Basic emotions

We have referred at several points in previous chapters to basic emotions. The issue of whether, amid the breadth and diversity of human emotional experience, there are some emotions that are more fundamental or basic than others has exercised the minds of emotion theorists since the time of Aristotle (see Chapter 2). This concept of basicness—the idea that there is a small handful of core human emotions—has considerable purchasing power for theoretical psychology. Potentially it provides a framework within which to divide up, integrate, and organise the confusion of our emotional experience. It provides a way into other important approaches to the emotions such as evolution, biology, and developmental psychology. Finally, it provides the foundations for a bridge between the study of human emotions and research into the emotional experiences of other species. In the face of so much temptation, it would be easy for the emotion theorist to gloss over the issue of whether the concept of basic emotions can be empirically or theoretically justified independently of its obvious heuristic merit. In this section we would like to outline the basic emotion approach and acknowledge its clear advantages. However, more importantly, we would like to address the question of whether the approach is a valid one or whether it is merely ". . . an unsubstantiated and probably unsubstantiable dogma - an air, earth, fire and water theory of emotion" (Ortony & Turner, 1990, p. 329).

The possibility that there is some mileage in the idea of a limited number of basic emotions was first emphasised by Descartes in his pamphlet The Passions of the Soul (see Chapter 2). However, it was not until the publication of Darwin's "other" book The Expression of The Emotions in Man and Animals (1872/1965) that serious consideration was paid to the potential importance of basic emotions in biology and psychology (see Oatley, 2004, for a more detailed historical account). Since Darwin, the basic emotion debate has shifted in and out of fashion, with philosophers and psychologists such as William James, Magda Arnold, Paul Ekman, and Keith Oatley speaking up in favour of basic emotions, and Andrew Ortony, Terence Turner, James Russell, and Lisa Feldman Barrett presenting the case against.

In this section we shall endeavour first of all to reformulate the basic emotion debate in terms of the framework developed from the philosophy of emotion literature in Chapter 2. We shall then review briefly in the light of this formulation the empirical evidence that has been cited as support for basic emotions.

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Conquering Fear In The 21th Century

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