Fighting fire with fireology: Barbara Rosenwein’s new history of anger

Dr Imke Rajamani was a fellow at the Center for the History of Emotions at the Max-Planck-Institute for Human Development Berlin from 2011-2018, where she conducted research on anger and masculinity in postcolonial India. She is now working for the Falling Walls Foundation. Her publications include articles about concepts and images of anger in popular Indian cinema, and the co-edited book Monsoon Feelings: A History of Emotions in the Rain (New Delhi: Niyogi Books, 2018).

In this post, Dr Rajamani reviews Barbara Rosenwein’s Anger: The Conflicted History of an Emotion (Yale University Press, 2020) for The History of Emotions Blog. 

The title of Barbara Rosenwein’s recent book is misleading: Anger (singular): The conflicted history of an emotion (singular). The title suggests that the book treats “anger” as a singular entity, an emotion or concept with a universal common denominator, whose evolution and contested meanings could be traced from antiquity to the present.[1] This is not the case.

The cover design, by Alex Kirby, comes closer to describing the content of the book and Barbara Rosenwein’s approach to anger. The word anger is printed in four pink blocks against a dark background. At the bottom, the bold, capital letters of the word appear clear. In the blocks above, the word has been stamped multiple times with different angles ­– twice into the second block up, thrice into the third and apparently four of five times into the highest block, making the word almost unreadable. In this design, anger appears multiple, layered, blurred and ambiguous. The closer the word anger is to the author’s name on the cover, the clearer it appears. The more distant the word or concept is from the author, the blurrier and the more ambiguous it gets, finally appearing unidentifiable.

One could interpret this design to represent stages in research. Does the researcher start with a blurry image that becomes clearer step by step, or does the researcher start with a clear concept of anger, that appears more layered and ambiguous the further she conducts her research? Both are true.

Barbara Rosenwein invites us, her readers, to look at and “rejoice … about that larger picture” (p. 200) of the many angers in history and the present, however ambiguous, blurred or distant they appear initially. The more we learn about the diversity of words, narratives, scripts, moral judgements, bodily enactments, medical practices and religious beliefs about anger, “the better we will be able to navigate our own lives” (p. 199). If the starting point and aim of any history of emotions is the understanding of one’s own feelings, and the emotions that govern one’s own emotional communities, it is logical that the English word “anger” features on the cover and that Rosenwein starts to explore angers in histories by placing a personal experience and memory at the centre of her larger picture. When she was a child, she tells us, she would sometimes beat her favourite doll. Her mother would explain the behaviour to a visitor with the words “That girl has a lot of anger in her”. Rosenwein asks: “What was this anger that I had a lot of?” (pp. 1-2).

The book – an extended historical answer to Rosenwein’s question – explores anger in three parts. The first is entitled, “Anger rejected (almost) absolutely” (pp. 10-79), and explores traditions of thought which follow the imperatives “abandon anger” and “avoid anger” ­– from Buddhist writings to contemporary anger management strategies for managers; from Seneca and the Stoics to the contemporary Neo-Stoics, such as Martha Nussbaum’s plea ‘avoid anger, embrace forgiveness and give peace a chance’[2]; from biblical ideas of peaceable kingdoms to contemporary violence in the name of religion.

Exploring the relations between anger and violence is a motif which runs throughout all the subchapters of part one. Rosenwein notes that “in the modern Western mind, anger, violence, and aggression are persistently associated, almost a ‘knee-jerk reaction’” (p. 65). She wants to break this assumption by showing that “peace is not the opposite of anger, and violence is not necessarily anger’s outcome” (p. 66). The stressing of this argument can be understood as a critique of Pankaj Mishra’s widely read 2017 book, Age of Anger.[3] Mishra traces conflict and political violence almost exclusively back to a universal kind of anger, which accumulated as a reaction to injustices brought about by the colonialist infliction of Western modernity on the world as a whole. Rosenwein argues:

Some of us worry that our many angers – so profoundly delightful, horrible, frightening, and powerful – will tear apart our social fabric. But in part that is because we have simplified a very complicated matter by labelling so many different feelings and behaviours “angry”. This book teases out the particulars and, by doing so, aims to give us a new perspective on ourselves and our era. (p. 7)

The first part concludes with a reflection on the performative power of angry words and words for anger, which brings us back to the centre of Rosenwein’s anger picture – her own childhood memory. If she assumed that her mother’s naming of the behaviour was a transformative speech act, which made little Barbara’s behaviour anger by naming it as such, the concept was still open to interpretation: “Buddha would have agreed that my anger was … wrong-headed and self-destructive” (p. 10). From a Stoic point of view, the beating of the doll could have been an incident of anger as proper judgement and reasoned punishment – “perhaps in my mind, my doll had done something bad” (p. 39). In the Aristotelian view and its modern adaptations, the child had maybe acted out or mirrored the vengeful anger of her father, who talked at home about how he felt treated unjustly on his job (p. 83). Not only are there multiple angers, even one anger concept has multiple and often conflicted meanings. Why do we name and label feelings and behaviours the way we do? And what have goal orientation and morality to do with it?

This is the starting point for the second part of the book on “Anger as a vice but also (sometimes) as a virtue” (pp. 82-128). This part explores moral evaluations of anger and how anger was used to explain, condemn, excuse, justify or motivate aggressive behaviours. It also reflects a history of thought on the relation of body and mind, reason and emotion, in philosophical, religious and scholarly writing. The larger picture of anger is held together by constantly connecting contemporary angers to those of the past. For example, when Rosenwein explains that the Medieval Christian notion of “anger as righteous, passionate, virtuous and productive would have a potent future in the modern world” (p. 113) – which is another moment of countering Mishra’s historiography of anger – while she notices that there runs a parallel development of a declining acceptance of anger in America, as has been described by Peter and Carol Stearns in their book on anger from 1986.[4]

The conclusion of part two is one of the rare instances where Rosenwein allows herself to cast moral judgement on an anger. She writes:

the problem is the very idea of righteous anger. Our voices would be far less discordant if we did not believe that our anger is just and virtuous while ‘theirs’ is not, if we admitted that we might possibly be wrong (p. 128).

Emotional pluralism, the acknowledgement that different emotional communities have different angers with shared and distinct and conflicted histories, is at the core of her methodology and the moral standpoint expressed with most clarity in part two.

The third part, titled “Natural anger”, discusses the idea of anger as a natural phenomenon or natural force that affects the human body and mind or is produced by them. It presents anger as a subject in the medical and natural sciences, starting with Galen in antiquity and ending with neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett in the present. The question that dominates the research discourse in the 20th and 21st centuries is to what extend anger is shaped by nature (genes, evolution, basic instincts, bodily reactions) and to what extend is shaped by culture and society (learning and conceptualizing emotions). Rosenwein makes clear that these debates are not only of interest with regard to research, but also because political angers tend to get explained as either natural und thus unstoppable forces, or as social constructs that could be managed, avoided or abandoned, if people only wanted to. Rosenwein concludes that the “key challenge for today’s celebration of so many angers is to step back from the flash point of their combustible explosivity and begin to talk” about the goals and aims that motivate them (p. 195).

What I personally like about Barbara Rosenwein’s book is that she does not claim to have found the new key to solving anger as a problem – in fact, she does not even claim that anger necessarily is a problem. Unlike other authors of recent anger books that gained popularity, Rosenwein keeps the moral impetus low. To put it in a simplified (and maybe slightly unfair) way: Pankaj Mishra is countering anger with anger (fighting fire with fire). Martha Nussbaum suggests we can simply answer anger with forgiveness (fighting fire with a smile). Barbara Rosenwein promotes pluralism and suggests that we should all develop an empathetic understanding for the many angers, past and present, before we judge and act (approaching fire with fireology).

I am usually a fan of academic activism and the idea of translating knowledge into action in the spirit of wanting to improve the world. But since anger concepts are very much linked to violence and power in present day emotionologies, not only in meta-discourse but in the politics of action, where angers are used as tools of mobilization (p. 191)[5], I read Barbara Rosenwein’s book as an invitation to move the intellectual discourse and activism on anger beyond the one-moral-judgement-fits-all approach.

In Rosenwein’s book anger is a vice and a virtue, violent and calm behaviour, the reaction to injustice and a child’s play. Anger is felt as uncomfortable and pleasurable, in the brain, in the heart, in the pulse and without measurable bodily alterations. Anger has been identified and misinterpreted in faces, has been named with agreement and disagreement. Which brings us back to the fundamental question, that Thomas Dixon asked in the title of his recent article: “What is the history of anger a history of?”[6]

Anger. The conflicted history of an emotion is a history of knowledge traditions which Barbara Rosenwein chose as ‘having to do with anger’ on the basis of her own memories, experiences, knowledge and observations. The strength of her approach is the transparency of why and how she chose the topics and examples for her book. She addresses the blind spots and gaps in her larger picture of the angers in histories. At the same time, she expresses the desire to see more and fill those gaps. Is this approach an excuse for writing Eurocentric history, or a way of acknowledging pluralism while actually dismissing it? It could be. But it could also be understood as a call for building collective knowledge on the many angers in the field of the history of emotion, because one book will never be able to do justice to the topic.

The beauty and challenge of pluralism is, that there are multiple and often conflicting answers to one question. Therefore we should take notice of the cover and its message about how a history of anger – or any emotion – appears more ambiguous, layered and maybe even incomplete, the more you discover about it.



[1] The criticism on anger in the singular has also been made in greater detail and depths by Thomas Dixon in his recent article from 2020: What is the History of Anger a History of? Emotions: History, Culture, Society 4, 1-34, p. 28.

[2] Martha Nussbaum (2016). Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity and Justice, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[3] Pankaj Mishra (2017). Age of Anger: A History of the Present, New York: Picador.

[4] Carol Stearns and Peter Stearns (1986): Anger: The Struggle for Emotional Control in America’s History, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[5] See for example Amélie Blom and Stephanie Tawa Lama-Rewal, Eds (2020). Emotions, Mobilisations and South Asian Politics, London, New York: Routledge.

[6] Thomas Dixon, ‘What is the history of anger a history of’, Emotions: History, Culture, Society 4.1 (2020): 1-34.

Reading Darwin’s Expression

Psychology texts all name Darwin as a founder, yet hail only one concept: natural selection. None seems to know that his books represent a distinctive approach to understanding all forms of agency. This post examines how Darwin’s psychology shaped his take on expressions of emotion.

Ben Bradley is Emeritus Professor of Psychology at Charles Sturt University in Australia. His authored books include Psychology and Experience (2005), Visions of Infancy (1989), and, most recently, Darwin’s Psychology (2020), which is available now through Oxford University Press.

Barely two months after Charles Darwin died in April 1882, Nature had rushed out a series of essays assessing his impact on science. Following geology, zoology, and botany came a final essay on psychology, written by Darwin’s protégé George Romanes. Its premise was an odd one: Darwin’s impact on psychology was ‘immense,’ equalling his impact in any other science. Yet, not only was Mr. Darwin ‘not himself a psychologist.’ He had ‘little aptitude for,’ and even less sympathy with psychological methods. Romanes knew that Darwin privately scorned the scientific pretensions of two leading-lights in Victorian psychology, Herbert Spencer and Alexander Bain – believing that the ‘problems of mind,’ should not be viewed metaphysically or deductively, but ‘in the same broad and general light’ as ‘all the other problems of nature.’[i]

So, what was it about Darwin’s understanding of animals and plants that flowed through to his psychology? More precisely, where did his naturalist’s stance most distinguish his treatment of emotional expressions? Answer: in his focus on the nexus between action and response—as my book Darwin’s Psychology elaborates.[ii]

Figure 1. Brassica oleracea (wild cabbage): spiral and geotropic (earth-seeking) movement of a radicle, traced by Darwin on horizontal glass over 46 hours.[iii]

Darwin cast both plants and animals as agents. Witness his experiments on purposive movement in cabbage radicles (Figure 1), the tendrils of climbing plants, and on earthworms’ intelligent plugging of their holes with leaves. Agency was crucial because, as his law of natural selection stressed, all actions produce reactions, which over time build up a complex theatre of interdependencies between living creatures and their surroundings, animate and inanimate—this theatre producing both the development of individual differences and the metaphorical ‘struggle for existence’ which help drive evolution. This crucial tie between a creature’s movements and their rebounding effects carried over into Darwin’s psychology. So much so that even when Darwin framed non-verbal expressions as purposeless side-effects of functional behaviour – we weep because the protective shutting of the eyes when suffering children scream incidentally stimulates tear-production – he hypothesised that such side-effects first came to signify emotionally through the agency of others responding to them as expressive, only by this route entering common understanding (as e.g. tears mean grief).

