By Alex P. Vidal
William James was one of the two famous American pragmatists along with C.S. Peirce, who promoted pragmatism that says, “knowledge is a guide for action, not a search for abstract truth.”
James’ philosophy is simple: to fully understand something we must understand all its consequences; true beliefs will lead to positive consequences.
But it is not about James’ philosophy and pragmatism per se why his name is mentioned here today. It’s about his comments on emotion published in An Insight Book by Van Nostrand in 1962 that I would like to share.
Although James wrote with clarity and depth on a large number of topics of psychological interest, his comments on emotion resulted in a theory of emotion which bears his name.
The following selection idea is taken from James’ chapter on emotion in Principles of Pyschology (Vol. II, New York: Holt and Company, 1890). The selection is taken from the middle of the chapter. Prior to the place where this selection begins, James has discussed the work of the Danish psychologist, Carl Lange.
Although there are differences between James’ theory and that of Lange, the general theory that emotion is the product of physiological changes, rather than the reverse, is commonly called the James-Lange theory, according to the Van Nostrand Insight Book edited by Douglas K. Candland.
“Our natural way of thinking about these coarser emotions is that the mental perception of some fact excites the mental affection called the emotion and that this latter state of mind gives rise to the bodily expression,” James clarified his viewpoint in a paper which appeared in Psychol. Rev., 1894,1, 516-529.
“My theory, on the contrary, is that the bodily changes follow directly the perception of the exciting fact, and that our feeling of the same changes as they occur is the emotion. Common sense says, we lose our fortune, are sorry and weep; we meet a bear, are frightened and run; we are insulted by a rival, are angry and strike.
“The hypothesis here to be defended says that this order of sequence in incorrect, that the one mental state is not immediately induced by the other, that the bodily manifestations must first be interposed between, and that the more rational statement is that we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble, and not that we cry, strike, or tremble, because we are sorry, angry, or fearful, as the case may be.”
James added: “Without the bodily states following on the perception, the latter would be purely cognitive in form, pale, colorless, destitute of emotional warmth. We might then see the bear, and judge it best to run, receive the insult and deem it right to strike, but we should not actually feel afraid or angry.”
The James–Lange theory refers to a hypothesis on the origin and nature of emotions and is one of the earliest theories of emotion within modern psychology. The basic premise of the theory is that physiological arousal instigates the experience of a specific emotion. Instead of feeling an emotion and subsequent physiological (bodily) response, the theory proposes that the physiological change is primary, and emotion is then experienced when the brain reacts to the information received via the body’s nervous system.
The theory has been criticized and modified over the course of time, as one of several competing theories. In 2002 a research paper on the autonomous nervous system stated that the theory has been “hard to disprove.”
The theory states that all emotion is derived from the presence of a stimulus, which evokes a physiological response, such as muscular tension, a rise in heart rate, perspiration, and dryness of mouth. This physical arousal makes a person feel a specific emotion.
Emotion is a secondary feeling, indirectly caused by the primary feeling, which is the physiological response caused by the presence of a stimulus, according to the theory. The specific pathway involved in the experience of emotion was also described by James. He stated that an object has an effect on a sense organ, which relays the information it is receiving to the cortex. The brain then sends this information to the muscles and viscera, which causes them to respond. Finally, impulses from the muscles and viscera are sent back to the cortex, transforming the object from an “object-simply apprehended” to an “object-emotionally felt.”
James explained that his theory went against common sense. For example, while most would think the order of emotional experience would be that a person sees a bear, becomes afraid, and runs away, James thought that first the person has a physiological response to the bear, such as trembling, and then becomes afraid and runs. James said, the physiological response comes first, and it is followed by an emotion and a reaction. James believed that these responses were “reflex type” reactions which are built in: “Instinctive reactions and emotional expressions shade imperceptibly into each other. Every object that excites an instinct excites an emotion as well.”