Monday, May 14, 2012

Affections and Emotions

I just finished grading finals, and on one of them, I was delighted to see every student correctly answer a question on one of my favorite topics in music history: the historically changing theories of feeling. As I put it in class, composers of the Baroque period generally saw music as causing feelings in the audience, those of the Classical period as portraying the feelings of characters, and those of the Romantic era as expressing the feelings of the composer. Those holding to the first theory usually called feelings “affects” or “affections,” since they see them as caused or affected from without.

In Religious Affections, Jonathan Edwards seeks to pinpoint the signs of true religion. He basically concludes that true believers should have the proper felt responses to God, righteousness, sin, heaven, our neighbor, etc. Since these feelings all come in reaction to external prompts, he identifies himself firmly with theory no. 1 and calls them “affections.” And he describes the affections in a very rational way, one of the interesting marks of Enlightenment thinking: we can and should understand everything dispassionately, even passion. The soul has two faculties: intellect and will. The will has two possible orientations: attraction to something and repulsion from something. Attraction-or-repulsion + property = affection. Thus, attraction to something not present is desire. Attraction to something in the future is hope. Repulsion with regard to something present is anger or disgust. Repulsion with regard to something in the future constitutes fear. And so on. It all sounds strangely cold in an era that seeks to embrace feelings rather than understanding them, but after the enthusiasms of the First Great Awakening, the American Church probably needed a rational, distanced account.

Throughout the eighteenth century, various philosophers proposed all three of the theories I outlined at the top of the post, even though different periods of music history tended to favor one over the others. I once published an article on many of the competing views. I love it that I was able to entitle the article “I Second that Emotion.” But that title really only represents some of the theories. As opposed to “affections,” the word “emotions” represents the view that feelings move out from inside us. I don’t think Jonathan Edwards was concerned much about that.

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