculty psychology (understanding, will, and feelings) rather than a two-faculty one (understanding and will).

This entry is part 1 of 43 in the series “Ten Mangled Words”

Some might be surprised to learn that the word emotion is perhaps only 200 years old. Thomas Dixon has documented the history of the term “emotion” in his book From Passions to Emotions. He shows that what was originally a moral category in Christian thought named affections or passions became a psychological category termed emotions. What used to refer to the inclination of the will or the presence of appetites became subsumed into an idea of passive bodily or neurological responses.

Of course, people have been discussing this topic for centuries, even though the term emotion is a newcomer. In the Christian tradition, writers distinguished between the higher, volitional part of the soul that expressed love in the form of affections and the lower part of the soul (the involuntary or irrational part) which did so in the form of appetitive passions. For Christians, affections were movements of the will in the direction of desire, not whimsical and involuntary bodily experiences.

One sees this thinking very early. For example, Augustine united desire (cupiditas), fear (timor), joy (laetitia), and sorrow (tristitia) under the single principle of love (amor). Augustine clarifies that the important matter in judging the morality of an “emotion” is its chosen and willed object.

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