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Are emotions universal?

This is a fascinating article in many ways. It traces the scientific debate concerning what, exactly, emotions are and whether they are universal or not.

This issue has a good deal of relevance for discussions of the arts, for art, especially music, communicates at least on one level through mimicking human emotional expression.

Here are a couple key points from the article, but I encourage you to read the whole thing:

  • Paul Ekman’s research has pretty successfully proven that basic emotions and they way they are expressed by humans are biologically innate and universal.
  • There is disagreement in the scientific field about Ekman’s conclusions, which the article describes, but it seems to me that these disagreements are rooted in a desire to avoid affirming a monogenesis. Universals in the human race present problems for Darwinian evolution.
  • Note that Ekman does not discount the influence of culture and experience upon emotional expressiveness, but beneath these more conventional interpretations of emotion still lies the innate.
  • The article points out the problem with the idea of “emotion,” a word that “did not exist in the English language until the early 17th century.”
  • The article highlights something we’ve been saying here at RAM for a long time: prior to the invention of the idea of “emotion,” people differentiated between passions and affections.
  • Thomas Brown was “the first to propose emotion as a theoretical category,” but even he had difficulty defining exactly what it is.

The whole article is worth reading, as is the Thomas Dixon article linked there.

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.