The Secret History of Emotion: From Aristotle's Rhetoric to Modern Brain Scienceby Daniel M. Gross
Princess Diana’s death was a tragedy that provoked mourning across the globe; the death of a homeless person, more often than not, is met with apathy. How can we account for this uneven distribution of emotion? Can it simply be explained by the prevailing scientific understanding? Uncovering a rich tradition beginning with Aristotle, The Secret History of… See more details below
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Princess Diana’s death was a tragedy that provoked mourning across the globe; the death of a homeless person, more often than not, is met with apathy. How can we account for this uneven distribution of emotion? Can it simply be explained by the prevailing scientific understanding? Uncovering a rich tradition beginning with Aristotle, The Secret History of Emotion offers a counterpoint to the way we generally understand emotions today.
Through a radical rereading of Aristotle, Seneca, Thomas Hobbes, Sarah Fielding, and Judith Butler, among others, Daniel M. Gross reveals a persistent intellectual current that considers emotions as psychosocial phenomena. In Gross’s historical analysis of emotion, Aristotle and Hobbes’s rhetoric show that our passions do not stem from some inherent, universal nature of men and women, but rather are conditioned by power relations and social hierarchies. He follows up with consideration of how political passions are distributed to some people but not to others using the Roman Stoics as a guide. Hume and contemporary theorists like Judith Butler, meanwhile, explain to us how psyches are shaped by power. To supplement his argument, Gross also provides a history and critique of the dominant modern view of emotions, expressed in Darwinism and neurobiology, in which they are considered organic, personal feelings independent of social circumstances.
The result is a convincing work that rescues the study of the passions from science and returns it to the humanities and the art of rhetoric.
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Read an ExcerptThe Secret History of Emotion
By DANIEL M. GROSS The University of Chicago Press
Copyright © 2006 The University of Chicago
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Early Modern Emotion and the Economy of Scarcity
We can learn a good deal about the rhetoric of human nature in early modern Europe simply by asking what passions were. When we do, we find not only that their descriptions disagree but also that the things described as passions seem incommensurable. Are passions tangible "things" residing in the soul, or are they dispositions of the heart, or beliefs of the mind? Is passion a matter of personal expression, or is it something essentially social that a person performs? Do they come from our interior, or from the things we perceive? Can they be measured and manipulated-their causes controlled-or do passions elude control by their very nature? Are they divine, diabolical, or human, and can we distinguish them according to their origin? Are they the enabling condition of virtue or its enemy? Are they necessary or disposable? What is their number and what do they do? Exasperated by endless wrangling over such questions, Descartes complains
There is nothing in which the defective nature of the sciences which we have received from the ancients appears more clearly than in what they have written on thepassions; for although this is a matter which has at all times been the object of much investigation, and though it would not appear to be one of the most difficult, inasmuch as since every one has experience of the passions within himself, there is no necessity to borrow one's observations from elsewhere in order to discover their nature. (331)
With this preliminary remark, Descartes renders human nature in its quintessential modern form: it is something housed in a body and subject to the self-evidence of a descriptive science.
According to Descartes, what we know is best established through introspection, and so is what we feel. Everyone has experience of the passions "within himself," and therefore it is unnecessary to borrow one's observations from elsewhere in order to discover passion's nature. But ultimately for Descartes introspection is not about attaching meaning to our emotions in the narrative form of autobiography. It is not like Hobbes's dictum "Nosce teipsum, Read thy self," a prelude to the radical mutation of human nature required for commonwealth (Leviathan, 10), nor is it a primitive form of psychoanalytic introspection. Rather, it is a literal "look-inside" the body. Thus, to control those passions that have unfortunately been trained to vice, we must better understand body mechanics.
To do so, according to Descartes, it is helpful first to identify human activity independent of those passions that are the soul's motivating force. Certain sorts of movements-such as the blinking of an eye threatened by a poking finger-cannot be affected even by our knowledge that the finger belongs to a benign friend. In this case, the machine of our mind is useless because "the machine of our body is so formed that the movement of this hand towards our eyes excites another movement in our brain, which conducts the animal spirits into the muscles which cause the eyelids to close" (338). Articles 2 through 16 of Descartes's The Passions of the Soul further explain body mechanics independent of the soul, including its heat and movement; its vitality and death; the role of blood circulation, muscles, nerves, the heart, and animal spirits; as well as the "little tubes," or vincula, that transport animal spirits between body and brain.
If body mechanics work on reflex, passions are for Descartes forms of retardation. Unlike actions originating from within-thirst and hunger, for example-passions of the soul provide space for learning, memory, and judgment. If, for instance, we see some animal approach us, and
if this figure is very strange and frightful-that is, if it has a close relationship with the things which have been formerly hurtful to the body, that excites the passion of apprehension in the soul and then that of courage, or else that of fear and consternation according to the particular temperament of the body or the strength of the soul.... For in certain persons that disposes the brain in such a way that the spirits reflected from the image thus formed on the gland, proceed thence to take their places partly in the nerves which serve to turn the back and dispose the legs for flight, and partly in those which so increase or diminish the orifices of the heart. (348)
Passions are thus defined as the "perceptions, feelings, or emotions of the soul which we relate specially to it, and which are caused, maintained, and fortified by some movement of the spirits" (344). And since passions are produced by the movement of blood and spirits, they are also accompanied by legible signs, the most salient of which are actions of the eyes and face, changes of color, tremors, languor, swooning, laughter, tears, groans, and sighs (381).
