Paper presented at the 4th Annual Qualitative Methods Conference: "Histories of the present"
3 & 4 September 1998, Johannesburg, South Africa

Historicized Feeling: an etymology of emotionality.

David Neves

Department of Psychology, Rhodes University, Grahamstown.

Discourses of emotionality are powerful components in how we come to constitute our subjectivity. Predicated on a notion of emotionality as a textual practice, this paper is concerned with the historically and contextually contingent nature of emotionality. In tracing the etymology of a few contemporary terms denoting emotional reactivity, both historical origins and a trajectory of semantic evolution are suggested. In this process of historicizing and relativizing emotionality it is suggested psychological discourse casts us in the ahistorical present, having recourse to little more than the superordinate and self-evident category of "emotions". This has a number of macro-level implications, interestingly demonstrated by how psychologized talk of national reconciliation and healing becomes tightly circumscribed by our discursive deployment of emotionality.

"If we should seek to break the emotions, thus enumerated, into groups, according to their affinities, it is again plain that all sorts of groupings would be possible, according as we chose this character or that as a basis, and that all groupings would be equally real and true" William James (1890)

This paper aims to look at the discourses of emotionality in contemporary life. Adopting a historical perspective it takes as its concern how discourses of emotion speak through us and come to constitute us as subjects on a socio-linguistic terrain. An intuitive and widespread folk-psychological notion is one of emotions as possessed by a single individual, genetically prepared, biologically based, and experientially grounded (Gergen, 1994). In this formulation emotions are self-evidently apparent, and held to be transhistorical and culturally universal entities. This popular understanding, in turn, contributes to the use and explanatory power of a discourse of emotionality.

Reber (1985), in a widely used Dictionary of Psychology suggests with possibly a hint of exasperation, of "emotion" that "probably no other term in Psychology shares its nondefinability with its frequency of use". Pointing to the definitional ambiguity and problem of referentiality associated with talk of emotion, a problem perhaps more pronounced in Psychology than many other academic disciplines within the post-Wittgensteinian universe. Largely because, terms of ostensive reference can not, in principle, be established for terminology denoting emotion. Our talk of emotions, therefore often conjures up a misplaced concreteness, privileging emotionality and reifying the textual practices to which it refers (Denzin, 1992 & Gergen, 1994).

The rhetorical mobilization of emotionality furthermore confers upon us the superordinate and overarching category of "emotions". This category in turn, is an important component in how we ahistorically constitute our subjectivity, in the present, within the parameters of psychologized discourse. It contributes to the dominant ontological belief in the individual as a bounded, autonomous, and feeling being. The concluding paragraphs aim of submission to briefly discuss some of the critical possibilities opened up by an awareness of the fundamental constructedness and relativity of emotionality.

The focus of this presentation is not to recount or review general theories of emotion, but it is useful to gain a sense of the various strands of emotionality. Treaties on emotions go back to Plato and Aristotle, and theorising around emotionality is a venerable tradition stretching from Kant to the Congnitivists, from the Behaviouristic to biologistic and Psychoanalytic paradigms. Yet the discourse of emotion, or emotionality, is particularly amenable to discursive analysis because of terms referenial slipperiness, as well as the necessity of a prior lexicon and metaphors to articulate and understand ones subjective affective states (Soyland, 1994, p.92).

The origins of a still popular narrative of the origins of emotionality, find expression in Darwin's thesis of emotion, which attributed it to the act of perception (cf. Darwin cited in Edwards, 1997). William James inverted this formulation, emotion was rather a consequence of behaviour. In either case emotions were closely linked to aspects of bodily sensation. Lay psychological and institutionalized discourses of emotion frequently and implicitly attribute emotion to this, the corporeal realm.

Against these essentialist and biologistic notions an alternative view of emotionality exists, framing it in terms of individual action. What Soyland (1994, p.99) calls "choice" accounts of emotion, wherein certain emotional states are enacted out of "choice" for their purposive rather than reactive power. If talk of "choice" has an Existential ring to it is because Satre himself elaborated on these ideas in his "The emotions: outline of theory" (Soyland, 1994). This perspective, in its breaking with the explanatory hegemony of biology, is a precursor to the latter day constructionist accounts of emotion.

