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[xmca] Emotions and Culture

*Vygotsky on the Teaching About Emotions*

After all these years I at last got around to reading Vygotsky's 'Teaching about Emotions'. So far as I know, this and the lecture on the development of emotions in Volume 1, are all that is available in English of Vygotsky on the emotions.

It is an amazing article. For 170 pages, Vygotsky is like a tiger circling the hunter, preparing to attack, circling and circling: ranging from Descartes to James and contemporary writers and back again, he brings out the contradiction and dualism of descriptive psychology and explanatory psychology, centrifugal or centripetal sources of emotion, higher and lower emotions, causal or intentional explanations, physiological or intentional descriptions, natural scientific or theological approaches, etc., etc. It is a protracted immanent critique of the teaching about emotions from Descartes to his own time, allowing each voice to speak against the others, or itself. Occasionally, Vygotsky notes something with approval or makes the occasional characterisation of his own, but generally every system is eventually drawn into contradiction with itself. We are left with only the barest hints of a way out. This is the only case I know of an immanent critique which does not conclude or follow up with a transcending proposal. Dated 1933, I can only conclude that Vygotsky died before he could complete the exercise. It does read like someone trying to solve a puzzle. It is not polemical; it's like thinking aloud.

So, people like Achilles and Mabel who are working on emotions along Vygotsky's lines have a marvellous and challenging task before them! Not just completing Schubert's unfinished symphony, more like writing Shakespeare's 'Elizabeth I'.

One of the surprising things, to me, was that Vygotsky says, in effect, that the entire history of the teaching about emotions is contained in Descartes. Those who came after picked up one side or other of Descartes’ dualism, but soon or later found them forced back to some kind of dualism. Spinoza gets a mention, and is credited with some correct criticisms of Descartes, but given how much others make of Spinoza on emotions, and how much we know Vygotsky admired Spinoza, he has surprisingly little to say about Spinoza. Also, in the entire article there is only one mention of words, so anyone who thinks that Vygotsky reduced consciousness to word meaning must be mistaken. Because what Vygotsky is discussing is not just emotion, but really the whole history of psychology.

As I say, I don't think Vygotsky actually comes to a conclusion, but a few points can be made I think. 1. A science of the emotions worthy of the name must be able to deal fully with the 'higher' or 'finer' emotions - like the satisfaction a mathematician feels on completing a theorem or the pain of a composer whose arpeggio is not quite right - and yet must be explanatory; if limited to descriptive psychology (like a phenomenology of the emotions) it cannot claim to be science.

2. The physiological substrate of emotions (adrenalin, blood pressure, tightening of muscles, etc), including body chemistry and motor functions, and the associated sensations, are _diffuse_ in nature, and can only give a limited range of qualities to emotional experience, compared with the infinite range of emotions known to literature. Both great joy and great sadness can be associated with tears and shaking; both anger and fear include heightened heart rate.

3. The perception of these 'peripheral' changes are merely supplementary to the experience of emotion, not essential and certainly not the _substance_ of emotions as claimed by James. Vygotsky seems satisfied that an emotion can be experienced with no measureable changes in the relevant peripheral functions. (I don’t know if the idea of 'brain maps' of the body has any impact on this.)

4. Emotions are intentional, in the philosophical sense, i.e., directed at something in the objective world. (Thomas Scheff includes what an emotion is directed to as part of his categorization of emotions too, e.g., other-directed or self-directed or object-directed.) And words like teleological and will come into Vygotsky’s text, but he does not explicitly introduce striving as part of the essence of emotion. But it seems to me, it is hard to see how affect can be independent of meaning in relation to a person’s striving or desire. And that is outside the person.

5. It seems that Vygotsky wants to include _meaning_ as an irreducible part of emotion. If the silhouette of a woman engenders an emotion, then that image and all its associations are part of the emotion, not just an external stimulus for a feeling; the grief of a woman over the death of her son cannot be separated from her whole consciousness of her son and his death, memories, etc., all of which impart qualities to the emotion This means that an exclusively physiological explanation of emotion is absolutely ruled out. Jay's point about emotions being to some extent shared is supported here by Vygotsky, I think.

I suspect that because of the various kinds of visceral phenomena associated with strong emotions and shared with the animals, there has historically been a tendency for thinkers to abstract emotion from other, 'cold' or 'higher' modes of consciousness. The more so I suspect that all such speculations are the work of a class of people for whom calculation not passion is the norm. The whole ethos of intellect versus animal passions, etc.

