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Friday, August 03, 2007

From Bain to Fechner: parade of the nineteenth century dustbunny psychologists

Having done some more research on the fascinating topic of origin of the concept of the negative and positive feelings in psychology, LI has decided that our previous post on Wundt was way too hasty, too abbreviated, too brutal in the way we are handling the evidence, too bracketed from the question that we really want to answer here, which is not so much a question of who invented these terms as the question, why did they catch on? What happened, in the latter part of the nineteenth century, that people began to talk about their feelings in this way? How was this talk diffused? How did it so quickly gain a footing outside the field of psychology; a field, at that time, dominated by philosophers and lacking the institutional embedding in corporations and universities that it now has? LI has gotten ambitious: we want to turn this topic into a whole, publishable essay. And we’d appreciated attacks, hinged or unhinged, on these things. Commenters, on your marks!

To give a sense of the parameters of the question set I’m pursuing, let’s quote, once more, that remark of Carroll Izard’s:

“Scientists as well as laymen agree that there are both positive and negative emotions. While this very broad classification of emotions is generally correct and useful, the concepts of positiveness and negativeness as applied to the emotions require some qualification…”

This remark would not have made any sense in 1850, but it can now be claimed as the most banal and uncontroversial state of the case. That, in a nutshell, is what I am after here.

To get our bearings, let’s go first to what the state of the case was in the 1850s. There’s an essay on Alexander Bain by John Stuart Mill, published in the Edinburgh review in 1859, that nicely summarizes the ‘return’ of scientific psychology to Britain, after the energy of the Scottish school was exhausted and the Comtean positivists seemed to dominate the field in Europe. After praising Bain’s luminous explanation of the nervous system and expounding his defense of associationism against the apriori school – which would, in today’s terms, be the defense of empiricism against Chomsky’s rationalism – Mill remarks on the disappointing results that derive from applying associationism to the emotions. But Bain, in Mill’s view, is at least a good natural historian of the emotions:

“He has, however, written the natural history of the emotions with great felicity, in a manner at once scientific and popular; insomuch that this part of his work presents attractions even to the unscientific reader. Mr. Bain’s classification of the emotions is different from, and more comprehensive than, any other which we have met with. He begins with “the feelings connected with the free vent of emotion in general, and with the opposite case of restrained or obstructed outburst;”[*] the feelings, in short, of liberty or restraint in the utterance of emotion; which he regards as themselves emotions, and entitled, on account of their superior generality, to be placed at the head of the catalogue. He next proceeds to one of the simplest as well as most universal of our emotions—Wonder. The third on his list is Terror. The fourth is “the extensive group of feelings implied under the title of the Tender Affections.”[†] The consideration of these feelings is by most writers blended with that of Sympathy; which is carefully distinguished from them by our author, and treated separately, not as an emotion, but as the capacity of taking on the emotions, or mental states generally, of others. A character may possess tenderness without being at all sympathetic, as is the case with many selfish sentimentalists; and the converse, though not equally common, is equally in human nature. From these he passes to a group which he designates by the title, Emotions of Self: including Self-esteem, or Self-complacency, in its various forms of Conceit, Pride, Vanity, &c., which he regards as cases of the emotions of tenderness directed towards self, and has largely illustrated this view of them. The sixth class is the emotions connected with Power. The seventh is the Irascible Emotions. The eighth is a group not hitherto brought forward into sufficient prominence, the emotions connected with Action. “Besides the pleasures and pains of Exercise, and the gratification of succeeding in an end, with the opposite mortification of missing what is laboured for, there is in the attitude of pursuit, a peculiar state of mind, so far agreeable in itself, that factitious occupations are instituted to bring it into play. When I use the term plot-interest, the character of the situation alluded to will be suggested with tolerable distinctness.”[*] This grouping together of the emotions of hunting, of games, of intrigue of all sorts, and of novel-reading, with those of an active career in life, seems to us equally original and philosophical. The ninth class consists of the emotions caused by the operations of the Intellect. The tenth is the group of feelings connected with the Beautiful. Eleventh and last, comes the Moral Sense.”

