A brief history of emotions (DW#451)

emotions self awareness Sep 17, 2018

Although emotions are as old as human beings themselves, it is only fairly recently that the word "emotion" has become of our everyday language.

The word "emotion" comes from Latin and French emovere meaning to "stir up, to move, to agitate". Some scholars would even define the term as "to suffer an emotion", which itself points to the disdain with which emotions have been viewed. 

The term emotion was introduced into academic discussion as a catch-all term for passions, sentiments and affections. It was coined in the early 1800s by Thomas Brown and it is around the 1830s that the modern concept of emotion first emerged. "No one felt emotions before about 1830. Instead they felt other things - "passions", "accidents of the soul", "moral sentiments" - and explained them very differently from how we understand emotions today.

Historically, thinkers in the West have contrasted the ‘animal’ passions with calm and "God-like reason". Plato, for example, described emotion and reason as two horses pulling us in opposite directions and so various authorities from the Stoics to Spinoza have gone so far as to advocate apatheia

Apatheia is a classical virtue which relates to the suppression of feeling, emotion and concern. It is not the same as apathy, by the way, which though it comes from the same root word, signifies the absence of feeling (as opposed to the suppression of feelings that are present)

This historical privileging of reason over emotion has meant that being emotional has been seen as a character weakness. Today, the emotions are so neglected that most people are oblivious to the deep currents that move them, hold them back, and lead them. It is only very recently that psychologists are beginning to realize the central place of emotion in our lives and have begun studying it. 

About time, wouldn’t you say?

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