The innate human capacity for recognizing others’ expressions – what psychologists nowadays call ‘innate intersubjectivity’ – forms the centrepiece of Darwin’s psychology.[iv] It underpins his explanation for the ‘highest’ or most human of human capacities: language, culture, and conscience. His psychological analysis in all three cases – and also of sexual display – depends on a specialised form of rebounding, or meta-, recognition: my concern for how I read you to be reading me. This reflexive process of ‘self-attention’ is a core feature in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (henceforth Expression). Expression’s culminating chapter, on blushing, brings together the latest Victorian discoveries about circulatory physiology (Figure 2) with two psychological theories first sketched in notebooks penned thirty years earlier, when Darwin was in his twenties: of the ‘double self’ or ‘double consciousness’; and of sympathy. ‘It is not the simple act of reflecting on our own appearance, but the thinking what others think of us, which excites a blush,’ he wrote.[v] Thinking what others think of us – in the analyses of agency comprising The Descent of Man – proves as fundamental to the mutual intelligibility and maintenance of moral standards which distinguish different human groups, or the aesthetic tastes that vary between cultures, as it is to the self-ornamentation and ‘love-antics’ by which I aim to seduce the attentions of those whom I desire to desire me.

Figure 2. For the second edition of Expression, Darwin asked John Burden Sanderson to use a sphygmograph (pictured) to test whether small changes in blood pressure were consequent upon the movement of a subject’s attention to and away from his or her arm. But there was no second edition in Darwin’s lifetime. So the experiment never happened.[vi]

Expression is primarily where Darwin built his case for the central place of reading others in human psychology, on several grounds. If the muscle-movements comprising expressions of emotion have never been under conscious control, nor intended to express, an isolated expresser cannot know what they are expressing. Hence, Darwin proposed that there was an ‘a priori probability’ that an instinct for interpreting others’ movements as expressive had co-evolved with those movements.[vii] Nor was an inbuilt capacity for reading others just a theoretical necessity. It was confirmed by observation, both of adults and infants. It also proved itself by grounding Darwin’s trail-blazing methods for investigating expressive movement.

As described in Expression, these methods of research are all observational. In the 1860s, Darwin mailed out questionnaires to six continents, requesting trustworthy observers report back on the occurrence and form of specified expressions, particularly in ‘natives who have had little communication with Europeans.’ He only credited answers which recorded ‘the circumstances … under which each expression was observed’—underlining the importance Darwin gave to context in reading others’ movements.[viii] Observations and experiments on his infant son Doddy likewise confirmed the human capacity for reading others’ expressions. Again, context was key. The four-month-old Doddy’s Dad reported that he made in his baby’s presence ‘many odd noises and strange grimaces, and tried to look savage.’ This did not frighten Doddy, however, because the paternal experiments were ‘preceded or accompanied by smiles’—meaning Doddy read Darwin’s facial contortions ‘as good jokes.’[ix]

Darwin’s method for determining the meaning of facial expressions artificially produced by electrical stimulation was to invite lay-people to judge photographs – taken by the French scientist Guillaume-Benjamin-Amand Duchenne (1806-1885; see Figure 3) – without ‘any clue to what was intended being given.’ Only if there were near-consensus amongst lay-judges about the emotional sense attributed to a photographed expression was Darwin confident it had such sense. These ‘judgement tests’ impressed Darwin with the way untrained observers ‘instantly recognised … so many shades of expression … without any conscious process of analysis’ – further evidence that humans have an instinct for reading others.[x]

Figure 3. Twenty out of twenty-five of Darwin’s lay-judges saw the left-hand expression as Duchenne intended: depicting some version of fear. Only one of eleven judges saw the right-hand picture as related to hatred, the intended meaning.

To draw out as Darwin’s Psychology does Darwin’s notion that an expressive movement is a part-action which others complete – famously celebrated by George Herbert Mead – is to challenge a hundred years of commentary. Many claim that, for Darwin, it is ‘internal’ emotions which stamp their meaning on visible expressions, expressions themselves being ‘secondary.’[xi] Read superficially, some comments in Expression do support this gloss. But, as Darwin lamented, his book’s argument constantly ran against the grain of the assumptions about emotion that soak ordinary language. See particularly Expression’s warning about the misleading way common speech attributes purposiveness to the book’s central term, expression.[xii] Hence the need for readers to approach Expression circumspectly, because, as Einstein counselled, where scientists’ words prove ambiguous, we should fix our attention ‘on their deeds.’[xiii] Which underlines the importance of the logic behind Darwin’s research methods in Expression. And of the way he typically argued: explaining the muscular movements comprising an expression as caused by other muscular events, not by some hidden ping-pong of ‘emotions’ buried in the consciousness of the expresser, only accessible via introspection (as in Spencer and Bain).

Expression’s last paragraph reminds us that it embodies a ‘theory of expression,’ not a theory of emotion. It largely gives what we now call a situationist account of the way emotion is read into movement: meaning being generated by how an expressive action is perceived by the agents involved to interface with its interpersonal circumstances.[xiv]


[i] George Romanes, ‘Charles Darwin, [Part] V. [Psychology],’ Nature 26, (1882), p.169.

[ii] Ben Bradley, Darwin’s Psychology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020).

[iii] Charles Darwin, The Power of Movement in Plants (London: John Murray, 1881), p.11.

[iv] Colwyn Trevarthen, ‘Communication and Cooperation in Early Infancy: A Description of Primary Intersubjectivity,’ in Before Speech: The Beginnings of Human Communication, ed. Margaret Bullowa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979).

[v] Charles Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, 2nd ed. (London: Murray, 1890), p.345.

[vi] Paul White, ‘Reading the Blush,’ Configurations 24, (2016), pp.293-294.

[vii] Darwin, Expression, p.378.

[viii] Darwin, Expression, p.18.

[ix] Darwin, Expression, p.379.

[x] Darwin, Expression, pp.378-80; Charles Darwin, ‘A Biographical Sketch of an Infant,’ Mind: A Quarterly Review of Psychology and Philosophy 2, (1877), pp.293-4.

[xi] E.g. John Dewey, ‘The Theory of Emotion (1) Emotional Attitudes,’ Psychological Review 1, (1894), p.553; Lisa Barrett, ‘Was Darwin Wrong About Emotional Expressions?,’ Current Directions in Psychological  Science 20, (2011), p.400.

[xii] Darwin, Expression, p.377.

[xiii] Albert Einstein, ‘On the Method of Theoretical Physics,’ Philosophy of Science 1, (1934), p.163.

[xiv] Darwin, Expression, p.387; Carlos Crivelli and Alan Fridlund, ‘Facial Displays Are Tools for Social Influence,’ Trends in Cognitive Sciences 22, (2018), p.388.

Developing Emotions

Developing Emotions is a pioneering programme of lessons designed to promote emotional literacy and emotional awareness in school children. It has been developed as a collaboration between the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary University of London and TKAT Multi-Academy Trust.

The lessons were piloted in TKAT schools during 2020 – both before and after lockdown, and are now being made available to other UK primary schools. 

On average, the lessons resulted in a 75% increase in the scope of children’s emotional vocabularies. 

Teachers, PSHE leads, and Wellbeing leads – please read (and listen) more in the blog post below and find out more about the lessons, activities and resources.

If you want to skip straight to the free lessons,
please sign up here to get access to all the resources.

In the podcast episode embedded below, you can listen to Professor Thomas Dixon, during a visit to one of the participating schools, talking to teachers about the way the lessons support emotional learning:

The Developing Emotions lessons cover topics including sadness, joy, tears, laughter, anger, revenge, fear, worry, love and friendship. They are cross-curricular lessons, with an emphasis on the history of emotions, literacy, vocabulary, and the creative arts. They also covers key topics in PSHE, science, and philosophy.

Activities include art, writing tasks, debates, music, dance, and a final quiz for each unit. Children will encounter blues music, Shakespeare, the philosophy of utilitarianism, Romantic poetry, Charles Darwin’s ideas about emotions, modern dance, and more.

At present, materials have been developed for use with Year 3 and Year 5 classes (children aged 7-8 and 9-10), although they could of course be adapted for other age groups.

We hope you and your children enjoy them! We would love to hear from you about your experience of using the lessons, or if your school would like to take part in a future pilot. When you sign up you will receive a welcome email letting you know more about how to stay in touch.

The rest of this blog post includes all the links and information you need to understand and use the materials. When you are ready, you can sign up here to get access to all the resources.

What will I get when I sign up for these resources?

You will receive a login and password to give you access to all the teaching materials on the schools pages of our website The Emotions Lab.

There you will find the teaching materials divided into two pages – one for Year 3 and one for Year 5 children. On each page you will find the PowerPoints and teaching materials. The PowerPoint walks you through the lessons, with video and audio clips and images. Supporting materials provide briefings for teachers, a one-page plan for each lesson, and worksheets for children.

How can I get more of a flavour of what’s included? 

You could start by having a look at the Teacher’s Handbook 2020-21 for our Year 5/6 lessons.

Is this a PSHE programme?

Yes and no. The lessons could be used as one central strand of a PSHE curriculum focussing as they do on feelings, emotions, and friendship. However, this is also a broad cross-curricular programme using history, literature, art, drama, music, science, and philosophy to provide children with an enriched understanding of how words, images, and music can represent human emotions.  This is a programme rooted in history and with an emphasis on vocabulary and the arts.

Is this suitable for children with special educational needs or disabilities?

We hope that all lessons will be suitable for all children in mainstream schooling. They are not designed to initiate discussions of particular children’s emotions, or emotional problems, but to help all children learn more about a wide range of human experiences. It will be for you to think about whether any particular child might encounter issues in a lesson about, say, anger or sadness. You should take the usual precautions and consult with the safeguarding, pastoral, or counselling staff in your school about any concerns.

Do you know if the lessons work?

Yes! We have piloted them in TKAT schools and received positive feedback from the class teachers, who told us that children are really engaged by them and enjoy learning all about words, images, and ideas to do with emotions. Our evaluations show that children’s emotional vocabulary increases by 75% on average after taking our lessons.

The history of emotions sounds interesting! Where can I learn more?

We recommend browsing the blog posts and listening to the podcasts about different emotions on The Emotions Lab to get a flavour of the research behind Developing Emotions – and checking out our two games.

What if things are still unclear or I have other questions?

Please feel free to contact the project team at Queen Mary at any time by sending a message to

Thank-you for your interest in Developing Emotions!

You can now sign up here to get access to all the resources.


An Impassioned Royal Scandal

Today marks the 200th anniversary of the sensational trial of Queen Caroline for adultery. In this guest post for the History of Emotions blog, Dr Matthew Roberts of Sheffield Hallam University looks at the wave of sentimentalism the scandal created, and how British radicals such as Richard Carlile crafted a politics of feeling in response.

Two hundred years ago today, one of the most talked about trials in British history began in the House of Lords. Under the terms of the aptly named Bill of Pains and Penalties, Queen Caroline – the estranged wife of the new king, George IV – was put on trial for adultery. This was demanded by the king who wanted to prevent Caroline from becoming queen with the hope that a guilty verdict would be grounds for divorce.

The Trial of Queen Caroline, 1820, by Sir George Hayter. Source: National Portrait Gallery, licensed under Creative Commons.

 Just as royal scandals are today, the Queen Caroline affair was followed closely by virtually the whole country, with public opinion firmly behind the queen. The new king was widely reviled. By contrast, Caroline was loved by the people, whose just cause, in William Hazlitt’s words, ‘struck its roots into the heart of the nation’.[i] As Hazlitt’s words imply, the affair was the occasion for a wave of sentimentalism. The wave was big, even by Georgian standards.

When Caroline returned to Britain in June 1820 a constitutional crisis ensued which pitted the king and his ministers against parliament and the people. Feelings ran high both inside and outside of parliament. The affair was discussed in a highly melodramatic register, in which the wronged and not too virtuous queen was presented as the victim of a loveless marriage. The young dissolute, libertine and already (illegally) married Prince of Wales had consented to the marriage back in 1795 only as a quid pro quo for parliament paying off his massive debts.[ii]

Relations between the two royals deteriorated almost immediately, with Caroline forced into exile in 1814. By all accounts, the queen had led a lively life, mainly in Italy where, it was rumoured, she had taken an Italian lover, Bartolomeo Pergami.

Leading the campaign outdoors in favour of the queen were the radicals who skilfully presented Caroline’s suffering as a synecdoche for the plight of the working classes. Feeling was the plane upon which queen and people met. As the people of Nottingham declared to her: ‘The addressers felt for the wrongs of the Queen as they felt for the various oppressions under which they themselves laboured.’[iii]

Plebeian women sympathised with Caroline as a victimised wife; many suffered with the queen.[iv] Respectable ‘men of feeling’ felt the chivalric urge to protect their queen.[v] Those who did not sympathise with the queen were callous. The crowds who took to the streets, especially in London, admired the queen’s courage in returning to Britain despite huge bribes and threats, and were prone to angry outbursts and rioting when provoked by the authorities as they frequently were in the febrile months which followed.

Bronze medal commemorating Queen Caroline’s arrival in Britain, by J. Westwood, 1820. Source: Author’s personal collection.

The authorities and their loyalist supporters were anxious and fearful, for behind the apparent radical displays of loyal disloyalty which attached itself to the coattails of the queen lurked the Jacobin threat of bloodthirsty revolutionaries, fears that had been stoked by Peterloo and the recently foiled Cato Street conspiracy. It was hatred for the king rather than love for the queen which motivated the radicals, cynics claimed. As a result, the queen was playing with fire in allying with the radicals. Fire and smoke were recurring motifs in anti-radical and pro-king caricatures, visual representations of the inflamed passions of the multitude stoked by radical leaders.

The Radical Ladder, by George Cruikshank, 1821. Source: British Museum, licensed under Creative Commons.

