Contributions To Phenomenology, Vol. 97
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Reviewed by: Andrew Bevan (Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy, Kingston University, London)
What is it to define an emotion? Or to categorise an experience as an emotion? This is the aim of this collection of essays, the result of a conference of 2013 with the same name that discussed ‘surprise’ and attempted to categorise it as emotion, feeling, affect or otherwise. The editors identify two main theoretical frameworks with which to approach the question: psychology and philosophy. They argue that, whereas psychology treats surprise as a primary emotion, philosophy relates surprise to passions which are then opposed to reason. With this split in place, they seek to question these frameworks: is surprise not also cognitive? Is it not embedded in language? And how is it to be related to personhood and the interpersonal and moral emotions? Already we see that the exercise of defining an experience as an emotion takes place within the traditional binaries of philosophical psychology: passion/reason, emotion/cognition, etc. Yet throughout this volume, perhaps the most surprising aspect of surprise is just how inadequate these traditional categories are and how the phenomenon under discussion will exceed and trouble these traditional binaries.
One immediate difficulty the volume is faced with is what to call that which is to be defined or categorized: what is this realm of undefined or uncategorised? What most general word can refer to it: ‘surprise’? At some level, all authors can speak to this uncategorised experience called ‘surprise’; there is some binding of word and experience such that all authors can write on its vagaries and varieties. Yet how is this to be disambiguated from similar terms like wonder, startle, glance, etc. as well as the translation of these terms from other languages, most notably that of wonder (thaumaston) which, as Plato argued in Theaetetus, ‘is the only beginning of philosophy’ (155d). This is the very problem the volume engages with and thus, in so doing can be read as continuing this long tradition of surprise as the beginning of philosophy.
Three main themes occur in all the authors’ discussions. The most commonly invoked criteria for surprise that all authors mention in some form or another is the frustration of expectations. For example, Steinbock delineates surprise not only as ‘an experience of unexpected givenness’ but as ‘the accommodation of us to the situation by being the acceptance of what I cannot accept’ (10). These expectations can be implicit or explicit and not merely cognitive: they are discussed through concepts like habit or bodily adaptation to an environment. It is then in the frustration of expectations, or the difference between expectation and actuality, that surprise arises. Authors use many concepts to characterise these expectations (dispositions, integrations, entanglements and habit) and their frustration (startle, rupture, punctuation, anxiety, novelty and reconfigurations). But there is also room for concepts that convey a lack of surprise when expectations meet actuality (affinity, affordance).
The second commonality is the question of temporality: while most agree surprise involves a spontaneous, sudden, ‘rupture’ this is merely the first part of a temporal dynamic. Desmidt, for example argues ‘surprise is the structure of the temporal dynamic of emotional emergence’ (62).
The third point of agreement between most authors is that surprise is ambiguously valenced: surprise can be positive or negative and so appears to transcend any simple division into positive/negative valence.
But, whereas the authors tend to agree on these three main points, there is then much divergence in their characterisation of surprise. The main problem in comparing positions to agree any consensus and the possibility of answering the question of the volume is that the difference between the authors’ positions in part stems from different understandings of the terms being used to categorize ‘surprise’. For instance, if surprise is to be an emotion, there is little discussion or agreement of what an emotion is, nor its difference or identity to affect, passion, feeling etc. is. Some treat affect and emotion as synonymous, others as strictly different but few reflect on what they might mean nor what categorising surprise as one or the other would entail.
