Bodies in Commotion:

Toward a Pragmatic Account of Human Emotions


My aim is to sketch a theory of the emotions, taking fear, anger, joy, and shame as my paradigms of the phenomena to which such a theory is, above all else, required to do justice. [1]   The topic of emotions has been truly central in the intellectual traditions and intersecting discourses in the United States, yet curiously it has been left for the most part implicit. [2]   In his Psychology (1887), John Dewey did devote one of the three main sections of this work (Part II) to "Feeling" [3] ; but Human Nature and Conduct (1922), significantly subtitled An Introduction to Social Psychology, does not appear to accord emotion such prominence. [4]   In his Principles of Psychology (1890), Williams James examined "The Emotions" in Chapter XXV.  This chapter drew heavily upon an earlier essay ("What Is an Emotion?" [Mind 9, 1884]) and it led shortly to a revised treatment ("The Physical Basis of Emotion" [Psychological Review 1, 1894]) (Myers 1986, 215; 534n.1).  In addition, James in his last years formulated his doctrine of radical empiricism in reference to human affectivity, taking pains to specify "The Place of Affectional Facts in a World of Pure Experience" (Journal of Philosophy, Psychology, and Scientific Methods, volume II, number 11 [May 25, 1905]).  But the appreciation on the part of the pragmatists of the centrality of emotion is hardly conveyed by these texts.  It clearly pervades their writers and deeply informs their understanding of experience.

At the outset it will be helpful to recall two of James’s insights into the investigation of the emotions.   The first insight concerns the status as much as our knowledge of our own emotions.  It was forcefully articulated in "The Place of Affectional Facts in a World of Pure Experience" The second insight concerns the tendency on the part of psychologists and others to reify our emotions and, in effect, to absolutize the forms of feeling.  This was arrestingly noted in the chapter of the Principles devoted to "The Emotions." 

In "The Place of Affectional Facts in a World of Pure Experience," James emphasizes that the universe in which we actually live encompasses "the ambiguous group of our affectional experiences, of our emotions and appreciative perceptions" (1905 [1971], 74).  These experiences, emotions, and perceptions are inherently ambiguous: they are in themselves neither mental nor physical, neither inner nor outer (73-74).  There are often compelling practical reasons and also undetected cultural pressures leading us to classify in one way rather than another these ontologically ambiguous aspects of our lived experience, but this only obscures from us the ambiguous status of what are among the most salient facets of human experience – the emotions as disclosive of the worthwhile, the precious, and the lovable (McDermott 1976; Seigfried 1990, 35, 38, 43-46, 48; Gavin 1992, 172-4).  Whereas we tend to suppose these experiences, emotions, and perceptions "are intuitively given as purely inner facts," James contends this supposition is "hasty and erroneous" (1905 [1971], 74).  For our purposes, let us stress that the emotions are not intuitively known nor are they purely inward (or inherently mental).  Accordingly, our knowledge of our own states is always in some manner and measure mediated.  Moreover, these states themselves are those of an organic being implicated in a temporally and spatially extensive environment (cf. Dewey LW 1: 156), the "immediate," perceptible environment (Umwelt) being but the foreground of a world largely transcending our perceptual consciousness and theoretical comprehension.  Here, if anywhere, is the haunting sense of "ever not yet" and "ever not quite."  The now carries within itself a sense of futurity, [5] of what is other than now, what is "ever not yet," just as the here carries within itself a sense of there, of what is distant from this locus, what is ever beyond my immediate field of action and perception.

James’s second insight can be presented more economically.  He complained in his Principles that:

The trouble with the emotions in psychology is that they are regarded too much as absolutely individual things.  So long as they are set down as so many eternal and sacred psychic entities, like the old immutable species in natural history, so long all that can be done with them is reverently to catalogue their separate characters, points, and effects. (1890 [1981], 1064-5).

But if the emotions are conceived in fluid, functional terms, not as separable psychic entities embodying historically invariant forms, the path of inquiry is opened for a truly pragmatic account of human emotions.  Each of the classical pragmatists contributed to just such a conception of the emotions.  Thus, contemporary pragmatists have inherited from their intellectual ancestors the task of offering an even more sustained and systematic investigation of the vast and varied terrain explored so keenly, but mapped so sketchily, by these ancestors.   

The Theory Broadly Sketched

Accordingly, my aim is to put forth a fruitful way of looking at human emotions, [6] a way deeply indebted to the American pragmatists (William James and George Herbert Mead but, above all, Charles Sanders Peirce and John Dewey) [7] and thus to evolutionary biology. [8]    Positively, this perspective brings into focus (above all else) the somatic, social, and semiotic features of human affects. [9]   It does so by linking human emotions with the inchoate commotions of embodied agents, commotions driving toward practical, gestural, and symbolic expression. [10]   Emotions, in being commotions, are meanings in the making, re-orientations to the everyday world of our practical engagements. [11]

Polemically, this approach is offered in opposition to physiological, behaviorist and subjectivist approaches. [12]   It refuses to reduce emotions to nothing but physiological reactions or observable behavior (cf. Skinner, chapter X); equally it resists construing them as principally subjective phenomena.  Like behavioral approaches, however, it insists upon public criteria for the ascription of mental states, including feelings and emotions; yet it grants that human subjectivity possesses both an inward dimension of no slight significance and a wide range of reflexive functions [13] (cf. Colapietro 1989, chapter 5).  Like physiological approaches, my own insists upon the irreducible somatic and thus physiological dimension of human emotions; but it argues for the necessity of conceiving affects as embodiments and enactments of characteristically unconscious judgments and even inferences (cf. Peirce; Colapietro 1989 on Peirce).

