Emotions didn't exist?
From passions to emotions: The creation of a secular psychological category. New York: Cambridge University Press. Hard cover. x + 287 pp. $60.00. ISBN 0-521-82729-9.
Dr. Thomas Dixon is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the Faculty of Divinity and a Fellow of Churchill College, University of Cambridge.
Emotions did not exist 200 years ago. With that provocative statement the author grabs the reader's attention for an instructive tour of history. Many readers will experience the tour as a trip through unfamiliar territory, but will find the journey to be of great value for the integrative task.
The English word "emotion" is a relatively recent word that replaced a variety of terms previously used to describe this arena of human experience: affections, appetites, passions, and sentiment. Dixon's thesis is that the linguistic move to "emotion" represents a movement from the theological to the secular, from nuanced categories to a frustratingly over-inclusive category, and from a balanced view to a negative view. Dixon describes his work as revisionist in an effort to counter a prevalent assertion found in most all histories of psychology, namely that prior to the modern era the Western world viewed emotion as negative. Quite the contrary, argues the author. The older categories included variegated valence, but authors promoting the new category of emotion posited it against intellect and will and thus created the negative view of emotion that twentieth century psychology has attempted to dismantle. The negative view of emotion that emerged in the nineteenth century occurred, not accidentally, when philosophers and nascent psychologists yanked then-current views of affect up from their Christian roots.
The creation of emotion as a new super category for affects previously studied in smaller units occurred from 1800 to approximately 1850. Presentism prevents us from looking for the roots of our current psychological discipline, but when we do look for roots we find material to be very instructive. In this case, any effort to study the treatment of human affect by Augustine, Aquinas, the Reformers, or Eighteenth Century authors through the lens of our modern understanding of emotion is doomed. Prior to the modern era, a much more finely tuned grid of concepts governed any discussion of affect.
Dixon gives his readers a very informative portrait of revivalists Jonathan Edwards and Isaac Watts. While we normally associate the latter with hymnody only, Watts expressed in his 1746 Discourse of the Love of God and Its Influence on All the Passions that he was very concerned about the status of unaided reason especially in religion. Rene Descrates and his view of passion made an impact on both Watts and Edwards. Some people argue that we should appropriate psychological wisdom from Christian writers in the past rather than attempt only to interact with contemporary secular theory and that this use of past Christian writers is superior to traditional integrative work. But how can we regard the writings of our Christian ancestors as superior or "purer" when we are reminded that Edwards was influenced by Descartes, that Aquinas was influenced by Aristotle, and that Augustine was influenced by Plato?
Dixon's primary analysis concerns eighteenth century Christian authors whose work laid the foundation for the subsequent secularization of affect. When Christian authors began to advocate a naturalistic approach to affect, when they began to neglect the doctrines of sin and the Fall, when they separated affect from will and intellect, and when they advocated a three-faculty replacement for a two-faculty psychology, they built a system that contained very little distinctively Christian material. "Their teachings on passions and affections can be seen as a halfway house on the road towards the more secular psychologies of the nineteenth century" (p. 93).
David Hume was the first author to use the new category of emotion in a sustained manner. Hume, a religious skeptic, segmented emotion from reason. Thomas Brown, the Edinburgh philosopher, succeeded in describing the content of this new category of emotion as passive, non-intellectual, brute, and willful. The human will becomes subject to emotion and the intellect is the active agent of primary importance in human functioning. This non-intellectual and involuntary nature of emotion, the Scottishness of emotion according to Dixon, is the result of the neglect of traditional understanding and of the Christian psychologies of the past.
The defections of late eighteenth century Christian authors coupled with the secularization processes of authors writing in the period from 1800-1850 set the stage for Darwin's naturalistic approach that won the day. Darwin was well acquainted with design arguments that appeared in his day, but he was convinced that their design approach to the study of affect was wrong. A large number of Christian authors made efforts to counteract Darwin's emphasis, but their voices were greatly overshadowed, as Darwin's naturalism became the dominant view of science. These secularizing trends culminated in the twentieth century work of John Watson and B. F. Skinner.
Readers will find Dixon's summary of the views of Augustine and Aquinas particularly valuable. Dixon provides us with an understandable summary of these two giants of the faith whose work is sometimes difficult for modern and postmodern readers to comprehend. We should not be ashamed of the work Christian authors have done with human passions, affections, sentiments, and appetites. Their work (prior to the late eighteenth century) was nuanced, useful, and cogent. They gave every evidence of interacting with alternatives to the biblical view, sometimes incorporating material and sometimes deleting material. We will do well to include their work in our current integrations. And all historians of psychology will have to refine their generalizing statements and be more careful about the history of emotion based on the evidence Dixon gives us in this volume.
Reviewed by JAMES R. BECK, PhD