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On stability and change in people’s understanding of emotions

Upon Anna Vogel’s request in the previous blog to tell about my work, I decided to tell a little about some research that I have conducted but not published, even if it is sometimes unwise to report of unfinished work. It concerns the English word passion. Although many contemporary speakers of English associate passion with romance, it has had and still has many other uses as well. To give an example from my PhD thesis, it has been used to talk about the fighting spirit that football players show in a game:

“From an early stage the atmosphere was electric, and as the match progressed the Irish players were caught up on one big roller coaster of unrivalled passion and emotion.” (from The Belfast Telegraph)

More generally, passion was one of the words that were used to talk about emotions when the word emotion had not yet made its breakthrough. The interesting thing that I would like to publish research about is that while we might think that the birth of modern psychology and psychoanalysis changed the way people discuss and understand emotions, data from the 18th and 19th centuries suggest that part of the way emotions are conceptualized now is inherited from previous discussions of passions.

Metaphor scholars publish this blog, and I indeed noticed the overlap between people’s former understanding of passions and their current understanding of emotions when studying metaphors occurring with the noun passion and other words derived from it. There is plenty of research on the conceptual metaphors of emotions, but there is less research on conceptual metaphors that people used about emotions before people like William James, Wilhelm Wundt and Sigmund Freud started to publish their ideas. A journey backwards in time nevertheless reveals that several of the metaphors of emotions, which we use now, were familiar to people who were not familiar with our current concept of emotion.

To give some examples, passions were seen as forces that affected people, as in the following excerpt (all the examples come from the Corpus of Late Modern English Texts compiled by Hendrik de Smet):

“In the very torrent, tempest and whirlwind of your passions,” says he, “you must beget a temperance that may give it smoothness.”

They were considered as opponents that people had to fight:

“Her broken words betrayed the passion with which she was struggling.”

They were also discussed in terms of heat, in the same way we now talk about, for example, love and anger:

“Now Conscience chills her, and now passion burns.”

To give one last example from David Hume, in his writings, passions could be plants, among other things:

“An affection betwixt the sexes is a passion evidently implanted in human nature.”

In the same way, speakers of present-day English say, for example, that friendship is a plant, which can be cultivated.

It remains an open question exactly how many of our current metaphors of emotion are inherited from discussions of passions, let alone in which respects our understanding(s) of emotions have changed in the past two or three hundred years. We should nevertheless not overlook the role of inherited knowledge.

Obviously, this is not me, but I now kick the ball to Esa Penttilä from the University of Eastern Finland. He has promised to write the next blog.

Photo by Ben Weber on Unsplash


Kövecses, Zoltán. (2000). Metaphor and Emotion: Language, Culture, and Body in Human Feeling. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tissari, Heli. (2003) LOVEscapes: Changes in Prototypical Senses and Cognitive Metaphors since 1500. Helsinki: Société Néophilologique.

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