What Is an Emotion? William James’s Revolutionary 1884 Theory of How Our Bodies Affect Our Feelings

MARIA POPOVA, ‘What Is an Emotion? William James’s Revolutionary 1884 Theory of How Our Bodies Affect Our Feelings’, https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/01/11/what-is-an-emotion-william-james/, Brain Pickings (11-01-2016)

“Emotions are not just the fuel that powers the psychological mechanism of a reasoning creature,” philosopher Martha Nussbaum wrote in her masterful treatise on the intelligence of the motions, “they are parts, highly complex and messy parts, of this creature’s reasoning itself.” But the emotions and the intellect are just two parts of our creaturely trifecta of experience. The third, which can’t be disentwined from the other two and which is in constant dynamic dialogue with them, is the physical — the reality of the body. (…) More than a century before Nussbaum, the trailblazing psychologist William James (January 11, 1842–August 26, 1910) — who shaped our understanding of the psychology of habit — made a revolutionary case for “how much our mental life is knit up with our corporeal frame” in an 1884 essay titled “What is an Emotion?” included in The Heart of William James. (…) Our whole cubic capacity is sensibly alive; and each morsel of it contributes its pulsations of feeling, dim or sharp, pleasant, painful, or dubious, to that sense of personality that every one of us unfailingly carries with him. (…) If we fancy some strong emotion, and then try to abstract from our consciousness of it all the feelings of its characteristic bodily symptoms, we find we have nothing left behind, no “mind-stuff” out of which the emotion can be constituted, and that a cold and neutral state of intellectual perception is all that remains. (…) Where long familiarity with a certain class of effects has blunted emotional sensibility thereto as much as it has sharpened the taste and judgment, we do get the intellectual emotion, if such it can be called, pure and undefiled. And the dryness of it, the paleness, the absence of all glow, as it may exist in a thoroughly expert critic’s mind, not only shows us what an altogether different thing it is from the “standard” emotions we considered first, but makes us suspect that almost the entire difference lies in the fact that the bodily sounding-board, vibrating in the one case, is in the other mute.