A History of Emotion


From the 17th Century to today


Philosophical discourse is a social enterprise wherein theorists develop their ideas in response to others’ ideas. This makes practicing the history of philosophy an exercise in tracking discussions within and across communities.

One particular discussion that has continued for several centuries focuses on the nature of emotions. For contemporary theorists, looking back through centuries of discourse can help to uncover perspectives and ideas that could otherwise be lost or opaque to contemporary theorists. In my research I’m trying to understand the relationships between the felt qualities of emotions (affect) and the body (see the project page). I’m hardly the first to dwell on this. To progress my philosophical and scientific investigations into affect, this project looks at the evolution of ideas and methods that led to our current knowledge and theoretical landscapes.

It begins with René Descartes, who put forward a rich theory of the emotions or “passions” from a scientific perspective. He was writing a little while after William Harvey discovered the circulatory system. Descartes reinterpreted and expanded upon Harvey’s insights, developing a comprehensive account of how the human body triggers numerous affective and perceptual feelings in the human mind. (See this book review for an overview.)

If the passions and the body are so intimately connected, Descartes reasoned, then mental and physical well-being go hand-in-hand. Descartes was forced to consider the ramifications of this through a long-running correspondence with Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia. Together, they analyzed how normative concerns impacting the mind in turn impact the body.

Nicolas Malebranche expanded Descartes’s mind-body theory into a huge metaphysical treatise on the nature of the human person. His updated theory sees passions as highly interconnected processes of bodily and mental changes. This sequence formed the basis of a kind of corporeal moral system, whereby normative issues are responded to without reflection on the moral system provided through religious doctrine (as I argue in this book chapter). Like Descartes and Elisabeth, Malebranche’s theorizing leads from a scientific to a normative perspective.

Malebranche’s writings inspired David Hume, whose own treatment of passions and moral reasoning inspires many ethicists today. The thread continues (with numerous permutations) through Charles Darwin, especially his book on emotions across species. Darwin laid evolutionary principles that William James then used to build one of the most complete psychological theories we’ve seen in recent centuries.

James’s insight on emotions has proved an especially rich vein. Today it’s enjoying a small renaissance, with several prominent “neo-Jamesian” theories garnering attention in and outside of academia. But it’s still not as widely celebrated as it should be. Nor is it interpreted consistently throughout the contemporary literature. In my doctoral dissertation, I offer a thorough, contextualized treatment of James’s theory. In fact, this informs my own theory of emotions as embodied phenomenal events. Therein I also offer a brief history of emotion research since James, detailing why his theory fell out of favor until recently.

I’m in the process of reworking my chapter on James’s theory into a stand-alone manuscript. When it’s in the right shape to share, I’ll upload it to this site. Following that, I intend to develop a line of inquiry into Descartes’s response to Harvey’s work and its influence on his psychological theory.

In the meantime, you’re welcome to read the pieces I’ve published to date:

  1. Taylor, J. C. V. (2018) “Actually Embodied Emotions.” Publicly Accessible Penn Dissertations. 3192.

  2. Taylor, J. C. V. (2013) “Emotional Sensations and the Moral Imagination in Malebranche.” In The Discourse of Sensibility: The Knowing Body in the Enlightenment, ed. H. M. Lloyd. Cham: Springer.


Additionally, I’ve published a series of book reviews on historical theories of emotion and mind-body relationships:

  1. Taylor, J. C. V. (2017). “Review of The Passions of the Soul and Other Late Philosophical Writings by R. Descartes, trans. M. Moriarty.“ British Journal for the History of Philosophy, 2017, 25(6): 1242–1244.

  2. Taylor, J. C. V. (2013). “Review of Emotion and Cognitive Life in Medieval and Early Modern Philosophy, ed. M. Pickavé & L. Shapiro.“ British Journal for the History of Philosophy, 21(6): 1235–1237.

  3. Taylor, J. C. V. (2012). “Review of Occasionalism: Causation Among the Cartesians by S. Nadler.“ British Journal for the History of Philosophy, 20(3): 627–630.

  4. Taylor, J. C. V. (2011). “Review of The Body as Object and Instrument of Knowledge, ed. C. Wolfe & O. Gal.“ British Journal for the History of Philosophy, 19(6): 1225–1227.


I’ve also presented work from this project at conferences:

  1. Taylor, J. C. V. (2017, July). “What is a Jamesian emotion?” Paper presented at the International Society for Research on Emotion (ISRE), St. Louis, MO.

  2. Taylor, J. C. V. (2017, April). “What is a Jamesian emotion?” Poster presented at the Society for Affective Science (SAS), Boston, MA.

  3. Taylor, J. C. V. (2015, July). “Descartes on the heart, blood, and Harvey.” Paper presented at the International Society for the History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology (ISHPSSB), Université de Québec à Montréal.

  4. Taylor, J. C. V. (2011, May). “Emotional affect and the moral imagination in Malebranche.” Paper presented at the Inaugural Conference of the Centre for the History of Philosophy: Emotions in the History of Philosophy, University of York.

  5. Taylor, J. C. V. (2011, April). “Emotional affect and the moral imagination in Malebranche.” Paper presented at the ACU Philosophy Seminar Series, Australian Catholic University.

  6. Taylor, J. C. V. (2010, December). “Sensations, emotions, and imagination in Malebranche: Interdependency of mind and body.” Paper presented at Sensibilité: The Knowing Body in the Enlightenment, special stream of Australian Society for Continental Philosophy Conference (ASCP), University of Queensland.