Defining emotion in psychology: what a historical examination of the use of introspection by early psychologists reveals about a current problem
Kennedy, Anna Margaret
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Research conducted on emotion by psychologists has produced numerous understandings of the concept and there is currently no consensus as to how it should be defined (Russell, 2012). Despite some general agreement among some theorists as to certain aspects, such as physiological response, eliciting events, and related facial expressions, it is a persistent issue and discussions as to how a solution may be found have recurred at various points throughout the history of psychology. Some work has been done to address the problem through the meta-analysis of various definitions and this has proved to be useful in showing the areas where psychologists might agree (e.g. Izard, 2010; Kleinginna & Kleinginna, 1981; Plutchik, 1980). There is an assumption, therefore, that with enough research and debate a solution will be found. However, this assumption neglects to take into account the changing ontological and methodological contexts through which emotion has been defined in psychological science. For this reason the current debates lack a broader contextualisation which could reveal what has influenced the production of particular definitions and the reasons why the problems of definition have come about. This thesis aims to address this gap in the literature by presenting a historical analysis of the understandings of emotion which were produced during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Although there has been a great deal of historical work produced which examines psychological theories from this time, there is little, apart from Dixon (2012) which is specifically aimed at contextualising this particular issue. In particular, this thesis will examine one respect in which emotion is often defined; as that of being a subjective experience. This understanding, whilst it most often seems to be the way in which people, if asked, define emotion (Davitz, 1970) has, historically, proved to be contentious in psychological science, perhaps because it is difficult to capture. The thesis describes the method of introspection and its use as a means to examine the subjective experience of emotion during the early years of psychology, and looks at what can be learned about the issue of definition through an understanding of the work conducted during that period. It is shown that introspective analyses often presented a picture of emotions as complex, idiosyncratic and individual experiences and that these characteristics contrasted with the assumptions of the emerging scientific psychology that emotion should be defined as structured, predictable and universal. The search for a concept of emotion which embodied the latter rather than the former characteristics is described, and it is demonstrated that the result was a variety of different conceptualisations. The thesis concludes that it is important not to view the current problem simply as one of academic differences over the veracity of definitions, but to contextualise it in relation to the psychologist’s search for a definition of emotion that assumes the characteristics of a scientific concept.