The authors who give most attention to this question are the two editors of the volume, Steinbock and Depraz and both invoke Kant to define emotions. Steinbock foregrounds Kant’s use of temporality to differentiate affect and passion: affect is sudden and rash in contrast to the duration of passions (12-13). Steinbock then, despite the suddenness of surprise, argues surprise is part of a process of much longer duration. But he concludes not that surprise is a passion but that surprise ‘belongs to the sphere of emotions (and is not a mere affect)’ (13). Steinbock thus seems to equate passion with emotion. Furthermore, whereas affects are ‘feeling-states and pertain to who we are as psychophysical beings, where we would find experiences like pleasure or pain, being ill at ease, tickling and arousal,’ emotions – such as ‘regret, remorse, fear, longing and surprise’ (14-15) – are emotions because ‘they can occur without any essential relation to personal ‘otherness’ in that experience’. But ‘genuine’ emotions are those which ‘presuppose an “order” or even “disorder” of the heart – to use a phrase from Pascal – and are lived in some way toward some other as bearer of value in a ‘creative’ or personal manner’ (15). Here we see that the divisions of psycho-physical to ‘personhood’ are played out to differentiate affect from emotion.
Meanwhile, Depraz argues that in psychology, surprise is treated as an emotion. She again cites Kant but, unlike Steinbock, identifies emotion with affect (‘emotion, here as Affekt’, 26). This identification of emotion with the German Affekt has a psychological precedence perhaps beginning with William James in his Principles of Psychology. For Depraz, surprise ‘is not an emotion in the sense of a basic feeling like fear, anger, disgust, jor or sadness.’ Her main argument is that ‘surprise involves an emotional and cognitive component but results in a more encompassing and integrative circular (time, bodily, expressive-descriptive) phenomena’ (39). Depraz then invokes the concept of valence to undermine the idea that surprise is an emotion: valence characterizes more precisely the ‘affective dynamic of the surprise rather than emotion as such, which always remains a partial and static state’ (40). Although surprise is linked to emotional valence when associated with these emotions, it may also appear as ‘a neutral, mixed or epistemic emotion, i.e. as a violated expectation that affects both action and cognitive processing.’ (39).
Other authors tend to reflect less on the problem, focusing their attention purely on emotion (Desmidt, Brizard) or tending to identify emotion with affect (Livet mentions ‘affective attitudes’ (109), ‘affects or affective bursts (111), ‘emotional or affective attitude’ (112)). Although Brizard does state that startle, that can be used to assess emotional reactivity which can be ‘modulated by affective states’ (78). Sheets-Johnstone in insisting the body is not ahistorical or living, speaks of ‘affective dynamics that move through bodies and move them to move’ (83). Yet, quoting Jung, she seems to elide any difference between affect and emotion (85). Emotions/affects are then qualitatively different: they have their own ‘distinctive qualitative kinetic dynamics’ (85).
At least three different approaches can be identified then: affect equals emotions; emotion is a type of affect; or affects and emotions are different. A fourth approach, however, is to avoid the whole problem by mentioning neither affect nor emotion – such is Casey’s singular approach: he instead likens surprise to glance, something that is perhaps less contentious and more familiar.
This difference in understanding and use of terms then makes the guiding question ‘Surprise: An Emotion?’ difficult to answer: it of course depends on what an emotion is. So when Steinbock argues surprise is an emotion, and Depraz that it is not, they are working with slightly different understandings of what emotion is. For Depraz, emotion is an affect, for Steinbock it is not. Yet both agree that the aspect that differentiates surprise as one or the other is temporality: surprise is not sudden but part of a more involved process.
Perhaps some attention to the terms being used (affect, passion, feeling, emotion) might yield a more productive discussion. The terms affect and passion in particular have a long and rich philosophical heritage and perhaps most significantly enter the philosophical discourse through its use by Cicero, Augustine and others to translate the Greek pathos. Now, whilst passiones is a transliteration of the Greek pathos with similar meanings, affectio already existed in Latin and is comprised of the prefix ad- + facio. Ad- usually adds a movement to or against something whilst facio has a very broad signification including to make, build, construct or produce. Passiones is also the root of our passive and thus this choice of translation would foreground an essential passivity to this realm of experience. Whereas, with the choice of affect, which can be active or passive voiced (‘to affect or be affected’ will become central to interpretations of Spinoza), it is the binary of active/passive that is paramount in discussions of Greek pathos.
