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Response to Review of The History of Emotions: An Introduction

I am grateful to Rob Boddice for his perceptive review of my book. I will nonetheless use the opportunity to respond because it allows me to (hopefully) shed more light on two differences of opinion and to correct one instance in which I believe my position has been misconstrued.

First and most important, Rob takes issue with my plea that historians employ a meta-category for emotion and not merely claim, in the vein of what I call ‘radical social constructivism’, that their definition of emotion amounts to whatever the historical actors they are studying defined emotions as. Rob asks, ‘Do historians need to know – at all – what emotions actually are?’ Yes, I argue, and Rob has a notion of what emotions ‘actually are’ as well, even if he isn’t aware of it. In fact, only those historians who have an idea of what emotions ‘actually are’ can engage in a ‘history of emotions’. Otherwise a mere history of concepts or constructs of emotions is possible. That is something Rob would not be satisfied with, for he advocates that we study not just that emotions ‘have a history, but make history’. In other words, he proposes that we explore how emotions motivated historical actors. And that is only feasible if one assumes enough overlap in referent between, say, the ‘pathē’ of Aristotle’s time, the Ifaluk’s ‘nunuwan’ documented in Catherine Lutz’s 1988 Unnatural Emotions: Everyday Sentiments on a Micronesian Atoll and Their Challenge to Western Theory, and the ‘emotions’ of our own time, an assumption allowing us to omit the quotation marks. Ultimately, tracking an emotion across time – change over time being at the heart of current historical practice – is predicated on commonality between a thing at one point in the past and a thing at another point in the past (or in the present, for that matter), and thus a meta-category. As I have written more technically elsewhere, ‘Social constructivism taken to its extreme is a nominalist enterprise; history as currently practiced is anti-nominalist’.(1a) Note, however, that I am only making a claim about disciplinary convention, not a normative one. I am happy to reconsider if conventions change. I am not alone with this position – nothing I know of encapsulates it better than the title of Ian Hacking’s book The Social Construction of What? (the preposition ‘of’ presupposes ‘What’ to be a referent of some extralinguistic thing) and no one I know of has expressed it more lucidly than Carla Hesse: ‘realism, as a philosophical stance, is a necessary foundation for any empirical claim to be able to reconstruct facts from evidence and to claim that language (and more broadly any system of signification – visual, textual or aural) has a denotative as well as a connotative function. That language is at some level referential (that it refers to something outside itself, albeit contingently) is critical, moreover, if one is to be able to make sustainable general claims – about culture, or about any other aspect of human existence’.(2a)

Second, Rob writes about William Reddy, ‘Indeed, it might be time for historians of emotions to start to work with its best theorist (his concept of “utterances” could easily be expended to include non-verbal forms of expression and bodily practice, for example, reinvigorating “emotives”), instead of pursuing an endless cycle of wheel re-invention and jargon proliferation. Plamper’s “introduction” to the history of emotions might cause the neophyte to shake her head at the unresolved and growing plurality of theoretical approaches’. I beg to differ. I don’t believe we are locked in an ‘endless cycle of wheel re-invention and jargon proliferation’. On the contrary, I am convinced that serious theory-building along the lines of Reddy et al. is badly needed. For instance, we have no sophisticated analytical instruments to deal with what Max Scheler in 1913 called ‘emotional contagion’ (Gefühlsansteckung), i.e. how, for example, body-minds at a Nuremberg Nazi Party Rally affect (in the literal and figurative sense of the term) one another. How, by which precise mechanisms, do ‘collective’ emotions with many individuals present in a confined space arise? Or, only when teaching an MA module on the history of emotions at Goldsmiths did I recognize the full potential of Barbara Rosenwein’s ‘emotional communities’: her concept goes to the heart of the issue of social aggregation. At what size do we stop, what if a community is an entire nation or even the one billion television viewers worldwide who reportedly watched the football World Cup Final on 13 July 2014? Historians are usually quick to point out that they don’t want to lapse into stereotyping and clichés, such as the ‘gloomy Russians’ or ‘German angst’. But how do we avoid that and make robust, meaningful statements about large-scale emotional communities?

Third and finally, on the point where I believe to have been misrepresented. Rob writes that ‘it is clear that he is much more sympathetic to the anthropological relativists than to the universalism of the life sciences’. No. I insist that I am serious about the first part of Rob’s sentence, in which he cites my ‘intention to reveal “the study of emotion beyond the dichotomy of universalism and social constructivism”’. I continue to be convinced that someday the life sciences will provide the kind of knowledge sufficiently robust for us to ground universalizing claims in, I only think they aren’t there yet.(3a) So if I appear to be ‘more sympathetic’ to anthropologists, it is because their knowledge is more robust – it has been around longer than affective neuroscience, which only got off the ground in the 1990s.


  1. Nicole Eustace, Eugenia Lean, Julie Livingston, Jan Plamper, William M. Reddy, and Barbara H. Rosenwein, ‘AHR conversation: the historical study of emotions’, The American Historical Review, 117, 5 (2012), 1508.Back to (1a)
  2. Carla Hesse, ‘The new empiricism’, Cultural and Social History, 1, 2 (2004), 202.Back to (2a)
  3. I have gone on the record with this (‘My general sense of emotions neuroscience is that it has yet to produce sufficiently robust knowledge for us to exploit’), and stick to it. See ‘AHR conversation: the historical study of emotions’, 1491.Back to (3a)