The Psychologising Of Feeling Theory William James

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Despite the difficulties with feeling theory, it can rank among its proponents some of the greatest names in Western philosophy. John Locke's description of pain and pleasure and the emotions they give rise to is thoroughly Cartesian, though less fully articulated. He states that pain and pleasure "cannot be described, nor their names defined; the way of knowing them is, as of the simple ideas of the senses, only by experience" (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding II, 20; see Kenny, 1963, for a fuller discussion). Similarly, David Hume, in Book II of A Treatise on Human Nature, "Of the Passions", presents another version of feeling theory overlaid with his own ideas from his theory of mental activities. He describes emotions as "secondary or reflective impressions" and his elaboration of these arguments is undeniably Cartesian (see Lyons, 1980, 1992, and Kenny, 1963, for a fuller analysis). Some 100 years after Hume, feeling theory was embraced for the first time by the emerging psychology community in the writings of William James.

James began his career as a Cartesian feeling theorist with an article in Mind appropriately entitled "What is an Emotion?" (1884); however, the fullest exposition of the Jamesian view is found in his classic work, Principles of Psychology (1890). Although James' approach offers nothing substantially new to anyone familiar with the work of Descartes, his emphasis on the physiological aspects of emotions and the potential they provide for an empirical analysis has influenced psychology to the present day. For this reason James' writings merit some discussion.

Let us dispense with the Cartesian core of James' approach first. It is worth quoting James here because his description can hardly be bettered:

Bodily changes follow directly the perception of the exciting fact, and that our feeling of the same changes as they occur IS the emotion. Common sense says . . . we meet a bear are frightened and run . . . The hypothesis here to be defended says that this order of sequence is incorrect, that the one mental state is not immediately induced by the other, that the bodily manifestations must first be interposed between them, and that the more rational statement is we feel . . . afraid because we tremble. (Principles of Psychology, 1980, p. 743)

So, if we refer back to our Jamesian example of Susan's unfortunate encounter with the bear, James, like Descartes, is saying that we see the bear and this causes the physiological emotional reaction and our perception of this reaction is the emotion of fear—this is undoubtedly a version of feeling theory.

James' next paragraph seems remarkably prescient. He suggests that: "Stated in this crude way, the hypothesis is pretty sure to meet with immediate disbelief' (p. 743). We have already discussed our reasons for standing up and being counted among the disbelievers when presenting the original Cartesian version of this approach and we need not reiterate them here.

So the Cartesian core of James' theory renders it, in our view, philosophically problematic. However, James' emphasis on the physiological uniqueness of each and every emotion merits some discussion. He suggests that "no shade of emotion, however slight, should be without a bodily reverberation as unique, when taken in its totality, as is the mental mood itself" (p. 743), and later: ". . . we immediately see why there is no limit to the number of possible different emotions which may exist, and why the emotions of different individuals may vary indefinitely" (p. 746).

Putting aside the issue of whether James is correct in this assumption, it is clear that this theory is amenable to objective measurement and investigation. That is to say, if each emotion is physiologically distinct then it becomes possible to distinguish and categorise the emotions through detailed physiological experiment and study, an open door to experimental psychology. This is the way forward that James promotes, and here he is heavily influenced by the work of the Danish physiologist Carl Lange.

James' and Lange's assertions that each emotion is specified by a unique physiology and that the emotions do not involve specialised brain centres have indeed motivated a considerable amount of research and debate, most famously an attack by Walter Cannon (1927) (who also happened to be William James' son-in-law at the time) in his paper "The James-Lange theory of Emotions: A Critical Examination and an Alternative Theory". The debate continues to this day with some individuals arguing that certain basic emotions can be distinguished in terms of bodily changes (e.g., Darwin, 1872; Ekman, 1982) whereas others propose a form of generalised physiological arousal that acquires a particular phenomenological flavour by virtue of the cognitive beliefs and evaluations with which it is associated (e.g., Cannon, 1927; Lyons, 1980, 1992; Schachter & Singer, 1962). This issue of physiologically distinct basic emotions is important. However, it is clearly not an issue that can be resolved philosophically and consequently detailed discussion is postponed until Chapter 3.

We argued above in our analysis of Descartes' work that it was difficult to square the notion of emotions as pure feelings with any concept of appropriateness. So, to recapitulate, Bedford (1964) argued that it was absurd to suggest that a pang or any other sensation of a bodily feeling could be unjustified or justified. Furthermore, we suggested that this presented problems for those who wish to use the dimension of appropriateness to propose a distinction between so-called normal and abnormal emotions. Exactly what these problems are becomes apparent in James' discussion of the issues. James, however, does not see it this way:

One of the chief merits, in fact, of the view which I propose seems to be that we can so easily formulate by its means pathological cases and normal cases under a common scheme. (1890, p. 749)

James illustrates these merits with a discussion of what, we must suppose, are panic attacks:

... if inability to draw deep breath, fluttering of the heart ... with an irresistible tendency to take a somewhat crouching attitude and to sit still . . . all spontaneously occur together in a certain person; his feeling of their combination is the emotion of dread. (1890, p. 749)

In this analysis, panic attacks are the feelings of bodily changes that occur spontaneously for no apparent reason. To James' credit this does capture the commonly reported clinical phenomenon (e.g., Dalgleish, 2004a) of feelings of fear and dread seemingly coming "out of the blue". However, the fact that an individual is unaware of any cause of his or her emotions, whether it be cognitive or external, does not mean that such a cause does not exist. James' analysis of panic and thus of emotional disorder has all the faults of feeling theory in general, compounded with the inability to explain how the bodily changes that he describes can originate for no reason. We shall argue later that, in our view, a far more convincing account of panic attacks is offered by a cognitive theory of emotion (see the discussion in Chapter 6).

William James was the first psychologist and the last person to present the feeling theory of emotions in such strong terms. Although the feeling theory stream appeared to have dried up for many years after James, recent adapted versions have appeared in the neurological work of Damasio (e.g., 1994, 1999, 2003) and in the philosophical work of Prinz (2004). Damasio's concept of "somatic markers" and Prinz's concept of "gut reactions" implicate bodily changes that are processed by, for example, the prefrontal cortex, and which thereby provide intuitive guides based on previously significant events. We need to see if Damasio will be hoist by his own petard, and whether his disingenuously titled book Descartes' Error will eventually be responded to with one entitled Damasio's Error. Nevertheless, these developments show that the feeling theory approach has recently found renewed interest, albeit substantially modified (Dunn, Dalgleish, & Lawrence, 2006).

Soon after the work of William James, however, theoretical analysis of the emotions was commandeered by the behaviourists and the psychoanalysts prior to the re-emergence of the cognitive model. Therefore, it is the behavioural approach that we consider next.

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