Vygotsky wants I think to put these pieces back together, to accept that certain extreme perceptions engender modes of response in the body appropriate to the perception, and these produce affects which _accompany_ a perception and add further quality to the affect. It is as if the categorizing impulse that drives positivist (abstract empirical) science, in its effort to tear the subject apart, tears affect away from apprehension, and then goes about categorizing affects, and seems to believe that because of this act of cognition, there must be, in the subject itself, an abstraction of causes. But all perception is also affect, isn’t it. There is no such thing as purely intellectual perception or intention. To understand grief, one does need that perception of powerlessness and depression, but also the disorganization of consciousness which loss of a person close to you brings. Vygotsky mentions the difference between fear of a ghost and fear of an approaching bear. There is a difference. And the difference lies in the object of fear, and cannot be separated from consciousness as a whole and it structure.


For those who have high speed internet, Achilles has created a PDF of images of the text which is at http://www.marxists.org/archive/vygotsky/works/1933/emotions/emotions.pdf (65Mb) but Achilles has also OCR-ed the text and is currently correcting it and it should be available at the same location in a few days.


Achilles Delari Junior wrote:
Hi, excuse-me,

It's only to share a little  information. Some time
ago, Anton provide us a copy from the text from
Vygotsky, Samukhin an Birembaum about Pick's Disease - and it had important influences from
Lewin and others. That two Vygotsky's collaborators
studied in Germany, I guess, as did Zeiganik. There
are something about the problem of that they
call the "affective systems" of two patients...
It is from 1934, and was not translated yet.

Thank you, nothing to detour the discussion, only
an information about Vygotsky and Gestalt in
clinical settings...


From: liliamabel@hotmail.com
To: xmca@weber.ucsd.edu
Subject: RE: [xmca] Emotions and culture
Date: Thu, 3 Dec 2009 07:16:28 +0000

Hi, Larry.
Just for the records, I am really not interested in relational gestalt theory neither psychoanalisis. I will not change that in my thesis, much less at this stage. I define myself as a Gestalt psychotherapist, because I have a paper that says so, and it is the way in which I make (or theoreticallycan make) a living. I use art (but I do not have a paper that says that I am an art-therapist or an artist :). Theoretically speaking, and that is how I understand what happens in my practice, and in all the other practices of which I participate, what I know a bit is Vygotsky. Just cause, I do not like those other labels, sorry. Cheers,

Date: Wed, 2 Dec 2009 22:07:07 -0800
From: lpurss@shaw.ca
Subject: Re: [xmca] Emotions and culture
To: xmca@weber.ucsd.edu

Hi Jay
Yes, your summary of emotions at different time scales seems to be in "sympathy" with my perspective. I've welcomed the opportunity from the CHAT community to find out what I "think" and "feel". Mabel
Your interst in relational psychoanlysis and Gestalt theory is shared by others.
I googled "relational gestalt theory" and found many references to Gestalt theorists who are bringing relational theory into their practice.
A general question for the CHAT community on the contrasts between "genetic" and "stage" theories of development. If genetic implies emergence and greater complexity whereas stages imply transcendence from one epistemology to a radically "other" stage why is Piaget's "genetic epistemology" theory describe various stages?
This contrast in perspectives seems to have profound implications to how we view development.

----- Original Message -----
From: Jay Lemke <jaylemke@umich.edu>
Date: Wednesday, December 2, 2009 8:31 pm
Subject: Re: [xmca] Emotions and culture
To: "eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity" <xmca@weber.ucsd.edu>

Mabel and Larry focus on what I think is a key issue in understanding emotion. First, that emotions are generated in time, as a process. It is a process in which we ourselves are ACTIVE, and not, as in some folk theories taken over into psychological models, merely reacting to external events and conditions. Second, its genesis takes place over multiple timescales. There is the very short term, moment-to- moment, rise and fall of various feelings, their layering onto one another, the transitions from one to another. Then there is a longer- term tendency, closer to the mood of the "moment" (which is a much longer moment than the first timescale), which may define a trend in the progression of our feelings. And this in turn is coupled more into the situation and setting, who else is there, what is going on, what is the activity and the goals that we are engaged with. Then further, there are still longer term scales, over months or years of our lives, which merge more into social processes and the expectations of the culture and subcultures, the communities we operate within.

I very much like the idea of ethnographic neuroscience, and I wish there were more neuroscientists who did! but they are not trained in this way, and it requires a collaboration at least. It is so much easier for them to study only short-term, isolated, laboratory- controlled events as they appear in their neuro- physiological correlates, which makes sense if they imagine that they are looking at universal processes, which occur in the same way every time.

But of course they don't, and how they appear is very context dependent. At least we know this is the case in terms of how they feel to us, and how they emerge over the shorter and longer timescales of relevance. It would be very interesting to know what is the same and what is different across cases and events, in different situations and settings, for "the same" emotional response. This will, I think, be on the agenda of the neuroscience of a decade or two from now.


