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A Short History of “Emotion”

This entry is part 1 of 43 in the series

"Ten Mangled Words"

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Some might be surprised to learn that the word emotion is perhaps only 200 years old. Thomas Dixon has documented the history of the term “emotion” in his book From Passions to Emotions. He shows that what was originally a moral category in Christian thought named affections or passions became a psychological category termed emotions. What used to refer to the inclination of the will or the presence of appetites became subsumed into an idea of passive bodily or neurological responses.

Of course, people have been discussing this topic for centuries, even though the term emotion is a newcomer. In the Christian tradition, writers distinguished between the higher, volitional part of the soul that expressed love in the form of affections and the lower part of the soul (the involuntary or irrational part) which did so in the form of appetitive passions. For Christians, affections were movements of the will in the direction of desire, not whimsical and involuntary bodily experiences.

One sees this thinking very early. For example, Augustine united desire (cupiditas), fear (timor), joy (laetitia), and sorrow (tristitia) under the single principle of love (amor). Augustine clarifies that the important matter in judging the morality of an “emotion” is its chosen and willed object. “In our ethics, we do not so much inquire whether a pious soul is angry, as why he is angry; not whether he is sad, but what is the cause of his sadness; not whether he fears, but what he fears” (City of God, IX, v). In other words, the object of desire determines the moral quality of the love. Love, according to Augustine, is a matter of inclination towards desired objects. Love is a moral response of positive inclination towards an object. Therefore, the kind of love may vary significantly when the objects desired vary significantly. Put simply, the love corresponds to its object.

Thomas Aquinas similarly saw love as the direction or inclination of the will towards an object, not as an irrational psychological feeling. In fact, Aquinas saw all “emotions” as love of some form: “Hence love is naturally the first act of the will and appetite; for which reason all the other appetite movements presuppose love, as their root and origin. For nobody desires anything nor rejoices in anything, except as a good that is loved: nor is anything an object of hate except as opposed to the object of love” (Summa Theologica, I, xx, Art. I).

For Jonathan Edwards, “affections” were movements of the will informed by the understanding, while passions were more related to appetite: “The affections and passions are frequently spoken of as the same; and yet in the more common use of speech, there is in some respect a difference; and affection is a word that in its ordinary signification, seems to be something more extensive than passion, being used for all vigorous lively actings of the will or inclination; but passion for those that are more sudden, and whose effects on the animal spirits are more violent, and the mind more overpowered, and less in its own command (Works of Jonathan Edwards, 2:98).

In the premodern Christian tradition, love as an affection could therefore be appropriate or inappropriate, since love could be rightly or wrongly directed. The object of desire determined if it was right to desire such a thing, and necessarily dictated the moral quality of the affection.

This changed in the 1700s. In eighteenth-century Germany, a third faculty of the soul, in addition to understanding and will, was introduced—that of feeling. This was endorsed in works by Kant and Schopenhauer, who promoted the idea of irrational and involuntary feelings. British moralists of the same period began departing from a will-centred affective psychology and tacitly introduced a three-faculty psychology (understanding, will, and feelings) rather than a two-faculty one (understanding and will).

Thomas Brown (1778–1820) baptised the term emotion in his 1820 Lectures on the Philosophy of the Human Mind. For Brown, only intellectual states were active, while emotions were mere feelings that were passively experienced. This concept would then be co-opted by influential writers such as Thomas Chalmers and later materialists such as Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer and Alexander Bain, culminating in its use by William James in 1884, which corresponds somewhat to its use today.

Contemporary Evangelicals tend to conflate the concepts of affection and emotion. To do so is very dangerous, for at least three reasons. First, such a move conflates moral actions for which we are responsible with bodily appetites over which we often have little control. Second, it elevates what should be largely ignored (bodily moods), and ignores what should be controlled (affective responses). Third, it becomes dismissive toward the quality of our moral affections and what shapes them. These dangers are each worth investigating.

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David de Bruyn

About David de Bruyn

David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary and Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.

One Response to A Short History of “Emotion”

  1. Thank you for this excellent article. It is impossible to engage in meaningful discussions about philosophy if we don’t first understand the terms being used.

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