On Methods

mage: Trilingual compendium of texts (MS Gg.1.1). Early fourteenth century. © Cambridge University Digital Library
Image: Trilingual compendium of texts (MS Gg.1.1). Early fourteenth century. © Cambridge University Digital Library

By CHE Director Andrew Lynch

CHE’s 2015 Methods Collaboratory on 23-24 September gave us all an extraordinary chance to think carefully about emotions in relation to historical and contemporary theories of mental and bodily processes.

John Sutton (Macquarie, ARC Centre for Cognition and its Disorders) set us going with thoughts on ‘Interdisciplinarity and Cognitive History: Animal Spirits, Memory and Emotion’. To George Berkeley (1732) animal spirits were ‘the Messengers, which running to and fro in the Nerves, preserve a Communication between the Soul and outward Objects’. Sutton memorably described them to us as ‘bodily analogues of angels’, and stressed the ‘dynamic, social and worldly’ aspects of cognitive activities which belief in them implied, including the workings of emotion and affect.

A main emphasis in this talk was that we live not in isolated minds, but in ‘cognitive ecologies’, in which the separation of ‘self’ from supposed ‘externals’ always remains incomplete. Mental processes are ‘part of the domain of artifacts, institutions and social interactions’, and so also part of short-term and long-term ‘emotional histories’. The mind must be understood as ‘in time’ (Gail Kern Paster). Sutton’s exciting lecture suggested that CHE’s conference next March, ‘Moving Minds’, in partnership with Cognition and its Disorders and the Early Modern Conversions project (McGill), will provide wonderfully productive exchanges.

Robert Miner (Baylor) gave the second keynote: ‘Two Powers, One Appetite: How Thomas Aquinas Thinks About the Passions’. To Aquinas the passions, we heard, are ‘moved movers’, ‘acts or motions of the sensitive appetite’, which draw us towards or away from an object, apprehended through sensation or imagination as a good or an evil. Miner elaborated further on the ‘concupiscible’ and ‘irascible’ powers in Aquinas’ view. The ‘irascible’ power is necessary to overcome perceived obstacles to desire of the good: in Thomas’s words, ‘hope is the first passion of the irascible power’, which is ‘a champion and defender of the concupiscible’.

As such metaphors show, Robert Miner emphasised the narrative element in Aquinas’s picture of the passionate human as homo viator, journeying through life, in whom audacia (daring) and timor (fear) always contend. Miner’s exceptionally clear and cogent exposition took us well beyond the common view that in medieval eyes the passions are simply ‘motors to sin’. As he suggested in discussion, to Thomas amor (passionate love) draws one more to the summum bonum (highest good) than dilectio (rationally chosen love). In her response Clare Monagle (Macquarie) likewise emphasised Thomas’s ‘compassionate, phenomenological sense of the human’.

In other sections of the Collaboratory, participants broke into separate ‘Research Clusters’ to plan research activities. As a group, we discussed future strategies for disseminating our research findings, and the ethical aspects of emotions research. Carly Osborn, Gabe Watts and Cassie Charlton gave us the latest news on Education and Outreach, and we gained quick insights into the work of our ten newest Postdoctoral Research Fellows, two from each of CHE’s node universities. As always, Methods was also a great chance for us all to share ideas in a social environment. Our deep thanks go to Craig Lyons, Gabe Watts and Juanita Ruys (CI) for organising such a valuable event.

As part of an ongoing effort to make the work of the Centre for the History of Emotions more broadly available, we live-stream and record lectures from distinguished visitors. Enjoy both Sutton’s and Miner’s lectures below.

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