How agents actually comport themselves and also how they are characteristically disposed to behave are crucial for any adequate account of human emotions: third-person observations of conduct provide indispensable date for a theory of emotions.   In addition, how individuals describe and identify their own feelings, moods, and desires is far from incorrigible but also far from insignificant: first-person accounts deserve not only provisional respect but also persistent attention.  Even so, the approach being sketched in this paper privileges neither the first-person nor third-person perspective, neither what I say about me nor what external observers say about observed subjects. [14]   This approach is committed to what Peirce called tuism, the doctrine that all thought is addressed to another (W 1: xxix). [15]   What matters most in this context is how others address me and, in turn, how I address others.  The immediate forms of human engagement, thus, take on in this philosophical theory the centrality they have in everyday life.  The stress falls neither on the purely physiological or behavioral, on the one hand, or on the subjective or private, on the other.  It falls on the social and transactional, on the fateful exchanges between (or among) embodied selves, wherein gestures and movements as much as cries and utterances elicit responses and interpretations.  This emphasis is in effect threefold, since the stress falls on the social, somatic, and semiotic.  

From this viewpoint, human emotions are affectively charged somatic commotions testifying in their structure, significance, and directionality to the ubiquitous influence of social experience.  This influence is primordial as well as pervasive.  Accordingly it is erroneous to suppose that these somatic commotions are even in the case of very young infants prior to social experience, for "the meaning of native [or innate] activities is not native" (MW 14:65).  Rather this meaning "is acquired.  It depends upon interaction with a matured social medium."   

This underscores not only the fact of natality but also the significance of this condition: "Each person is born an infant, and every infant is subject from the first breath he draws and the first cry he utters to the attentions and demands of others" (MW 14: 43).  The activity of crying, for instance, incorporates with itself  – i.e., within the unconsciously formed habits of embodied agents and thus within the spontaneous enactment of these habitual tendencies – the effects of solicitous and disciplining others.  Given natality, it is clear that the responses of the self to others incorporate within themselves the responses of others to the self.  Quite apart from intent or awareness, the spontaneity of innate dispositions is, from the outset of life, a solicitation of human intervention.  The significance of virtually the entire range of infant gestures is not given, but emergent, though (for example) crying is taken as a signal of distress and cooing as a sign of contentment or delight.   The spontaneity of habitual responses is not itself spontaneously generated; it is experientially acquired.  The spontaneity of innate, inchoate responses acquires its legible forms – becomes recognizable human emotions – by virtue of the response of mature social actors.   

Accordingly, a pragmatic account of human emotions brings into the sharpest focus our intercorporeality (a far better term in this context than intersubjectivity).  But it brings into equally sharp focus our sociality.  Put slightly differently, therefore, my goal is to render plausible the thesis that human emotions are bodily commotions deriving their form and functions from social transactions, past and present.  The common suffix of the words emotion and commotion points us toward a relevant fact about human affectivity: whatever else human emotions are, they are somatic states and responses characteristic of human agents, i.e., of embodied agents whose very agency is bound up with motility, the capacity to move about.  Emotions are commotions experienced and indeed enacted by agents on the move.  They are at bottom modes of enactment, though ordinarily not of direct, outward enactment.  The different prefixes, however, point on the one hand toward the orientation of the organism toward some aspect of the environment and on the other toward the confusion of the organism within itself.  For emotion implies either movement or a propensity to move toward or away from something else, whereas commotion implies division of purpose, of being prompted to move in the same instance in diverse directions.  Direct, overt movement is deflected into somatic commotion.

Three assumptions motivate this position.  The first concerns the relationship between emotions and their expression, the second concerns the relationship between the expression of emotion and the subject of experience, the third the relationship between emotion and action.  Given their importance, these assumptions

First, emotions are not prior to expression – as though one first felt fear and then expressed this emotion in (among other ways) facial tension, physiological alterations and muscular exertions.  On this account, there are no emotions prior to their expressions.  It is of course possible to conceal our emotions from others (e.g., to appear calm when perturbed), just as it is to feign emotions by crying when we are not sad.  But these capacities do not establish the separability of emotions from their expression.  Emotions are drives toward expression of affectively charged somatic states, but drives interpretable from the very first as expressions, however inchoate and unconscious.  It is perhaps helpful in this connection to recall Peirce’s metaphor of the onion.

