Ute Frevert et al, Emotional Lexicons: Continuity and Change in the Vocabulary of Feeling 1700-2000

Ute Frevert, Christian Bailey, Pascal Eitler, Benno Gammerl, Bettina Hitzer, Margrit Pernau, Monique Scheer, Anne Schmidt, and Nina Verheyen, Emotional Lexicons: Continuity and Change in the Vocabulary of Feeling 1700-2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014) x + 287 pp. Hb £68.00. ISBN: 9780199655731

In the opening chapter of this ambitious collaborative book, Ute Frevert acknowledges the recent flurry of interest in the physiology of emotion to argue that, yes, ‘[e]veryone is talking about emotions’ but they are ‘by no means […] new or original topic[s] of either popular or scholarly reflection’. Modern scientific methods of exploration, in Frevert’s view, are merely one aspect of a well-documented historical interest in emotion and even ‘lack depth by comparison’ to the investigations undertaken by the humanities. By exploring ways in which the concept of emotion has been popularly ‘talk[ed] about’ since the eighteenth century, Frevert suggests that science alone cannot explain human emotion and its place within society.

Emotional Lexicons is aptly published as part of the Oxford University Press ‘Emotions in History’ series (an interdisciplinary collection spanning five decades) and certainly deserves its place alongside the other included texts, such as Jan Plamper’s broad introduction to The History of Emotions, due to its scope and the impressive number of primary sources consulted. Frevert and the other contributers look at different aspects of emotion as a concept, rather than delving into the definitions of individual emotions, and consider possible terminological influences across three centuries (1700-2000) and three countries (Germany, France and Britain). The authors draw on information from over two hundred reference works compiled at the Max Planck Institute for Human development in Berlin, where Frevert acts as executive director, in addition to scientific research, literary examples and philosophical ideas. Other sources are mainly used as illustrative examples, as can be seen in the introduction to Bettina Hitzer’s chapter on ‘Healing Emotions’ where the work of John Donne, Shakespeare and Paul Auster are all quoted in order to exemplify love sickness. Pascal Eitler also draws on literary models in Chapter Four by relating his arguments to the H. G. Wells novel The Island of Dr Moreau.

The extensive collection of encyclopaedias provides the base research for every chapter but each author manages to utilise the same source material in different and compelling ways and draw in other examples where appropriate. Anne Schmidt uses texts, ranging from Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals to the contemporary psychologist Paul Ekman’s popular science book Emotions Revealed, in order to argue that visible emotional responses are not necessarily universal, despite results from psychological experiments seemingly unarguably providing evidence of this. Schmidt suggests that researchers may be quick to ignore social aspects of these experiments and that reading emotions is always predicated on prior knowledge and the ‘location of the observer’, almost rebuking ‘Ekman and his followers’ for their lack of ‘self-reflection and self-restraint.’

Advocating a wide-ranging approach to emotion research, Frevert positions this book as merely another way of investigating a topic about which, despite decades of sustained interest, little is known. Frevert initially poses an overwhelming number of scholarly questions, which seem impossible to tackle within the confines of one book. The chapters that follow, however, split the overall interrogation of emotional terminology into manageable topics of enquiry and thoughtfully and insightfully analyse the primary source material alongside various influential texts and wider research. Considering physiological approaches to emotion, such as gender-focused biological essentialism and neuroscientific investigations, alongside philosophical and sociological interpretations, Emotional Lexicons acknowledges the ‘bodily foundation’ of feeling while arguing that the social aspects of emotion cannot be ignored. Although this line of reasoning is initially set out by Frevert, Christian Bailey provides a measured analysis of the ‘social dimension’ of feelings in Chapter Eight, ‘Social Emotions’. It could be argued that widening the source material to less specific texts, such as newspapers articles, letters and pedagogical resources, would have enhanced the social readings but, as Frevert states in her introductory chapter, encyclopaedias are an ‘excellent source for [an] initial excursion’ into the topic and represent widely distributed and read information about emotion, whereas expanding the source material would swell the already large scale of the work.

Particularly directed at the received idea that the advent of modernity prompted a distancing from emotion, Emotional Lexicons aims to present historical thoughts about emotion as changing in a ‘spiral’ rather than a linear fashion. Benno Gammerl in Chapter Seven, ‘Felt Distances’, summarises this by concluding that ‘[t]here is no general movement towards distantiation’ and using this to argue for ‘contectualiz[ing] historically the constant shifts between closeness and distance within a framework comprising various impacts and processes.’ Other chapters add to this idea by referencing different potential ‘impacts’ throughout time. Bettina Hitzer in Chapter Five, ‘Healing Emotions’, for example, suggests that differences in the way ‘war-related neuroses’ were discussed in Germany, Britain and France in the 1920s affected public understandings of mental illnesses and emotion and that this is clearly evidenced by the reference work entries at the time.

Self-consciously Eurocentric, the authors use material in German, French and English, with German reference works as the primary focus. Due to the fact that eight out of the ten chapters were originally written in German and translated into English, there are some minor terminological issues. The conversion of some emotion words from one language to another and the preservation of others in their original languages, makes the translation feel laboured. Certain terms are difficult to understand due to either insufficient explanation or assumed cultural experience. The word Gemüt, for example, roughly translated as ‘soul’, is explained in Chapter Two, ‘Topographies of Emotion’, by Monique Scheer but earlier in Chapter One, ‘Defining Emotions’, it is difficult to understand how the term is being used. This, however, is a difficulty that the authors have foreseen and done their best to overcome, and owing to these efforts, as a point of access for English readers to the German emotional lexicon, the book succeeds and excels. Emotional Lexicons is as impressive a project as its title implies. Positioning itself as merely a ‘building block’ towards the eventual aim, this book makes a good case for further interdisciplinary research into emotion.

Charlotte Royle, University of Bristol