However, Cicero, in Tusculan Disputations, chooses neither affect nor passion but uses perturbatio to translate πάθος. He prefers this to morbus, meaning ‘diseases’ because the Greeks also used πάθος for exaltation and joy which we cannot consider disease. Thus, already we see the problem of valence when it comes to choosing a term to characterize these experiences – the term itself cannot be valenced. Furthermore, by choosing pertubatio, Cicero makes a philosophical intervention in the reception of Greek philosophy by replacing medical metaphors with metaphors of movement and reintroducing into Latin a model of mind in Plato and Pythagoras who divided the soul into two: one of peacefulness that shares in reason and another that doesn’t, the seat of stormy emotions, motus turbidos. Perturbatio captures this metaphorical domain as it is comprised of the prefix per- meaning ‘thoroughly, to completion’ and turbāre from turbo ‘to disturb’ and implicitly contains a sense of a passive initiation of something that must run its course which means that, for Cicero, it becomes imperative to avoid perturbations in the first place as once initiated they cannot be stopped but must flow to completion.
On a purely etymological level, this understanding of perturbation resembles that of emotion which derives from the Latin ēmovēre to move out, drive away or banish, for example, pain. In this choice of concepts it is an implicit negatively valenced motion (as turbo or moveo) that is foregrounded . However, from a wider perspective than mere etymology, Thomas Dixon’s From Passions to Emotions claims that by 1850, the category of emotion had subsumed ‘passions,’ ‘affections’ and ‘sentiments’ in most English-language psychological theorists such as Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40). The increase in popularity of emotion arose from the 17th century consolidation of philosophies of individualism as well as a secularisation that sought to avoid the associations of passion and affection with the biblical and theological preferring emotion for its alternative network of relations to psychology, law, observation, evolution, etc. This resulted in differing causal explanations for the phenomena: whilst Christian philosophers assumed passions were the soul acting on the body, emotions then became the brain acting on the body. The scientific brain replaces the theological soul as agent.
This analysis of concepts reveals at root two alternative approaches adequately described by affect/passion and emotion. Whether separated or identified, however, they nevertheless share an implicit foundation in activity and passivity and in the metaphorical domains of theology, medicine and physics. The question as to whether surprise is an emotion, affect or other is therefore not philosophically, historically or politically neutral. And this question continues to haunt the pages of this volume: for the question of valence appears regularly as well as the question of active/passive. And the metaphorical domain continues to oscillate between a philosophical approach (mainly that of phenomenology) and a more scientific one of psychology and linguistics. Indeed, the sheer diversity of disciplines included in this volume (without any one dominating) – medical (depression), philosophy (phenomenology), science (psychology), theological (in the discussion of Paul) or language and literature – continues the question over which metaphorical domain to place the concepts in. Such a complex and multi-faceted problem does indeed touch on everything from language, linguistics, phenomenology, science and theology and it is therefore refreshing that this volume features accounts from all these differing approaches.
Moreover, the volume is enhanced through combinations of these disciplines: the introduction states the multidisciplinary approaches as ‘philosophy, psychophysiology, psychiatry and linguistics’ (vi) and mention early attempts at the interface of philosophy and linguistics, phenomenology and psycho-neuro-physiology or philosophy-phenomenology. Phenomenology, neuroscience, physiology, is an interesting and productive binding.
If this short history of the concepts used to describe this realm of experience reveals anything, it is perhaps how implicated in past metaphysics this whole discourse is. Thus, it might be productive to uncover how implicitly the authors depend on such a past metaphysics (notably that of a past metaphysics of coupled opposites derived from Greek philosophy) in approaching the central question posed by the book. Furthermore, perhaps the value of this book lies in its manifestation of a tension relating to how surprise appears to depend on and yet transcend these categories and conceptual histories of philosophy.
