Friday, October 28, 2005

Emotion, Evolution, and Rationality

I have argued on this blog, more than once, that emotion is the novelist's stock in trade: in other words, emotion, as created in the reader, is what the novelist is selling. But, even if you don't accept that argument, you can hardly deny that the whole business of writing and publishing is awash with emotion of every sort and kind: ranging from euphoria at success (rare) to frustration, bitterness and anger (common). For examples of the latter, see some of the comments on this blog: try here, for example; and then again, here.

That being the case, I have further argued that it is wise for writers, and publishers too for that matter, to find out as much about emotion as is humanly possibly. And to that end I have also recommended that you should read Emotion, by Dylan Evans: this is a book which neatly summarises every key finding of modern research into emotion. And, since scientists don't actually know very much about emotion, the book is pleasingly short.

During one of my own periodic surveys of publications on the subject of emotion, I came across a book called Emotion, Evolution, and Rationality; this is edited by the same Dylan Evans, together with Pierre Cruse, and it is published by Oxford University Press.

As you would expect with that sort of publisher, Emotion, Evolution, and Rationality is an academic book, written for an academic audience consisting mainly of university lecturers and perhaps the occasional postgrad. Specifically, the book evolved from a conference organised in April 2002 by two Professors of King's College, London, as part of their research project into the function of the emotions. Should you wish to know more about this project, the information is available online.

Emotion, Evolution, and Rationality consists of 13 papers on various aspects of the overall topic. Since these papers/essays are all written by experts in the field, and are intended for an academic audience, they are pretty hard going for the general reader, and I would certainly not claim to have read all of the text myself. However, it is possible to get the drift of most of them. Whether you will think it worth the time and effort is very much a matter of temperament and background. In my own case, I spent many years working in the university sector, I ran an academic publishing company for part of that time, and I have a lifelong interest in the subject of emotion, so for me it was just about worthwhile. But I put it this way: borrow this book from a library first, before you buy a copy; that's what libraries are for.

Fortunately, there is an introduction which provides a handy overview.

It seems that, in the 1990s, research into emotion underwent something of a revival, after about a century of neglect; for scientists, emotions have long been a difficult and unrewarding area of study. Emerging from this renewed interest has been the view that the role which emotions play in 'rational' thinking and decision-making is a significant one; and, from the limited point of view of the writer/publisher, I certainly agree with that basic contention. Another idea is that emotions have played a part in evolution in that they somehow helped us to survive.

It is the connection between emotion and rationality which is of most interest to me. For thousands of years, the overwhelming weight of opinion among philosophers has been that emotion gets in the way of intelligent action. However, one of the central ideas to emerge from the recent renaissance of interest in the emotions is that this 'negative' view of emotion may not be correct. Much of Emotion, Evolution, and Rationality is therefore devoted to debating the age-old question of whether emotions are helpful or detrimental to rational thought and decision-making. And if that does not arouse your interest, you can stop reading this post right now.

I suggest to you, since you are a person interested in fiction and publishing generally, that emotion is a powerful factor -- possibly the vital factor -- in almost any decision which has to do with writing or publishing. A writer, for instance, is going to be powerfully influenced by emotion in deciding whether to write a novel at all; a publisher is going to be equally powerfully influenced by emotion in deciding whether to publish it, how many copies to print, and so forth. I cannot see how it could be otherwise. And it is therefore of highly practical interest -- not just theoretical -- as to whether or not the presence and influence of all that emotion is an aid to sound decision-making.

This is a topic which I will return to in the course of time, when I shall use the evidence presented in this book to discuss one key decision that writers have to make. For the moment, I will finish by noting two points.

First, all the distinguished scientists and thinkers whose ideas are displayed in this book have not actually come to any firm conclusion about the value, or otherwise, of emotion as a component of decision making. Second, even if they had reached a firm conclusion, there would remain a problem of applying those findings in real life.

It was ever thus. We are not the first to note the difficulty of applying even the most penetrating insights to the problems of real life. The English comedian Ken Dodd, for example, is known to have studied Freud's writings on the subject of humour. He apparently found the great man's views to be interesting, but not all that relevant. The problem being, Ken said, that Freud had never played the second house at the Glasgow Empire.

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