The social constructionist movement in turn offers up notions of "emotion as embodied experience" and criticises essentialist accounts for amongst other things their ethnocentrism; the constructionist perspective being particularly receptive to lessons from history and anthropology. Emotion becomes a form of socially sanctioned and constituted display which can not be separated out from a socio-cultural context. The referenial locus for emotionality is removed from the head of the individual actor and placed within the sphere of interrelation (Gergen, 1994). So, one is not motivated by - one does emotion. Consistent with the tenets of a broad constructionist perspective, emphasis is placed on the constitutive and performative function of emotions, emotions as "transient social roles" in Averill's (1982) formulation.

This perspective avoids being drawn into the moot distinction between emotional discourse and emotions per se. As Harre sums up the principle is "the phenomena to be investigated in a psychological study are what the relevant vocabulary picks out and its use creates" (my emphasis) (Harre, 1989, p.20). Much research in traditions other than the constructionist is predicated on epistemological circularity, identifying those cultural truisms which are "emotions", measuring them on technical-measurement scales, proceeding to draw conclusions and finally reflecting the palpable and tangible nature of emotions back into popular consciousness. It is within this constructionist and textual turn look at the history of specific terms denoting emotionality.

In terms of constructionist perspectives on emotionality, Edwards, (1997) delineates three loosely related varieties viz. historical, anthropological and discursive. Each concerned with exploring the "ontological, conceptual, and temporal priority of the public realm" (Harre, cited in Edwards, 1997). Much mainstream Psychology draws on a set of textual practices, structures, theories, explanations and largely unacknowledged historical trajectory of emotions. This historical trajectory, wherein neologisms are coined, terminology mutates and meanings shift is particularly amenable to constructionist brand of analysis and the etymological archaeology which is the concern of this paper.

A specific example: Accidie is an extinct emotion. Dating back to medieval times it was inextricably linked to the cardinal sin of sloth. Accidie referred to what would today be referred to as an approximate mixture of idleness and misery, and was an emotion congruent with the then dominant theological view of the world - it came about when one neglected one's duties to God. This emotion was predicated on the then widely accepted belief that discharging one's duties to God should be a joyful affair. One could not perform ones duties to the Lord out of a sense of measured or reluctant obligation. So even if one's behaviour was suitably unslothful, if one's intentions and sense of joyfulness were not present one could suffer from accidie. (Edwards, 1997)

Idleness, procrastination and slackness still carry with them a moral stigma and a societal opprobrium but these failings are viewed against the societal backdrop of materialism. The emotion of accidie has therefore waned, and disappeared from contemporary usage because of a broader societal shift from a theological to a rational materialistic ontology. There is no term in current day English usage which corresponds to this medieval expression, hence emotional terms are, like all language, "rearrangements of the patterning of moral orders (and) social relations" (Harre, 1983). Our vocabulary has not simply shifted whilst the bedrock or inner core of emotions remains constant, rather our subjectivity alters. Shotter reminds us, "Our ways of accounting for ourselves, (and) our accounting practices, work both to create and maintain a certain pattern of social relations, a social order, and to constitute us as beings able to reproduce that order..." (Shotter, 1985)

The English langauge is replete with examples of emotions which no longer exist. We no longer discuss personality in terms of humours, while talk of melancholy, or ascribing to someone a phlegmatic character is archaic (Oakley, 1993). Emotions do not only become obsolete, new formulations enter the discursive arena. For example, Gergen (1991, p.74) writes of Multiphrenia which is a "splitting of the individual into a multiplicity of self-investments" in response to new technologies and opportunities for self-expression and relationship within (post)modern society.

Of course discourses of emotionality are far more closely regulated and institutionalized in present day society. We need look no further for evidence of this than the periodic revisions of the canonical DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) and the tectonic semantic shifts which accompany it. Despite the compilers of the DSM's stated intention to create an ahistorical and, paradoxically, atheoretical compendium in terms of the etiology and descriptions of psychopathology, the project is unable to shirk off the discursive bounds of the English language and discourses of emotionality derived from English.

