Pixar’s new film Inside Out does a wonderful job of exploring something we all are intimately familiar with, but which we only rarely think about: our emotions. The study of cognition—meaning our explicit thought processes and consciousness—has been a part of psychology and neurobiology since the 1960s. But it is only relatively recently that the scientific study of emotions (an interdisciplinary effort lumped broadly into the category of “affective science”) has emerged.
And historians, too, have been getting in on the act. Spearheaded by the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, and the Australian Research Council’s Center for Excellence for the History of Emotions (a nationally-funded collaboration of five Australian universities), historians have been exploring the inner emotional lives of people in the past. I have heard this research agenda derided as “silly” at a recent conference, and surely it might seem strange to study the feelings of past people.
It can be assumed by humanists (such as me), that people in the past had the same emotional responses that we do—they experienced joy at their successes, sorrow at their losses, and had hope for and fear about the future. But, these historians provocatively ask, outside these broadest of terms, what if they did not experience emotions in the same way that we do? What if emotions themselves are culturally (and therefore temporally) defined? What challenges does that present to our historical empathetic imaginations—which I have argued is the core activity of creating good history—if these people do not just think differently than we do, but feel differently than we do? (more…)