A Century of Misunderstanding? William James' Emotion Theory

William James Studies (forthcoming)
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Phoebe Ellsworth, in her 1994 article “William James and emotion: Is a century of fame worth a century of misunderstanding?” wryly observed: “Ask anyone about William James’s theory of emotion and you will almost certainly hear about the bear.” This opening sentence sets the stage for Ellsworth’s critique of the standard interpretation of James’ theory of emotion. The standard interpretation of that theory sees James claiming that emotions like anger, disgust, fear, etc. are discrete categories that are constituted exclusively by the perception of internal bodily feelings. This article, coupled with the 1994 release of Antonio Damasio’s explicitly “neo-Jamesian” Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, led to a significant resurgence of scholarly and scientific interest in William James’ emotion theory that persists to this day. Ellsworth’s article has spawned a large secondary literature regarding the proper historical interpretation of William James’ emotion theory, with numerous emotion theorists claiming that their theories are those that are the true inheritors of James’ legacy (see Barrett 2017, Damasio 1994, Prinz 2004, Ekman 1984 for some representative examples). I will begin this paper by outlining the traditional interpretation of James as a proponent of Basic Emotion Theory, and then profile Ellsworth’s alternate interpretation as a counterpoint. I argue that James’ emotion theory has been largely misunderstood, not just by the aforementioned representative examples but also by Ellsworth herself. In arguing for this historical point, I will forward four claims: 1. James was an important precursor to Basic Emotion Theory and his theory is most comfortably identified as a flavor of BET or proto-BET; 2. James’ proto-BET individuates individual emotion categories by the evolutionary, functional roles of emotions rather than by the later BET’s focus on emotion signatures in facial expressions, the autonomic nervous system, etc.; 3. The only necessary condition on something’s being an emotion in James’ theory is that it is a bodily feeling, though appraisals often in fact play important roles in emotion generation; 4., and finally, contrary to both (Barrett 2017) and (Ellsworth 2012), James was loath to offer a definitive list of basic emotions not because he loathed taxonomy, but rather because he thought psychology was not yet a natural science with well-defined theoretical categories. After marshalling evidence for these four claims, I will canvass how many of the most popular and recent readings of James (both friendly and critical) get him wrong and subsequently extract some lessons for the contemporary emotions debate, whose argumentative dialectic is (to this reader at least) largely the same as it was when William James was writing. In particular, I will argue that a proper understanding of James’ emotion theory defangs some traditional critiques of BET and of Neo-Jamesian theory, forcing critics to reformulate their critiques.
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Archival date: 2019-10-10
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