The Mind and the Brain/Book II/Chapter IV

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The Mind and the Brain by Alfred Binet
Book II: Chapter IV
Definition of the Emotions
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After sensations and images, we have to name among the phenomena of consciousness, the whole series of affective states—our pleasures and our pains, our joys and our griefs, our sentiments, our emotions, and our passions. It is universally admitted that these states are of a mental nature, for several reasons. (1) We never objectivate them as we do our sensations, but we constantly consider them as indwelling or subjective states. This rule, however, allows an exception for the pleasure and the pain termed physical, which are often localised in particular parts of our bodies, although the position attributed to them is less precise than with indifferent sensations. (2) We do not alienate them as we do our indifferent sensations. The sensations of weight, of colour, and of form serve us for the construction of bodies which appear to us as perceived by us, but as being other than ourselves. On the contrary, we constantly and without hesitation refer our emotional states to our Ego. It is I who suffer, we say, I who complain, I who hope. It is true that this attribution is not absolutely characteristic of mental phenomena, for it happens that we put a part of our Ego into material objects, such as our bodies, and even into objects separate from our bodies, and whose sole relation to us is that of a legal proprietorship. We must guard against the somewhat frequent error of identifying the Ego with the psychical.

These two reasons sufficiently explain the tendency to see only psychological states in the emotional ones; and, in fact, those authors who have sought to oppose mind to matter have not failed to introduce emotion into their parallel as representing the essence of mind. On this point I will recall the fine ironical image used by Tyndall, the illustrious English physicist, to show the abyss which separates thought from the molecular states of the brain. “Let us suppose,” he says, “that the sentiment love, for example, corresponds to a right-hand spiral movement of the molecules of the brain and the sentiment hatred to a left-hand spiral movement. We should then know that when we love, a movement is produced in one direction, and when we hate, in another. But the Why would remain without an answer.”

The question of knowing what place in our metaphysical theory we ought to secure for emotion seems difficult to resolve, and we even find some pleasure in leaving it in suspense, in order that it may be understood that a metaphysician is not compelled to explain everything. Besides, the difficulties which stop us here are peculiarly of a psychological order. They proceed from the fact that studies on the nature of the emotions are still very little advanced. The physical conditions of these states are pretty well known, and their psychical and social effects have been abundantly described; but very little is known as to what distinguishes an emotion from a thought.

Two principal opinions may be upheld in the actual state of our acquaintance with the psychology of the feelings. When we endeavour to penetrate their essential and final nature, we have a choice between two contrary theories.

The first and traditional one consists in seeing in emotion a phenomenon sui generis; this is very simple, and leaves nothing more to be said.

The second bears the name of the intellectualist theory. It consists in expunging the characteristic of the affective states. We consider them as derivative forms of particular modes of cognition, and they are only “confused intelligence.” This intellectualist thesis is of early date; it will be found in Herbart, who, by-the-by, gave it a peculiar form, by causing the play of images to intervene in the formation of the feelings. However, this particular point is of slight importance. The intellectualist theory is more vast than Herbartism; it exists in all doctrines in which the characteristic difference between thought and feeling is expunged and feeling is brought back to thought. One of the clearest means of so doing consists in only seeing in the feeling the fact of perceiving something. To perceive is, in fact, the property of intelligence; to reason, to imagine, to judge, to understand, is always, in a certain sense, to perceive. It has been imagined that emotion is nothing else than a perception of a certain kind, an intellectual act strictly comparable to the contemplation of a landscape. Only, in the place of a landscape with placid features you must put a storm, a cataclysm of nature; and, instead of supposing this storm outside us, let it burst within us, let it reach us, not by the outer senses of sight and condition, but by the inner senses. What we then perceive will be an emotion.

