That Whale Among The Fishes—The Theory of Emotions

Max Meyer
University of Missouri

The whale has a twofold distinction among the fishes: first, when seen from a distance, it looms large among them; and second, on close examination it is found to be no fish at all. Something like that I predict for the theory of emotions among the theories in psychological textbooks and periodicals.

Psychology, the science furnishing the foundation for human engineering, so young a science, need not feel ashamed of the fact that it has to cast out some humbug which has established itself within during its infancy. Physiology in its infancy had to rid itself of the theory of the four humors. Physics had to rid itself of the theory of the four elements, each "seeking" its place, if we make allowance for such unruly representatives as cork. Chemistry had to rid itself of the humbug called phlogiston. If psychology have its humbug, let it be only for a while.

A man like William James, who was a poet and philosopher--combined, and at the same time had much of that large scientific understanding which was possible fifty years ago, naturally could try to lead the novelistic-philosophical psychology into the promised land of real science. But like Moses he was permitted to see the promised land only from a distance. He remained confined to his novelistic-philosophical formulations. Thus he talked much of emotions. With him we find Hall and Wundt and Ladd and Royce [1] enumerating emotions. And the modern professors of the science of human engineering who have received their college

( 293) training from those men, continue to talk as if psychology could not exist without a doctrine of emotions, because what one has learned in childhood and youth by rote one cannot easily throw off except by an intellectual revolution. And from revolutions we shrink, rightly, because they demand from the individuals engaged in them too great a sacrifice.

I did not have the disadvantage of sitting at the feet of any such brilliant college teachers of psychology; so I can look critically at emotions in the science of human engineering.

In the relatively antique psychology, that is, even before the time of James, Hall, Wundt, Ladd, and Royce, the emotions were what the word literally means, states of consciousness which broke through the surface of the soul, like small pocks through the skin, and appeared visible to the eye as bodily motions, as ‘passionate actions,' as one also used to say. James made a really great advance toward a scientific psychology when he taught that we do not run because of fear, but that we are afraid because we run, that is, when he taught that emotions were certain conscious experiences from one's own skeletal and visceral body, and that the body reactions had to be explained physiologically before one began the discussion of what the conscious emotions were. However, granted that to the human engineer a person's running is indeed very important because it determines the attitude of the society around him which differs according as he runs or does not run (that is, faces his social fellows)—whether the person who runs is himself aware of his running or not aware of it, is of little consequence to society, therefore of little con-sequence to the human engineer.

Lange, a Danish physician, reasoned similarly to the manner of James and yet scientifically much more to the point. When we talk of emotions of people, so Lange said, we hint at one or several of exactly four bodily reactions, all of them plainly visible in their consequences: (I) Increased tonicity of skeletal muscles, (z) decreased tonicity of skeletal muscles, (3) increased tonicity of smooth muscles, (˘) de-creased tonicity of smooth muscles. To society each of

( 294) these reaction forms becomes appreciable in a certain variety of ways, but chiefly as follows: (1) as great activity or restlessness; (2) as pronounced inactivity or sleepiness; (3) as paling, bloodlessness, of the skin; (4) as reddening, warming of the skin; and (1) may be combined with either (3) or (4), and (2) may be combined with either (3) or (4). Whether any of these four combinations, 1-3, 1-4, 2-3, 2-4, enters the individual's own awareness is of small significance to science according to Lange, who in this respect is far ahead of James. The methodical enumeration, in four groups, of the physiological processes is Lange's claim to greatness; and it is through his conviction of the relative insignificance of whether the individual is aware of himself, that Lange, the objectively inclined psychologist, will stand much higher in the history of science than James, the subjectively inclined psychologist.

Both Lange and James were interested in the smooth muscles, or more correctly speaking, the muscles constituting the vascular system of the body, and through this interest differed from the novelists and historians who describe in their stories only the passionate actions, that is, the functions only of the striped or skeletal muscles. Today, nearly half a century later, a new knowledge, a third division of physiological knowledge, has forced itself upon the psychologists who follow the trend of James and Lange. The glandular activities have become better known, and especially those glandular secretions which do not flow out from the glands through ducts have been newly discovered. The secretions of the ductless glands are absorbed by the bloodstream and thus carried to various tissues in different parts of the body which are chemically qualified to utilize them. These chemical substances secreted, one by one ductless gland, another by another ductless gland—these hormones or endocrine substances as the physiologists call them—now sensitize selectively the nervous structures which innervate the muscles of the limbs, the hands and feet, now selectively the nervous structures which innervate the muscles of the trunk and cause the trunk either to be tense, straight and stiff, or to wriggle and twist,—according to the muscles involved. Other hor-

( 295) -mones serve to sensitize that part of the nervous system which serves the muscles of the eyes for opening and closing, or the muscles of the jaws, cheeks and tongue for the multiple acts of biting into things, sucking things up, chewing things, spitting things out. Other hormones sensitize the nervous structures which innervate the muscles, causing our vocal apparatus to get into action in shouting, singing, speaking, no matter what names the social language prefers for these various vocalizing activities.