Second, the characterization of a somatic state or response as expression is, in countless cases, an instance of what William James called the psychological fallacy.  This fallacy consists in importing the external perspective of the psychological observer or theorist into the psychological phenomenon being observed or theorized, thereby conflating third-person and first-person perspectives.  The state or response, as experienced by the agent, is not immediately or necessarily interpreted as an expression; rather it is ordinarily marked by a lack of reflexivity.  For the onlooker, the action of another might be expressive of fear, while for the agent it is simply a somatic repositioning in reference to a potentially injurious other.  Action is often expressive of emotions without any awareness on the part of the actor of it being so.  There are no human emotions antecedents to their improvised expressions; but these expressions are, from the perspective of the agents themselves, simply the circuit of activity.

Third, emotions are not stimuli, but pivots around which activity turns.  The human organism is incessantly active, even when sleeping: s/he is never an inert being requiring external stimuli to goad her into activity.  Human existence is rather an incessant flow (or irrepressible stream) of organic activity, in various directions and at distinct levels.  Accordingly, the function of emotions is not stimulation but redirection (understood in a very wide sense, one including the tendency to strengthen an action in a given direction).  In sum, action is primordial and expression is constitutive of emotion though not ordinarily part of the focal consciousness of agents thrown into commotion. 

Let me briefly spell out an implication of my claim that action is primordial.  Emotions are from this angle not states or occurrences separable from conduct, but qualifications of activity.  Their reality and importance comes into focus when we realize that they are primarily adverbial – e.g., she spoke angrily, he acted fearfully, or she laughed lustily.  While (for example) the tone, abruptness, and other qualities of her speaking warrant this qualifier, the point of this description is not to posit a separable feeling in an inaccessible realm (the mind or consciousness of another), but rather to delineate salient features of observable conduct.  A pragmatic account of human emotions is, hence, one in which the continuum of conduct (or circuit of activity) is given a centrality unmatched in alternative approaches to understanding human agency (see, e.g., Dewey EW 5: 96ff.).


Given the still persistent influence of Cartesian and subjectivist assumptions, it is hard to see that this pragmatic account does not veer off in the direction of a reductivist behaviorism.  Yet there is nothing reductivist about the approach to emotions being proposed here, since the affective dimension of human experience is accorded an irreducible status and function in the complex economy of human existence.  The critique of Cartesianism simply does not entail a rejection of privacy or inwardness (see, e.g., Dewey LW 1: 175ff. Peirce [CP cf. Colapietro 1989, chapter 5), only the alleged primacy and adequacy of private states and processes.  At the very least, emotions are taken to be symptomatic [16] and thus significant.  Even so, I was originally tempted to entitle this paper "Do Feelings Exist?" and answer this question in the same manner William James answered the question "Does Consciousness Exist?":  "It is a name of a nonentity …" (1912 [1971], 4).  Just as James was quick to point out that in denying that consciousness is an entity he has not denying that it is a function (again, 1912 [1971], 4), [17] so I would have been inclined to insist that even though feelings do not exist in their own right they are ordinarily crude yet helpful ways of designating distinguishable functions or phases in our mental life.   

Cognition or (more generally) mentation is a function of speaking and other forms of semiosis; in turn, semiosis – at least, anthroposemiosis (Deely 1990, chapter 5; also Deely 1994) – is a function of living and thus (among other organic functions) breathing. [18]   So the simple, obvious, yet profound truth is not Cogito, ergo sum but "I breathe, there I am." [19]   As Emerson notes, nature is not exhausted in its first use (1836 [1982], 58; cf. Dewey 1925 [LW 1]).  The physiological function of respiration lends itself to the communicative functions of speech: the breath of life makes possible, in its distinctively human form, the life of signs. [20]

The life of signs is, for human agents, one with the play of imagination.  Indeed, the histories constitutive of our singular and communal lives are significant only insofar as they are lived in imagination ("Philosophy and Civilization"; Dewey LW 3: 5).  Philosophical reflection "is a further excursion of the [human] imagination into its own prior achievements" (LW 3: 5).  All that is distinctive of humans occurs in their "thought and emotions", in their affectively charged and cognitively expressible modes of imagining (ibid.).

We are, at least according to the pragmatists, instinctually playful and imaginative beings (see, e.g., Peirce MS 1343; James 1890 [1981], 1044).  If anything is inseparable in our being and bearing, our playful and imaginative tendencies are.  Imagination animates, sustains, and guides our play.  In turn, our playful activity so frequently takes the form of inward imaginings, rather than outward exertions, that Peirce was convinced that we are instinctually (or constitutionally) compelled to take flights of fancy:

Human instinct is no whit less miraculous than that of the bird, the beaver, or the ant.  Only, instead of being directed to [outward] bodily motions, such as singing or flying; or to the organization of dwellings, or to the organization of communities, its theatre is the plastic inner world, and its products are the marvelous conceptions of which the greatest are the ideas of number, time, and space … (MS 318, 44, emphasis added; quoted in Colapietro 1989, 114).