Satirists had a field day as caricatures, pamphlets, broadsides and squibs circulated widely. Some of this print and visual culture was bawdy and semi-pornographic, designed to shock as well as amuse, in its lampooning of the debauched king or the queen’s lewd continental lifestyle, complete with xenophobic hostility to Caroline’s foreign lovers.

Among those radical supporters of the queen was the unlikely figure of Richard Carlile. As a republican he had, initially, dismissed the queen’s case as humbug, but he soon changed his tune to the extent that he, too, found it impossible to resist being sentimental: ‘an involuntary tear has oft trickled down my cheeks on reading of your cause’, he told the queen from his prison cell in Dorchester gaol where Carlile was serving a long prison sentence for blasphemy.[vi] Carlile’s wife, Jane, took over their radical publishing business and bookshop in Fleet Street, and she published a number of squibs and pamphlets in support of ‘the ill-fated, ill-married and ill-treated Caroline’.[vii]

In the aftermath of the affair, there is no doubt that Carlile set about trying to create and practice a rational politics of ‘pure reason’ unsullied by the kind of sentimentalism that he and other radicals had poured out in defence of the queen. But this appropriation of rationality, as with much else in political language, was rhetoric crafted for a specific purpose. Carlile’s aversion to sentimentalism in the 1820s was part of the war he was waging with rival radical leaders whose reliance on the effusive, but all-too transient mass platform (large open-air meetings), and the adulation of the credulous masses for romantic radical leaders like Henry Hunt, was juxtaposed to his own rival ascetic, austere rational republicanism. To put it another way, the politics of feeling was central to the rivalry among British radical leaders.

Richard Carlile. Source: British Museum, licensed under Creative Commons

In any case, Carlile’s path to ‘pure reason’ was paved with affective tensions as he struggled to practice what he preached, while it turned out that the destination of ‘pure reason’ he was aiming for was a state of happiness. But this aside, his sentimental response to the queen was neither opportunistic, diversionary or without lasting consequence, as claimed by his biographers who have struggled to explain Carlile’s impassioned response to Caroline.[viii]

The callous treatment of the queen was symptomatic of arbitrary government and the ways in which ‘honest industry is robbed to gratify the bad passions of the idle and vicious’, as Carlile put it. This was the real reason why ‘every vein in’ his body ‘had swelled with indignation at…the filthy tales manufactured’ by the queen’s enemies who were without shame.[ix] All this was grist to the mill of Carlile’s republicanism.

Above all, the queen’s case was an important watershed moment in Carlile’s emerging feminism. By the end of the 1820s, Carlile had become infamous for his controversial views on sex, love and marriage. One of the main rights that he advocated was divorce and free love, by which he meant men and women should marry for love, and be free to divorce if that love ceased. It was no coincidence that Carlile dwelt on the absence of this in the royal marriage: ‘It is much to be lamented  that a mutual separation is not legal’, he had written at the beginning of the affair.[x] Women had just as much right to be loved as men.

Carlile claimed that women had the same affective capacity for love as men. Thus, sex should be a mutually pleasurable experience for both parties; his advocacy of birth control was designed to remove the dreaded fear of unwanted pregnancy. Carlile’s feminism was grounded in a universalist notion that all humans had the same potential capacity for feeling, a view which also underpinned his opposition to slavery, as it did for his mentor Thomas Paine.[xi]

Carlile was not the only one for whom the queen’s case was a watershed. More broadly, we can see Queen Caroline affair as a key moment when the notion that the public sphere ought to be an arena characterised by restraint and decency was consolidated. Though humour, sarcasm, irony and theatricality did not disappear from the public political sphere it was never again as obscene and unrestrained as it had been 1820.[xii] Some of this undoubtedly stemmed from a reaction to the emotional over-heating of the queen’s case, a factor in the decision of the Tory government’s decision to drop the Bill of Pains and Penalties in November 1820.

Caroline’s moment of triumph was all-too-brief: she soon lost favour by taking a pension from the government, and when she tried to gain entry to the king’s coronation in July 1821, she found the doors of Westminster Abbey barred. Less than a month later she was dead (from an obstruction of the bowel), a poignant and melodramatic end which led to an outpouring of public grief, and further riots as the authorities tried to quietly ship her body back to her native Brunswick.

Thereafter, as regency radicalism lost much of its sentimentalism, Carlile was at the radical forefront in creating a set of feeling rules that accented restraint, respectability and soberness. But Carlile’s case is a reminder that historians need to be on their guard when historical actors juxtapose their self-proclaimed rationality against emotion. Affairs of the mind or heart are rarely so stark.

[i] Quoted in Nicholas Rogers, Crowds, Culture, and Politics in Georgian Britain. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998, p. 248.

[ii] Thomas W. Laqueur (1982), ‘The Queen Caroline Affair: Politics as Art in the Reign of George IV’, Journal of Modern History, 54, pp. 417-66; Anna Clark (1990), ‘Queen Caroline and the Sexual Politics of Popular Culture in London, 1820’, Representations, 31, pp. 47-68.

[iii] Black Dwarf (1820), 2 August.

[iv] As Rob Boddice notes, the original definition of the word sympathy meant to suffer with. Boddice, Rob (2016), The Science of Sympathy: Morality, Evolution, and Victorian Civilisation. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, p. 3.

[v] Louise Carter (2008), ‘British Masculinities on Trial in the Queen Caroline Affair of 1820’, Gender & History, 20, p. 261.

[vi] Republican (1820), 8 December.

[vii] A Warning Voice to the People of England (n.d. [1820]. London: Jane Carlile.

[viii] Iain McCalman (1993), Radical Underworld: Prophets, Revolutionaries, and Pornographers in London, 1795-1840. Oxford, Oxford University Press, p. 162; Joel Wiener (1983), Radicalism and Freethought in Nineteenth-Century Britain: The Life of Richard Carlile. Westport, CT, Greenwood Press, p. 57; James Epstein (1993), Radical Expression: Political Language, Ritual, and Symbol in England, 17901850. Oxford, Oxford University Press, pp. 131-32.

[ix] Republican (1820), 8 December.

[x] Republican (1820), 25 February.

[xi] Nicole Eustace (2008), Passion is the Gale: Emotion, Power, and the Coming of the American Revolution. Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, p. 440.

[xii] Vic Gatrell (2006), City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London. London, Atlantic Books, chs 17-18.




Newborn Imitation: The Stakes of a Controversy. Ruth Leys and Jan Plamper in conversation.

Ruth Leys is Henry Wiesenfeld Professor Emerita of the Humanities (Johns Hopkins University). Her pathbreaking research has critically interrogated the history of the modern concept of psychic trauma (Trauma: A Genealogy, 2000); examined the post-World War II vicissitudes of the concept of ‘survivor guilt’ and its displacement by notions of shame (From Guilt to Shame: Auschwitz and After, 2007); and traced the history of experimental and theoretical approaches to the study of the emotions (Ascent of Affect: Genealogy and Critique, 2017).

In this interview for The History of Emotions blog, she talks to Professor Jan Plamper (Goldsmiths) about her latest publication, Newborn Imitation: The Stakes of a Controversy (CUP, 2020). Part of the Elements in Histories of Emotions and the SensesNewborn Imitation is available as a free download until the 21st July.

Jan Plamper: What was the hypothesis of newborn imitation, first put forward by Meltzoff and Moore in 1977?

Ruth Leys: The hypothesis was that babies can imitate certain facial and other movements at birth. According to Meltzoff and Moore, newborns are able to imitate what are called “opaque” movements: If an adult sticks out her tongue, the baby can see the adult’s tongue moving but can’t feel it for herself; similarly, the baby can feel her own tongue protruding but can’t “see” or picture her own tongue (because she has yet to see herself in a mirror). This is the so-called “correspondence problem”: If newborns can make the match, how do they do it?

For decades the consensus, influenced especially by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, was that newborns couldn’t make such imitations. According to Piaget, imitation of this kind is only achieved at a later time, after the infant has gone through considerable learning and related cognitive changes.

But in experiments starting in 1977 Meltzoff and Moore appeared to demonstrate that very young babies could indeed perform such imitations, including babies who were only a few hours old. Their claims were widely hailed as inaugurating a revolution in the understanding of infant development. It seemed that human babies were born with far greater innate cognitive skills than those for which they had previously been given credit.

JP: How has the hypothesis been contested in recent years? 

RL: Although there was always some skepticism about Meltzoff and Moore’s claims for neonatal imitation, it tended to be swept aside in the general enthusiasm for the new findings. But in an especially important longitudinal study published in 2016 by Oostenbroek and colleagues, the validity of the experimental findings was again called into question and the issue of neonatal imitation has become a major topic of dispute. We are living at a moment when there is a widespread replication crisis in the psychological and social sciences, and the debate over the validity of neonatal imitation claims is part of that wider context.

JP: What are the larger ramifications of this debate?

RL: It is understood by present-day critics that if neonatal imitation is a chimera, the several theories that have been premised on the phenomenon will have to be modified or abandoned. This is the focus of my book. I examine and critique four theoretical claims that I identify as especially important: (1) Claims regarding the Active Intermodal Mapping (AIM) mechanism proposed by Meltzoff and Moore to explain newborn imitation; (2) Alternative mechanisms proposed to explain the phenomenon, such as mirror neuron mechanisms or various associationist theories; (3) Theories about the newborn’s sense of self based on its capacity to imitate; and (4) Claims about the non-conceptual content of the newborn’s perceptions and mindedness also based in part on the hypothesis for neonatal imitation.

The question I ask is: What will happen to all of these theories if it turns out to be the case that claims for the existence of neonatal imitation are an illusion?

JP: How does the debate relate to issues at the center of the emotions field?

RL: Soon after Meltzoff and Moore published their findings, Field et al. suggested that infants could not only imitate tongue protrusion and other facial movements, as had been reported previously, but could also mime facial movements associated with specific emotions. Their experimental approach was closely modeled on Paul Ekman’s “Basic Emotion Theory” (BET), which assumed the existence of a certain number of universal, evolved, discrete “basic emotions” governed by subcortical “affect programs” and linked to characteristic or signature facial expressions. Field et al.’s proposition was that when an adult posed the specific facial expressions held to be associated with happy, sad, and “startle” emotional states, babies were able to copy them, even babies who were only a few hours old. So one could say that the claims for an innate capacity for imitation at birth and the claims for the existence of an innate set of evolved emotions and their associated expressions reinforced each other.

I think it is clear by now – the topic is the focus of my recent book, The Ascent of Affect: Genealogy and Critique (2017) – that the BET theory is empirically unsound and theoretically confused. Indeed, one can argue that the story of the unraveling of neonatal imitation claims and their associated theories, and the unraveling of the basic emotion paradigm and its associated assumptions, go hand in hand.

Leys’ 2017 volume, The Ascent of Affect: Genealogy and Critique, examines the post-WW2 historical development of the emotions as an object of study (Credit: Chicago University Press).

JP: How does this book fit in your larger oeuvre? Would it be an exaggeration to say that this is the fourth instalment in a tetralogy, encompassing TraumaFrom Guilt to Shame, and The Ascent of Affect? All deal with psychic phenomena that have been debated in bifurcated terms you have labeled “intentionalist” vs. “anti-intentionalist,” the latter downplaying signification, volition, object-directedness and consciousness. 

RL: It’s true that I’ve always been interested in what have seemed to me certain deep “structures” in the history of the human sciences. By this I mean certain tensions or oppositions that can be shown to have influenced and indeed organized a specific field, with the result that the structure constantly surfaces in certain debates over large stretches of time.

One such structure, which concerned me when I wrote my book on the genealogy of psychic trauma, was the tension between a “mimetic” versus an “anti-mimetic” understanding of the nature of imitation. This opposition concerned competing ways of understanding imitation – whether imitation involves the trauma victim’s defensive, immersive-hypnotic identification with the perpetrator to the point of the subject’s radical unconsciousness, or whether in defensively imitating the perpetrator the victim is nevertheless able to witness or spectate herself and her situation. These competing ways of theorizing imitation led to different consequences as regards the possibility of witness testimony, and so on.

In my subsequent books I became especially interested in the tensions in theorizing the emotions between intentionalist versus non-intentionalist approaches. The issue is whether it makes sense, as Ekman’s BET theory proposes, to conceive of emotions as non-intentional states that, under the right conditions, can be triggered to discharge involuntarily with characteristic autonomic responses and facial expressions without the subject’s cognitive involvement or indeed understanding of the object that triggered the emotional state; or whether, instead, emotions should be conceived in intentionalist terms as ”about” real or imagined objects in the world, in which case issues of cognition, meaning, and signification are central concerns.

The two sets of oppositions are indeed related, but they are not equivalent – they are not on all fours. By this I mean that the tension between mimesis and anti-mimesis is not absolute: historically each term of the opposition has been so implicated in the other that they can’t be completely separated – rather, again and again they tend to collapse into each other. In contrast, the opposition between intentionality and non-intentionality is absolute in the sense that one cannot, without incoherence, simultaneously believe that emotions are meaningless and that they are meaningful.

Professor Leys’ latest work, Newborn Imitation: The Stakes of a Controversy, part of the Cambridge Elements Histories of the Emotions and Senses series, is available as a free download until 21st July.