These categories have certainly lost their sway with us, There is something almost camp about the emotions attendant upon hunting and novel reading, as though the British Raj were an event in the natural history of human emotion. But the most important thing is that there are no dimensions here upon which to locate the feelings. Nowhere is there any mention of positive and negative emotions, or their distribution along a continuum. Rather, we have a sort of gathering of emotions rather like the flavors in a recipe book.

Already, though, in Germany the terms of the science of feeling were changing. Heidelberger, in his biography of that very strange man, Gustav Fechner, points out that Fechner was strongly impressed by Ampere’s division of electrical current into ‘mathematical entitities”. In Fechner’s “Preliminaries to the science of Aesthetics (Vorschule der Aesthetik), Fechner imposes a similar structure on “Lust” and “Unlust”:

“Now there are many concepts and connected expressions which are related to things and relationships according to the measure of the current or immediate yield of pleasure or pain they produce, as, after the pleasure side, the pleasant, sweet, appropriate, dear, stimulating, nice, pretty, beautiful, etc., to which correspond an equivalent number of pains. We conceive both as aesthetic categories and distinguish them as positive and negative. “

Similarly, there are positive and negative practical categories, or those that yield pleasure or pain as the result of the consequences of things and relationships – giving us terms like useful or advantageous.

Fechner was an important figure in the intellectual life of the later 19th century. James Clerk Maxwell actually wrote an essay using the Fechner coinage, Psychophysik; Wundt, of course, also adopted the term.

Yet the correspondence of negative and positive quantities to pain and pleasure and the expressions connected to them did not entirely develop from Fechner’s rather simple idea. Which of course is something I will take up in another post.

PS Ah, I have spotted a mention of positive and negative qualities attached to feeling before 1850, in one of Kant’s pre-critical essays: “an attempt to introduce negative quantities into Worldly Wisdom "[Weltweisheit, an odd word for philosophy] of 1763. In the second section, he goes from considering the mathematical representation of the attraction and repulsion of bodies to Seelenlehre, considering whether ‘pain [Unlust] is purely a lack of pleasure, or whether it is a cause of the robbery of the latter, thaqt is in itself something positive not purely the contradictory opposite of pleasure, to which it is opposed in our interpretation of the real [Realverstande], and thus whether pain could be called a negative pleasure?” Kant considers cases, including the taking of a medicine that ‘tastes like pure water” but that gives a pleasant feeling to the imbiber over the expected state of health. ‘in the taste he doesn’t feel any pleasure, but the lack of it is not a pain.” Then Kant instances the story of the Spartan woman who is brought her son on his shield – the son having suffered a glorious death. “Name the degree of pleasure arising from the first cause alone 4a, and the pain a simple negation of it = 0, thus we have, taking them both together, the value of the satisfaction at 4a+0 = 4a, and thus the pleasure was not at all diminished by the report of the death, which is false.”

This does prefigure the pain/pleasure calculus of Bentham. Yet this instance lacks a sense of the continuum and direction of feelings. This is an echo of that theological premise that evil is, ultimately, the power of nothing.

17 comments:

Scruggs said...

Partially hinged okay?

Magazines and tailored broadsheets. That's how it escaped. There was an explosion of periodicals catering to specific audiences, which gave them both a vocabulary and a forum where nornally rarefied things could be considered significant. These things needed explanations, to ground them and give them handles. Psychology provided it.

roger said...

Mr. Scruggs, I think you are right that the popular press did that work. Yet - and this is not yet even a hypothesis, just an intuition, a conjecture in this conjectural history - I think that there was an alignment of interests here - there was the uplift culture in the U.S., there was the threat of labor violence and the threat of urban deviance, and there was the sense, among those concerned with governing among the governing classes, that the new 'science' of psychology could produce hitherto undreamt of means of command and control. The brokers, the dealers between worlds, really don't appear until the vocabulary has been established in the psychology and philosophy departments. Still, even in the twenties, uplift literature, I think, was saturated with a much older vocabulary of folk psychology - that world in which there is a definite rule about the meaning of the handshake - and of religion. But 'positive thinking' has already sprouted in this soil, I think.

But this is getting ahead of the story.

Alan said...

