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Book Forum: EMOTION, MIND, AND BODY   |    
The Psychology of Emotion: Theories of Emotion in Perspective, 4th ed.
Donald L. Nathanson, M.D.
Am J Psychiatry 1997;154:1616-1617.
View Author and Article Information
Philadelphia, Pa.

by K.T. Strongman. New York, John Wiley & Sons, 1996, 247 pp., $45.00 (paper).

So important to our work as clinicians is a thorough understanding of human emotion that one greets with hope the arrival of a book offering to place in perspective the wide range of theories available to both scholar and casual student. Strongman tells us that 25 years ago, when he began the series of books of which this is his last, he favored a behavioral explanation of emotion and that in the next two editions he shifted to a cognitive approach, which now must be modified in terms of the wealth of research that has appeared in the past decade. What he offers us is the bitter testament of a man who has seen the field he loves turn into something he cannot comprehend, and the cynicism with which he masks his incomprehension rises from every page. Errors abound.

The book starts badly. Strongman asserts that the ideas of Aristotle, whose work actually dominated European thought for centuries, "did not last long at the time" (p. 6) and were ignored until the comparatively recent rise of "scientism." Authors of every Renaissance book on emotion I have read understood that they would be judged on their understanding of Aristotle, made clear their fealty to the master, and hoped their work would not be seen as too wide a departure from it. Darwin, whom Strongman claims to understand best from a 1992 review paper, is afforded half a page and trivialized for his dependence on Lamarckian theories of inheritance. Missed completely is the bare fact that it was Darwin who first pointed out that there is a finite group of basic families of emotion, each of which is characterized by a specific facial expression. Much of modern emotion research follows this lead. None of these early theories is worth summarizing, Strongman says, because of "the difficulty of giving an account of emotion which does not have a definite cognitive component" (p. 14).

Slowly it dawns on any reader involved in the world of modern psychotherapy that Strongman has refused to take into account the enormous amount of information about emotion made salient by decades of clinical experience with pharmacotherapy. Certainly the excitement produced by cocaine and the amphetamines, tamped down in mania by lithium salts and anticonvulsants, and made nearly impossible in the absence of adequate supplies of thyroxine cannot be extirpated from our study of excitement. A competent theory of emotion must be informed by the general knowledge that the ingestion of reserpine or birth control pills often fosters the expression of guilt. Why exclude from consideration the observations that the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors ablate chronic feelings of shame and that the benzodiazepines mitigate some forms of anxiety? Even an author locked to cognitive theory must ask why the thoughts associated with and specific for many emotional illnesses plainly cease after successful treatment with medication. Does no information from medicine inform his model of academic psychology?

Bias is inevitable and perhaps useful—one can observe only from some firm stance. Strongman's biases are instructive: emotion "is primarily a social phenomenon" (p. 3) because "it is obvious that emotions, however conceived, occur mainly in interpersonal contexts" (p. 59); "clearly the emotional aspects of sex are a very significant part of life, although they have been underresearched and are not well understood" (p. 184). Ignore, for a moment, that there are whole journals devoted to sex research and filled regularly with articles about the affective component of sexuality. Has the author never leapt to his feet with excitement on reading something thoroughly novel? Never considered that most (private, individual) study is powered by affect over the range from interest to excitement, affect triggered in the absence of social contact? And if social interaction is so important to him, why has he disregarded entirely the vibrant field of attachment theory, which more and more has shifted to the view that attachment is not a drive but a subset of interaffectivity?

Throughout this book one wonders at the helpless cynicism that prevails and constrains the author to conclude with a startling paragraph in which he asks the unprepared reader to accomplish what Strongman cannot: "During the last two decades an enormous amount of thought has been put into gaining an understanding of emotion. This has provided a splendid springboard from which to leap out into the difficult waters of theoretical pluralism that lie between the shores of some half-a-dozen social sciences. Why not make a splash?" (p. 234). One is given the choice of accepting Strongman's belief that no single theory is good enough to explain all the data available or suggesting that a paradigm shift is in progress, as yet invisible to him but responsible for his evident and growing discomfort.

Although Strongman's interpretations of many important theorists and researchers are either wrong or simply inadequate, he offers enough of his own thinking to suggest that one of his errors provides an answer. In a tiny chapter devoted to what he calls "Ambitious Theories" (those which propose answers to his final question), Strongman identifies Tomkins only as the inspiration for Izard, whose "differential emotions theory" Strongman describes as "elegant" and "an enormous contribution" (p. 87), and to which he refers throughout the rest of his book. I can forgive Strongman for falling into the common misunderstanding of the link between their work: Izard's folksy paraphrase (1, 2) of Tomkins's densely written and demanding first two volumes of Affect Imagery Consciousness (3, 4), and his astonishing but unsubstantiated claim that differential emotions theory differs from Tomkins's affect theory, have until recently led most students of emotion to regard Izard as the father of modern emotion research rather than its witty and charming pretender. But I remain perplexed about Strongman's blindness to the simple truth that Tomkins was the first person in the history of the study of emotion to point out that emotion is not a vestigial remnant of a primitive system formed much earlier in our evolutionary heritage, significant mostly because it produces unwanted interference with neocortical cognition, but the conspicuous part of the system of the mind responsible for all urgency, importance, attention, and consciousness. Before Tomkins, affect equaled interference with cognitive life. After Tomkins, affect brought meaning to cognitive life. Strongman still hopes for a mostly cognitive explanation of emotion, one that has been made impossible by clinical experience with psychotropic drugs and the study of interaffectivity.

Constricted books like this have often appeared in periods of philosophical chaos and confusion. Strongman and I apparently share the belief that most theories work more because of the data they ignore than the data they encompass. By disavowing the paradigm shift already in progress and attempting to link all modern emotion research to the order within which he has for so long felt comfortable, Strongman is forced to claim that there is as yet no good theory of emotion. My own bias to the contrary has been stated clearly in books (5, 6) to which I hope the reader will be attracted by the combination of cognition and affect expressed in this review.

Izard CE: The Face of Emotion. New York, Plenum, 1971
 
Izard CE: Human Emotions. New York, Plenum, 1975
 
Tomkins SS: Affect Imagery Consciousness, vol I: The Positive Affects. New York, Springer, 1962
 
Tomkins SS: Affect Imagery Consciousness, vol II: The Negative Affects. New York, Springer, 1963
 
Nathanson DL: Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self. New York, WW Norton, 1992
 
Nathanson DL (ed): Knowing Feeling: Affect, Script, and Psychotherapy. New York, WW Norton, 1996
 
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References

Izard CE: The Face of Emotion. New York, Plenum, 1971
 
Izard CE: Human Emotions. New York, Plenum, 1975
 
Tomkins SS: Affect Imagery Consciousness, vol I: The Positive Affects. New York, Springer, 1962
 
Tomkins SS: Affect Imagery Consciousness, vol II: The Negative Affects. New York, Springer, 1963
 
Nathanson DL: Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self. New York, WW Norton, 1992
 
Nathanson DL (ed): Knowing Feeling: Affect, Script, and Psychotherapy. New York, WW Norton, 1996
 
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