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Why so much fuss about the history of emotions?

The history of emotions has emerged as one of the fastest growing areas of historical study in recent years—no doubt helped by the fact that almost all historical topics have emotional aspects. The last two international conferences I’ve attended, one on The History of Concepts (in Oslo) and one on Law and Government (in Western Ontario), both had significant numbers of papers exploring emotional themes. The history of emotions has loose borders which can be and are being pushed outwards. Yet, it has benefited from speedily achieving an institutional base. Three centres have been established to promote its study: at Queen Mary University of London, at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, and in Australia — with distinct ‘nodes’ in the universities of Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Western Australia, and Queensland. These centres have done much to integrate a larger and rapidly expanding world-wide constituency of researchers; through conferences, by attracting academic visitors, and through publications—for example, the Emotions in History series, (co-edited by the directors of two of these centres, Thomas Dixon from Queen Mary and Ute Frevert from Berlin.)

The Australian Centre has spawned a professional association, the Society for the History of Emotions, and under this aegis has recently launched an online reading and discussion group with a globally dispersed and mainly young membership. The whole enterprise demonstrates what can be achieved in the modern academic institutional and technological environment—though its take off probably hasn’t seemed so quick to those who were early in the field: Thomas Dixon, for instance, published his From Passions to Emotions in 2003.

Electro–Physiologie, Figure 64, by Guillaume-Benjamin-Amand Duchenne de Boulogne. Photo by Adrien Tournachon. Public domain via The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

One impetus for these developments has been interest in building intellectual bridges between arts and sciences—though more has been done in this line in the literary field, where ‘neuro lit crit’ is flourishing, if amidst a certain amount of contention (not all neuroscientists return literary critics’ sympathetic interest in their work). Interest in brain science distinguishes this recent flow of work, in both literature and history, from older work whose orientation was more psychoanalytic, for example (in the case of history) work by Peter Gay and in the Journal of Social History. Other historians have shown little interest in how neuroscientists think, but have been interested in extending the somatic (and sometimes psychoanalytic) approaches associated with the ‘history of the body.’Given the power of these impulses, it’s ironic that arguably the most substantial achievements to date have been in the fields of intellectual history and the history of concepts—assisted by the fact that some philosophers, including historians of philosophy, have recently taken an ‘emotional turn.’ Historical work of all these kinds has been coloured by historians’ routinely contradictory impulses: to discover, on the one hand, the strange, and on the other hand, the familiar (their interaction with neuroscience has often been bound up with interest in how far that work sustains one or the other).

Work on the history of emotions was initially often quite broad-brush, being directed towards the identification of ‘cultures of feeling’ or ‘emotional communities.’ Though work focussing on particular individuals and moments is becoming more common, the two approaches, if well-conceived, are in fact complementary: understanding individual behaviour necessarily involves locating it within larger patterns, but highly focussed study should also refine our understanding of these larger patterns. Diverse though scholarship in the field has been, the existence of institutional centres has helped to create and sustain a core culture, within which certain works have achieved canonical status: William Reddy’s 2001 The Navigation of Feeling: A Framework for the History of Emotions has been cited 1354 times (according to Google Scholar, as of 13 February 2018); Barbara Rosenwein’s 2002 American Historical Review article ‘Worrying about emotions in history’, 658 times.

The bridge to neuroscience looks shaky to me—and in any case, probably not capable of bearing much heavyweight historical traffic. Nonetheless, a great merit of this burgeoning of interest has been that it has brought historians with diverse backgrounds and interests into conversation with each other—not least, into conversation about similarity and difference across both time and space. If there’s a danger, it seems to me (to keep working the metaphors) it’s that the flow of work might start to swirl within a vortex. It’s good for historians to attend to emotions as concepts, to emotional experiences and to emotions as shapers of behaviour: history without emotion would not be a human history. But the specific knowledge and skills of the ‘historian of emotions’ are not sufficient in themselves to produce outstanding historical work. Historians of emotions must—like other historians—continue to undertake probing source criticism; they must respect the ‘discipline of the historical context’, that is, they must attend to the significance of the particular circumstances in which things happen; and they must remain alive to the complexities of human interaction, to the many levels at which, and means by which, human beings do and don’t interact with each other, and to the consequently differing impacts different individuals’ emotions have on those around them, at any given time and place. And then they must keep all these complexities in mind when they construct their larger narratives of continuity and change.

Emotions help to make history, but only as elements within a variegated, multi-dimensional, tension-ridden, constantly changing field of force.

Featured image credit: The Illuminated Crowd sculpture by Dominic Simpson. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

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