To speak of living in our imaginations is, however, misleading, since it inevitably suggests that we live inside our consciousness or heads, rather than living imaginatively in the world.  So too is the metaphor of an inner theatre (cf. Kenny 1989, chapter 8).  To live in and through our imaginations, thus, indicates not a locus but a manner of dwelling, not a private, insular domain but a distinctive, differential way of being in the world. [21]

As Dewey noted, "human experience is made human through the existence of associations and recollections, which are strained through the mesh of imagination so as to suit the demands of the emotions" (MW 12: 139). [22]   If this is so, an adequate account of human experience requires a detailed understanding of the play of imagination as well as those somatic commotions through which the world is actually encountered and also through which are selves are continuously reconfigured.  It requires showing not only how the shape of experience results from the demand of emotions but also how the demands of emotion themselves result from nothing less than the insistent, complex pressures of an encompassing, variable world.  The inherent instability of the human organism (Peirce, CP 7.381) in conjunction with the influx of these pressures insures that humans are destined to be bodies in commotion.  The shape of human experience bears the imprint of somatic commotions, though these are never merely somatic or physiological.  They are also social and semiotic (cf. McCarthy), for selves are always implicated in relationships with others, even in the identification of their innermost feelings, and signs are always indicative of objects potentially constraining their interpretation, even in the case of the fleeting, elusive signs of subtle somatic commotion.

Nothing less than the central notion of experience itself demands taking play seriously and approaching the emotions imaginatively.  My hope is that, within the narrow confines of this abridged presentation, I have sketched, mostly in broad strokes but at certain key points in suggestive detail, the outlines of a theory of emotions, at once recognizably pragmatic and heuristically useful.  This sketch is the barest outline of an attempt to map a vast and varied terrain.  Yet even so sketchy a map might help us find our way around.  That is, this sketch might help us orient ourselves to the ways we ourselves are continuously re-orienting ourselves to the every shifting scenes of our immediate engagement. [23]   


Colapietro, Vincent

1989        Peirce Approach to the Self.  Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

1999    "Subject Positions and Positional Subjectivity: A Pragmatic Approach."  Semiotische Berichte, 23, 1-4: 13-28.

Crossley, Nick.

2001    The Social Body: Habit, Identity, and Desire.  London: Sage.

Cunningham, Suzanne

1995        "Dewey on Emotion: Recent Experimental Evidence."  Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, 4 (Fall): 868-876.

1997    ""Two Faces of Intentionality."  Philosophy of Science, 64: 445-460.

2000    What Is a Mind?  Indianapolis & Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company.

Darwin, Charles

1872    "The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals."  All references to this text are to The Portable Darwin, edited by Duncan M. Porter and Peter W. Graham (NY: Penguin Press): 364-393.

Deely, John

1990        Basics of Semiotics.  Bloomington & Inadianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press.

1994    The Human Use or Signs; or Elements of Anthroposemiosis.  Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Dewey, John

1894        "The Theory of Emotion, Part I: Emotional Attitudes."  Psychological Review, II (November, 1894): 553-691.  All references to this essay are to The Early Works of John Dewey, volume 4 (Carbondale & Edwardsville, IL: SIU Press, 1971): 152-169.  Cited as EW 4.

1895        "The Theory of Emotion, Part I: The Significance of Emotions."  Psychological Review, II (January 1895): 13-32.  All references are to EW 4: 169-188.

1895b  Interest in Relation to Training of the Will.  Second Supplement to Herbart Yearbook for 1895.  All references are to Early Works of John Dewey, volume 5: 111-150.

1896        "The Reflex Arc in Psychology."  Psychological Review, III (July): 357-70.  All references are to Early Works of John Dewey, volume 5: 96-109.  Cited as EW 5.

1909        "The Influence of Darwinism on America."  Popular Science Monthly, 75: 90-98.  All references are to Middle Works of John Dewey, volume 4: 3-14.  Cited as MW 4.  Also reprinted in The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy (NY: Henry Holt & Co., 1910).

1920    Reconstruction in Philosophy.  All references are to the Middle Works of John Dewey, volume 12.  Cited as MW 12.

1922        Human Nature and Conduct.  All references are to MW 14.

1925        Experience and Nature.  All references are to Later Works, volume 1.  Cited as LW 1.

1934        Art as Experience.  All references are to Later Works of John Deewy, volume 10.  Cited as LW 10.

1939    "Experience, Knowledge and Value: A Rejoinder."  The Philosophy of John Dewey, edited by Paul Arthur Schilpp (Evanston & Chicgo, IL: Northwestern University Press): 517-608.  All references are to the Later Works, volume 14: 3-90.

1940        "The Vanishing Subject in the Psychology of James."  Journal of Philosophy, 37 (24 October 1940): 589-99.  All references are to the Later Works, volume 14: 155-167.  Cited as LW 14. 

1941    "The Subjectivism-Objectivism of Modern Philosophy."  Journal of Philosophy, 38 (25 September 1941): 533-42.  All references are to Later Works, volume 14: 189-200.  Cited as LW 14.         

1946    "Peirce’s Theory of Linguistic Signs, Thought, and Meaning."  Journal of Philosophy, 43 (14 February 1946): 85-95.  All references are to Later Works of John Dewey, volume 15: 141-152.        

Emerson, R. W.