Sheets-Johnstone speaks directly to this question of past metaphysics when she complains of a ‘metaphysics of absence’ that leads to an ‘absence of the body below the neck’ (84). The traditional body/mind division is that which leads to this critique. But the influence of a past metaphysics of coupled opposites is felt most concretely with the numerous oppositions that continue to structure the problem field: positive/negative, approach/avoidance, and sympathetic/parasympathetic nervous systems not to mention emotion/cognition and emotion/volition. Such a metaphysics enables the very analysis Livet proposes in his concluding paragraph where he walks through eight possible combinations based on oppositional pairings of explicit/implicit, emotion/volition and the transition between the two. This then requires also that emotion be opposed to cognition and the whole realm of complexity is perhaps reduced to slotting aspects into a neat, three dimensional grid of implicit/explicit, emotion/volition, affect/cognition.
But perhaps the main oppositional pair that governs all these other pairs is the active/passive which features prominently in many authors’ discussions and may stem from the translation of the Greek pathos into a discourse of passivity. For example, Steinbock asks whether surprise is active or passive given that startle must be passive (10). For Livet, the active/passive is applied to the difference between emotions (passive) and volitions (active) and Livet argues both can actually be active either in an explicit, conscious or implicit way. But ultimately, Livet and Steinbock both demonstrate just how futile and inadequate conceiving something like emotions as passive or active is. Steinbock notes that the active/passive cannot adequately be applied to surprise for it cannot be purely passive but indicates transition from a more passive to a more active awakening (12). Often what is passive is said to be also active leading to them being active and passive at the same time and the whole point of the distinction to disappear.
The centrality of the active/passive together with the alternate history of mostly disturbing movements gives rise to a conception of affects as quantitative flows and is evidenced in the repeated mentions of intensity and valence. For example, in Depraz’s brief history of the concept of valence that began with Kurt Lewin in 1935. He proposed valence as a double-opposed movement of attraction and repulsion in reference to his force-field analysis of social situations. It defines the intrinsic attractiveness of an event, object or situation and, by extension, also the attractiveness of the emotion itself. This concept then became ‘an operative concept to define the very structural dynamics of emotions in psychology’ (41). Perhaps we could say more generally it is a metaphysics of coupled opposites that defines the structural dynamics of emotion implicit to psychology?
Given the privileging of their disturbing character, passions, affects or emotions are then treated as (or have to be differentiated from) external impositions disrupting purely self-present subjects that produces philosophies of defence that privilege sameness over difference. This approach would then consider surprise as negative or, at least, somewhat out of our control.
Furthermore, if surprise is based very much on this difference between world and self, the question of what is surprising – prominent mostly in the linguistics section – is problematised as it will vary from individual to individual. Philosophies might then seek to ‘master’ affects: because one could not know in advance whether a surprise would be negative or positive, it is better to resist them all together. This question of individuality presents a challenge to those papers that try to elicit surprise in experimental settings. Can surprise be identified in the absence of the experiencer and their expectations that are often implicit? This is perhaps why Steinbock differentiates surprise from startle – one could agree we could all be startled by a loud interruption but whether one is surprised by some of the examples might depend on one’s experience in the world, particularly in the case of police interactions (9). Perhaps this question underlies the difficulty inherent to the project of deciding whether surprise is an emotion.
Bloechl is perhaps most explicit in addressing this question. He writes that, if surprise depends on some difference between a subject’s expectation and actuality, ‘the intelligibility of the experience depends in some important measure on the condition of the subject and its relation to the world in which it lives’. He thus argues we can differentiate among surprises by attending to the context in which they occur (historical, cultural, personal-psychological, etc.). But, he adds, ‘without surrendering the possibility of grasping their inner unity in some irreducible essence (eidos)’ (119). What is it that remains the same across all differences in surprise, different expectations, different subjectivities? The experience of difference?