The Emotional Contagion: Feelings, Emotions, and the Pandemic. An interview with Tiffany Watt Smith

On 15th May 2020, Marie-Sklodowska-Curie Research Fellow at Queen Mary Paolo Gervasi interviewed Tiffany Watt Smith about the emotions surrounding the Covid-19 Pandemic for the Italian journal Che Fare. It can be read here in Italian,, and the original English version is below.

If until a few months ago we thought we were living in an era of high emotional intensity, in a “nervous state”, according to the title of William Davies’ recent book, the explosion of the pandemic has literally thrown us into an ocean of emotions. The emotion that seems to prevail, understandably, is fear. But what kind of emotion is fear? What history does it have, what physiological and psychological reactions does it associate with?

It’s true that there is a lot of fear about. Though I also hear people report that their initial intense anxiety during lockdown has been replaced by a sense of calm.
We talk of fear as if it’s a single basic response to an external trigger, but perhaps it is useful to distinguish between different varieties or textures of fear. There is the heart thumping fear which makes you want to run away, when you sense some immediate danger. But that is different from a feeling like terror which the Italian 19th century physician Angelo Mosso described as immobilizing people: ‘even the most intrepid men do not think of flight; it seems as though the nerves of defence were severed and they were left to their fate’. There is the panic which can cause stampedes or panic buying. And then there is anxiety, linked to our collective existential uncertainty, which leaves one feeling constricted and breathless – as I imagine many people have experienced while reading about the symptoms of Covid!
Actually, the kind of fear I vividly remember at the beginning of the pandemic, when we in the UK saw what was happening in China and then in Italy, was dread – a feeling of some encroaching danger about which I could do nothing at all. I remembered an account I had read by a 14th century Welsh poet Jeuan Gethin, about seeing the plague approaching from town to town, as if a coil of smoke snaking across the land, a ‘rootless phantom’. He describes being frightened but also helpless. I also remembered something I had read years ago in Giovanni Boccaccio’s accounts of the plague in 14th century Florence – not about the panic buying, or self-isolation, but about people who succumbed to a kind of listlessness or apathy in the face of this fear, abandoning their crops, gambling their fortunes away, as if nothing could matter anymore.

I just had to break off to join the clap for carers – which of course reminds me that, as you say, fear is only one of the many strong emotions of this time.

An etching of the 1348 plague ravaging Florence, inspired by Boccaccio’s The Decameron.  The bubonic plague – also known as the Black Death – is estimated to have wiped out 60 – 80% of Florence’s population between 1348 and 1351. Image credit: Wellcome Collection.

What does an emotional regime dominated by fear imply from a social and political point of view? In what condition does it put citizens and how does it change relations between rulers and the ruled?

We were already living in a society dominated by fear – in the UK at least – ours is a pretty ‘fear-averse’ society, our public spaces covered in security cameras, warnings to be vigilant playing on public transport, signs to remind you that here is a step or there the ground could be wet. The sociologist Frank Furedi talks of ‘fear entrepreneurs’ who capitalize on our fears to sell us things, but so much of advertising and many clickbait articles in newspapers work like this. Since becoming a parent 6 years ago, I have felt more than ever bombarded with the terrible things that might happen to my children due to my conduct/the food I give them/my home/our neighbourhood. Is it as bad in Italy? Or Barcelona? The usual argument is that these discourses of fear make a population more docile and easily manipulated, and legitimize war and other extreme defensive responses such as border control. This was certainly discussed in relation to Bush’s rhetoric after 9/11: ‘it is natural to wonder if America’s future is one of fear’, he said, and so mobilized the spectre of fear in his ‘war on terror’ – the ultimate fear entrepreneur.
But we are perhaps in a more peculiar situation now. On the one hand, fear of the pandemic has caused us quickly to relinquish all kinds of rights, and gives the police unprecedented powers. But of course, it can go the other way too. Right now, in the UK, the government is keen to ‘reverse-engineer the fear’ – one civil servant made the claim recently that the UK govt communications team has been too good at scaring us over Covid, and now no one wants to go back to work or school. The truth is more that the government have lost a lot of people’s trust – partly due to terrible and confusing communications – and so people are more likely to listen to their own possibly rational fears rather than be persuaded by the government.

What other emotions associated with the pandemic have you seen emerge? How do you interpret, for example, a phenomenon that struck me a lot, namely the coming out of a kind of competition to appear peaceful, relaxed, even happy within the quarantine, represented by many as an opportunity to reconnect with themselves and with their inner life?

I was just having a socially distanced chat with my neighbor on the street, and she said exactly this – that she feels much calmer, she appreciates the time to be more interior, away from the rush of ordinary life. Of course, this sense of peace is really about privilege. The privilege to feel relaxed because you do not have money worries, you have enough space to practice social distancing, you are not ill or grieving. The pandemic has exacerbated existing social divisions. I have my shopping delivered so I do not have to go to the shop, my feeling of peace and security depends on another making themselves vulnerable.
Perhaps this is peculiarly British, but the emotion I feel a lot of personally right now is awkwardness – awkwardness is an interesting feeling which Adam Kotsko has written about. He describes it as the experience of being caught in a situation where you don’t quite know the rules, or where two different sets of rules might be in conflict. Will I insult the postman if I don’t want to take the letters directly from his hand? Is it wrong to allow my kid to accept a gift of a flower from another child she knows when we bump into that family on the street during our daily exercise? Should I wear a mask? ‘How should we behave?’ is a question which I think preoccupies a lot of people at the moment here.
I see a lot of shame – in the UK there has been a lot of excitement about shaming people who flouted social distancing rules, for instance there was a photograph of a woman who put a sign in her window telling everyone her upstairs neighbour had been having friends to visit. People have been calling the police for the smallest infractions – and I certainly feel ashamed if I inadvertently break the rules. People have talked a lot about loneliness, particularly people who are living alone, or grandparents missing the touch of their grandchildren.
But most of all I see moments of solidarity and kindness between neighbours – I personally have benefited from that as my family was in quarantine for 7 weeks due to illness (we are all recovered now) – and a lot of gratitude for the neighbours and friends I have and optimism about beginning to re-connect with those people even in very socially distanced ways.

Signs attached to the railings of a park in East London offering messages of appreciation and encouragement to NHS workers. The covid-19 pandemic, and lockdown imposed by the UK government, has prompted a vast – and very vocal – outpouring of support for the NHS, with many households decorating their windows with brightly coloured messages of gratitude and solidarity, and widespread participation in the #clapforourcarers campaign.

What role have emotions played and continue to play in the political choices made to manage the crisis? Have you noticed significant differences in the emotional management practiced by different national communities in different parts of the world?

I’m not sure about emotional management in different parts of the world. Certainly here we are only just catching up to the idea that the experience of Covid may create serious mental health issues including PTSD, but as yet there has been no serious national or unified attempt to practice any emotional management.
Certainly, one can see differences in the emotional style practiced by leaders. Jacinda Ardern, for instance, is perceived as being more empathic, her rhetoric emphasizing caring for those who were vulnerable, and acting as a family. Contrast that with the rhetoric of Boris Johnson in the UK who has spoken about a ‘fight against coronovirus’ and about war, an approach which has been underlined by the British monarch whose speech to the nation used tropes from the Second World War (including the lyrics of a Vera Lynn song ‘we’ll meet again’). The British government has fallen back on tropes of ‘The British Spirit’, and The Blitz, enlisting national pride and nostalgia and aggression, without recognizing the ways this rhetoric, shot through with colonial sentiment, excludes or alienates so many people in the country, especially those who appear to be most vulnerable to COVID.


What role do the media play – both traditional and social media – in building the main emotional states associated with the pandemic? According to what prevailing strategies and rhetorical devices have they acted?

I had to avoid media at certain point. I logged off Twitter, and try to limit my consumption of rolling news, since this seems to exacerbate the anxiety. It seems obvious that the media is playing a very powerful role, both in disseminating government communications and, hopefully, holding the government to account (in emotional terms, however, this can feel even more anxiety-provoking).

 Emotions are traditionally associated with the presence, the closeness of bodies, the psycho-physical reactivity that is triggered in direct confrontation with contexts and external agents. How does social distancing modify the experience and the elaboration of emotions?

The new distance is interesting. Of course it creates all kinds of peculiar emotional glitches, like the awkwardness I just spoke about, or else, indignation, for instance when a jogger zooms past your ear. At the beginning of the lockdown, there were people who would scowl at you when you moved out of their path, as if you were accusing them of being contagious. At the beginning people didn’t really get social distancing. But I started going out again last week after 7 weeks inside, and the difference is phenomenal –people have learnt, habits are changing, no one hesitates to move or scowls when you move.

What we are going through is a very rapid change of physical habit. It’s not the first time that physical relationships to one another have changed, though usually it’s not so dramatic. I am currently doing some research on friendship, and have been looking at early Twentieth century girls’ boarding school fiction in Britain. In books published in the 1900s, the girls have very romantic attachments to one another – they kiss and hold hands, cuddle and share beds – by the time Enid Blyton published Mallory Towers (a schoolgirl series) in the 1950s, this entire culture of physical affection between young girls had disappeared. In her books, the characters sometimes link arms or hug when they win at sports, but that is all. The change in this culture happened gradually. It was partly because of fears around lesbianism which only really emerged as a distinct idea in sexology in the early twentieth century. Headteachers banned girls from kissing or holding hands – in one school they were even not allowed to wash each other’s hair (seen as particularly erotic/intimate!). But there were other reasons that girls were encouraged to show less physical affection. Between the wars, people learnt to fear the mob and contagious emotions – and saw girls as particularly susceptible to these. There was also a lot of worry about epidemics of illnesses such as scabies, and holding hands was regarded as unhygienic and was discouraged among women who were working in factories. My phd student David Saunders has uncovered this in his research on contagious disease in Britain in the Second World War, and found evidence of a medical officer called G.P.B. Whitwell, who feared the invasive presence of young women in factories believing them to be carriers of scabies – “these young girls… probably contract their disease through their affectionate habit of walking around with their arms round one another’s necks’ he wrote. We can assume the ‘affectionate habit’ was discouraged.  

Physical habits do change, and what we think of as natural is often learnt. I have heard some people on twitter hoping that this will spell the end of social kissing in Britain. For Italians it is easy, you know how to greet people by kissing them. For British people it is very awkward and we often get it wrong!

 From the political point of view, there is a sort of anomaly in the emotional structure of the pandemic that intrigues me: the populist movements in Europe and the world, which base their search for consensus on the manipulation of strong, violent emotions, at a time like this, dominated by very intense emotions, almost seem to be overwhelmed, seem unarmed and incapable of taking advantage of the situation, even ridiculous. Or they end up showing their fragile side, which is usually concealed, as in the case of Boris Johnson. People, although emotionally shaken, seem to prefer political responses marked by rationality, firmness, emotional attenuation. Do you confirm this impression and, if so, how do you explain this phenomenon?  

This is a very interesting observation. To me it is so astonishing that there could be protests in America against the lockdown, and they are happening here in the UK too. I agree that they seem ridiculous – a motley collection of anti-vaxxers and other conspiracy theorists. But I also have learnt to fear my own limited perspective. There is Trump, who was encouraging the protestors and sowing mistruths with his China-baiting. What seems ridiculous and implausible to me is terrifyingly real too.

One of the most surprising consequences of the lockdown, especially at the beginning, was the triggering of a great sense of solidarity, a strengthening of the sense of community and the need to stand together. As the quarantine progressed, however, a more unpleasant feeling began to emerge, the people’s tendency to blame each other, to identify and denounce the “transgressor” of the rules, in order to shift the responsibility for the continuing emergency onto the individual. How do you interpret the coexistence and interaction between these two opposing emotional states? 

It makes sense that fear and the need to protect ourselves has resulted in stronger hostility to perceived transgressors, and a desire to shame them. In many ways, this antagonism was deliberately stoked by our government in the UK, who persistently have been cagey or vague about the details of rules and allowed people to ‘use their judgement’– very clearly shifting responsibility and placing it on the individual, leaving things more open to interpretation, and people more touchy about the rules.
I see great solidarity around me – neighbours helping each other out buying shopping, people organizing food banks for local people in need.
However, I get the impression that there was also a rush to blame each other in the UK right from the start. For instance, a woman was shamed in the supermarket for buying so much food – people assumed she was panic buying, but actually she had a large family and is a single parent so it was hard for her to get to the shops (and also the government had just told us to prepare for possible 2 week quarantines). On our local whatsapp and facebook groups, huge battles have broken out between gardeners who want to have bonfires and other residents who say bonfires will compromise people’s respiratory systems. My husband was telling me today that on Twitter, a friend of his who is a single parent tweeted a joke that she couldn’t wait for the schools to re-open – and received so much abuse she had to take the tweet down. I’m not immune from this either – I can understand teenagers cooped up in flats having parties in parks, but I do find I have lost a great deal of respect for friends who have perfectly large houses with gardens in London, but have left to go to their second homes in the countryside.

What kind of emotional discourse do you think will prevail afterwards? Will fear still dominate our lives for a long time? What emotional approaches do you think could help the exit from the crisis? 