1836    "Nature."  All references to this essay are to the version published in Ralph Waldo Emerson: Selected Essays, edited by Larzer Ziff (NY: Penguin, 1982): 35-82.

Gavin, William Joseph

1992    William James and the Reinstatement of the Vague.  Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Goldie, Peter

2001            The Emotions: A Philosophical Explanation.  Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Gunn, Giles

2001        Beyond Solidarity: Pragmatism and Difference in a Globalized World.  Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press.

Flanagan, Owen

1991        Consciousness Reconsidered.  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

1997    "Consciousness as a Pragmatist Sees It" in The Cambridge Companion to William James, edited by Ruth Anna Putnam (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press): 25-48.

James, William

1884    "What Is an Emotion?"  Mind, 9: 188-205.

1890        The Principles of Psychology.  All references to the critical edition published by Harvard University (Cambridge, MA, & London, England, 1981).

1894        "The Physical Basis of Emotion."  Psychological Review, 1: 516-29.

1899    "The Gospel of Relaxation."  Scribners Magazine, 25: 499-507.

1912    Essays in Radical Empiricism.  NY: Longman’s Green & Co.  All references in this paper are to Essays in Radical Empiricism & A Pluralistic Universe, edited by Richard J. Bernstein (NY: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1971).

Joas, Hans

1985    G. H. Mead: A Contemporary Re-Examination of His Thought, translation by Raymond Meyer of Praktische Intersubjektivität: Die Entwicklung des Werkes von George Herbert Mead (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp-Verlag, 1980).  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Kenny, Anthony

1989    The Metaphysics of Mind.  Oxford & NY: Oxford University Press.

Kirmayer, Laurence J.

1992    "The Body’s Insistence on Meaning: Metaphor as Presentation and Representation in Illness Experience."  Medical Anthropology Quarterly, 6, 4: 323-46.

Lear, Jonathan

1990    Love and Its Place in Nature.  NY: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux.

McCarthy, E. Doyle

1989    "Emotions Are Social Things: An Essay in the Sociology of Emotions."  The Sociology of Emotions, edited by D. Franks & E. D. McCarthy (Greenwich, CT: JAI Press): 51-71.

McDermott, John J.

1976    Culture of Experience: Philosophical Essays in the America Grain.   NY: NYU Press.

1986    Streams of Experience: Reflections on the History and Philosophy of American Culture.  Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.

Mead, George Herbert

1934        Mind, Self, & Society [Volume 1 of Works of George Herbert Mead], edited by Charles W. Morris.  Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press.

1938    The Philosophy of the Act [Volume 3 of Works of George Herbert Mead], edited by Charles W. Morris.  Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press.

Menand, Louis

2001    The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America.  NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Myers, Gerald E.

1969    The Self: An Introduction to Philosophical Psychology.  NY: Pegasus.

1986    William James: His Life and Thought.  New Haven & London: Yale University Press.

Peirce, C. S.

1887-88      "A Guess at the Riddle."  All references are to the Essential Peirce, volume 1 (1867-1893), edited by Nathan Houser & Christian Kloesel (Bloomington & Indiana, IN: Indiana University Press, 1992): 245-279.  Cited as EP 1.  A version of this text can be found in The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Pierce, volume 1, edited by Charles Hartshore & Paul Weiss (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1931), paragraphs 354-416 [CP 1: 354-416].

1934        The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, volume 5, edited by Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss.  Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.  Cited as CP 5.

1958    The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, volumes 7 & 8, edited by Arthur W. Burks.  Cited as CP 7 & CP 8, respectively.

1982    Writings of Charles S. Peirce: A Chronological Edition, volume 1, edited by Peirce Edition Project [at the time of this inaugural volume, Max H. Fisch was the General Editor and Edward C. Moore the Director].  Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.  Cited as W 1.

Perry, Ralph Barton

1935    The Thought and Character of William James, two volumes.  Boston: Little, Brown & Co.

Russett, Cynthia Eagle

1976    Darwin in America: The Intellectual Response 1865-1912.  San Francisco, CA: W. H. Freeman & Co.

Savan, David

1981    "Peirce’s Semiotic Theory of Emotion."  Proceedings of the C. S. Peirce Bicentennial International Congress [The Netherlands, 1976], edited by Kenneth Laine Ketner et al (Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech University Press): 319-333.

Seigfried, Charlene Haddock

1990    William James’s Radical Reconstruction of Philosophy.  Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Sheets-Johnstone, Maxine

1900        The Roots of Thinking.  Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

1994    The Roots of Power: Animate Form & Gendered Bodies.  Chicago & La Salle, IL: Open Court.

Sherman, Nancy

2000    "Emotional Agents" in The Analytic Freud: Philosophy & Psychoanalysis, edited by Michael P. Levine (London & NY: Routledge): 154-176.

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1953    Science and Human Behavior.  NY: Free Press.

Stephens, G. Lynn

1981    "Cognition and Emotion in Peirce’s Theory of Mental Activity."  Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, 2 (Spring): 131-140.

Wiener, Philip P.

1949        Evolution & the Founders of Pragmatism.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.  All references are to the edition reprinted by Harper & Row in 1965.

