William James on Emotion and Morals

In Jacob Goodson (ed.), Cries of the Wounded: William James, Moral Philosophy, and the Moral Life. Rowman & Littlefield (forthcoming)
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The Emotions chapter (XXV) in James' Principles of Psychology traverses the entire range of experienced emotions from the “coarser” and more instinctual to the “subtler” emotions intimately involved in cognitive, moral, and aesthetic aspects of life. But Principles limits himself to an account of emotional consciousness and so there are few direct discussions in the text of Principles about what later came to be called moral psychology, and fewer about anything resembling philosophical ethics. Still, James’ short section on the subtler emotions, when read in connection with his later philosophical writings, still provides insight on James’ views about how human emotion colors our moral psychology and agency. The paper tries to articulate how James' somatic account of emotion adds significantly to contemporary discussions at the borders of moral psychology and philosophy: discussions over the foreground/background distinction, emotional temperament, emotional learning, moral imagination, and selfhood and narrativity. The final section focuses on the neo-Jamesian character of "new sentimentalist" moral psychologists. Among the substantial connections I discuss between James and 1) between Jonathan Haidt’s “social intuitionism” and 2) Jesse Prinz’s "emotionism" are the critiques that they each share of the pretensions of hard universalist ethical theories.

Author's Profile

Guy Axtell
Radford University


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