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It is true that many philosophers held that the emotions can sometimes lead our reasoning astray, and they offer various epistemic techniques to minimize this cognitive interference. Malebranche, for instance, imbedded his account of the passions in the reforming project of The Search After Truth , and many accounts of method, e. But none of these accounts assumed that the emotions are inevitably disruptive to our reason, however important it may be to temper them.

Descartes particularly emphasized the functionality of our passions, first for practical, but also for theoretical reasoning, and suggested that proper discipline should allow us to maximize the epistemic value of the emotions. Malebranche and Spinoza were less sanguine about our chances of doing so, but even Malebranche maintained that the passions are functional in several respects.

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But these seem somewhat at odds with his claims about the operation of the passions in driving mental activity. Here it is worth considering Spinoza's account of the relation between reason and the affects, for it offers a kind of gloss on Hobbes. It is, Spinoza maintained, only our passive emotions that can produce conflict with the dictates of our reason; our active affects accord well with reason. Later eighteenth-century philosophers developed the view that our reasoning faculties, and particularly our language, are a historical development from our emotions; this seems to have been the view of Condillac and Rousseau.

One of the most important contexts for understanding the epistemic strengths and weaknesses attributed to the emotions lies in their relation to the imagination.

Accounts of what exactly this faculty is changed dramatically from the seventeenth to the eighteenth centuries, but in one way or another, the emotions were commonly understood to interact closely with the imagination. On some views, the imagination provides a conduit between the emotions and the body. Both pre-modern and modern folk medicine held that experiencing strong emotions could affect the imagination of a pregnant woman in such a way as to leave marks on her fetus.

Indeed, so close was the connection supposed to be that simply imagining emotionally-fraught situations could mark the development of the fetus, and there was a substantial literature of eighteenth-century manuals instructing mothers-to-be on the proper control of their affective states. See Smith and Kukla Descartes made mention of such views, and more generally saw the imagination as an important tool for managing the emotions: picturing things in the imagination could have affective results, so manipulating the imagination is an effective way of controlling our emotions and their effects.

The view taken of the interaction between emotions and imagination changed with shifts in how the faculty of the imagination — and the relation between mind and body in general —were understood. Hume, for instance, considered the imagination to be the faculty of composing, decomposing, and associating ideas, in contrast to the impressions among which passions were numbered.

Nonetheless, there is still some role for the imagination in producing and manipulating affects, and vice-versa. The imagination is also a crucial mechanism in the social communication of the passions, a topic considered by both Malebranche and Hume. The physiology of the emotions and their implications for medicine was another important theme in early modern philosophy. Here too the imagination has a role to play.

Descartes considered the emotions central to the treatment of both mental and bodily illness. In doing so, he joined a long and popular medical tradition treating the emotions, including Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy and William Falconer's A Dissertation on the Influence of the Passions upon the Disorders of the Body Burton's work was conservative, if eclectic, in its approach to understanding the soul and using the machinery of humours and spirits to explain emotion and temperament.

But many other writers borrowed piecemeal from the language of humours and spirits, sometimes embedding it in new physiological accounts, sometimes simply using it to describe various affects. Descartes and Malebranche, for instance, spoke of the animal spirits, but also used such new tools as Harvey's discovery of the circulation of the blood to explain the bodily effects of emotions. The affective aspects of mental disorders are matters of particular interest. More generally, the sort of humour-driven approach to medicine and pathology that informed many seventeenth-century accounts of the emotions declined among eighteenth century philosophers.

Some of the most important issues raised by the emotions in early modern philosophy are practical, especially those concerning practical reason, the pursuit of happiness and moral philosophy. As we have seen, the emotions were generally seen as motivating.

Emotions and War

They are not necessarily the only sources of motivation: Descartes and Malebranche considered reason to offer motivations of its own, as did Pascal, who also admitted other sources of motivation. But many other philosophers, such as Hobbes, Hutcheson and Hume took the emotions to be the driving source of our practical reason.

None of them, however, maintained that the emotions were immune to training and refinement, and indeed all early modern philosophers took it as important for both morality and happiness that we do train our emotions. The practical philosophies offered by Descartes, Malebranche and Spinoza are particularly concerned with the pursuit of happiness, which they assume involves both managing and cultivating the emotions.

The pursuit of happiness was also an issue for British philosophers such as Shaftesbury and Hutcheson, although it sometimes paled next to their interests in moral evaluation.