Wollheim, Richard

1999    On the Emotions [1991 Ernst Cassirer Lectures].  New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.


[1] It is not just these four emotions but also ones akin to them in clearly having somatic, behavioral, and cognitive (or intentional) components.   In making fear, anger, joy, shame, and the like the paradigms of what I mean by emotions, I am following the lead of Peirce (CP 5.246 ["Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed for Man"]; 5.292-293 ["Consequences of Four Incapacities"], James (1890 [1981], 1065), Dewey, and Mead.  This of course involves a selective bias (Dewey LW 1: 34).  In "Peirce’s Semiotic Theory of Emotion," David Savan stresses that "when he [Peirce] cited anger, fear, and joy as prime examples, he was taking emotion to be an affective response to an unusual situation, a sharp and often unexpected eruption into the ordinary even course of life" (1981, 326; cf 328).  In "Dewey on Emotion: Recent Experimental Evidence," Suzanne Cunningham focuses on one particular emotion, fear, then immediately notes: "Much of what is said about fear will be applicable to some, but probably not all, other emotions" (1995, 868).  But her concern in this insightful article is not to sketch a comprehensive theory of the emotions; rather it is to "encourage a reconsideration of at least one of the assumptions that underlies much theorizing in recent philosophy of mind, namely, that one can provide a model of mind in purely cognitive terms" (868).  I too am not presenting here a comprehensive account of the emotions, let alone the full range of human affections (cf. Savan 1981, 330; Kenny 1989, 52; Cunningham 2000, chapter 3; Goldie 2001, chapter 2).  But, let Suzanne Cunningham, I suppose that any adequate account of affection must offering a compelling account of fear as well as anger, joy, and shame. 

                Two methodological cautions need to be emphasized here.  First, I readily acknowledge (with Dewey): "Selective emphasis, choice, is inevitable whenever reflection occurs [including of course theoretical reflection upon human emotions].  Deception comes only when the presence and operation of choice is concealed, disguised, denied.  Empirical method finds and points to the operation of choice as it does to any other event (LW 1: 34).  Second, I am mindful of what Ludwig Wittgenstein identifies in his Philosophical Investigations as a "main cause of philosophical disease – a one-sided diet: one nourishes one’s thinking with only one kind of example" (I, #593).  In light of this, it seems appropriate to state my objective even more modestly than I do at the outset of this paper; for my aim is but to sketch the fragment of a theory of emotions.                

[2] One way of making this paradoxical point is to note that this topic is pervasive yet largely unthematized and undertheorized: the topic of the emotions is largely unthematized since it is so infrequently made the focal and explicit topic of sustained and systematic analysis, while it is undertheorized since even when it is thematized it is not articulated in a comprehensive and detailed way.  It is ironic that there is so little in the pragmatic tradition in its recent resurgence (cf. Richard J. Bernstein’s "The Resurgence of Pragmatism") to rival such works as Richard Wollheim’s On Emotions (1999).  Given James’s insights that human emotions are not separable psychic entities (1890 [1981], 1065) and the influence of this insight, however, it is understandable why the emotions have not been treated separately.  Even so, they deserve fuller and finer treatment than they have received by contemporary pragmatists. 

[3] It is instructive to note that, though his own Psychology was published before James’s Principles, Dewey’s work was directly and profoundly influenced by James’s prior contributions to the psychological literature, most notably, "The Feeling of Effort" (1880), "The Association of Ideas" (Popular Science Monthly XVI, 1880), "Brute and Human Intellect" (Journal of Speculative Philosophy XII, July 1878), "The Sentimental of Rationality" (Mind VI, July 1879), and of course "What Is an Emotion?" (Mind IX, April 1884).

                It is also instructive to point out that, in this early work, Dewey articulates what is central to any pragmatic account of human emotions.  Emotions are not separable from cognitions or volitions (cf. Peirce CP 1.381; also EP 1: 260).  Near the beginning of his Psychology Dewey makes this point in this way: "Every consciousness has reference, not only to the thing or event made known by it, but also to the mind knowing, and is, therefore, a state of feeling, an affection of self.  And since every state of consciousness is a state of self, it has an emotional side" (EW 2: 19).  In other words, every concrete, actual state of consciousness is, tout ensemble, cognitive, affective, and volitional.

[4] No chapter in its entirely is devoted to emotion or an allied topic, though arguably the extended discussions of impulse are ones in which Dewey’s largely implicit conception of emotion can be discerned.  Moreover, there is not a single reference in the Index to feeling and only five references to emotion (MW 14: 54; 59; 175; 177-9; 181).

[5] Arguably, the now always carries also a sense of pastness, but for the pragmatists the emphasis falls on living forward forward.

[6] Though this paper grows out of ongoing research into overlapping topics in what might be (and indeed has been) called philosophical psychology (with special attention being paid to the intersection between pragmatism and psychoanalysis [cf. Gunn 2001, chapter 1], this account of the emotions was written specifically for the 2002 annual meeting of SAAP (University of Southern Maine; Portland, ME).  The fact that this paper, written as a presentation at a conference, is the outgrowth of such research accounts for not only its compressed character but also the extensive references and detailed notes.  My hope is in time to expand this into a fully articulated theory of emotions.  For the purposes of a presentation at a conference, however, the formulation of this theory has been severely abridged.  The notes and references might help to indicate the directions and ways a fuller articulation would need to be developed.

