[Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a series in which New Directions in the Study of Prayer grantees reflect on their interdisciplinary conversations about the study of prayer. The series began with Charles Hirschkind’s “Cognition and Culture, at it Again!“.]
We were intrigued to learn about your quarrel, and it reminded us of arguments we’ve had since we got involved in a new pursuit called the “History of Emotions.” We have both become quite passionate about studying the fine art of blushing in Victorian Britain or the question whether or not Native Americans on their vision quests felt as abject as the texts of their songs suggest, or if the songs were just to make the spirits pity them. We love finding texts and images in archives and libraries and inferring structures of feeling from them.
But once in a while, one of us catches what we call the “cognition bug.” He or she asks why we bother to write about different regions and epochs when human emotions are all based in physiology and neurology, and best studied through brain scans and controlled clinical trials. Old married couple that we are, this bug alternates between us. Whichever one of us doesn’t have it at a given moment tries to cheer up the one who does. Lately, we have found solace in a 2013 book on the history of emotions by German historian Ute Frevert, entitled Vergängliche Gefühle (“Fleeting Feelings”). The main thesis of the book is that, though there may be a physiological basis to human emotions and their expression (Victorian ladies were not the only ones who expressed shame through blushing) different emotions are emphasized and elaborated upon in different times and places. Feminine modesty may be praised and valued in one historical milieu, ridiculed in another. As Frevert puts it: “It is one thing to localize feelings in particular regions of the brain and to measure them, another to experience them consciously. Experience requires naming and designating.” Emotion-terms, she points out, play their part in shaping the experience of being angry or happy, and they bring with them conventional ways of expressing the emotion and acting as someone who is delighted, angry, or afraid. Across times and cultures, people have been considered more prone to experience certain emotions based on their gender, age, class, orethnic origin.
For historians like us, such variability is justification enough to keep reading old diaries, travelers’ reports, and advice books, while also taking an interest on what psychologists come up with in their laboratories. Sometimes their rigid study design and lack of historical context seem quite ridiculous to us, whereas to them it probably sounds ludicrous when we speak of the emotional world of a whole epoch based on those letters and diaries that happen to have survived in the archives. But from our marriage we have learned that nobody is perfect and unexpected things happen when differences collide. So, Ms. S-C and Mr. C, you may never learn to agree, but perhaps you can each be glad that there are other people who take pleasure in what would bore and frustrate you. Ms. S-C doesn’t need to worry about representative sampling and rigid experimental design, and Mr. C does not need to learn new languages and go to unfamiliar places. When you cross paths at a conference, you most likely will yell at each other for a while, but we are sure you secretly enjoy the encounter. Perhaps you will even ask your research questions a little differently afterward.
With best wishes to both of you,
Victor Historian and Americana West-Historian