Certain hormones have a curious multiplicity of chemical actions. For example, a hormone secreted by one ductless gland may by sensitizing a part of the nervous system affect certain vascular muscles and thereby the blood circulation; it may also stimulate another gland, for example, the liver, to become active in its ductless parts and throw sugar into the blood to be sent to the muscles of the legs to enable the owner to run faster and keep it up longer; the same chemical may also directly prevent the muscular fatigue of the runner from setting in so soon as to discourage him. The psychologist would go out of his way if he would chemically study all these possibilities. The physiologist does that. But the psychology student should come to realize that human life is regulated in such physiological ways, and that such knowledge is vastly more important for social engineering in the social relations between man and man than Wundtian speculations on the metaphysical problem of whether the affective life of the human spirit, the life of feeling, stretches itself only over two so-called dimensions of consciousness or occupies three dimensions of consciousness.

All these three classes of physiological functions, (1) the functions of the skeletal muscles, (2) the functions of the vascular muscles, and (3) the regulatory chemical actions of the glands,—the duct glands and even more the ductless glands,—depend for their functions very largely on the nervous system. The psychologist must know something of those three and (4) must have a clear and up-to-date correct idea of how the nervous system is built by nature and how it works. Since social organization largely serves the purpose of controlling

( 296) through formal and informal education, habit formation, or whatever you call it, the modifiability of the nervous system which insures the making of a civilized being from the animal-like baby,—the psychology student needs to acquire a correct knowledge of those laws of nature which regulate the modification of the nervous system, that is, the laws of habit formation, also called the laws of learning, also called the laws of memorizing, also called the laws of intelligent adaptation, also called the laws of acquired behavior, also called the laws of conditioned reflexes.

Where then do emotions come in? At every moment of life, without exception, including even the time when one says we sleep, all those four classes of functions occur. Even sleep is an emotion,—and Lange indeed would say so, although James might not. Not all four classes need be at any moment equally strong, it is true. But none could be reduced to zero for a few minutes without seriously upsetting the health of the individual if not actually killing him. Indeed by health of the individual we scarcely mean anything else but that these functions do not unduly get out of their proper proportionality. While any one of them waxes strong, the other three can not remain on a low level. While any one is reduced in intensity by some obstacle, the other three can not remain on a high level. They do not all go up and down at the same moment, it is true. Some one may lead for a few seconds, even minutes, another may change appreciably next, another next, the fourth next. But it is at most a few minutes for all that to occur. None of them can be isolated; and to none of them can be assigned, therefore, a particular and socially significant name such as ‘the emotional state of the individual.' And yet textbook writers still seek to isolate the emotional function.

Our modern psychologists, although they try to be human engineers, do not have the courage to throw off those terminological shackles which were put on their intellects when they were young students either directly by those teachers, James, Hall, Wundt, Ladd, Royce, or by teachers who were shackled when they were students of James, Hall, Wundt, Ladd,

( 297) Royce, and were made to transmit the bondage to the third generation.

In no science is a technical term introduced without a definition. It is the definition which proves immediately that the use of the term is not a yielding to poetic-novelistic-journalistic habits of a scientifically lazy reader, but that the term is needed by the constructive demands of the science itself. Now, if anybody can find a textbook on psychology in which the term ‘emotion' is introduced thus honestly, and not by the novelistic back door, he can make himself distinguished as the greatest discoverer in mankind.

It is clear that the poets, like Homer thousands of years ago, when creating their rich store of language terms to describe how the soul ‘expressed' itself outwardly, found it easiest among the physiological functions to describe the motions of the limbs produced by skeletal muscles and the facial distortions produced by those skeletal muscles which surround the skull and the neck. Joy thus means light but rapidly repeated, though irregular, arm movements, and also light movements of the legs, not of the running or marching type nor of great regularity. I mean of so little regularity that they could suggest no productive work like pedaling a machine, but such that they suggest the dancing movements of a hen around a worm so big that it can not be swallowed by a single thrust of the bill; or the dancing movements of a cat having cornered a mouse but not being hungry enough to start immediately devouring it; or the dancing movements of a child, just having had a full breakfast, around a birthday cake which is being put on the dinner table for consumption some hours later, at dinner time.