[7] Though also influenced by the views of William James – in particular, his Principles of Psychology – my approach does not directly draw upon these views but makes use of them as they were appropriated and extended by John Dewey.  So I read the James-Lange theory of emotion in the manner suggested by Dewey in "The Theory of Emotions" (EW 4: 152-188) and other writings.  At the center of this reading is the link between emotions and felt organic readjustments.

[8] Pragmatism might be described as one of the first (if not in fact the very first) self-consciously post-Darwinian movements in Western philosophy (cf. Menand 2001, e.g., 120-128; also Wiener; & Russet ).  Charles Darwin’s own work on "The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals" is a central text in Dewey’s early efforts to bring together insights from Darwin’s Origin of Species (and other writings) and James’s Principles of Psychology (see, e.g., Dewey EW 5, 152-3).  Dewey’s essay on "The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy" (1901; MW 4: 3-14) is an exemplary expression of this self-conscious Darwinian approach to philosophical questions.

[9] In conjunction with the somatic, this theory also brings into focus the affectively charged and thus qualitatively textured facets of human affects; moreover, in conjunction with the semiotic, it aligns itself with cognitivist theories of human emotions, since the construal of emotions as a distinctive form of semiosis (or sign-action) is one of exhibiting the intentionality of emotions (cf. Cunningham 1997).  Of course, what distinguishes cognitivist theories of emotions is precisely this stress on the intentionality of emotions, an emphasis often explained as entailing the need to interpret emotions as (in effect) judgments.  E.g., fear is, in effect, the affectively charged and characteristically unconscious judgment that this being or situation is potentially injurious or harmful.  

[10] A feeling is bound up with its modes of expression, so intimately that it makes little or no sense to discourse about emotions apart from at least their potential expressions.  From the fact that a thought might be translated into an indefinite number of languages, it is often supposed that the thought in itself subsists apart from its possibilities of representation or expression.  From the perspective of Peirce, Dewey, and Mead, however, this is an erroneous inference: the thought just is its possibility of being embodied in diverse ways in various languages and (more generally) media.  What is true of thoughts vis-à-vis their characteristic or possible modes of expression is also true of emotions vis-à-vis their "natural" or conceivable modes or expression.  This means that Dewey’s account in Art as Experience of impulsion ("Every experience, of slight or tremendous import, begins with an impulsion rather as an impulsion" [LW 1: 64]) is of direct relevance to the kind of pragmatist theory of human emotions being put forth in paper.

[11] Jonathan Lear: "Emotions are, by their nature, attempts at rational orientation toward the world.  Even an archaic expression of emotion is an archaic attempt at rationality.  It is the germ from which a rational orientation may grow.  Now, this rationality is not exhausted by an inner coherence of belief and feeling: the rationality of an emotion is also manifested in its being directed onto an appropriate object in the world.  An emotion, by its nature, attempts to justify itself" (1990, 51).

[12] Theories of emotion are frequently divided into physiological, behavioral, and cognitive theories (see, e.g., Cunningham 2000, chapter 3).  For our purposes, however, it is important to include subjectivist theories.  The theory being proposed in this paper is, of the standard alternatives, closest to the cognitive theory.  But this is misleading, for (like Suzanne Cunningham’s approach) it is deliberately designed to be an integrative theory.

[13] Examples of reflexive functions are self-criticism, self-narration, and self-description.  See Colapietro 1999: 19-21 & 23-24.  Reflexivity along with positionality and performativity are in this essay taken to be defining features of human subjectivity.

[14] It is important to distinguish between observed and addressed subjects and, thus, the sort of observation characteristic of observers not in communication with the objects of their scrutiny and the sort of observation bound up with communicative subjects engaged in an actual exchange.

[15] Max H. Fisch in his Introduction to volume one of Writings of Charles S. Peirce: A Chronological Edition cites the entry for this term in the Century Dictionary (1891): "The doctrine that all thought is addressed to a second person, or to one’s future self as to a second person" (W 1: xxix).

[16] C. S. Peirce: It "must not be inferred that I regard consciousness as a mere ‘epiphenomenon’; though I heartily grant that the hypothesis that it is so has done good service to science.  To my apprehension, consciousness may be defined as that congeries of non-relative predicates [or qualitative immediacies], varying greatly in quality and in intensity, which are symptomatic of the interaction of the outer world – the world of those causes that are exceedingly compulsive upon the modes of consciousness, with general disturbance sometimes amounting to shock, and are acted upon only slightly, and only by a special kind of effort, muscular effort – and of the inner world, apparently derived from the outer, and amenable to direct effort of various kinds with feeble actions; the interaction of these two worlds chiefly consisting of a direct action of the outer world upon the inner and an indirect action of the inner upon the outer through the operation of habits.  If this be a correct account of consciousness, i.e., of the congeries of feelings, it seems to me that it exercises a real function in self-control, since without it, or at least without that of which it is symptomatic, the resolves and exercises of the inner world could not affect the real determinations and habits of the outer world.  I say that these [in a sense] belong to the outer world because they are not mere fantasies but are real agencies" (CP 5.493; emphasis added).