An important point to mention on this question of individuality and whether emotions like surprise can be said to be universal is the focus Ekman’s paradigm of ‘basic emotions’ based on facial expressions receives in Depraz, Brizard, Goutéraux, Celle et al. Although Ekman receives criticism in Sheets-Johnstone for ‘“the absence of the body below the neck”’ (84), his paradigm as a whole continues to pervade the psychological discourse of emotions despite major methodological criticisms coming from within and without psychology. Ekman’s paradigm has been coherently critiqued, particularly over its claims to cross-cultural comparison, most notably by Ruth Leys in her The Ascent of Affect.
So is there an alternative to this approach to affects and to surprise? Could we uncover such an alternative, manifest them in the same way surprise acts to manifest a difference between implicit expectations and actuality? Can a focus on surprise yield the very surprises needed to reveal implicit foundations? Perhaps surprise best offers such a path with its ambiguous valence problematizes any neat ascription to either positive or negative. Furthermore, whilst we may know surprise in itself, the details of its surprise is unique to each occurrence. And, in the surprise, we can learn the difference between our habitual, implicit being as it becomes manifested in the difference to the actual. Thus, affects here become a potential for individual growth and becoming rather than something to be defended against whilst retaining some universality for comparison and intersubjective understanding.
One such alternative is being drawn out by the work of Depraz for instance in her rejection of opposites for circularity (39). She argues, refreshingly, that ‘integrated emotions [like love, submission, etc.] show that we have to deal here with a three-dimensional dynamic model and not with a linear list of emotions opposed one to the other’ (29). She notes how phenomenology is uniquely positioned to enable such a synthetic integration of of cognitive, physiological, evolutionary and other aspects and her proposal is for a cardiophenomenology that places the emphasis not on the brain but on the heart partly because the heart-system is an integrative system and better recognizes the ‘unique dynamic circular living rythmic of such a system’ (48). The heart self-organizes ‘as soon as the embryo develops spontaneous contractions independently of the brain’ and integrates the nervous and brain system as well as performing a control function (48-49). The heart is both physio-organic and uniquely lived. You can’t feel your neurons but you can feel your heart and thus is ‘self-feelable’, an auto-affection. Thus the heart becomes, ‘the matrix of the person as both lived (affection) and organic (muscle), or again, the core of the weaving between the first- and the third-person experience of the subject’ (48).
Such an approach allows for physiological measures to get third-person perspectives on surprise as startle yet also allows for comparison with first-person perspectives on the feeling of those physiological measures. It also allows the experiential aspect not just a theoretical-textual approach so that individual differences in singular surprising events can be acknowledged. Surprise is thus the core-experience of a heart-centred, cardiophenomenology for Depraz.
This focus on the heart and its rhythmicity gives a more interactive circular dynamic than the perhaps active/passive transmissions of the brain from input to muscular output. Instead of causal, sequential flows of neuronal pathways, of flowing out of movements that must be expended, which always eventually leads to the active and passive (the brain as active sending out of passive sensations or movements), Depraz enables a focus on integration and circularity.
Desmidt also mentions cardiac psychology as ‘an integrative dynamic that includes the systems of the context, the body (and the heart and brain within the body), and the lived experience that dynamically interact according to the three phases to produce an emotional experience’ (64). He quotes Craig’s model of emotion in which an emotional experience ‘is produced by the sequential integration in the insular cortex of five types of information according to a spatial gradient’ (66).
Yet is this a move that repeats the debate between Galen and Aristotle – Aristotle seeing the heart as the centre, Galen the brain? For the nervous system is also seen as integrative. Perhaps the ultimate issue here is not whether it is the brain or the heart that is central but the challenge to the dominance of the active/passive ‘sending out’ for one that is more about circular dynamics.
Livet also acknowledges there should be a focus on ‘the entanglements between the different aspects of motivation experience […] without taking for granted restrictive definitions that overestimate their oppositions and underestimate their intimate relations. He urges a study of the ‘entanglements between different aspects of motivational experience without taking for granted restrictive definitions that overestimate their oppositions and underestimate their intimate relations’ (114). As to the active/passive, Livet recognizes that emotions are usually considered passive whilst volitions active but proposes they be considered as two kinds ‘that belong to a more inclusive category, namely the category of motivational dynamics’ (105).