It is so easy to. understand all that. Recall what need not be taught, since it is self-evident,—recall that the universal activities of all living things, not only animals, but plants as well, consist in three types, poetically called hunger, fear and love; objectively rather described as putting food stuffs into the digestive cavity or cavities; providing shelter from excesses of push, of pull, of heat, of cold, of moisture, of dryness; and providing for the fertilization of the egg cells

( 298) from which—excepting the lowest forms of life which lack individuality—the species must reproduce itself because the individuals are doomed to die.

When there is scarcity of food, no time is lost in hesitation before swallowing that which is found. But when there is abundance, then what would otherwise be a searching or hunting transportation of the body resolves itself into a mere searching, among the present, stationary superfluity, for those few food elements which seem particularly productive of adipose tissue, fat tissue, of internal food for future periods of external lack. The human language creators, the poets, have called that joy. So everybody learns in babyhood to call such dancing motions around a good thing joy. Since the human race uses its language also generalizingly, abstractedly, it soon learns to speak of joy also when the center piece is no food at all, but is merely a symbol of something often searched and hunted, or of anything prized, as when the followers of Moses, disobeying his orders, danced with joy around the golden calf, probably a symbol of prosperity.

Where can the line be drawn between biological activities which are unemotional and biological activities which are emotional,—while the hen dancing around the big worm is doing nothing with her body which is fundamentally different from jabbing at the little worm? How large must the cooky become before the child does not feel like stuffing it into his mouth immediately, but like enjoying it by prancing around it? What right do we have to deny that the smallest currant which the child puts in his mouth is, poetically, the stimulus of an emotional state? What right do we have to prescribe a particular rapidity or extent of jaw motion below which there is no emotional state and above which there is?

When many skeletal muscles of a human being act strongly and prolongedly, he can not help getting red in his face. The vascular muscles circulating the blood naturally coöperate with the skeletal muscles needing the blood supply. Also the heat resulting from the muscular activity must be removed from the body, and for this purpose much blood must circulate close to the skin surface where it may be

( 299) cooled by cold air or by sweat evaporation. But this blood circulation should not be called an emotional state simply because it is sometimes greater than at other times. How red must a person be in his face before he is said to have lost the unemotional character? Why is he not slightly emotional while taking his afternoon nap? Is not some blood even then circulating through the skin? Who draws the line between more and less flooding of the skin with blood?

We may add that no muscles could continue to work if the glands suddenly ceased to supply the internally created drugs needed by them. And that the nervous system plays its normal rôle all the while, now with greater, now with less flux, but never ceasing, is also self-evident. Who can decree that such and such an intensity of glandular and neural function is an emotional state and that below that intensity level the glandular and neural functions are unemotional? Do we draw a line but to please metaphysicians?

In a very fine and unusually modern textbook I find, in spite of its modern tendency,[2] the following examples among innumerable others of emotional actions: a child's fear of bugs, fear of the dark, one man's love for his work, another's self-esteem, still another's superpatriotism. But what is gained by calling these habitual actions emotions? Why not simply and systematically describe them in all the details desired biologically and stop there? How does the child's fear of the dark differ from my own fearless (?) attitude when I walk home on a lonely city street in the dark and, in passing a stranger, quite naturally assume a slightly cautious attitude, or from my own highly tense attitude when in a far-away country on a deserted highway I once was held up, but succeeded in bluffing my two adversaries into thinking that I feared them less than they feared me—almost to collapse when ten minutes later I felt safe? In none of the three cases is there absence of function of the skeletal muscles, the vascular muscles, the glands, the nervous system. There are

( 300) differences in the intensity of function, but since nothing is totally absent, where does the fear begin?

Why compete selfishly with the poets and the ministers of religion? Why introduce into science an unneeded term, such as emotion, when there are already satisfactory scientific terms for everything we have to describe? Otherwise the question remains eternally: When is an emotion not an emotion? Do I have an emotion when I look up a rare word in the dictionary, find two spellings undiscriminated and reject one in favor of the other? If I had not had ‘an emotional set' of preferring one spelling, I should have been in a case as difficult if not as dangerous to life as that of the famous donkey between two bundles of hay. I predict: The ‘will' has virtually passed out of our scientific psychology today; the ‘emotion' is bound to do the same. In 1950 American psychologists will smile at both these terms as curiosities of the past.

[MS. received October 4, 1932]


  1. I mention these five names because they appear as the philosophical pioneers of psychology in J. McK. Cattell's address, ‘Psychology in America,' at the International Congress of 1929.
  2. In Dashiell's recent text one looks in vain to discover in the most elaborate index any trace of the ‘will.' There is nothing voluntary, involuntary or conative left. What a horror to the metaphysician! But the ‘emotional' still runs through the book like the proverbial red thread through the cordage of the British navy.

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