But, we might ask with Spinoza, is there not a domain of freedom inserted into the causal chains of human activity? How does Descartes explain why people respond to the same situation differently-some with consternation and some with courage-in the face of a similar physical threat? Ostensibly Descartes does make room in the mind for both divine ideas and debased habits of thought. But social difference ultimately has no causal efficacy in the explanation of behavioral variation. Physical differences alone explain why the same causes can excite different passions in different people: "The same impression which a terrifying object makes on the gland, and which causes fear in certain men, may excite in others courage and confidence; the reason of this is that all brains are not constituted in the same way" (349). Even when it comes to a passion that seems intuitively social, such as love, Descartes brackets out the intentional world of things loved and people loved, focusing his analysis instead on the consistent physiology of love. "There is also no need to distinguish as many kinds of love as there are diverse objects which we may love; for, to take an example, although the passions which an ambitious man has for glory, a miser for money, a drunkard for wine, a brutal man for a woman whom he desires to violate, a man of honour for his friend or mistress, and a good father for his children, may be very different, still, inasmuch as they participate in love, they are similar" (367).
But strict mechanical determinism is untenable in a world that includes both divine principles and human failings. At a certain point we must take responsibility for our behavior without simply blaming a God or an evil demon. Descartes thus seems compelled to suggest a remedy for excesses of passion that exploits human volition and the power to judge right and wrong: "what we can always do on such occasions, and what I think I can here put forward as the most general remedy and that most easy to practice against all excesses of the passions, is that, when we feel our blood to be thus agitated, we should be warned of the fact, and recollect that all that presents itself before the imagination tends to delude the soul" (426). A weak remedy indeed, as the monist Spinoza was quick to point out, and one reminiscent of the Stoic Seneca's urging that we fight anger with moral "precepts": Ira praeceptis fugatur (see chapter 2). For it is a remedy that locates the entire transaction of otherwise independent mind and body in that small portion of matter called the pineal gland-a remedy that requires second-order conscience to chase after first-order feelings.
As we can surmise from Spinoza's unenthusiastic reply, Descartes's theory of remediating the passions received a lukewarm response from his contemporaries and from later theorists of the passions as well. However, the outline of Descartes's psychophysiology of emotion still carries substantial weight-indeed, the picture Descartes paints still seems familiar. Despite his misnomers and mechanical blunders, and despite his unavoidable ignorance of the evolutionary theory that has since taken center stage in the science of emotion, Descartes's mechanical model translates into late-modern terms. For the sake of comparison, here's how, in Scientific American, a leading neuroscientist of emotion, Joseph LeDoux, describes a response to danger (fig. 1):
"As the hiker walks through the woods, he abruptly encounters a snake coiled up behind a log on the path" (Descartes's hapless victim likewise encounters a strange and frightful animal). Immediately, the visual stimulus is processed in the brain by the thalamus, which passes "crude, almost archetypal, information directly to the amygdala" (while Descartes's spirits reflected from the image form on the pineal gland). "This quick and dirty transmission allows the brain to start to respond to the possible danger signified by a thin, curved object, which could be a snake" (whereas Descartes refers to the perceived object's "close relationship with things that have been formerly hurtful to the body"). Meanwhile, the thalamus also sends visual information to the visual cortex, which "goes about the business of creating a detailed and accurate representation of the stimulus" (just as Descartes's "soul" imposes a more thoughtful judgment between stimulus and response). The snake as an "emotionally competent object"-to anticipate Antonio Damasio's term-thus precipitates the cascade of events that become the emotion we call fear, and finally behavioral, autonomic, and endocrine responses manifest as a bodily response to evident danger (while Descartes's nerves dispose the legs for flight).
So instead of Descartes's hydraulics of animal spirit, we can now talk in terms of endocrinology; instead of locating the passions in the pineal gland alone, we look for them in a complex of brain sites converging on the amygdala. Descartes's explanation of perception and nervous reaction seems broadly accurate, as does his gambit to relocate emotions from the heart to the mind. Even LeDoux's distinction between cerebral and noncerebral emotional reactions-which has proven so attractive to philosophers of emotion and pop psychologists alike because it lends itself to theories of "emotional intelligence"-was itself anticipated by Descartes in his distinction between simple reflex and a full emotional response that depends upon thought and a lifetime of experience. We can, then, isolate in The Passions of the Soul at least two principles that shape the human nature we take for granted today.
