Letters to the Editor

A Wider View of Emotion and Affect

April 02, 2017

To the Editor:

Lisa Feldman Barrett’s "The Secret History of Emotions" (March 10) made a powerful case that academic disciplines in their current incarnations do not always represent the best thinking about their subjects.

Alas, Barrett’s new genealogy of affect/emotion studies suffers from another kind of blindness, even as it overcomes some temporal prejudices: She ignores work outside the U.S. (even in English), as do so many U.S.-based scholars in theory, specialized histories, and literature.

The study of affect, in one sense, goes back to the Enlightenment in Europe, where particularly British writers and intellectuals spoke of "the head and the heart" together (well-introduced in G.J. Barker-Benfield’s The Culture of Sensibility [University of Chicago Press, 1992]).

In another, it reaches back to the 19th-century work of several German scholars who deal with affect and emotion in substantial, modern ways. One is Wilhelm Griesinger (1817-1868), a psychiatrist who revolutionized asylum practice, taking up ideas of thinking through the body and automaticity to show links between affect and identity. (In many ways his work anticipates that of Kristeva and Lacan.) Another is Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920), remembered today principally for being perhaps the main father of modern experimental psychology. A generation before William James (who knew both Wundt’s work — James hired one of his students — and Griesinger’s), Wundt traced the cultural roots of affect and emotion as contributing to knowledge and identity, with work on religion, language, and cultural anthropology.

Such giants cast the medical and social-science knowledge about emotion and affect into modern form; they were widely known in the U.S. before World War II and its attendant tsunami of anti-German sentiment, which removed their names from many a CV of the cosmopolitan, refugee, and/or migrant intellectuals who established particularly the philological and social sciences in North America.

As Barrett rightly notes, our scholarly origin stories are standard, sanitized, and flawed — and I would add, more so than even she thinks.

Katherine Arens
Professor of Germanic Studies and Comparative Literature
University of Texas at Austin