While I'm scrambling to catch up with this stuff, let me call your attention to an online paper called "Appraising Valence". Here's a bit from the conclusion:

"Summing up, we saw that the notion of valence does not originally and etymologically refer to a positive-negative distinction. Since its introduction in psychology . . . and then specifically in emotion theory, 'valence' has been linked with the tags 'positive' and 'negative' with increasing frequency. More or less inadvertently, it has been used to refer to different aspects of emotion. At present, the ideas that there are positive and negative emotions, that emotions have positive and negative aspects, and that emotion is valenced all support one another and are interchangeable. This process of regimentation hides many problems. One is that 'valence' often implicitly means many different things; I have tackled this problem by disentangling its meanings. Another problem is that these different meanings tend to be conflated; I have shown in which sense, and claimed that this need not happen."

Alan said...

Warning: that paper's a pdf file.

roger said...

alan, a man we both know - Bob Soloman! - was a major critic of the whole valence idea. I've been pleasantly surprised to come across his name a lot.

I'll check out that paper.

roger said...

Solomon. Sorry about the misspelling, - I'm addressing here the spirit of Bob, who no doubt is chuckling about my sudden interest in his work on emotions.

northanger said...

The reason why I refuse to take existentialism as just another French fashion, or historical curiosity, is that it has something very important to offer us, for the new century. I'm afraid we're losing the real virtues of living life passionately, the sense of taking responsibility for who you are, the ability to make something of yourself and feeling good about life.

Existentialism is often discussed as if it's a philosophy of despair, but I think the truth is just the opposite. Sarte once interviewed said he never really felt a day of despair in his life. The one thing that comes out from reading these guys is not a sense of anguish about life so much as a real kind of exuberance, of feeling on top of it. It's like, your life is yours to create.

I've read the post-modernists with some interest, even admiration, but when I read them I always have this awful nagging feeling that something absolutely essential is getting left out. The more that you talk about a person as a social construction, or as confluence of forces, or as fragmented or marginalized, what you do is you open up a whole new world of excuses.

And when Sarte talks about responsibility he's not talking about something abstract, he's not talking about the kind of self or soul the theologians would argue about. It's something very concrete: it's you and me talking, making decisions, doing things, and taking the consequences.

It might be true that there are six billion people in the world, and counting; nevertheless, what you do makes a difference. It makes a difference first of all in material terms, it makes a difference to other people, and it sets an example. In short, I think the message here is that we should never simply write ourselves off and see ourselves as the victim of various forces. It's always our decision who we are.

bob

roger said...

North, nice catch! Although why Bob's shown wearing a tie is beyond me.

northanger said...

because i misspelled Sartre?

roger said...

So, North, you haven't said whether you think I am fulla shit on this happiness rant I'm going and going and going on.

So what do you think?

northanger said...

first things first. you being fulla shit should not be confused with happiness ranting.

roger said...

Ho ho, North. Hey, I am eminently pokeable. I don't mind being ribbed, ridiculed, roped, ripped and roasted like some lonesome doggie on the Western plains. But hey, I got my references all lined up!

Speaking of which you, in your quest to touch the ends of the cyberverse, should check out the lineup of all Firing Lines at the Hoover institute. Interesting stuff there. A session with a drunk Jack Kerouac, poor guy, a session with the socialist candidate for the president of the U.S., and a lot of sessions they, stupidly, havent put on line yet, like one with Truman capote about In cold blood. One with a young Noam Chomsky. The problem is the sound - I can't turn up the damn vids enough to catch everything. Prime past life sixties vids - the past life, that is, of Uncle Sam.

northanger said...

a drunk Jack Kerouac isn't oxymoronic is it?

anyway, if i had a choice between watching you wank & reading you happy, which should i choose? be honest. choose your best side.

roger said...

Ah, this is the modern world, North! You can have it all, and in between, watch this rather disturbing emo pop song by the lead singer from Goethes Erben .

northanger said...

Goethes Erben. i like. plus - double-handed choice cornucopia! i think emotions are like the weather — difficult to predict & forecast. wouldn't bob say something like, whether negative or positive, we are not our emotions? i think of Like Water for Chocolate, emotions work like leaven.

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