Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Shakespeare and the Sciences of Emotion

 From OUPblog:

Rhetoric knows the passions by tracing them to their circumstances. That is, it knows them narratively, and it construes narrative as a means of producing knowledge about passions in their particularity. This way of knowing is evoked in Francis Bacon’s Advancement of Learning: “poets and writers of Histories” have been passion’s “best Doctors”—that is, best scholars—because in them we find depicted “how affections are kindled and incited: and how pacified and refrained: and how again contained from act and further degree: how they disclose themselves, how they work, how they vary, how they gather and fortify, how they are enwrapped one within another, and how they do fight and encounter.”

Bacon wants a natural history of the passions to displace this unsystematic poetic and historical knowledge. It is tempting to say that this is exactly what happened in the next two centuries, as forms of empirical psychology took over a space that once belonged to rhetoric. But it matters that these psychologies reoccupied rhetoric’s terrain. The knowledge they offer is closer to the one Bacon ascribes to poets and historians than to scientia: in the sphere of the passions, rhetoric is the forerunner of an empirical knowledge of particulars. One can trace its continuing if hidden influence on new psychologies from Locke—who recommended Aristotle’s Rhetoric as part of the study of the passions—to Hume and Smith, whose models of the mind echo the psychology of the vivid image articulated by Hamlet and the circumstantial analysis of passions practiced by Wright. Scholars sometimes claim that a “psychological” approach to Shakespeare is anachronistic, because his period had no psychology. That is not entirely accurate, but the main point is that, in a sense, the period’s literature was its psychology: a circumstantial, open-ended, narrative knowledge of the passions grounded in rhetoric. That knowledge, which thrives beyond the limits of any system, still has something to tell us about how we know the emotions now—not as experts, but as people engaged in everyday life. (Read more.)


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