Honestly, I’m sure like everyone, I find it really hard to make sense of where we are at the moment. It’s like being in a storm and not being able to see the horizon where the rain stops. I imagine, if the virus continues to be a significant part of our lives, we will learn to manage the risk, and those risks will be experienced in different ways for different people. Those of us – I include myself – who have had the privilege of being in strict lockdown will have to adjust to going back into the world.
I suppose what I hope beyond hope is that a level-headed discourse of kindness will prevail – a discourse which privileges neighbourliness, care, mutuality and respect for others, protecting those more vulnerable than us, environmental responsibility and critically, inter-species responsibility. Certainly, I believe it’s only those things which will help us make sense of our future together.

Conspirituality – on the overlap between spirituality and conspiracy-thinking

April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land…

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow

Out of this stony rubbish?

I want to talk about trying to make sense when things are breaking down.

This April we’ve seen some conspiracy theories blooming out of the dead land.

Sports-presenter turned conspiracy-theorist David Icke took centre-stage a week ago, appearing in a video for London Real, in which he claimed COVID19 was caused by 5G, as part of a global plot run by a secret order of alien lizards. The video was watched millions of times on YouTube and on LondonLive before YouTube and Ofcom stepped in to get it taken down.

Four days ago, a documentary appeared called Out of Shadows, recycling the 2016 ‘Pizzagate’ conspiracy theory that a secret order of Democrats and Hollywood celebrities run a paedophile ring centred on two Washington pizza restaurants. The documentary got two million views in a day.

We’ve also seen a conspiracy theory that COVID19 is part of a plot led by Bill Gates and the World Health Organisation to get the world to take his vaccine and implant his chip surveillance. Conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones of Infowars have claimed for over a decade that Gates’ huge funding for vaccines is actually a eugenicist plot to reduce the world’s population. This theory was taken up and enthusiastically spread this week by an anti-vaccine entrepreneur called Dr Shiva, who claims he invented email. A TV interview with him has been watched six million times this week.

Now in some ways this is predictable. The pandemic has led to a breakdown in knowledge and certainty. We don’t know much about the virus or the best way of dealing with it, but we know it’s killing a lot of us and we’re afraid. This is happening to the entire human race at the same time, and we’re all connected on the internet.

This is creating a unique opportunity for fringe beliefs and fringe thinkers to take centre stage. Some might be interesting — Universal Basic Income, say — but some really belong back on the fringe.

I have been disheartened to see leading influencers in my community — that’s to say, western spirituality — spreading the conspiracy theories I mention above. I want my community to be of service to humanity during this crisis, rather than actively spreading bad ideas (particularly anti-vaccine conspiracies — finding a vaccine seems our best hope for getting out of this without 1% of the population, 75 million people, dying of the virus).

It makes me question the worth of my culture. Is spirituality particularly prone to conspiracy thinking?

On the term ‘conspiracy theory’

As various New Age influencers have said this week, ‘conspiracy theory’ is a charged term. It can be a way of simply dismissing a topic without considering it.

Some things dismissed as ‘conspiracy theories’ might really have something behind them. UFOs and extra-terrestrials, for example, are dismissed as conspiracy theories, but to me it seems probable there is life on other planets and that some of it is more intelligent than us.

The idea there was a plot behind JFK’s assassination is another ‘conspiracy theory’ which I think may be more than a theory. Child abuse in the Catholic church is another scandal that could have been dismissed as a conspiracy theory when it really was a conspiracy — ie an epidemic of abuse covered up by the Vatican.

Still, one needs a powerful torch of critical discrimination in these murky and liminal swamp-lands. When you get to Pizzagate, we seem to be very much in the subconscious realm of archetypal, magical thinking — secret symbols and codes, hidden orders of powerful and evil perverts. We are in Dan Brown territory here.

The personality traits behind spirituality and conspiracy thinking

I wondered this week, why should there be an overlap between my community — western spirituality — and conspiracy theories?

My first thought was, there are certain personality traits that make one prone to being ‘spiritual but not religious’ — free thinking, distrust of authority and institutions, a tendency to unusual beliefs or experiences, a tendency to detect ‘hidden’ patterns and correspondences, and an attraction to alternative paradigms, particularly in alternative health — which would all make one more prone to conspiracy theories.

There seems to be some evidence for this. This 2018 study by Hart and Graether, from the Journal of Individual Differences, found, in two surveys of 1200 people, that the strongest predictor of conspiracy thinking was ‘schizotypy’, which is a personality trait that makes one prone to unusual beliefs and experiences, such as belief in telepathy, mind-control, spirit-channelling, hidden personal meanings in events etc. People who are ‘spiritual but not religious’ have been found to score more highly in schizoptypal personality traits than both the religious and the non-religious.

We have to be a little careful here, as there is a risk of tautology. The scientific definition of ‘schizotypal’ basically includes ‘having spiritual beliefs’, so it’s not surprising spiritual people ‘score highly in schizotypy’. So this paper is not really telling us anything other than the sort of people who have spiritual beliefs and experiences are often also into conspiracies. It doesn’t mean they’re wrong or mentally ill. But it may mean they don’t score highly in belief-testing and critical thinking.

This article found that being into ‘spirituality’ and alternative medicine correlated with being anti-vaccines, while this article found both anti-vaxx attitudes and pro-alternative medicine beliefs were connected to magical thinking. You can be pro-vaxx and into spiritual thinking as well, by the way — Larry Brilliant, the epidemiologist who helped eradicate polio, was given his mission by Ram Dass’ guru, Neem Karolio Baba, as he recounts here.

On conspirituality

Finally, two important articles from religious studies. The first is a 2011 article by Ward and Voas from the Journal of Contemporary Religion (behind a paywall alas), on what they describe as the surprising new phenomenon of ‘conspirituality’ — the overlap between New Age spirituality and conspiracy thinking. They describe ‘conspirituality’ as

a rapidly growing web movement expressing an ideology fuelled by political disillusionment and the popularity of alternative worldviews. It has international celebrities, bestsellers, radio and TV stations. It offers a broad politico-spiritual philosophy based on two core convictions, the first traditional to conspiracy theory, the second rooted in the New Age: 1) a secret group covertly controls, or is trying to control, the political and social order, and 2) humanity is undergoing a ‘paradigm shift’ in consciousness. Proponents believe that the best strategy for dealing with the threat of a totalitarian ‘new world order’ is to act in accordance with an awakened ‘new paradigm’ worldview.

This 2015 article, by Egil Apsrem and Asbjorn Dyrendal, responds to Ward and Voas’ article by suggesting ‘conspirituality’ is not a new or surprising phenomenon, but instead emerges from the historical context of the 19th and 20th century ‘occult’. They write:

The cultic milieu is flooded with “all deviant belief systems” and their attendant practices. Moreover, the communication channels within the milieu tend to be as open and fluid as the content that flows through them. The resulting lack of an overarching institutionalized orthodoxy enables individuals to “travel rapidly through a variety of movements and beliefs”, thus bridging with ease what may appear on the surface as distinct discourses and practices. Political, spiritual, and (pseudo)scientific discourses all have a home here, and they easily mix. Joined by a common opposition to “Establishment” discourses rather than by positively shared doctrinal content, conspiracy theory affords a common language binding the discourses together.

In other words, the Occult is a Petri dish for the breeding of all sorts of mutant hybrid memes, some of them helpful, some of them toxic (depending on your worldview).

Ecstatic globalism versus paranoid conspiracy

Let me add to this emerging discourse by suggesting that conspirituality theories are a form of mystical or ecstatic experience. I want to compare two forms of mystical experience.

The first is a sort of extroverted euphoric mystical experience: ‘Everything is connected. I am synchronicitously drawn to helpers and allies, the universe is carrying us forward to a wonderful climactic transformation (the Rapture, the Omega Point, the Paradigm Shift) , and we are the heroic warriors of light appointed by God / the Universe to manifest this glorious new phase shift in human history.’

The second is a paranoid ‘bad’ trip version of the euphoric ‘good’ trip. ‘Everything is connected, there is a secret order being revealed to me, but I am not part of it. It is an evil demonic order, and it is trying to control me and everyone else. They have a Grand Plan and it is taking shape now. But perhaps I, and one or two others, can wake up to this Grand Plan, and expose it, and at least hide from it.’

The first trip is a euphoric ego-expansion (I am the Universe!) and the second is paranoid ego-persecution (The Universe is controlled by Evil Demons who are against me!)

In both, the individual awakens to this hidden reality. But in the first, they are a superpowered initiate in the hidden order and a catalyst for a Millennarian transformation, in the second they are a vulnerable and disempowered exposer of the powerful hidden order. (Millennarian, by the way, means that, like Robbie Williams, you believe in a coming Millennium, or Age of Love).

These are two sides of the same coin, two sides in the same game. Both are examples of schizotypal magical / dream thinking. In both, the ego is part of a grand cosmic drama — in the first, they are the divine appointed catalyst for Phase Shift / humanity’s rebirth, in the second, they are the heroic exposer of the Hidden Order.

If we look at the history of the occult (I recommend Gary Lachmann’s Secret Teachers of the Western World as a popular intro), ever since the Reformation there have been secret orders of spiritual-political enthusiasts dedicated to a Millennarian project of global transformation. That’s what Rosicrucians were into, and the Masons, and the Illuminati. So was HG Wells and his ‘Open Conspiracy’— he was supposedly a rationalist, but really he was preaching a sort of occult-scientific polyamorous universalist new religion. So were Theosophists like Annie Besant. So were New Age pioneers in the 1960s like Marilyn Ferguson (author of The Aquarian Conspiracy, one of the best-selling books of the 1980s) and Barbara Hubbard, champion of a globalist evolutionary spirituality. You can probably think of people into this sort of scene today — spiritual-political enthusiasts waiting for a golden New Age of justice, perennial philosophy and polyamorous love.

Globalist Millennarians tend to be quite optimistic and quite well-connected — they connect together with fellow globalist Millennarians through think tanks, associations, conferences, networks and festivals. Barbara Marx Hubbard, the indefatigable champion of ‘evolutionary spirituality’, is an example. She thought homo sapiens was about to ‘phase shift’ into homo universalis, on December 12 2012 to be precise, and she thought she and her friends were the divinely-appointed catalysts for this Millennarian transformation. She was extremely well connected and spread her ideas through all kinds of organisations and networks like the Committee for the Future and the Centre for Integral Wisdom. Indeed, networking was part of her spirituality (she called it ‘supra-sexing’.)

Barbara Marx Hubbard, champion of evolutionary spirituality, believed humanity was about to evolve into ‘homo universalis’ and she was the divinely appointed catalyst for this phase shift. She was surprisingly well connected.

On the other hand, you have conspiracy thinkers who are anti-globalists, like Infowars’ Alex Jones or evangelical Lee Keith (his book cover is below), who may see Millennarian globalists as an evil and demonic hidden order pulling the strings of global events. Anti-globalist paranoid conspiracy thinkers trace the very networks that ecstatic networkers like Barbara Marx Hubbard work through. ‘See!’, they say. ‘They all know each other through these think-tanks and informal organisations.’

False Dawn, by Lee Penn, is an example of paranoid anti-globalist conspiracy thinking — it suggests Barbara Marx Hubbard and other ecstatic globalists are demon-controlled all-powerful hidden order

Where one group are ecstatic, optimistic, super-empowered, insider (and entitled) conspirators, the other are pessimistic, paranoid, disempowered outsiders.

But their thinking styles are in some ways quite similar — schizotypal, magical, prone to seeing secret influences, hidden connections, and Grand Plans. And both massively over-estimate the influence and power of these networks and underestimate the randomness of events.

I think it is possible to be prone to both these forms of magical thinking, to switch between ecstatic, optimistic Millennarianism and paranoid persecutory conspiracy thinking. From ‘everything is connected and I’m a central part of this wonderful cosmic transformation!’’ to ‘everything is connected and I’m at risk from this awful global plot!’ I think someone like Robert Anton Wilson, perhaps, was prone to both sorts of thinking.

The value of the two forms of conspirituality

Now we can dismiss this sort of thinking as simply bullshit religious enthusiasm. Both forms of it. And I feel a strong tendency at the moment to do that, to simply call bullshit on both ecstatic phase-shifters and paranoid conspiracy theorists, and instead try to be as rationalist, sober and un-enthusiastic as possible.

However, this is probably not a very helpful attitude. There is, in fact, a value to both these forms of mystical thinking.

The value in mystical globalism is it can lead to positive things — HG Wells’ ecstatic globalism helped to inspire forms of global governance like the UN Declaration of Human Rights, for example.

However, ecstatic globalism can lead to self-entitlement, to an inflated sense that you are the appointed vanguard of humanity, and that history and the Universe is definitely on your side. That’s dangerous. There can be a dangerous over-concentration of privilege and power, working mainly through informal or undemocratic channels.

The value of conspiracy thinking, meanwhile, can be that it holds power to account. Power can be over-concentrated — the World Health Organisation is excessively reliant on funding by Bill Gates, and the Gates Foundation should be more transparent and accountable, considering the massive influence it has over global public health.

Scientific authority can be awfully, horribly wrong sometimes — many ecstatic globalists in the 20th century supported eugenics ( including HG Wells, Annie Besant, Julian Huxley and Teillard de Chardin). They thought the world should be run by an elite of spiritually enlightened scientists who would decide who was enlightened and who was ‘unfit’ and therefore deserved to be sterilized, locked up, or exterminated. There was no secret conspiracy about this — they proudly declared their opinions. So you can see why paranoid anti-globalists might have their suspicions of secret eugenic plots today.