                In Experience and Nature, Dewey proposes consciousness designates "the conspicuous and vivid presence of immediate qualities and of meanings" (LW 1: 96), i.e., of immediate qualities in their emergent role as symptoms or signs of intra- and extra-organic events and objects.

[17] In a letter to James dated September 28, 1904 (though published in 1912 as one of his Essays in Radical Empiricism, "Does Consciousness Exist?" first appeared in 1904 in Journal of Philosophy, Psychology, and Scientific Methods), Charles Peirce strongly voiced his displeasure with James’s conclusion: "Your article about consciousness comes to me a propos as I am writing about consciousness and have been reading up about it as well as my library (!) permits.  But your paper floors me at the very opening and I wish you would do me the favor (I suppose it to be a simple matter) of explaining what you mean by saying that consciousness is often regarded as an ‘entity.’  I do not think you capable of setting up a straw man and have no doubt you can tell me how any given writer regards consciousness as an ‘entity.’  But this word, in modern philosophy, has never conveyed any idea except that it is a sign the writer is setting up some man of straw whom he imagines to entertain opinions too absurd for definite statement.  Now I do not think anybody has any such opinions" (CP 8.279).  In another letter Peirce complains to James that: "What you call ‘pure experience’ is not experience at all and certainly ought to have a name.  It is downright bad morals to misuse words, for it prevents philosophy from becoming a science" (CP 8.301).  See Perry, II, chapter LXXIV, for the reactions of George Santayana and others to the Jamesian doctrine of radical empiricism.

[18] In "Does Consciousness Exist?" William James asserts that: "Let the case be what it may in others, I am as confidant as I am of anything that, in myself, the stream of thinking (which I recognize emphatically as a phenomenon) is only a careless name for what, when scrutinized, reveals itself to consist chiefly of the stream of my breathing.  "The ‘I think’ which Kant said must be able to accompany all my objects, is the ‘I breathe’ which actually does accompany them.  There are other internal facts besides breathing … and these increase the assets of ‘consciousness,’ so far as the latter is subject to immediate perception; but breath, which was ever the original of ‘spirit,’ breath moving outward … is, I am persuaded, the essence out of which philosophers have constructed the entity known to them as consciousness.  That entity is fictitious, while thoughts in the concrete are fully real.  But thoughts in the concrete are made of the same stuff as things are" (1904 [1971], 20-21).

[19] Ludwig Wittgenstein: "The work of the philosopher consists in assembling reminders for a particular purpose" [Die Arbeit des Philosophen ist ein Zusammentragen von Erinnerungen zu einem bestimmten Zweck] (Philosophical Investigations, I, #127).  Often Dewey interrupted his exposition of a topic to underscore that, had not philosophers and other theorists not flown in the face of the obvious (in particular, had they not substituted a disguised theory for an empirical claim), there would be no need to call attention to such commonplaces as those upon which he was in the exposition dwelling (see, e.g., Appendix 2 [1951] to LW 1: 368).  My own paper is largely an assemblage of reminders about what we all more or less know about the nature, function, and centrality of human affects.  My excuse for attending to these commonplaces is akin to those Dewey offered: many of the most influential theories are either one-sided or unempirical – or both!

[20] John Dewey suggests in Experience and Nature that: "Every thought and meaning has its substratum in some organic act of absorption or elimination of seeking, or turning away from, of destroying or caring for, of signaling or responding.  It roots in some definite act of biological behavior; our physical names for mental acts like seeing, grasping, searching. Affirming, acquiescing, spurning, comprehending, affection, emotion are not just ‘metaphors.’  Etc." (LW 1: 221).

[21] The concluding sentences of Dewey’s Individualism Old and New are especially relevant to this point: "To gain an integrated individuality, each of us needs to cultivate his own garden.  But there is no fence about this garden: it is no sharply marked-off enclosure.  Our garden is the world, in the manner at which it touches our own manner of being [and, thus, our own mode of imagination]" (LW 5: 122-3; emphasis added).

[22] In Experience and Nature, he claims that: "Although imagination is often fantastic it is also an organ of nature; for it is the appropriate phase of indeterminate events moving toward eventualities that are now but possibilities" (LW 1: 57).

[23] Like Freud, the pragmatists are attuned to the fact that human agents do not know what they are doing (see Lear 1990, 4).  Consciousness, insofar as it ensues upon the disruption of our habitual modes of responding and acting, is in effect a signal that we do not know what we are doing (cf. Colapietro 1989, 57-8).  The commotions partly constitutive of a certain range of human emotions, the ones serving as paradigms for virtually any adequate theory of human emotion (fear, anger, joy, shame, and the like), are also indicators that human agents are constitutionally thrown into somatic confusion (cf. Peirce, CP 5:292 or EP 1.43-4)