First, instead of an Aristotelian soul composed of hierarchically organized and interdependent vegetable, animal, and human functions, Descartes identifies an indivisible soul with the mind. Where the soul was once a complex entity irreducible to either mind or body, now its functions could be redistributed dualistically. But when its functions are thus redistributed, the soul loses altogether its significance as an object of scientific inquiry. When we wish to identify and analyze the essential elements of human nature-that is, when we want to follow up on Descartes's famous clock metaphor and find out what "makes us tick"-we turn either to the mind, if we are philosophers, or to the brain, if we are empirical psychologists. The "soul," where the term still functions at all, is relegated to the religious domain. There the material strata assumed by Aristotelian theologians such as Philipp Melanchthon are dropped, and the soul is confined instead to that part of the human being that is immaterial, immortal, and divine. Second, as Descartes sees it, passions are something "in" us that we express; they are mental dispositions that tie perception to action. Thus, when we want to analyze the passions, we call them "emotions" and read their physiological signs. In this way a certain side of experimental human science emerges in its modern form, modeled on the natural sciences. Unfortunately, both of these principles make it more difficult for us to see the logic of emotion beyond its physical manifestation-more difficult, that is, to see in what ways emotions are irreducibly social.
The Limits of Brain Science
As Ian Hacking remarks in a Times Literary Supplement review of Joseph LeDoux's The Emotional Brain, "sciences that study the emotions are in fine fettle." Indeed, this flurry of activity has produced some interesting results, by any measure. LeDoux's work, for instance, has done a good job explaining how the range of phenomena we typically categorized as "emotions" in fact vary dramatically in terms of their appearance in the evolutionary saga and thus in their physiology as well. Damasio's work on the emotional life of brain-damaged patients has produced some useful therapies and has made inroads against mind/body dualism in Western medicine by showing concretely how judgment and emotion are connected. However, these successes-which have impressed even leading humanists such as Martha Nussbaum, Philip Fisher, and Richard Sorabji-have perhaps emboldened brain scientists to expand their theories of emotion to a (dramatically impoverished) social world, at the expense of a more nuanced, humanistic perspective of the sort initiated by Aristotle and assumed, to great advantage, in awide range of early modern literature. The story of amygdala-damaged "S," as told by Antonio Damasio in The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness, deserves scrutiny at this point because it illustrates perfectly how brain science of emotion goes awry when it blunders into social fact.
"Almost a decade ago," Damasio recounts, "a young woman, to whom I shall refer as S, caught my attention because of the appearance of her brain CT scan." Her scan revealed that, although most of her brain was perfectly normal, both amygdalae were calcified to the extent that little or no normal function of neurons within the amygdalae was possible (62). Damasio then shifts abruptly from the objective to the subjective standpoint: "My first impression of S was of a tall, slender, and extremely pleasant young woman" (63). OK. Being charitable, one might concede that first impressions matter for Damasio because he is interested in social emotions, and therefore his own immediate response to her tall, slender, pleasant looks is relevant. But there is more. After explaining that S had no problem learning new facts, Damasio recounts that her social history, on the other hand, was "exceptional": "To put it in the simplest possible terms, I would say that S approached people and situations with a predominantly positive attitude" (64). For instance, Damasio offers, shortly after an introduction, S would not shy away from hugging and touching. But "make no mistake," Damasio reassures the reader, "her behavior caused no discomfort to anyone." And as it turns out, this forthcoming (but evidently not unpleasant) behavior pervaded all areas of her life. "She made friends easily, formed romantic attachments without difficulty, and had often been taken advantage of by those she trusted." It was as if, Damasio explains, emotions such as fear and anger had been removed from her affective vocabulary (65), and therefore she had failed to learn the "significance of the unpleasant situations that all of us have lived through," failed to learn the "telltale signs that announce possible danger and possible unpleasantness, especially as they show up in the face of another person or any situation" (66). In characterological terms, we might observe, the supposedly generic man (or monkey, as LeDoux would have it) who startles at a snake now becomes a slender woman with boundary issues.
Of course, S's story is more than idiosyncratic, according to Damasio. The connection between amygdala damage and fear as an appropriate social emotion is supposedly proved in a study published in Nature by Damasio and his colleagues that required a "judgment of trustworthiness and approachability based on human faces." And here, in my opinion, Damasio's account becomes quite troubling. As Damasio describes it, this experiment called for the judgment of one hundred human faces that had been previously rated by "normal individuals" as indicating varied degrees of trustworthiness and approachability. The selection of these faces was made by normal individuals who were asked a supposedly simple question: "How would you rate this face on the scale of one to five, relative to the trustworthiness and approachability that the owner of the face inspires? Or, in other words, how eager would you be to approach the person with this particular face if you needed help?" As it turns out, Damasio tells us that S, along with other amygdala-damaged patients, "looked at faces that you or I would consider trustworthy and classified them, quite correctly, as you or I would, as faces that one might approach in case of need. But when they looked at faces of which you or I would be suspicious, faces of persons that we would try to avoid, they judged them as equally trustworthy" (66-67).
Excerpted from The Secret History of Emotion by DANIEL M. GROSS Copyright © 2006 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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