Balancing the Socratic and the Ecstatic

In general (and in conclusion), there is a value in non-rational forms of knowing, such as dreams, intuitions, inspiration and mystical experiences. These can be important sources of wisdom and healing. Many great scientific discoveries and cultural creations have come from ecstatic or schizotypal inspiration, from Newton’s discovery of gravity to Milton’s Paradise Lost.

I am prone to this sort of ‘benign schizotypy’ myself, and on the whole it enriches my life and work. There is a reason schizotypal thinking has survived for millennia — sometimes it is highly adaptive. It has played an important role in our cultural evolution.

However, it is crucial to balance the capacity for ecstatic / magical / mythical thinking with the capacity for critical thinking. That’s what I’ve tried to do in my books: balance the Socratic and the ecstatic, or the left and right brain, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Too much Socratic thinking without any ecstasy, and you end up with a rather dry and uninspiring worldview. Too much ecstasy without critical thinking, and you may be prone to unhealthy delusions, which you then spread, harming others. You may be so sure you’re right, so hyped in your heroic crusade, you may block things that are really helpful and spread things that are really harmful.

One should be free to believe whatever you want, but in this instance — a global pandemic in the internet age — our beliefs and behaviours profoundly impact others. We need to try and be extra careful in what we believe and what we share, so as to practice mental hygiene.

There is so much fake news out there — I was taken in yesterday by a story that the IMF had cancelled almost all its developing country debt. The story was on a website called (since taken down). It looked totally reliable. And I so wanted it to be true! I so wanted to share some good news. But alas, it was fake.

We can do a basic test, equivalent to washing our hands.

1) What’s the source? Is it a reliable media organisation? Is it backed up by other reliable sources?

2) How likely is the fact? The less likely, the greater the burden of evidence.

3) Is there anything out there suggesting it’s fake? Rather than looking for evidence to support our beliefs, can we search for evidence against our beliefs?

4) Can we emotionally accept our belief might be wrong?

We can try to practice that sort of mental hygiene on ourselves, but how does one practice effective public communication to counter-act conspiracy thinking? It seems very hard. One’s instinct can be, like Skeptics and New Atheists, simply to call the other side names: ‘idiot, moron, woo-woo, bullshit’ and so on. That sort of shaming probably doesn’t work.

The introduction to the European Journal of Social Psychology’s special ‘conspiracy theory’ issue suggests conspiracy theories are emotionally grounded and socially supported— so an outsider calling you names won’t have much impact. Instead, like de-radicalization or de-culting programmes, perhaps it takes a trusted friend from inside your network to challenge the beliefs in a sympathetic and non-threatening way. That is slow work when one in three Americans believe COVID-19 was made in a laboratory, and one in five Brits say they might not take a COVID-19 vaccine. Our herd immunity to bullshit may be breaking down.

Dr Thomas Brown (1778-1820)

In this post for the History of Emotions Blog, Professor Thomas Dixon looks back at the life and influence of the man he has suggested was the ‘inventor of the emotions’.

Dr Thomas Brown, 1778 – 1820. Professor of Moral Philosophy, by William Walker. Edinburgh University. Image credit: National Galleries Scotland.

Today is the 200th anniversary of the death of the poet, physician and philosopher, Dr Thomas Brown, Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh from 1810 to 1820.

Brown collapsed while lecturing in December 1819 and was sent to London by his physician for a rest and change of air. It did not have the desired effect, and he died there on 2 April 1820, at the age of only 42. The first edition of his Lectures on the Philosophy of the Human Mind was published before the end of the year, and it reached its 20th British edition by 1860.

Thomas Brown is now a little-known figure, and his grave is in disrepair, but at the time of his death, and for some decades afterwards, he was a hugely celebrated philosopher of the human mind. I first came across Brown while researching my PhD, and I found out much more about him over the following few years as I worked on a multi-volume edition of his life and works. I came to think of him as a friend, in the way that sentimental historians sometimes do when they spend too much time with their subjects. So, I didn’t want to let this 200th anniversary pass without paying a small tribute to my old friend Dr Brown.

When I was actively working on Brown, I frequently had to explain that my subject was neither the seventeenth-century English physician and man of letters, Sir Thomas Browne, author of Religio Medici, nor the Scottish physician Dr John Brown, creator of the Brunonian system of medicine, which enjoyed popularity around the same time as Thomas Brown’s Edinburgh career.’No,’ I politely seethed, ‘not that Dr Brown.’ This added to my protective feelings towards ‘my’ Dr Brown and my determination to help carve out more of a niche for him.

Dr Thomas Brown took on a major role within my PhD research because of his significance in the emergence of ‘the emotions’ as a psychological category in the nineteenth century. Indeed, I came to think of Brown as ‘the inventor of the emotions’ – the key figure responsible for the theoretical terms ‘passions’, ‘affections’, and ‘sentiments’ being gradually displaced by the psychological category that we now predominantly use to describe love, hate, jealousy, anger, joy, sorrow and so on, namely ‘the emotions’.[1]

As I put it in a short open-access article, summarising my research into the history of ‘the emotions’, for centuries, theorists have debated what should be considered the true seat of the emotions: the soul or the body; the heart or the brain. My suggestion is that the true seat of the ’emotions’ was in fact the University of Edinburgh, circa 1820.

Extract from The Morning Chronicle obituary for Thomas Brown, 13 April 1820.

But leaving my own particular interests aside, what do we know about Thomas Brown? He was the poetical and intellectual youngest child in a family of 13 children born to a clergyman and his wife. Brown seems to have been an endearing, earnest, sensitive, and somewhat eccentric character. Recollections and obituaries are full of warmth and praise, along with comments on his poetical style and unusual manner. The Morning Chronicle’s obituary in April 1820 claimed that Brown had ‘left no equal behind him in metaphysical acumen’.

Brown’s Lectures were widely acknowledged to be the most successful and popular work of their kind ever to have appeared. Henry Cockburn, in his Memorials, wrote of Brown’s Lectures as one of the most ‘delightful books in the English language’. Writing at the end of the century, the British philosopher Robert Adamson wrote of the book: ‘It is no exaggeration to say that never before or since has a work on metaphysics been so popular.’[2]

What would it have been like to attend Brown’s lectures in person? Thanks to Sir Walter Scott’s son-in-law, John Gibson Lockhart, we have some idea. Lockhart included an account of a lecture by a ‘Doctor B_____’, clearly intended to be Brown, in his fictionalised portrait of Edinburgh society, Peter’s Letters to his Kinsfolk (1819). The Professor arrives ‘with a pleasant smile upon his face, arrayed in a black Geneva cloak, over a snuff-coloured coat and a buff waistcoat’ with a ‘physiognomy very expressive of mildness and quiet contemplativeness’. Brown’s elocution is ‘distinct and elegant’, his delightfully flowing metaphysics enlivened by quotations from the poets.

Thomas Carlyle also wrote about Brown, recalling him as ‘an eloquent acute little gentleman, full of enthusiasm about simple suggestions, relative, etc.’ which Carlyle found dry and uninteresting. Carlyle described the ‘immaculate Dr Brown’ as ‘a really pure, high, if rather shrill and wire-drawing kind of a man’. [3]

Brown did not marry or have children and seems to have devoted himself with quite extraordinary ardour to his work – both as a physician working alongside Dr James Gregory – then to his poetry, and finally to his role as Professor of Moral Philosophy.  His first series of lectures – a hundred of them (yes, one hundred lectures over the course of his first year in the post!) – was delivered in 1810-11. He wrote them out by hand and they totalled over half a million words. Thomas Chalmers wrote, that these lectures had been ‘gotten up with something like the speed and power of magic’.[4] Brown made further alterations to the lectures in subsequent years, while continuing to work on his treatise on cause and effect, which reached its final form in 1818.

Brown’s writings on cause and effect were an influence on John Stuart Mill, and indeed Brown has a claim to particular importance and originality as the first true proponent of the ‘regularity’ or ‘uniformity’ view of causation. In other words, when it came to causation, it was Thomas Brown and not David Hume who was really the first Humean. Among contemporary philosophers, Stathis Psillos has made a particular study of Brown as an important philosopher of causation.

Thomas Brown’s career as Professor of Moral Philosophy was cut short by illness but his legacy was still remarkable. His Lectures had an international impact and shaped several fields of philosophy and psychology. To take just one more final example, William James, when delivering his legendary Gifford Lectures on The Varieties of Religious Experience (published in 1903) in Edinburgh recalled:

The glories of the philosophic chair of this university were deeply impressed on my imagination in boyhood. Professor Fraser’s Essays in Philosophy, then just published, was the first philosophic book I ever looked into, and I well remember the awe-struck feeling I received from the account of Sir William Hamilton’s class-room therein contained. Hamilton’s own lectures were the first philosophic writings I ever forced myself to study, and after that I was immersed in Dugald Stewart and Thomas Brown. Such juvenile emotions of reverence never get outgrown and I confess that to find my humble self promoted from my native wilderness to be actually for the time an official here, and transmuted into a colleague of these illustrious names, carries with it a sense of dreamland quite as much as of reality.

Brown’s Lectures are poetical and sometimes prolix, but full of energy, clarity, and originality too. As the Cambridge polymath William Whewell wrote to a friend, while still a young man, ‘Have you read Brown’s books? They are dashing, and on some material points strongly wrong, but about cause and effect he has an admirable clearness of view and happiness of illustration.’[5]

It is now over twenty years since I first became immersed in the writings of Thomas Brown – the first Humean, the inventor of ‘the emotions’, and a dashingly poetical metaphysician – and I have not yet outgrown the ‘juvenile emotions of reverence’ I first felt towards him.


Further reading

I have written at greater length about Brown in my Introduction to the 8-volume collected life and works I edited in 2003 (now a collector’s item). I rewrote that piece slightly as the Introduction to the 2010 paperback selections of his writings, still in print from Imprint Academic, and finally modified it lightly again as a chapter on the life and philosophy of Brown in Gordon Graham’s 2015 edited volume on Scottish Philosophy in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries.

[1] Thomas Dixon (2003), From Passions to Emotions: The Creation of a Secular Psychological Category. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, pp. 109-127.

[2] Dixon, Passions to Emotions, pp. 111-112.

[3] James Froude (1882). Thomas Carlyle: A History of the First Forty Years of his Life, 1795-1835. 2 vols. London, Longmans, Green and Co., vol. 1, p. 25; Richard Herne Shepherd (1881). Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Thomas Carlyle, with Personal Reminiscences and Selections from his Private Letters. 2 vols. London, W. H. Allen and Co., vol. 1, pp. 16-17.

[4] Thomas Chalmers (1846). ‘Preface’, in Thomas Brown’s Lectures on Ethics, ed. by T. Chalmers. Edinburgh, Tait, p. x.

[5] Quoted in Laura Snyder (2006), Reforming Philosophy: A Victorian Debate on Science and Society. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, p. 47n.

Michael Murphy on Esalen, Huxley, and Alan Watts

One of the highlights of my September 2018 trip to California was the chance to meet Michael Murphy. With his friend Dick Price, Mike co-founded the Esalen Institute, a cross between an adult education college and a spiritual retreat centre on the cliffs of Big Sur. Esalen is the spiritual home of transpersonal psychology, where psychologists like Abraham Maslow, Stanislaf Grof, and Fritz Perls developed their ideas. So many contemporary practices and ideas – from holotropic breathwork to ecstatic dance to somatic therapy to Authentic Relating to the idea of ‘spiritual emergencies’ – were born in that cultural incubator.


It is still going, 57 years later, which is a remarkable feat when you think how quickly and spectacularly other spiritual experiments went wrong. Mike Murphy is still going too – at 88, he is a picture of good vibes, with an incredibly well-stocked memory, bags of energy and a remarkable generosity of spirit (we spoke for three hours). I met him to discuss the so-called ‘mystical expatriates’ – Aldous Huxley, Gerald Heard, Alan Watts and Christopher Isherwood – who all moved from England to the US in the 1930s, settled in California, and helped inspire contemporary spirituality. Watts and Huxley in particular are modern prophets, and it’s amazing to meet someone who was friends with them, worked with them, and developed their ideas so influentially. It’s also fascinating to learn from Murphy what he thinks made Esalen such an enduring success – no guru, no religion, an emphasis on quality of teachers, and a balance between the aesthetic Apollonian and the messy Dionysiac elements.

You’re one of the few people who knew all four of the ‘mystical expats’ and who was very influenced by them, and friends with them.

Isherwood I didn’t know so well, but I’m deeply fond of the three I knew. They all came to the States before the War. None of them seemed to have any guilt about fleeing and getting out of harm’s way, and I can’t see Heard or Huxley in the British military. All four of these guys were full of life, and not crippled by footnotes in their writing, but still deeply informed, with great judgement and intuitive vision. People asked William James if he was a mystic and he said ‘I wouldn’t call myself a mystic but I have a substantial mystic germ’. Each of your four had a strong mystical germ though they weren’t practicing contemplatives.

Who did you encounter first?

