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Comparison Essay on Emotion

In: Social Issues

Submitted By goreharpreet
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What is an emotion? William James and Jean-Paul Sartre present two different arguments regarding what constitutes an emotion. This paper will explore William James’ analysis of emotion as set out in his 1884 essay . It will attempt to discover the main points of his view, and then present Sartre’s rebuttal of this view taken from his essay on emotions . Concluding with an explanation regarding why Sartre’s account is flawed and James’s argument is the stronger of the two, it will use outside examples to demonstrate the various weaknesses and strengths within the two perspectives.

William James analysis of emotion revolves around his theory that an emotion is nothing more than the senses and feelings we experience in our bodies that come about after we perceive something. He says that “ … the bodily changes follow directly the perception of the exciting fact, and that our feeling of the same changes as they occur is the emotion”. He gives several premises to back up this theory.
First of all, that if you were to take away the bodily changes and senses that we associate with an emotion that you would have nothing left of the emotion. He refers to the state of fear and how there would be no emotion left, if the feelings of “… quickened heart-beats nor of shallow breathing…” were taken away. It would simple be a state of being, as opposed to an emotional state. Presenting an emotion with out the bodily changes that are associated with it is, as James states, is “… inconceivable.”
As well, James then states how difficult it is for human beings to re-enact the bodily functions that take place when an emotion is carried out. Although we may “… catch the trick with the voluntary muscles…” the rest of the emotion will not be achieved. James states that the reason for this is that without perceiving something, which triggers this emotion, the emotion will not be felt.
In contrast of this, Jean-Paul Sartre feels that emotions should be looked upon with a “… ‘phenomenological’ view…”. He states that “Emotion is a certain way of apprehending the world.”

While there are a few weaknesses in James’ argument, it is Sartre’s argument whose contains many premises can easily be shown to be false. James felt that emotions were simply the bodily changes and sensorial brain-processes. Sartre’s argument builds on the idea that an emotion is a change or transformation in our perception or view towards the object of the emotion. By this same argument, it follows that to experience any emotion requires an object or perception of an object.
However there are cases where people can experience emotions without even the direct perception of an object. For instance there are some drugs and substances that can induce many different feelings of emotion into a human such as happiness, depression, etc., without requiring the affected person to be conceiving of, or imagining something.
This presents a severe issue with Sartre’s argument but it gives new strength to James account. If emotions are really just the various combinations of our senses, and it is a well known fact that many drugs do indeed enhance or hinder some of our senses, then it should follow that in order to block certain emotions it would simply require a drug preventing some of those senses to stop the ability to experience the emotion. This is seen everyday in clinics around the world: patients experiencing rages of anger are giving behavior-modifying drugs that calm down those senses associated with the emotion of anger and they are no longer able to undergo that emotion while under the strong influence of the drug.
Revisiting Sartre’s argument, regarding emotion he states that “ It is a transformation of the world”, and that “ the origin of emotion is a spontaneous and lived degradation of consciousness in the face of the world.” By these premises, each emotion requires would therefore require you to perceive an object in a way differently than is normal. But it is a common occurrence that people tend to experience mixed and often conflicting emotions when faced with a serious or traumatic situation. James’ argument withstands this test, because it is conceivable that our body could experience a multitude of combinations of senses at the same time, each representing a specific emotion. But it is much harder to imagine that the mind could transform a person’s perception of an object in conflicting ways at the same time.

James’ analysis of emotion is a much stronger argument than Sartre’s. Its truth can be seen in many examples of past and present day. Although the common public definition of what entails an emotion will most certainly change, it is much more likely to fall in line with, or derive from similarities in James’ definition, rather than Sartre’s.

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