For examples of emotionalities mutability, a foray into an etymological dictionary proves instructive:

The word worry. Stems from old English and German, and usage prior to fourteenth century, quite specifically, suggested to kill via strangulation or compression of the throat. Hence "dogs worry sheep" through their actions of "seizing by the throat with the teeth and to tear or lacerate" (Oxford English Dictionary). From the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries worry meant to choke with a mouthful of food or to devour greedily. Colloquial usage saw the term extended and used to indicate persistent aggression and later harassment. Finally we reach present day usage, from worry as an attack by an animal to worry as a mental state.

A second widely used and understood term is surprise. Initially it was used to mean,

"Attacked or come upon unexpectedly, captured by sudden attack, taken by surprise or unawares... The (or an) act of assailing or attaching unexpectedly or without warning, or of taking by this means; suddenly attack or capture a fort, a body of troops, etc that is unprepared; formerly also in more general sense, seizure (of a person, a place or spoil)." (OED)

An example of its use, the title of a text from 1635 "1. The surprise and combustion of Troy". The meaning shifted in the nineteenth century to a perspective which saw surprise as a subjective affective state, which comes upon one unexpectedly. The current definition understood through the lens of a psychologized Zeitgeist is a little more benign, akin to, or used in the context of wonderment and amazement.

Beyond the histories of specific emotional terms used as discursive resources in the present, I wish to make a recursive turn, double back, and explore the word and category of emotion. Emotion is derived from the Latin, e-move-re, literally to move out. Initial usage of emotion saw it used to describe movement, with clear connotations of physical, geographical or political motion. Firstly, emotion as geographical, from 1695, "..Some accidental Emotion...of the Centre of Gravity". Secondly, emotion used in to denote socio-political agitation or revolt. A text from 1709 entitled, "...Accounts of Publick Emotions, occasion'd by the Want of Corn". (OED & Edwards, 1997)

The preceding examples suggest how our rhetorical resources for communicating and constituting our inner mental life underwent a process of slippage from outside in the world to within the individual. The discourse of emotionality went from a concern with physical movement in a geographical or socio-political sense, to emotion as spontaneous products of inner mental life and distinguishable from, for example, rational cognitive states.

The ascendancy of discourses of emotionality coincide with the emergence of two related ideologies, the idea of the individual self, and the discipline of Psychology. "Self-contained individualism" in Sampson's theorising (1989) traces its roots back to Enlightenment, voluntarist notions of liberalism, choice, autonomy and individual rights. Much mainstream Psychology is deeply implicated in and, indeed premised on, this cultural project and view of personhood. This valuational bias is inherent in much developmental, personology and social psychology theory. Accordingly, and with ontological primacy accorded to individual over social realities, the study of self-esteem, self-acceptance, identity, autonomy, the internal locus of control, principled moral reasoning all have proved fertile areas for inquiry by an individualistic psychology (cf. Waterman, 1981; Spence, 1985).

Against the backdrop of individualism and the rise of the institutionalized Psychology, emotionality arose as a superordinate category in the construction of subjectivity. It functions as an important component in what it means to be fully human in the late twentieth century. In a socio-historical context long having said God is dead, and prior to the later decades of this centuries dismantling the concept of Man, perhaps one of the few remaining certainties we had is that we know how we feel.

In terms of this forum's injunction to scrutinize histories of the present, and in the twilight of the waning correspondence theory of truth; emotionality emplots us in the present. Functioning as one of the dominant tropes of our age; speaking through us. Despite current speakers of English not understanding the varied historical trajectories of emotionality, Bakhtin reminds us words leave traces and resonances of their prior usage long after the semantic shifts occur (Edwards, 1997). Hence emotionality is a function of rhetorical imposition and composition, narrativising us in the present and generating its own set of what Barthes would call "reality effects".

A constructionist awareness of the mutability and socio-historically contingent nature of our talk of emotion has a number of implications. Three arenas will be briefly reviewed:

The first concerns how discourses of emotionality find expression in the legal sphere, and is related to the commonly held and popular lay psychological notion of emotion being the product of physical or bodily response. This particular understanding of emotionality undergirds many fictional and juridical accounts of human emotion. For example, in accounts of extreme displays of emotion, emotions well up until they reach a point where the subject expresses them suddenly and beyond the strictures of self control. This discourse of emotionality is often framed in terms of metaphors of heat and pressure, evacuating a sense of personal agency, wherein the subjects "get hot under the collar", experience "boiling anger", "lose their cool" or "blowing their tops" (Soyland, 1994, p.93). Whilst not in the colloquial register of these examples, the juridical system frequently and implicitly draws on this sort of model when called upon to assess questions of provocation. For while Roman Dutch law does not view emotion as an excuse for criminal conduct, emotions may constitute mitigating circumstance of sentence in cases of provocation (Burchell & Milton, 1991). And what more are legal judgements of provocation than an estimation of the reasonableness of the accused response, based on an idea of emotions as basically honest and spontaneous? This is a very different proposition from emotions as choice or emotions as performance, or emotion as a product of interrelationship. Furthermore this estimation of the reasonableness of the accused response is frequently predicated on a biologistic model of emotionality. A quote from a widely prescribed criminal law textbook,

"The emotion is a natural response to some circumstances (often an act by the victim of an assault or killing)[sic] that has driven or `provoked` the actor into doing what he or she does" (my emphasis). (Burchell & Milton, 1991 p.232)

Similarly a lack of genuine remorse, or displays of the appropriate emotion we label remorse would be grounds for even less leniency. We are concerned here with emotionality, but perhaps this issue ushers in a question pertaining to psychologies difficult and oft contradictory relationship with law, as well as the sometimes antithetical criteria and intelligibilities these respective disciplines evoke in attributions of personal responsibility and questions of agency.

A conceptual space related to the juridical sphere, wherein particular understandings of emotions come to the fore would be the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Two of the TRC's commissioners are mental health practitioners, and the criteria under which applicants are granted amnesty is that they tell the truth. The underlying model is familiar in psychotherapeutic practice; making the hidden truth explicit and thereby healing traumatic memories. Emotionality features even more prominently in amnesty judgements which rely on gauging the truth or sincerity, earnestness and remorse for past wrongdoing in consideration of amnesty. Perhaps, this is a factor which contributes to some of the unease over the TRC, the gnawing feeling that feelings are not quite real, and for all its success the TRC doesn't go far enough. Furthermore, this poses questions pertaining to whose emotions we are speaking of. Swartz (1989, p.181) asks whether we can conflate individual healing with national healing, citing Ramphela's discussion of the ambiguous position of what she calls "political widows", asking if the needs of the individual grieving are lost or sacrificed to those of the group.

Finally, a discursive approach to emotionality has implications in term of how we think of mental health interventions. Clinicians continually draw on criteria of appropriateness of mood and emotions in their clinical assessment of patient's inner mental life (Oakley, 1993). For example, anxiety may be a fairly pervasive emotion but extreme or unaccounted for anxiety is pathological or a marker of pathology. The problem pertains to how one reconciles the relativism which is axiomatic of a constructionist sensibility with the rigidity of criteria concerned with "appropriateness".

I have chosen to look at questions of emotion as historical artifacts, this is to say nothing of emotion as cultural product. How do clinicians generate intelligibility in public health contexts when attempting to help people whose first language and therefore emotional subjectivity falls outside the discursive bounds of the English language? We access or reconstitute it by ward cleaners and nursing sisters, at the bottom of a hospital hierarchy, pressed into doing a little ad hoc translating? In which they unproblematically remove the labels of the vernacular and affixing those of the English language, in order for clinicians to ascertain the quality and appropriateness of the patients inner mental life. Assuming of course, one can find the corresponding emotion, beneath the messy layer of floating signifiers. But if one acknowledges the relativism inherent in constructionist accounts perhaps there are not even any cross-cultural generalities which can be made with regard to mental health, rendering all attempts at a transcultural (and transhistorical) psychology akin to the sardonic phrase Arthur Klienman uses to describe attempts at transcultural psychiatry, namely veterinary psychiatry (cited in Swartz, 1998).

In conclusion, and congruent with a broad constructionist perspective I have sought to suggest how discourses of emotionality emplot us in the present, and function as constitutive features of the social realm. As socio-linguistic practices, discourses of emotionality locate us in a culturally developed textual resource which, like much Psychology, is unreflexive to the discursive constraints of the English language and the cultural context in which it emerged.


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Paper presented at the 4th Annual Qualitative Methods Conference: "Histories of the present"
3 & 4 September 1998, Johannesburg, South Africa
critical methods society - -