Alan Watts. I encountered him through Frederic Spiegelberg and the American Academy of Asian Studies [which later became the California Institute of Integral Studies]. Spiegelberg was a lecturer at Stanford University in comparative religion, probably the greatest lecturer I ever heard. I stumbled into his class by mistake at Stanford in 1950.  In 1951 he recruited students on the Stanford Campus for the new Academy of Asian Studies, and he claims I was the first to sign up. I took a quarter off at the end of my junior year and took the train up to San Francisco to attend classes there. Alan had moved West and was a full-time teacher at the Academy. He, Spiegelberg and Haridas Chaudhuri would do symposia there and became hot items in the City during the blossoming of the San Francisco renaissance..

There was an Indian renaissance at the end of the 19th century, mainly based in Bengal  and led in large part by religious innovators such as Vivekananda, Ramakrishna, Rabindranath Tagore, and Sri Aurobindo. Influenced by Spiegelberg I was inspired especially by Sri Aurobindo and his ideas on evolutionary spirituality. Spiegelberg had experienced darshan with both Sri Aurobindo and Ramana Maharshi, and he helped transmit that spark of the Bengali renaissance into the San Francisco renaissance – as did Alan, Huxley, Isherwood and Heard.

[That’s a very interesting point, by the way. Part of the Bengali renaissance was the idea of the Perennial Philosophy – the idea there is a common core found within the great religions, particularly in their mystical teachings. Vivekananda and others helped to preach that in the Bengal Renaissance, and then Huxley, Watts and others helped to transmit that idea into the San Francisco Renaisance and the Sixties counter-culture. It’s interesting to note how often the Perennial Philosophy is found within eras of cultural flourishing called ‘renaissances’ or Golden Ages.]

Spiegelberg was more than just a scholar.  He had genuine mystical insight. You know, it’s very hard to measure the degree of mystical realization in a person. But I think I was close enough to Watts, Huxley and Heard to make a guess. Alan was never a disciplined meditator, and he did have a drinking problem at the end of his life, but he often spoke as one who knew.

What was Watts like? 

Alan was a huge influence on Bay Area culture because he was so insightful, funny and witty. But not saracastic. He was generous and very playful. His weaknesses were on the side of impulse control,  not on the side of  cruelty snark. He was fun and he was brilliant.  Aesthetics were huge for Alan – he could have been a professor of aesthetics like John Ruskin. He was a great appreciator of beauty – costume, cooking, architecture, Feng Shui, clothes, costumes, poetry.

So his influence was feeding out into the Renaissance, into the music of John Cage and so on.

Yes. Anyway, by 1962 Dick Price and I were launching Esalen on a property in Big Sur my grandfather had bought in 1910.  Along the way, Alan had wanted to buy a house  there.  The first lecture that happened at the site after Dick and I took it over was by Alan and when Esalen got fully underway he was a principal participant. And we used his mailing list to advertise our first seminars.

Tell me about Gerald Heard.

My inspiration to start Esalen arose in large part from the evolutionary thinking of Sri Aurobindo, much of which Heard shared in principle – I call it evolutionary panentheism.  It can, I believe, be seen as part of an emerging canon, in league with the German Idealists, Henri Bergson, Teillard de Chardin, Alfred Whitehead and Aurobindo. That’s how I encountered Heard before hearing Huxley’s lectures on human potentialities, which he started giving in 1959.

You’ve heard of the Sequioia Seminars?  They were run by a Stanford professor, Harry Rathburn and his wife, and  attracted the elite of Silicon Valley, before it was so named. I lived in Palo Alto and got to know them and started to hear about Heard through their programs. His influence was spreading through various circles. Gerald was extremely charismatic and became a kind of guru. For example, Clare Booth Luce, the wife of Henry Luce, founder of the Time Life empire, was a super-celebrity in her own right and was taking LSD with Gerald Heard on the site of Esalen.

Anyway, I met Dick Price at Stanford, and he told me about Huxley’s lectures, from which we took a language which helped  to frame our brochures for Esalen, the language of ‘human potentialities’. We contacted Huxley, and he suggested we meet Gerald, who had experimented with a spiritual community at Trabuco, near Los Angeles. So Dick Price and I went to see Gerald. He lived in a cottage at Pacific Palisades with his companion, Michael Barrie. After that meeting, it was all go for me when it came to starting Esalen. I would call it a second turning in the way my first lecture with Spiegelberg had been in 1950.

I’m sure he did that for a lot of people. There have been characters like him throughout history. In the Christian tradition, Francis de Salle had huge influence in the courts of France. Or a healthier version of Rasputin. A charismatic influencer. He certainly had the mystic germ. There’s a Sanskrit term, diksha – transmission. A transmission can come through a book, a word, a touch, a look, or from a distance. He transmitted a fire to us.

Gerald Heard (left) with Aldous Huxley and Captain Al Hubbard, after one of their 1950s psychedelic sessions. Heard was a big influence on many in his generation, including WH Auden, Christopher Isherwood and Huxley – who he inspired to abandon atheist materialist and explore empirical spirituality in the 1930s.

Heard had obviously tried something similar to Esalen at Trabuco. He wrote about wanting to set up something halfway between a college and a monastery, to learn different spiritual techniques.

That’s why Dick and I went to meet him. Gerald added huge fuel to the fire. And he even gave us a geological reasons for siting the project at Big Sur!  He knew about the mountains behind our property, still pushing west. He got into his deep Irish and pretty soon the wee people were appearing – ‘this is a spirit-infested land’ he said. He was  a spontaneous  bard, and could weave an enchanting spell. He was very Irish and had some pretty wild ideas. We invited him to come up when the programme started, for the first set of lectures in the Fall of 1962. He gave a lecture and then came up again for three weeks. He was there when Huxley died in 63, and gave a vigil for him.

But you didn’t model Esalen on Trabuco?

There were three or four big differences. First, he was the big teacher at Trabuco. We did not want to be an ashram. No gurus, no one captures the flag, an open centre. That was our commitment.

Second, Trabuco was sort of a commune, with permanent residents. We didn’t want to be a commune. That’s been a long struggle for decades – is it a commune or not. We had 100 people on our staff, and people coming from all over the world. We didn’t want to franchise it either – by 1969 there were 100 centres modelled on Esalen.

Third, we were very much in the California culture which wasn’t as conflicted about sex as Gerald seemed to be. He claimed he was celibate, which I am willing to believe. Gerald was a peculiar mixture of wild and inhibited. Wild in his ideas and inhibited in his (homo) sexuality. We didn’t suffer from that, and we had those baths. They were segregated by gender initially but finally we had joint bathing. What’s the big deal? Alan was right in the middle of it. He embraced sex rather than asceticism.

Fourth, we were much bigger. Now, 15,000 people a year come through it.

And finally, we’ve been going 57 years, whereas Trabuco only lasted a few. Gerald was not temperamentally suited to run an organisation. He didn’t have a lot of tolerance for interpersonal ambiguity. He didn’t have the patience. He was a flaming meteor and turned a lot of people, a hugely catalytic figure who did not leave an enduring canon in his writing, as Huxley did. One still reads Huxley’s books, unlike Gerald’s. His influence has melted into history, but it was very important. Only a few are selected by historians to last in our memory.  90% of history melts away. But it’s good to remember what actually did happen.  Gerald was a significant part of our history.

Esalen has a different funding model too – paying for short intense courses, which is a very influential model now at retreat centres.

That’s how universities started – Hegel and the great German professors got paid for how many students turned up. That’s how Esalen started too. We were a non-profit, but we charged. And we got grants, right from the beginning. Gerald never aspired to that.  For example, I got the Ford Foundation together with Professor George Brown of UC Santa Barbara to research educational methods. That led to the department of confluent education at UC Santa Barbara, which resulted in 500 graduate degrees and a new curricula for schools from kindergarten through the 12th grade.

We were brokers, like a venture capital firm for individuals and research programmes. That was way beyond what Heard was doing. We did it with medicine too. The first legislation on holistic health in the US was written by the Esalen staff. We’ve run invitational conferences on psychology, medicine, diplomacy, religion.  We have  similarities with Silicon Valley. There’s more freedom for all this out here than there is in most other places. We have a regional advantage, one might say. We’re more mobile intellectually and spiritually. Part of that is the Californian culture.

Let’s talk about Aldous Huxley. He was an influence on the early vision of Esalen through his lectures on human potentiality. Did you meet him?

Yes.  When I met him, in the summer of 1962, I was hugely nervous. I was just starting Esalen, I was 31. I was still a virgin. I had met  famous people growing up, but still, having read him, I was awestruck. I was an enormous fan, having read After Many A Summer, Time Must Have A Stop, Brave New World, his essays, Doors of Perception, and much else. He was a grand figure, a celebrity.

Did you read Huxley’s last novel, Island?

Yes. He was writing that when we met.

He was a grand figure, but accessible – you just wrote to him and he came.

Well, there I was in a broken-down motel at the end of nowhere, but he like many others joined us. Arnold Toynbee came – I sent him $100 for the travel. It was the flag we raised, and how I explained the vision in my letters. George Leonard said ‘boy, you know how to seduce people with these letters’. I hadn’t written anything at that point.

Huxley…well, I fell in love with him. He’d heard about our butterfly trees and wanted to see them. He walked along with these huge loping steps. We fell into this easy repartee, and had an easy conversation. He and Laura stayed overnight. This was just after his house had burned down, so they were thinking of moving nearby. He was a great conversationalist, different from Gerald, who was much more animated and intense. Aldous was cool, highly cultivated. Think about his family – Matthew Arnold on one side, Thomas Huxley on the other, talk about to the manner-born!

He was no hippy, in the way that Watts was.

Not at all. Aldous had huge tolerance of ambiguity though. He was no snob when it came to sex or anything, it seemed. But he wouldn’t have been doing any of the movement exercises, and he was used to politeness and good form. I can’t see him in an encounter group – first of all, he couldn’t see well enough to see across a room. I can’t remember if he went to the baths or not. And he made helpful suggestions for us. He made us aware of Gestalt therapy, and of somatic awareness, and the ‘non-verbal humanities’.

A photo taken of Huxley on his first mescaline trip, looking out over Los Angeles. The photo was taken by the psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond, who later coined the word ‘psychedelic’

He was very into the idea of physical training, despite being this rather gangly, half-blind intellectual.

He was never destined to be an athlete. He was six foot four, and walked with these loping steps. He was already 68 when we met. He said a number of things to us that were kind of prophetic. He said words to the effect of ‘one of your challenges will be the conflict in you and your guys between your aesthetic and critical judgement on one side, and your compassion on the other. You are going to have to get your hands dirty.’ And boy has that been true.

Tell me more about that.

Well, it’s things that are not respectable. And things that are on the edge of not working. At Esalen, by 1970, we were resolutely confessing our sins in public – don’t do this, don’t do that. I mean…Tim Leary was wrong – the idea you can take LSD every Sunday. Now there’s a whole return of psychedelics. But it’s not like Tim Leary and everybody stoned every day.

So Huxley was talking about getting your hands dirty, because you’re working with the subconscious. Human development is messy.


And it was an ecstatic model of education, so stuff is going to come up.

Right. Managing the unconscious, the Id. If you’re going to do group work, you have to work with what emerges. And we’ve learned certain things don’t work.

Freud and Jung were doing one-on-one therapy. You helped create the model of week-long deep-dive group courses in self-exploration.

Yes. It was very much in the air. But people working at Esalen helped to invent it – Fritz Perls developed his approach at Esalen. Stan Grof invented holotropic breathwork there. Huxley said you have to have both sides – you need to keep your critical judgement and your aesthetic sensibility. He was out of an upper class academic family. You get good manners, aesthetic judgement. And here’s this messiness, looking at it, accepting it. It’s not good form.

Dreaming of the future of humanity in Esalen’s hot springs

And it’s sometimes dangerous. We had a split at Esalen, we called it the Dionysians and the Apollonians. I moved up to the city in 1967 to start a centre in San Francisco. My closest friends, crystallizing around me, were more Apollonian. We were doing events at Grace Cathedral. At Big Sur it got wilder and wilder. It led to conflicts. We used to groan when we heard about some of the stuff happening at Big Sur. Free love was in the air.  There were experiments with drugs. With any drug there are limits. So the place had become a living laboratory. The media caught up with this – but they didn’t see a laboratory, they saw a sometimes wild place.

It’s amazing you survived. Think about what happened at Osho’s ashrams at Pune and Oregon.

Dick Price for a while got very enchanted with Osho, then he went over to Pune and he was horrified. They were having encounter groups, and then one discovered he had syphilis and yet slept with seven or eight people. Then Dick watched a wrestling match, and saw a guy get his leg broken. So he flipped and came back lambasting Osho, while Osho started lambasted Dick. Dick gave an interview to Time magazine, so we got caught up – as we did with Scientology – in saying no to these crazier movements. We were exploring, finding our way.

How did you maintain quality control in the Esalen programmes?

