Live conference blog


I am in Istanbul at the second conference on the Cultural History of Emotions in Pre-Modernity (the first was in Umeå, Sweden, in 2008). A very broad range of historians of science and medicine, literary, legal, cultural historians and anthropologists have met here to discuss the cultural history of emotions up to and including the nineteenth century. I took along my iPad to do a bit of conference blogging.

Because the historical periods and cultures discussed range from classical antiquity via medieval China to eighteenth-century Copenhagen and the emotions under scrutiny are just as varied, it is hard to sketch out general ideas or conclusions reached at the conference. The theoretical frameworks from which the cultural history of emotions is approached are also different. The most often referred to is Barbara Rosenwein’s concept of emotional communities and their specific words. What all contributors do agree on, is that at least part of what we now call an emotion is culturally determined and therefore different across space and time.

In his keynote paper “Beyond Emotion,” William Reddy (author of the seminal book The Navigation of Feeling) started from this idea. He remarked that although emotional vocabularies are complex and culturally specific, we usually can find ways to translate specific emotion terms. As an example, he compared Stoic ira with Ilongot liget. Even though these two cultural concepts of anger are poles apart, Reddy argued that we are able to see that they have a shared core. (I wonder if this applies to all emotion terms – there are of course the oft-quoted examples of emotions specific to one culture only, such as Japanese Fureai.)

What is the cause of this overlap in meanings, this shared core of two culturally different interpretations of an emotion?

William Reddy remarked that the theory of a set of basic emotions shared by all cultures is quickly losing ground. Instead, he turned to the latest advances in affect and neuroscience, more specifically to appraisal theory, to explain why emotions share a cross-cultural core.

Referring to Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe’s canonical philosophical work Intention (1957), Reddy described emotions in a cognitive sense as intentional orientations. Emotions are bundles of different components, some of which may be biologically hard-wired, such as tears or the surge of adrenaline, but they are always cognitive. Anger, for example, can be an appraisal of an intrusion upon your authority, grief the result of a frustrated intention.

This model can also explain differences in intensity and the subjective feel of emotions. Martha Nussbaum in Upheavals of Thought shows how the fading of grief reflects a number of cognitive processes. The experience of mourning is one of cognitive frustration, where your hopes and intentions are thwarted by loss. Due to the nature of our faculty of attention and its capacities, we cannot grasp all the effects of a person’s death at once, and the experience of cognitive frustration is repetitive. Over time, however, a reweaving of the cognitive fabric occurs, new cognitive habits are formed, and grief seems to fade.

This description of mourning as cognitive frustration reminded me of a much less emotional, more everyday situation – trouble with my internet connection at home last year. I sometimes lost the signal for hours, and my mind would enter into a loop of intentions that kept being frustrated. My habits of working kept returning me to the fact that they require access to online resources. Usually the connection was restored before I had rewoven my cognitive fabric, because I kept unconsciously moving my mouse to the online EEBO or journal databases even though I knew better.

Another aspect of this cognitive model of the emotions is priming, which influences the distribution of attention across the cognitive fabric. if you show someone a picture of a bear, for example, they recognize the word “tiger” more quickly than people who have not been triggered that way. This cognitive mechanism works for the emotions as well – and here Reddy referred to his Navigation of Feeling and the concept of the emotive. An emotion can be primed and also self-primed, as has been shown to occur in states of depression.

Reddy offered this cognitive model of the emotions as a way to analyze the emotions historically. A broad term referring to the emotions that distinguishes between thinking and feeling is not to be found in many cultures, including Homer’s. Moreover, the intentional model allows us to see the emotions as vague bundels of intentions. Historical researchers could analyse what the intentions of anger are, or how they are interpreted in a given culture – these intentions will be broad and complex, and that, Reddy said later, is one of the virtues of this model, for it allow us to deal with the complexity of historical emotions.

More to come on this conference – especially on Walter Andrew’s inspiring keynote on poetry, culture, emotions and neuroscience, in which he analyzed bonding and separation in Ottoman poetry from a neuro-cultural model.


One thought on “Live conference blog

  1. Pingback: L’émotion historique en tournée de conférences cet automne | Les émotions au Moyen Âge

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