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Thomas Dixon's book aims to
provide supplement material to historical development of views of passions and
emotions. Hoping that his historical account will stimulate philosophical and
psychological reflection, Dixon's main thesis is that the conception of
emotions as a set of morally disengaged, bodily, non-cognitive and involuntary
feelings is not due to the rationalist influence but is, in fact, a recent
invention of the process of secularization of psychology.
Dixon begins by setting the
puzzling historical question: when and how did English-language psychological
writers stop using "passions," "affections" and "sentiments"
as their primary categories and start referring instead to the "emotions"?
The story Dixon tells us proceeds both chronologically and
thematically. Chapter Two examines the models of the human soul of patristic
and scholastic Christian Theologies, especially St. Augustine of Hippo and St
Thomas Aquinas. Though, as Dixon refers, it is impossible to pin down exactly
what is "Christian psychology," it is possible to identify four main
topics that concerned the analysis of emotional life. Dixon claims that at the
heart of Christian affective psychology was the conviction that though some
human feeling is necessary to life, God, angels and perfected humans are free
from perturbations of sin and the passions. Therefore, though it would be fair
to find in the Christian tradition a strong distinction between the spiritual
and the bodily, it would be wrong to ascribe a reason-emotion dichotomy since
the rational mind had its own "emotions." Consequently, the
reason-passion dichotomy of the Christian tradition was not a reason-emotion
Chapter Three examines some of
the movements away from classical Christian psychology towards more secular and
mechanistic views of passions and affections in the eighteenth century, as well
as ways that the traditional Christian picture was maintained and developed.
Exposing the work of Jonathan Edwards, Isaac Watts, Francis Hutcheson, Joseph
Butler and Thomas Reid, From Passions to Emotions shows that in a
fundamental sense the eighteenth-century discourse of the passions was
political. As Dixon explains the concept of human nature was central to the
discussions of passions and affections. The disappearance of the will as the
locus of human agency meant a new tripartite psychology, which led to a view of
emotions that was in contrast with reason, and also distanced from the will.
Consequently, Dixon argues, it distanced emotions from individual desires,
goals, agency and moral responsibility.
Having been mostly concerned with
theologians, preachers and religious thinkers, Dixon turns now to examine a
more secular tradition. Focusing on works produced during the eighteenth and
early nineteenth centuries, especially by certain Scottish empiricist
philosophers and their followers, Chapter Four points out the initial baptism of
the term emotions. Thomas Brown's Lectures on the Philosophy of the Human
Mind adopted the term "emotions" to describe all those feelings
that were neither sensations nor intellectual states, suggesting that these
mental states were passive and non-cognitive. Thomas Brown accepted the Humean
psychology where will and reason vanish to be replaced by a multiple of
passions, sentiments, affections, desires or emotions.
In Chapter Five and Six, Dixon
looks at the appropriation of the Brownian category of emotions by
physiological and evolutionary psychologists, in the face of Christian or
theistic resistance. Chapter Five examines how the works by Herbert Spencer,
Alexander Bain and Charles Darwin defined emotions as instances of the brain
and nerves acting upon other parts of the body and denied the mind or soul an
active role. Chapter Six, on the other hand, considers various anti-physicalist
writers such as Willian Sewell, J.D. Morell, Thomas Upham, William Lyall,
George Ramsay, Martyn Paine and James McCosh identifying the problems Christian
believers faced in coming to terms with the new Physicalist concept of "emotions."
At this point of the book, it
becomes clear that there was a crisis of definition that plagued the category
of "emotions" and Chapter Seven examines William James attempt to
solve this problem and provides a brief summary of the arguments against James.
James inverted the traditional assumption that the outward bodily
manifestations of emotions were caused either by the activity of the soul or
even by the activity of the brain, and argued that the disturbance of the
viscera caused the condition of the brain.
Finally, Dixon concludes that
this story shows that our modern-day category of emotions is rather a blunt
instrument when it comes to the construction of ideas about feelings, passions,
affections and sentiments and its employment has led to several misconceptions
and confusions. Agreeing with Paul Griffiths' claim that "emotion" is
a pernicious over inclusive category, Dixon suggests that we need more than one
theory, and more than one category to do justice to the phenomena we are
seeking to include in the category "emotions" and that the
investigation of past affective psychologies reveals alternative, more
differentiated systems. From Passions to Emotions concludes with the
suggestion that perhaps a return to a more differentiated typology would help
to think more clearly about emotional life. Unfortunately, Dixon never fully
explains how we may do this without reviving the entire theological framework.
From Passions to Emotions investigates
the creation of "the emotions" as a psychological category revealing
that the change of vocabulary is not a simple affair for whenever there is such
a shift of language many conceptual frameworks are redefined and transformed
and some issues are left unattended. It also gives us a sense of the freedom
granted by time for Dixon's book can only be written because time distances us
from the birth of emotion as a psychological category. It is perhaps because
nowadays we are comfortable with dropping the usage of the word "sin"
that we can now look back and consider that many things are missing from
previous reflection upon emotions. Thomas Dixon is an important historical
reference for the continual attempt to provide a clearer picture emotional
© 2004 Dina Mendonça
Dina Mendonça is a Postdoctoral
Fellow of Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia, Portugal, at the Instituto
de Filosofia da Linguagem in the Universidade Nova de Lisboa.
Working in a research program on "Pragmatic Analysis of Emotion."
This research, of Deweyan inspiration, aims at elaborating a critical
interpretation of the philosophy of emotions clarifying: on the one hand, (1)
the different methodological approaches to emotions; on the other hand, (2) the
topics that surround reflection upon emotion. Among other things, the project
aims at the production of a commented bibliography and a research database on
philosophy of emotion.