For the most part, we’ve conducted public programms (which included professional training seminars) rather than research. The head of programming chooses the leaders. The program is edited all the time, and it starts before anyone comes. That’s how we’ve done it from the start, in 1962. A lot of what we did in the early days came out of psycho-drama – it came out of theatre games and improvisation, like Second City. In those days there was a meeting room next to the dining room. Suddenly there were blood-curdling screams. Eventually a guy came out on all fours, and some people came out and dragged him back in, then more screams. So, to cut a long story short, I told them they couldn’t come back and got a letter from every participant saying ‘Murphy you have no balls at all. You tell us to explore boundaries, then you kick us out’. So we had to use our intuitive judgement and not judge leaders only by what our seminar participants say . Now it’s easier because we hear about programmes before they come to Esalen – it’s like theatre, you get good in smaller theatres before you step up to Broadway. We only accept about a quarter of the leaders who want to do programmes at Esalen.

So, as a group, clearly the mystical expats had a big influence on you. How much on Californian spirituality?

Huge! First, they helped transmit this global lineage, the religion of no religion, experiential comparativism. Not just reading and writing about it, but experiencing it first hand. I would say it’s a global lineage. It comes in large part from the Bengal Renaissance – out of Ramakrishna, Sri Aruobindo, and Vivekananda coming to the US in 1893 and establishing the Vedanta centres, such as the one in Los Angeles where Huxley, Heard and Isherwood practiced.

It’s a lineage in the making that people have given voice to in different ways, particularly Heard and Huxley. They were both very strong on the marriage of science and mysticism, and the importance of depth psychology. They were very influenced by William James and Frederic Myers, as we were at Esalen. We’ve had a 15-year research project on James and Myers.

I love that. I dedicated my last book to Myers because I feel he deserved more credit. He’s barely known in contemporary British psychology or culture.

To add a footnote to perennialism, Jeff Kripal, in his book on Esalen, argues that, mid-century, there was a massive turn from the asceticism of Vedanta to the more full-bodied spirituality of Tantra. Esalen was in the middle of it. You can see it in the difference between Gerald and Aldous. Gerald had a strange relationship to his homosexuality, quite unlike Christopher Isherwood.  Jeff Kripal used that story as an example of the move from Vedanta to Tantra in the West at mid-century. Tantra is a vast meta-theory that says the divine is both transcendent and immanent. It’s there in Feng Shui and architecture, in martial arts, in sex. It’s much earthier than much Vedanta and asceticism generally East or West.

In terms of evolutionary spirituality, both Heard and Huxley – like Sri Aurobindo – thought homo sapiens could potentially evolve into a higher spiritual species, and places like Esalen could help catalyse it.

Yes, we could be midwives. This is why I go back to Francis Bacon. He said that science in its basic sense is the acknowledgement that you have to conform your understanding to nature, and not try to get nature fit your understanding. This is the problem with materialist reductionism – it ignores facts like telepathy. I call them supernormalities of everyday life. We started a project years ago on supernormal experience. I’ve believed that we must collect the data of the inner life, like good natural scientists, then get taxonomies, then theories about human nature, in a manner analogous to that process in the physical and biological sciences.

It sounds in the tradition of Frederic Myers and Edward Gurney’s work at the Society of Psychical Research, at the end of the 19th century.

Exactly. I feel in this field we a long way to go. We haven’t done enough natural history. Supernormal capactities are hiding in plain sight, in all sorts of human activity, in the arts, in sport, in every day life. Again and again people have out of the box experiences, but they have no framework or vocabulary for it. My argument is that every human attribute gives rise to supernormal expressions. Myers was onto it – he called it evolutionary buds.

Huxley and Heard had a lot of interest and faith in paranormal research, but it seems like it’s really faded from academic psychology.

It’s almost like Sisyphus – you roll the stone up and it rolls down again. Look at the Society of Psychical Research – it went far ahead of us but now very few people have even heard about it. You need institutions to establish a new scientific paradigm. There are places and programs exploring the edges of our latent supernature but there’s a general resistance to such efforts in mainstream science and academia .

But in other ways, these are good times for transpersonal psychology, no? The boom in contemplation and contemplative science, the renaissance in psychedelic research…

Yes we’ve breached the fort of reductionism.  But we’ve got a long way to go.

You could say that such exploration has been helped by Huxley, Heard, and Watts. They were popularizers – bridges between elite spirituality and the masses.

That’s true. They helped drive the democratization of all this, and to some degree an acceptance of it among intellectuals and some scientists.

We have to be careful about thinking scientific spirituality is somehow free from dogma. It’s who controls the power, the funding, the journals, the conferences.  

Right – did you read Thomas Kuhn’s book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions? It’s crucial. Physics is supposed to be free of dogma, but what’s with string theory – there’s no experimental results because they haven’t proposed an experiment. Yet it’s considered a mainstream theory. Lee Smolin argues that seven universities and 32 chairs in academia control theoretical physics. And 29 of those chairs are occupied by string theorists.  And there’s a book out, by the historian of science Peter Galison at Harvard – how big science is requiring some things that did not exist before, like ‘trading zones’. At CERN – English is the dominant language, but not everyone speaks English. And not everyone speaks the same theoretical language. In the trading zone you use pidgin languages. That’s pure Esalen. In a sense, Esalen is a trading zone to find a common language for different traditions and experiences.

Esalen has probably paved the way for where we are now – a sort of open-source, de-centered, democratic spirituality. Let’s learn from each other, rather than signing up to one dogma or guru.

Specialization with a single teacher works sometimes, let’s say in music, or in physics. You need specialization, but you also need conversation across boundaries. That’s a regional advantage of Silicon Valley.  And Esalen.

What do you think of the rise of national tribalism and the tribalism of identity politics with regard to the Esalen project?

George Leonard started black-white encounter groups at Esalen in 1967. We did that for a few years. We did one recently between Democrats and Republicans. But our main thrust in this regard has been through work on US-Russia relations and Arab-Jewish relations. We organizied a conference in Russia, working with Russian and American students.  The theme was ‘who do you trust?’ Why can’t we talk together like these kids did? We want to cultivate the impulse to talk across divides and not be afraid to be messy, and to have faith that there’s a common ground of goodness. Our first black-white encounter groups – black-white encounter as transcendental experience, it was called. There were black folks who’d never had a white friend and white folks who’d never had a black friend. We have Democrat friends who won’t let their daughters go out with Republican men. Can you believe it?

It sounds quite Quaker, what you’re doing.

Quakers are kissing  cousins.The contemplation, the good works.  I love them.

Is there a left bias among the people at Esalen?

Yes, but we have many conservatives—and even Republicans!—among our leaders and seminarians. And we get criticized from both the left and right!

 Esalen is still very much in the news. Here’s an Economist article from November 2019 on how Esalen helped take the counter-culture mainstream. Here’s a New Yorker article from April 2019 on how Esalen is now part of the Silicon Valley ecosystem and is trying to help tech CEOs find their conscience. And here’s an extraordinary excerpt from a new book on how Murphy researched superhuman powers, or ‘sidhis’ in sport and advised the US government on mind control. For more on the mystical expatriates, here’s an article I wrote. A shout out to QMUL colleague Jake Poller for his excellent new book on Aldous Huxley and Alternative Spirituality.

And if you want a taste of an Esalen seminar from the heady days of 1968, here’s one featuring Alan Watts, Allen Ginsberg, Claudio Naranjo (a pioneer of psychedelic therapy) and John Weir Perry (a pioneer of work on treating spiritual emergencies), talking about poetry and madness.

To Lose the Physician

Stephen Pender is Professor of English at the University of Windsor, Ontario, in Canada. He is a specialist in early modern literature and intellectual history. This post is derived from an October 2019 lunchtime seminar at the QMUL Centre for the History of the Emotions, and is part of chapter four of his forthcoming monograph, Therapy and the Passions: Rhetoric, Medicine, and Moral Philosophy in Early Modern England.

This year, for the first time on record, average waiting times for seeing a general practitioner (GP) in the UK exceeded fourteen days. Yet an appointment is a fleeting affair, a mere brush with prescription and counsel: the average time of a visit to one’s GP is amongst the lowest in Europe, just over ten minutes, as compared with, say, Sweden, in which patients spend more than twenty-five minutes during a typical appointment. The situation is similar in Canada. When did ‘brief encounters’ with GPs, their offices functioning as entrepots for yet further bookings with specialists, become the norm? Certainly not in the seventeenth century, when ‘clinical’ medicine, the medicine of the bedside, was a protracted, voluble affair, with friends and relatives, doctors, divines, and other healers lingering over the figures — what one ate, how one slept, the qualities of stools — in a patient’s variegated regimental ground. Compared with today, time spent with sufferers was ample: in practice if not always in theory most early modern physicians subscribed to categories first mooted by the Roman physician Galen, the so-called ‘non-naturals,’ which describe and disclose relationships between the body, the will, and the world. The number varies, depending on period and practitioner: air (or environment), food and drink, exercise and rest, excretion and retention, sleep and waking, the passions (emotions), with ‘frictions’ or massage, coitus, dreams, and therapeutic baths receiving uneven attention.

A physician should be, or should pretend to be, a friend

Without x-ray, fMRI or what the 1580s French essayist, Michel de Montaigne, calls a “speculum matricis,” a ‘mirror’ for seeing “our braine, our lungs, and our liver,” physicians were in part dependent on conversation about these components of regimen, on illness narratives, as they have come to be called, in addition to scanning the face and body, evaluating urine, palpation, discerning temperature and pulse. How best to elicit the fullest, most robust sense of a sufferer’s condition? to tease out condign signs and symptoms? to hasten recovery? The answer may surprise, given the impersonal interactions that often condition contemporary care: a physician should be, or should pretend to be, a friend.

Enquiring into eighteenth-century conceptions of passion for a chapter that eventually appeared in a six volume history of emotion from Bloomsbury, I alighted on the Scottish physician John Gregory’s work. He insists that physicians sympathise with patients, that they feel “the distress of … fellow creatures,” for “affection and confidence” in a patient have “utmost consequence” to recovery (Lectures on the Duties and Qualifications of a Physician, 1772).

A painting of John Gregory, the Scottish physician and medical writer. Gregory’s Lectures on the Duties and Qualifications of a Physician were published in 1772, a year before his death.

Affection and confidence point Gregory towards friendship, as he muses on a doctor’s character and comportment: since “there is often a feebleness and depression of spirits attendant on sickness,” he impugns solemnity, urging instead “propriety” and “an easy, cheerful, soothing behaviour,” so that sufferers “forget the physician in the friend.” The physician lost in the friend: a physician’s “presence and assistance as a friend may be agreeable and useful, both to the patient and his nearest relations.” Gregory recognises an expansive province for amicable bedside rhetorical work.

The history of this notion — that physicians should adopt the armaments of friendship — is long, and neglected, unlike the history of friendship itself. Tellingly, Hippocrates advises physicians to direct a patient’s “mind” to “theatrical performances, especially those that cause laughter.” In speech and in conduct, doctors should be “serious, artless, … graceful in speech, gracious in disposition,” and must comfort patients with “solicitude and attention.” They must be affable, “ready to reply,” and know the “use of what conduces to friendship.” Galen’s psychological treatises, too, recommend finding a friend and counsellor, unafraid to offer frank, seasonable advice. It is necessary, he writes, “to find some older man who is capable of seeing [emotional] faults, and to beseech him to make everything evident to us quite freely …” Cicero, famously, agreed: frank counsel is the heart of true friendship. This notion was not lost on the middle ages, with the most famous therapeutic, bedside advice offered to Boethius by Philosophy, with Aquinas’ treatise on friendship.

From antiquity through to early modernity, the ideal friend heals, divides our griefs and doubles our joy; so, too, the physician

Notions of licit friendship and ideal physicians are entangled: most physicians were certain that remedying physical suffering meant conjuring “pleasing words,” for a “good speech is a Physitian for a sick mind” (Lemnius, Secret Miracles, 1559). William Vaughan recommends that physicians “invent and devise some spirituall pageant to fortifie” a patient’s “depraved” imagination (1617). Since patients suffer vexatious thoughts, they are to be “wrought into an Imagination quite contrary” to strong passions that accompany distemper (Jonstonus, Practical Physick, 1657). The popular divine and casuist William Fenner reports that “Galen sayes, he met with many sick patients, if he had not cured their affections, he had never recovered them” (1650). There is dissent from this opinion — one practitioner insists that physicians should not study ways of “satisfying … the indiscreet Patient …” (Bolnest, Medicina Instaurata, 1665) — but most agreed with Francis Bacon, who in 1623 avers that “there is no physician of any skill who does not attend to the accidents of the mind” as essential to both remedy and recovery.

The sixteenth-century French physician Laurent Joubert, still read in the seventeenth century, is succinct: “the good opinion patients have of their physician gives them a certain confidence that helps them to recover better.” In Joubert’s apothegm, “He in whom many trust heals more patients,” while a taciturn healer makes the patient weak, ‘dashing’ the spirits because “fear and mistrust have seized his heart” (Popular Errors, 1578). Desire, hope, and trust enliven; sadness, diffidence weakens. Joubert’s contemporary, the Salisbury physician John Securis, agrees: a doctor must possess a good disposition, a fine reputation, and persuade his patients gently, with “a lively & merry countenance” (1566). As Joubert concludes, some patients report “that the presence of the physician consoles, rejoices, and gives them courage, making them feel the illness give way and their strength grow.”

‘Cheer up,’ you might say, pointedly, next you visit your GP. ‘It might do me good.’