Such is the theory that two authors—W. James and Lange—happened to discover almost at the same time, Lange treating it as a physiologist and W. James as a philosopher. Their theory, at first sight, appears singular, like everything which runs counter to our mental habits. It lays down that the symptoms which we all till now have considered as the physiological consequence, the translation, and the distant effects of the emotions, constitute their essential base. These effects are: the expression of the physiognomy, the gesture, the cry, and the speech; or the reflex action on the circulation, the pallor or blushing, the heat mounting to the head, or the cold of the shiver which passes over the body. Or it is the heart, which hastens or slackens its beats, or makes them irregular, or enfeebles, or augments them. Or the respiration, which changes its rhythm, or increases, or is suspended. Or else it is the secretion of the saliva or of the sweat, which flows in abundance or dries up. Or the muscular force, which is increased or decays. Or the almost undefinable organic troubles revealed to us by the singing in the ears, constriction of the epigastrium, the jerks, the trembling, vertigo, or nausea—all this collection of organic troubles which comes more or less confusedly to our consciousness under the form of tactile, muscular, thermal, and other sensations. Until now this category of phenomena has been somewhat neglected, because we saw in it effects and consequences of which the rôle in emotion itself seemed slight, since, if they could have been suppressed, it was supposed that emotion would still remain. The new theory commences by changing the order of events. It places the physical symptoms of the emotions at the very beginning, and considers them the direct effects of the external excitant, which is expressed by this elegant formula: “It used to be said, ‘I perceive a danger; I am frightened, I tremble.’ Now we must say, ‘I tremble before a danger, first, and it is after having trembled that I am frightened.’” This is not a change in order only; it is something much more serious. The change is directed to the nature of emotion. It is considered to exist in the organic derangements indicated above. These derangements are the basis of emotion, its physical basis, and to be moved is to perceive them. Take away from the consciousness this physical reflex, and emotion ceases. It is no longer anything but an idea.

This theory has at least the merit of originality. It also pleases one by its great clearness—an entirely intellectual clearness, we may say; for it renders emotion comprehensible by enunciating it in terms of cognition. It eliminates all difference which may exist between a perception and an emotion. Emotion is no longer anything but a certain kind of perception, the perception of the organic sensations.

This reduction, if admitted, would much facilitate the introduction of emotion into our system, which, being founded on the distinction between the consciousness and the object, is likewise an intellectualist system. The definition of emotion, as it is taught by W. James, seems expressly made for us who are seeking to resolve all intellectual states into physical impressions accompanied by consciousness.

By the side of emotion we may place, as demanding the same analytical study, the feeling of effort. We ought to inquire with effort, as has been done with emotion, what is the psychological nature of this phenomenon; and in the same way that there exists an intellectualist theory of the emotions, viz. that of James, who reduces all the history of the emotions to intelligence, so there exists an intellectualist theory of effort, which likewise tends to bring back all will to intelligence. It is again the same author, that true genius, W. James, who has attempted this reduction. I do not know whether he has taken into account the parallelism of the two theories, but it is nevertheless evident. Effort, that basis of activity, that state of consciousness which so many psychologists have described as something sui generis, becomes to James a phenomenon of perception. It is the perception of sensations proceeding from the muscles, the tendons, the articulations, the skin, and from all the organs directly or indirectly concerned in the execution of movement. To be conscious of an effort would then be nothing else than to receive all these centripetal sensations; and what proves this is, that the consciousness of effort when most clearly manifested is accompanied by some muscular energy, some strong contraction, or some respiratory trouble, and yields if we render the respiration again regular and put the muscles back into repose.

To my great regret I can state nothing very clear regarding these problems. The attempt to intellectualise all psychical problems is infinitely interesting, and leads to a fairly clear conception, by which everything is explained by a mechanism reflected in a mirror, which is the consciousness. But we remain perplexed, and we ask ourselves whether this clearness of perception is not somewhat artificial, whether affectivity, emotivity, tendency, will, are really all reduced to perceptions, or whether they are not rather irreducible elements which should be added to the consciousness. Does not, for instance, desire represent a complement of the consciousness? Do not desire and consciousness together represent a something which does not belong to the physical domain and which forms the moral world? This question I leave unanswered.