The Order of Emotions

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The Order of Emotions

Emily Feenstra

When people see a bear, they feel frightened, and as a result, run away. When people go to an amusement park, they feel happy; whereas, if they sit and mope all day, they feel melancholy. When people feel sad, the emotion of sadness can continue without showing the sadness physically. Similarly, an actor can act sad, angry, or happy so well that they are completely convincing, despite the fact that they are not actually experiencing the emotion they portray. At least, these are the common perceptions of emotions. William James, however, argues that the opposite is true for each of these examples. In his essay, "What is an Emotion?" William James argues that bodily manifestations occur first, thereby causing a prescribed emotion. I would like to argue that this idea is flawed.
One of James's first arguments is that people do not "meet a bear, are frightened and run" or "are insulted by a rival, are angry and strike," but that it is the other way around (2). He says that we run from the bear and from running become frightened; we strike an opponent and then become angry. He includes the example that "we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, fearful because we tremble (2)." This cannot be true. The actions James says cause certain emotions can occur in a number of circumstances. We must see a bear, then become frightened and run, because running doesn't cause fear. People run for many reasons, not just when they see bears. Fear is not a result when people run to catch a train, run for exercise, or run to chase a dog. Likewise, trembling does not only occur when one is fearful. One might tremble out of excitement, sadness, or even simply from the cold. Trembling cannot cause fear because that would insinuate that every time someone trembled, they would necessarily feel afraid. If James's theory was correct, we would have to feel frightened every time we ran, and fearful every time we trembled. There is no distinguishing feature in his theory that tells which emotion to feel under which circumstances. Running, trembling, striking, and crying, from his argument, could each only cause one emotion. However, feeling an emotion can cause any number of bodily reactions. When one person is sad, they might cry, while a different person might solemnly continue their day. Anger might cause one person to strike an opponent, while a different person might choose to calmly walk away.
Continuing with the idea of bodily manifestations and emotions is another idea of James's, that without the characteristic bodily symptoms of an emotion, the emotion wouldn't exist at all. James believes that "if we fancy some strong emotion and then try to abstract from our consciousness of it all the feelings of its characteristic bodily symptoms, we find we have nothing left behind, no 'mind stuff' out of which the emotion can be constituted, and that a cold and neutral state of intellectual perception is all that remains (4)." This is not entirely true. If one feels sad, and the tears are taken away, one can continue to feel sad without outwardly showing sadness physically. Likewise, one can feel happy without smiling continuously, or feel stressed without showing anxiety. Unlike James's example, if the emotion were taken away, the physical manifestations of the emotion could still be generated, as is the case with acting. An actor doesn't necessarily feel sad, angry, or happy when he acts. A play may demand that he act with hatred towards another actor, as is the case with the Montagues and the Capulets in Romeo and Juliet. Clearly, the actors do not actually feel hatred towards one another; this would make it impossible to have a play without everyone killing each other. It is because the actors can go through the motions of feeling an emotion, without actually experiencing the emotion, that plays are possible. Therefore, emotion can exist without prescribed outward bodily manifestations, and bodily manifestations can exist without true emotion.
It does become trickier to disprove this last theory when taken into account James's argument that bodily reverberations of an emotion include less voluntary actions, such as heart beat, muscle strain, and even arterial changes. As a result, he argues that these bodily manifestations actually cause the emotion. It may be true that "even when no change of outward attitude is produced, [the body's] inward tension alters to suit each varying mood (3)." However, muscles can be strained in any manner of ways, and a heart beat can be quickened by exercise or by thinking about something stressful or traumatic. While it is true that these actions do not show outwardly, it isn't necessarily true that they are the cause of emotions. If a heart beat can be quickened in a number of manners, the body wouldn't be able to distinguish which emotion to feel under the varying circumstances. The heart would merely quicken and cause one emotion. Much like the distinction that running can occur under a number of circumstances, few of which would cause one to feel frightened, so can a quickened heart beat and muscle tension occur under a number of circumstances. These bodily functions leave no room for distinguishing which emotions should result. The traditional view is much more logical. We receive a scholarship, become excited, and our heart beats faster; we have to run a race, become nervous, and our heart beats faster; we hear about a car accident in our neighborhood, become fearful for our acquaintances, and our heart beats faster. James fails to acknowledge that the same bodily functions can be affected in the same manner by a variety of emotions from a variety of circumstances.
While his idea is certainly unique and original, William James fails to prove its legitimacy. With his theory that bodily manifestations come first and cause the emotion, he fails to acknowledge the fact that a single physical action can coincide with many varied emotions, and that there is no way to distinguish which emotion should be portrayed simply in light of the specified physical action. A heart beating faster could be caused by numerous circumstances. While each circumstance could generate a different emotion, many could cause the heart to beat faster. And if the heart beat is what causes the emotion, only one emotion could be felt by a quickened heart beat. The same is true for running, crying, trembling, and many other actions. It is therefore true that the commonly accepted idea that a given circumstance causes an emotion, and the emotion causes physical manifestations, is correct.
James continues his theory with a different argument, that "the attempt to imitate an emotion in the absence of its normal cause is apt to be rather 'hollow (3).'" This seems to be the opposite of his first argument. Continuing with his example that to "sit all day in a moping posture, sigh, and reply in a dismal voice," one's melancholy would linger (6). That is to say, acting out certain physical properties of an emotion will cause the emotion in reality. Sitting and moping is imitating an emotion without a normal cause, and yet James says this will create the emotion, an emotion that is not hollow, but true. If, following his first argument, trembling makes us fearful, what is the "normal cause?" Trembling cannot be the normal cause, for it is what causes the emotion. If this second argument is to be true, there must be something to cause the trembling. Except, James mentions no such cause in his first argument.
The idea that an emotion is caused by bodily actions can additionally be disproved by examining another argument James presents. He argues that "sitting all day in a moping posture" will cause melancholy to continue. Sitting and moping all day is a different display of emotions than crying or striking. It is a choice; it is a continued behavior, not the bodily manifestation of an emotion. In this case, I agree that melancholy will linger because one has chosen a behavior that will produce the emotion. However, this is no different than being happy at an amusement park. Playing at an amusement park is also a behavior, a behavior which usually causes happiness or joy. You reap what you sow; if you put an effort towards a certain behavior, it will create a certain emotion. Sitting and sighing will prolong a state of melancholy. This is not the same as saying a bodily manifestation will cause an emotion. This is simply saying something must trigger an emotion. Sitting and sighing triggers melancholy, just as an amusement park triggers happiness, and the sight of a bear triggers fear. In the case of melancholy, there might not be a bodily manifestation, just as happiness and anger can be disguised. Ultimately, the distinction must be made that sitting all day, moping and sighing are a trigger of melancholy, not the physical manifestations.
In the end, even James himself writes in his essay that "the thought the theory advocates, rigorously taken, [may] be erroneous," and that "in writing it, I have almost persuaded myself it may be true (10)." While it is not a true theory, as I have proven, it is certainly a new twist on an old concept.
Works Cited
James, William. "What is an Emotion?" Classics in the History of Psychology. 5
January 2006. .

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