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Yet he had to argue the point, since he did not understand virtue primarily in terms of individual flourishing. Hutcheson also considered how the passions contribute or detract from our happiness. But Shaftesbury, Hutcheson and Hume expended even more effort to explain how we make judgments of moral worth, starting with the emotions issuing from our moral senses. For it is only through our emotions that we can be responsive to the moral qualities we evaluate.

But their position presupposes a very particular understanding of the nature of our senses and of the ontological status of the secondary qualities to which they are receptive.


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In contrast, Shaftesbury, often suggests both that there are moral and aesthetic qualities intrinsic to the external world, and that we access those qualities through our emotions. On this view, our emotions, at least when functioning as they should, are simply our natural equipment for picking up salient features of the world. Likewise, a great deal of political philosophy concerned the management of the emotions by social institutions and authorities, with Hobbes and Mandeville being just two of the most obvious examples.

But there are also deeper issues about what role the emotions might play in making social order possible. Many philosophers held that the emotions facilitated social interaction: Descartes suggested something of the sort in his analyses of such passions as love and generosity.

Malebranche was even more clearly committed to the view, holding that the communication of the emotions is crucial to social organization, ranking and cohesion. Hobbes and Spinoza, in contrast, found the grounds of much interpersonal conflict in the emotions, and even diagnosed specific emotions as inherently disruptive to social order, e. Eighteenth-century philosophers tended to evaluate the social effects of the emotions in terms of whether they were self- or other-directed, with Shaftesbury and Hutcheson arguing against Mandeville that our most natural emotions were other-directed.

In his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful , Edmund Burke distinguished between the passions directed at self-preservation and those belonging to society, but spends the lion's share of his time on the latter. A different twist is provided by Rousseau's contrast between two kinds of self-directed affection, amour de soi and amour propre , of which the former, but not the latter seems consistent with compassion for others.

The place of the emotions in early modern aesthetic theories deserves a separate treatment. The representation of the emotions was considered a proper object, sometimes the object, of aesthetic criticism. It was also the subject of many practical manuals in the arts; there is, for instance, an extensive seventeenth-century literature stemming from discussions in the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture about how to depict facial expressions and bodily gestures in ways that would allow the deciphering of emotional states.

Here the representation of the emotions serves both narrative and didactic purposes.


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  • Another commonplace of early modern aesthetics was the importance of exciting emotions in the audience for a work of art. This is a common theme in musical aesthetics, which borrowed heavily from rhetorical treatises. Baroque composers developed an entire theory of affects, and of musical figures to express those affects, for just this end. See the Grove Dictionary of Music. Another version of this theme appears in philosophical discussions of tragedy; since it is assumed that the dramatic depiction of emotions excites the same emotions in the audience, tragic drama presents a bit of a puzzle.

    It seems odd that we should enjoy the experience, and even enjoy it in proportion to the distress it invokes. Malebranche, Hutcheson and Hume are just a few to address this puzzle by developing accounts of the meta-pleasures afforded to us by the exercise of our emotions. Eighteenth-century aesthetics moved away somewhat from the view that the arts should carefully control our emotions, although the notion that artworks both express and excite emotions remained.

    Particularly interesting in this regard is the development of the concept of the sublime. As Burke explains it, the experience of the sublime transgresses categories of pain and pleasure and explains much of our response to dramatic tragedy. Here it seems that aesthetic, and other distinctive experiences can produce emotions that are sui generis , a view that gives aesthetics a particular importance for any understanding of the emotions.

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    17th and 18th Century Theories of Emotions (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

    Several of the most important discussions of the emotions in the early modern period involved women, who sometimes raised specific concerns relevant to their status as women. That is the case with Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia, whose correspondence pushed Descartes to write on the passions, while pursuing a lengthy discussion of the impact of the emotions on health and reasoning and our ability to control them. Elisabeth also seems to have inspired other writers on the emotions, serving as the dedicatee for the Treatise of the Passions and Faculties of the Soul of Man of Edward Reynolds, the Bishop of Norwich.

    Later in the eighteenth century, Mary Wollstonecraft's criticisms of Rousseau specifically addressed some of his views about emotional development and the sexual division of labor in the sentimental education of children. However, since some recent authors have turned to early modern discussions to understand how the emotions can be conceptually gendered, we should note that many women philosophers of this period showed no particular interest in the emotions.

    It does not seem to have been considered a special area of expertise for women.