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Mentioned: “Reading for emotion”

I was surprised and delighted to hear that Frank Costigliola (UConn History) had mentioned me in the final chapter (“Reading for emotion”) of the third edition of his textbook surveying the history of American Foreign Relations. I wouldn’t have thought I’d have anything useful to say to his audience. In his hands, though, it makes perfect sense. As he explained:

The foreign/transnational/international relations of individuals, groups, and states are often high-stakes, cross-cultural, nail-biting ventures. Despite the “realist” assumption that foreign policy remains the domain of the rational actor appraising objective national interests, emotion has figured prominently in the making of foreign policy. Emotional perceptions have predisposed foreign policymakers to propose or oppose policies, make friends or enemies, pursue peace of war. Without succumbing to emotional determinism, historians can examine how culturally inflected, complex emotional reactions — such as insecure pride, craving for response, anxiety about change, and fear of appearing fearful — have complicated international relations at all levels. Emotions history enables us to delve deeper into the thoughts, motivations, and behavior of historical actors.

Costigliola, 2016, pp. 356-357

He then contextualized:

The Scottish humanist David Human argued that… reason was and ought to be the servant of the passions. Thomas Jefferson posited that reason and what he called sentiment were properly co-rulers of the mind. Despite their differences, all these thinkers divided emotions from reason.

In sharp contrast, the current consensus among neuroscientists and humanist scholars holds that emotional and rational thinking are not clearly differentiated mental states; indeed, they are neurologically indistinguishable. Recent brain research has demonstrated the impossibility of neatly separating out rational from emotional thinking. Rational decisions require emotional input. Indeed, brain-damaged individuals who have difficulty feeling also encounter problems making rational decisions…. In other words, emotions, like other forms of thought, result from an integrating, nearly brain-wide processing of impulses.

Costigliola, 2016, p. 361

And it’s this that led to his discussion of my work:

The takeaway for historians is that categorizing reason, emotion, belief, intuition, and memory into distinct, separate forms of thought reflects not how the mind works, but rather culturally specific social construction. Prevailing societal and cultural norms also shape how individuals use words, gestures, and actions to express emotions and other aspects of thought. This point about the cultural construction of emotional expression is crucial. While scholars cannot know for sure what historical actors felt, we can find evidence of feeling rules, that is, evidence of what people in the past thought they should feel or show that they were feeling. We can expect to find evidence of how members of society reacted to those who lived up to, and those who violated, prevailing norms for the expression and repression of feelings. As the historian and psychologist Jeremy T. Burman has put it, the scholar has “to reconstruct the context in which a coherent logic of feeling can be read across a grouping of individuals.”

Costigliola, 2016, p. 361

Reading this, though, I wasn’t sure which of my essays he might have cited. This didn’t have to originate in neurohistory, as was in fact the case. The source could have been any number of the things I talk about. (Am I so unconsciously consistent?)

Categories: Mentioned Neurohistory

J. T. Burman

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