Jay Lemke
Professor (Adjunct, 2009-2010)
Educational Studies
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Visiting Scholar
Laboratory for Comparative Human Communication
University of California -- San Diego
La Jolla, CA
USA 92093

On Dec 1, 2009, at 1:58 PM, Mabel Encinas wrote:

Hi, Larry and all.

Thank you very much Larry, for having introduced Stern. I am
into psychoanalysis. I am a Gestalt psychotherapist, and
because this perspective emphasizes the 'here and now', I
that I had to discuss the present moment, and the
making sense of the situation when I faced the challenge to
my videos about classroom interaction. Also, I discuss
difference of actions that seem intentionally loaded, with
others in
which intentionality is quite contestable. My research is
based in
microanalysis. For being able to study emotions, I decided to
Vygotsy's understanding of emotions. Also I found in this
of video (I did not interview neither the teachers or the
about their emotional experience, although I did had
conversations with the teachers), that in order to
videos, there was important to find 'whole' situations in
emotions were first of all 'evident'. The segments then were
about 1 to 4 minutes long, and I then describe them in
including drawings of the interactions. I study this excerpts
developmental in terms of emotions. I already said that the
I use is that I study certain threads without taking them away
the tissue. In my descriptions, I present the richness of the
and I relay in the concept of context that weave together
1996). I discuss how emotions emerge and impact the situation,
how this impact 'informes' in turn the sense that individuals
making of the situation instant after instant.

My conclusions are more about the way in which emotions can
studied, and I pose questions to neuroscience, as I see Stern
I suggest to do 'ethnographic nueroscience'. Stern (2004) says:

" Two kinds of data are needed. First, accurate timing of
activity correlated with phenomenal experiences. Second, the
of th analogic shifts in intensity or magnitude of neural
during the same phenomenal expereinces".

I have to read more about Stern, I would like to understand
what are
the similarities and differences with Vygotsky's thought, and
usefulness of Stern's contribution. So far, so good :)

Best wishes,


Date: Tue, 1 Dec 2009 12:45:44 -0800
From: lpurss@shaw.ca
To: xmca@weber.ucsd.edu
Subject: [xmca] Emotions and culture

Hi everyone
I wanted to look at another level of the discourse on
This is to add to the recognition of the other levels such
institutionally and historically contexts of emotion. This in
way minimizes the critical importance of these levels of
for understanding emotion.
But, in the same spirit of discourse analysis which loos at
micro level of conversation I believe we expand our horizon
understanding by exploring the microgenesis of emotions as
interface between biology and culture. I have posted before
on the
position of Daniel Stern and the moment by moment generation
emotion. Today I want to summarize the thoughts of a DONNEL
Stern to this discussion in his book "Unformulated Experience"

(p.43)When we talk about content or structure or experience
it is
not a THING at all, but a PROCESS, one that has CONTINUITY
TIME. Some processes have more continuity (organization) some
We act AS IF these discrete abstractions which our folk
labels thoughts, memories, feelings, are REAL but they are
mediated constructions that locates experience in PARTICULAR
ways. Psychoanalysis is interested in how these processes
reproducing experience in similar shapes or patterns
interpretive organizing ACTIVITY.
Stern discusses a psychoanalyst "ROY SCHAFER" who attempts
translate all psychological events and language games into
LANGUAGE to recognize these psychological events as
Schafer chooses not to take this approach because
becomes awkward.

However he does elaborate the processes of REFLECTIVE
(where we stand back from and observe our
processes. Folk psychology (common sense) leaves the
that thoughts and emotions just arrive or leap into
without the DEVELOPMENT of the thought or emotion. In reality
moment of experience is a process of emergence (MICROGENESIS)
sequence of necessary steps that must occur as experience
Microgenesis, applied to thought and emotion develops from
to moment in a process Donnel Stern calls FORMULATIND
UNFORMULATED. The microgenetic lens emphasizes the
life (Dewey's "arc") of each present moment OUT OF the
of the recently formulated experience. Conscious,
liquistically articulated experience (formulated)emerges
activity (verbal and nonverbal) that took place in the
(sociocultural) moments. This emergence of experience
and is
a continuous dynamic process. Sometimes AFTER THE FACT the
way one
moment developed from the PREVIOUS one COMES TO OUR ATTENTION
more often it does not.
Donnel Stern uses the terms thought and emotion as
devices and stress that he sees these processes as a single
of COGNITION (which for him is emotional-thought or
emotion) Cognition is formulated as a process of emergence
sociocultural activity.
William Blake's metaphor "seeing the world in a grain of
captures the spirit of this inquiry at the microgenetic
level. If
this is seen as the unit of analysis it posits
subjectivity, and self-ing as emergent in moment to
enactments which become organized into cultural patterns.

I hope this captures the spirit of the relational frame
emerging in
psychoanalytic discourse. They also are elaborating how the
meso, and macro levels of process develop in particulat

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