It is then a question, not of oppositions but of entanglements, bindings, integrations that cannot be reduced to couplings of opposites or mechanical linear flows of active and passive but instead opens to the question of what bindings might enable and sustain our flourishing. Bloechl can perhaps be read as providing how an affect such as surprise could lead to our becoming and not be something to be defended against, mastered or known in advance through the example of Paul. Notably, Bloechl attends both to Paul’s state such that he experienced the surprise of a conversion (which depended on Paul’s ‘disposition’) as well as how he then integrated the experience. He looks for evidence for the former by attending to Paul’s Judaism prior to the experience and the latter through the Christianity in Paul’s letters.
What Bloechl concludes is that in Paul’s experience, and perhaps the experience of surprise more generally, there is a passage from inward and personal experience to an outward and universal discourse. He adds, ‘unless there is an affinity […] between that which surprises and that which is interpreted as the surprise, the event itself is literally unintelligible’ (127-128). This ‘affinity’ could also be called a context and it is surprise which can alter the entirety of a context, it comes, he adds, with ‘its own horizon of meaning’. Yet ‘unless at least some of this new meaning can be fused with the meaning of what it may challenge and transform, it remains strictly alien. The nature and limits of that fusion are open to interpretation and call for concepts that do not obscure the experience in question’ (128). Surprise and affects not so individual as to be incomparable across individuals or cultures but not so universal as to preclude the first-person perspective. Somewhere between reductive binaries and trivializing infinities.
Such an individual/universal approach is demonstrated in the volume applied to depression which is conceptualized in terms of an inability to anticipate pleasure in a situation even when they do then feel pleasure in its actualisation. Yet, it is a pity this account did not take into account the individual histories of expectation/actuality that is so paramount to surprise – if someone is depressed and cannot anticipate pleasure in a situation perhaps it is because of so many failed expectations? Although the authors suggest ‘hyporeactivity in depression may be characterized by an imparied cardiac physiology, especially during the anticipation phase’ (67). Here the question of individual history and ahistorical biology rears its head and the benefit should surely be in their mutual cooperation.
Perhaps if there is one key theme emerging from all these discussions it is the question of difference; difference between emotion and cognition, a difference encountered in an organism’s interaction with itself and its world that leads to differentiations, splits, retreats or avoidance and it extending or protending itself into its past/future. This focus on difference also helps against one discipline dominating: where is the organism’s self-difference? In the neurons? The gap between neurons? Any criticism of a cognitive privilege could then be countered by the fact that these expectations are often implicit and, moreover, manifested in the difference experienced and thus prior to any split between mind and body, this split coming after the fact as an attempt to integrate the experience. Indeed, it could be through a historical series of surprises that we find ourselves in this problem of mind/body dualism split. Is the feeling of oneself then arising from a unity with oneself or difference to oneself?
There are several mentions of the entangled nature of emotions and surprise. Can these be best understood within a metaphysics of opposites such as of active/passive, of cause/effect any longer? Or is the domain emotions try to capture one more of contingency, of expectations meeting actuality where these are not opposites but in their unfolding produce each other. Just like Picasso’s quote ‘je ne cherche pas, je trouve’ cited in this volume: it is only in finding, in the difference between expectation and actuality, that one knows one was searching.
It is in the unfolding of the entanglement this collection of essays resides in rather than the entanglement itself where surprise and emotion surely lie. Otherwise, we cannot truly find the alternative to the dominance of cognitive and computational so many authors descry. It seems if universality is not acceptable, and definitions vary, the experience of defining affects is the very experience of individuating, growing and self-differentiation, this self-differentiation that is the universal. Is this not a more adequate account of the affect surprise? Such would be the performative and not merely textual effect of reading this volume. Today, perhaps it is not wonder but surprise that is the beginning of philosophy.