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Colloquium On Violence & Religion



COV&R-Bulletin No. 11 (Oct. 1996)


Paul Dumouchel, Emotions: Essai sur le corps et le social. Paris: Les Empêcheurs de Penser en Rond,

1995. Pp. 230; 84 francs.

The publication of a new book by Paul Dumouchel is good news for the many admirers of his work. Members of COV&R may know Dumouchel best as the editor of Violence and Truthand as the co-author (with Jean-Pierre Dupuy) of L'enfer des choses: René Girard et la logique de l'économie. Those unfamiliar with the numerous articles he has published in the meantime may be surprised that his new book deals with psychology rather than political economy. However, the disparity is only apparent inasmuch as the target this time is a view of the psyche that contemporary analytic philosophy and cognitive science borrow from economic theory. The latter ordinarily assumes desires and preferences to be individual givens, while Dumouchel develops the idea that they emerge from the interaction between individuals. He analyzes the emotions as salient moments in a process of coordination, a process that pre-exists the agents it coordinates and that is responsible for constituting them as autonomous individuals. This interactional perspective applies not only to certain clearly other-oriented emotions, such as envy, but to all emotions. Indeed, if the not infrequent references to Girard remain literally marginal here--being largely confined to footnotes--that is because the subject matter goes beyond the mechanics of desire and other mimetic interactions, such as anger breeding anger, to encompass complementary ones, such as anger breeding fear. In this sense, not the least of the contributions of this compact but ambitious book is to indicate how the mimetic theory could be grounded in a more general psychology.
In the first chapter, Dumouchel reminds us of the extent to which today's most common psychological notions hark back to Descartes's view of the passions as quintessentially intimate and personal, born of internal somatic agitation. By contrast, for Hobbes, also writing in the mid-seventeenth century, the passions are irreducibly social phenomena, the very identification of which depends on the observer's evaluation of social relationships. Thus, an act of vengeance will be ascribed to righteous indignation if one approves of it or to cruelty if one does not. Taking Hobbes's observations as his starting point, Dumouchel goes on to elaborate a systematically social theory in which an emotion, even for the person directly experiencing it, can have no meaning in and of itself. I may feel intensely, but whatdo I feel? Is it fear or remorse? The answer hinges not on the nature of the inner sensation, but on that of the outer circumstances. More precisely, it depends on both the history and the present course of my relations with others. Before the emotion proper comes "affective expression." Emotions are social not because they are necessarily prompted by other people--they may just as easily be triggered by a broken Coke machine or a sunny day--but because they are expressed in a way to which other people are sensitive. Affective expression is an ongoing, spontaneous, involuntary phenomenon, a bodily manifestation that betrays us to any bystanders and which we therefore seek to control the best we can. But if affective expression wordlessly communicates a behavioral disposition, the actual meaning of the emotion is established only retroactively, via the other person's response. It is this fundamental interdependence that makes humans social beings. Like the chattering of dolphins studied by Gregory Bateson, the expression of emotions in humans is a communication system, and it is as such, Dumouchel hypothesizes, that it emerged during the evolution of the species. Emotional expression facilitates coordination. Not in the economists' sense of a "coordination game" where the players' interests converge and cooperation is the norm, but in the sense of a joint process that is a necessary prerequisite for competition as well as cooperation. In the real world, our interests, goals, preference orders are not as neatly defined as they are in game theory; they do not pre-exist our interaction. Affective coordination is the process through which we move toward cooperation or rivalry. Game theory, evolutionary biology, cultural anthropology, philosophy of mind... Dumouchel ranges with equal assurance through many fields while illustrating his points with examples drawn from classic literature and everyday life. The argument he advances is nothing if not audacious, and objections inevitably spring to the reader's mind, but the author has usually anticipated them and will proceed to turn them to his advantage. In typical fashion, he closes by showing how his social theory of emotions can account for that most solitary of affective experiences, the esthetic sentiment: a sentiment capable of being awakened when one listens to music in the privacy of one's room--or when one reads a book as elegantly constructed as Emotions is.

Mark Anspach