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The Emotions: Outline of a Theory

The Emotions: Outline of a Theory

by Jean-Paul Sartre

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Sartre contemplates the human emotional experience by analyzing phenomenological psychology and existentialism
In The Emotions: Outline of a Theory, French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre attempts to understand the role emotions play in the human psyche. Sartre analyzes fear, lust, anguish, and melancholy while asserting that human beings


Sartre contemplates the human emotional experience by analyzing phenomenological psychology and existentialism
In The Emotions: Outline of a Theory, French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre attempts to understand the role emotions play in the human psyche. Sartre analyzes fear, lust, anguish, and melancholy while asserting that human beings begin to develop emotional capabilities from a very early age, which helps them identify and understand the emotions’ names and qualities later in life.

Helping to complete the circle of Sartre’s many theories on existentialism, this vital piece of literature is a must-have for the philosopher-in-training’s collection. 

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The Emotions

Outline of a Theory

By Jean-Paul Sartre, Bernard Frechtman

Philosophical Library

Copyright © 1948 Philosophical Library, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4532-2860-9



We know all the criticisms which have been raised against the peripheric theory of the emotions. How are we to explain the subtle emotions? Passive joy? How can we grant that commonplace organic reactions can account for qualified psychic states? How can modifications which are qualitative (and, thereby, as if uninterrupted in their vegetative functions) correspond to a qualitative series of states which are irreducible among them? For example, the physiological modifications which correspond to anger differ only in intensity from those which correspond to joy (slightly accelerated respiratory rhythm, slight increase in muscular tonicity, extension of bio-chemical changes, arterial tension, etc.), yet anger is not more intense joy; it is something else, at least insofar as it presents itself to consciousness. It would serve no purpose to show that in joy there is an excitation which predisposes one to anger, to cite idiots who pass continually (for example, while rocking on a bench and accelerating their rocking) from joy to anger. The idiot who is angry is not "ultra joyful." Even if he has passed from joy to anger (and nothing allows us to assert that a host of psychic events has not intervened), anger is not reducible to joy.

It seems to me what is common to all these objections could be summed up thus: William James distinguishes two groups of phenomena in emotion, a group of physiological phenomena and a group of psychological phenomena which we shall hereafter call the state of consciousness. The essence of his thesis is that the state of consciousness called "joy, anger, etc." is nothing other than the consciousness of physiological manifestations—their projection in consciousness if you like. But all the critics of James, examining "emotion," a "state" of consciousness, and the concomitant physiological manifestations, do not recognize projection in the former which is the shadow cast by the latter. They find more, and—whether or not they are clearly conscious of it—something else. More: one can, in imagination, push bodily disorders to the limit, but in vain; it could not be understood why the corresponding consciousness would be a terrorized consciousness. Terror is an extremely painful, even unbearable, state, and it is inconceivable that a bodily state perceived for and in itself should appear to consciousness with this frightful character. Something else: in effect, even if emotion perceived objectively presents itself as a physiological disorder, insofar as it is a fact it is not at all a disorder or an utter chaos. It has a meaning; it signifies something. And by that we do not mean only that it presents itself as a pure quality; it sets itself up as a certain relationship of our psychic being with the world, and this relationship, or rather our consciousness of it, is not a chaotic connection between the ego and the universe. It is an organized and describable structure.

I do not see that the cortico-thalamic sensitivity, recently invented by the same ones who make these criticisms of James, allows for a satisfactory answer to the question. First, James's peripheric theory had a great advantage; it took into account only physiological disturbances which could be revealed directly or indirectly. The theory of cerebral sensitivity invokes an unverifiable cortical disturbance. Sherrington has made some experiments on dogs, and one can certainly praise his skill as an operator. But these experiments taken by themselves, prove absolutely nothing.

From the fact that the head of a dog practically isolated from its body still gives signs of emotion, I do not see that one has the right to conclude that the dog experiences a complete emotion. Moreover, even supposing that the existence of a cortico-thalamic sensitivity were established, it would again be necessary to ask the previous question: can a physiological disturbance, whatever it may be, account for the organized character of emotion?

This is what Janet understood quite well, but expressed unfortunately, when he said that James, in his description of emotion lacked the psychic. Janet taking a strictly objective standpoint, wished to record only the external manifestations of emotion. But he thought that, even considering only the organic phenomena which one can describe and reveal from the exterior, these phenomena immediately admit of being classed in two categories, psychic phenomena, or behavior, and physiological phenomena. A theory of emotion which wishes to restore to the psychic its preponderant role should make of emotion a matter of behavior. But Janet, like James, was sensitive, despite everything, to the appearance of disorder which all emotion presents. Therefore, he makes emotion a less well adapted behavior, or, if one prefers, a behavior of disadaptation, a behavior arising from a setback.

When the task is too difficult and we cannot maintain the superior behavior which would be suitable to it, the psychic energy liberated is spent in another way: we maintain an inferior behavior which requires a lesser physiological tension. Let us take, for example, a young girl whose father has just told her that he has pains in his arms and that he is a little afraid of paralysis. She rolls on the floor, a prey to violent emotion, which returns a few days later with the same violence and finally forces her to seek the help of doctors. In the course of the treatment, she confesses that the idea of taking care of her father and leading the austere life of a sick-nurse had suddenly seemed unbearable. The emotion, therefore, represents in this instance a setback-behavior. It is a substitution for "sicknurse-behavior-unable-to-be-endured." Likewise, in his work on Obsession and Psychasthenia, Janet cites the cases of several sick people who, having come to him to confess, could not get to the end of their confession and ended by bursting into sobs, sometimes even by having an attack of hysteria. There again, the behavior to be kept up is too difficult. The tears, the hysteria, represent a setback-behavior which is substituted for the first by diversion from its proper course. It is not necessary to insist; examples abound. Who does not remember having bantered with a friend, having remained calm as long as the contest seemed equal, and having become irritated the very moment he found nothing more to answer? Janet can therefore pride himself on having reintegrated the psychic into emotion; the consciousness which we take of emotion—which consciousness, moreover, is here only a secondary phenomenon is no longer the simple correlative of physiological disorder; it is the consciousness of a setback and a setback-behavior. The theory seems fascinating. It is certainly a psychological thesis and has a quite mechanistic simplicity. The phenomenon of derivation is nothing more than a change of path for freed nervous energy.

And yet, how many obscurities there are in these few notions which seem to be so clear. To consider the matter more closely, it is noticeable that Janet goes beyond James only by using implicitly a finality which his theory explicitly rejects. In effect, what is setback-behavior? Should we mean by that only the automatic substitution for a superior behavior that we cannot maintain? In that case, nervous energy could discharge itself at random and in accordance with the law of least resistance. But then the ensemble of active reactions would be less a setback-behavior than an absence of behavior. There could be a diffuse organic reaction, a disorder, in place of an adapted reaction. But isn't that precisely what James has said? Does not emotion intervene for him precisely at the moment of an abrupt dis-adaptation, and does it not consist essentially of the ensemble of disorders which this dis-adaptation brings about in the organism? Doubtless, Janet puts more emphasis on the setback than James does. But what are we to understand by that? If we consider the individual as a system of behavior, and if the derivation occurs automatically, the setback is nothing; it does not exist; there is simply substitution of one behavior by a diffuse ensemble of organic manifestations. For emotion to have the psychic signification of a setback, consciousness must intervene and confer this signification upon it. It must keep the superior behavior as a possibility and must grasp the emotion precisely as a setback in relation to this superior behavior. But this would be to give to consciousness a constitutive role which Janet did not want at any price. If one wanted Janet's theory to retain some meaning, he would be led logically to adopt the position of M. Wallon. In an article in the Revue des Cours et Conférences, M. Wallon offers the following interpretation: assume a primitive nervous system, a child's. The ensemble of the new born infant's reactions to tickling, pain, etc., would always be governed by this system (shivering, diffuse muscular contractions, accelerations of the cardiac rhythm, etc.) and would then constitute a first organic adaptation, an inherited adaptation, of course. By what follows we would learn about conduct and would realize new set-ups, that is, new systems. But when in a new and difficult situation, we cannot find the adapted behavior which suits him, there would be a return to the primitive nervous system. It is evident that this theory represents the transposition of Janet's views on the level of pure behaviorism, since, in short, emotional reactions are regarded not as a pure disorder but as a lesser adaptation: the nervous system of the child, the first organized system of defensive reflexes, is disadapted in relation to the needs of the adult, but in itself it is a functional organization, analogous, for example, to the respiratory reflex. But it is also evident that this thesis is differentiated from that of James only by the supposition of an organic unity which would connect all the emotive manifestations. It goes without saying that James would have accepted the existence of such a system without any difficulty, if it had been proved. He would have held this modification of his own theory as of little importance because it was of a strictly physiological order. Therefore, Janet, if we keep to the terms of his thesis, is much nearer to James than he wished to say. He has failed in his attempt to reintroduce the "psychic" into emotion. He has not explained either why there are various forms of setback-behavior, why I may react to abrupt aggression by fear or anger. Moreover, almost all the examples he cites come back to slightly differentiated emotional upheavals (sobs, hysteria, etc.) which are much closer to what is properly called emotional shock than to qualified emotion.

But it seems that there is in Janet a subjacent theory of emotion—and, furthermore, of conduct in general—which would introduce finality without naming it. In his general discussions of psychasthenia or affectivity he insists, as we have said, on the automatic character of derivation. But in many of his descriptions he lets it be understood that the sick person throws himself into the inferior behavior in order not to maintain the superior behavior. Here it is the sick person himself who proclaims himself checked even before having undertaken the struggle, and the emotive behavior comes to mask the impossibility of maintaining the adapted behavior. Let us again take the example which we cited earlier: a sick girl comes to Janet; she wants to confide the secret of her turmoil, to describe her obsession minutely. But she is unable to; such social behavior is too hard for her. Then she sobs. But does she sob because she cannot say anything? Are her sobs vain attempts to act, a diffuse upheaval which represents the decomposition of too difficult behavior? Or does she sob precisely in order not to say anything? At first sight, the difference between these two interpretations seems slight; in both hypotheses there is behavior which is impossible to maintain; in both there is substitution for behavior by diffuse manifestations. Janet also passes easily from one to the other; that is what makes his theory ambiguous. But in reality, these two theories are separated by an abyss. The first, in effect, is purely mechanistic and—as we have seen—rather close to the essence of that of James. The second, on the contrary, really brings us something new; it alone really deserves the title of a psychological theory of the emotions; it alone sees emotion as behavior. That is because, if we reintroduce finality here, we can understand that emotional behavior is not a disorder at all. It is an organized system of means aiming at an end. And this system is called upon to mask, substitute for, and reject behavior that one cannot or does not want to maintain. By the same token, the explanation of the diversity of emotions becomes easy; they represent a particular subterfuge, a special trick, each one of them being a different means of eluding a difficulty.

But Janet gave us what he could. He was too uncertain, divided as he was between a spontaneous finalism and a fundamental mechanism. We shall not ask him to expound the pure theory of emotion-behavior. One finds a first draught of it in the disciples of Köhler, notably in Lewin and Dembo. Here is what P. Guillaume has written on the subject in his Psychology of Form:

"Let us take the simplest example: the subject is asked to reach an object placed on a chair, but without putting his foot outside a circle drawn on the ground. The distances are calculated so that the thing is very difficult or impossible to do directly, but one can resolve the problem by indirect means. ... Here the force oriented toward the object takes on a clear and concrete meaning. Besides, in these problems there is an obstacle to the direct execution of the act; the obstacle may be material or moral; for example, it may be a rule which one is bound to observe. Thus, in our example, the circle which one must not overstep forms a barrier in the subject's perception from which there emanates a force directed in an opposite direction to that of the first.

The conflict of the two forces produces a tension in the phenomenal field.... When the solution has been found, the successful act puts an end to his tension. There is a whole psychology of the act of replacement or substitution, of ersatz, to which the school of Lewin has made an interesting contribution. Its form is very variable. The half-results attained may help to stabilize it. Sometimes the subject facilitates the act by freeing himself from some of the imposed conditions of quantity, quality, speed, and duration, and even by modifying the nature of his task. In other cases it is a matter of unreal, symbolic acts; one makes an evidently vain gesture in the direction of the act; one describes the act instead of doing it; one imagines fantastic, fictitious procedures (if I had ... I would have to ...) outside of the real or imposed conditions which would permit of its being accomplished. If the acts of substitution are impossible or if they do not produce sufficient resolution, the persistent tension manifests itself by the tendency to give up, to run away, or to retire into oneself in an attitude of passivity. We have said, in effect, that the subject finds himself submissive to the positive attraction of the goal, to the negative attraction of the barrier. Moreover, the fact of having agreed to submit to the test has conferred a negative value on all other objects in the field, in this sense, that all diversions foreign to the task are ipso facto impossible. The subject is therefore enclosed in some way in a circuit which is closed everywhere: there is only one positive way out, but it is closed by the specific barrier. This situation corresponds to the diagram below:


Escape is only a brutal solution since one has to break the general barrier and accept a diminution of the self. Withdrawing into oneself, the encystment which raises a protective barrier between the hostile field and the self, is another equally feeble solution.


Excerpted from The Emotions by Jean-Paul Sartre, Bernard Frechtman. Copyright © 1948 Philosophical Library, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Philosophical Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980) was a significant voice in the creation of existential thought. His explorations of the ways human existence is unique among all life-forms in its capacity to choose continue to influence fields such as Marxist philosophy, sociology, and literary studies. He was awarded the 1964 Nobel Prize in Literature, but refused the honor.

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