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  • Behaviorism, Catharsis, and the History of Emotion1
  • R. Darren Gobert (bio)

Someone had to do it: to take on the oldest, the hoariest, and yet still one of the most fraught concepts in theatre history. After all, the history of thinking about emotions and performance—the subject of this special section—is coterminous with thinking about κάθαρσις (katharsis), the most vexed term in Aristotle’s vexing Poetics, the foundation of Western dramatic theory. Since his earliest Renaissance commentators over five hundred years ago, criticism has puzzled over what Aristotle meant when he characterized the function of tragedy as: “through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions”2; or “through a course of pity and fear completing the purification of tragic acts which have those emotional characteristics”3; or “to accomplish, through pity and fear, a clarification . . . concerning experiences of the pitiable and fearful kind.”4 This array of citations illustrates the problem: what Aristotle meant by this clause hinges on a word whose interpretation remains unresolved precisely because its correct translation remains unverifiable, the word and its cognates appearing in the extant Greek corpus in various denotations. (The word “catharsis,” used by many translators, is a cheat— borrowed from the Greek word in the nineteenth century precisely to avoid having to translate it into English, as happened in French [“la catharsis,” circa 1897], German [“die Katharsis,” circa 1857], and almost certainly other languages.)

We will never know what Aristotle meant. His language is long dead and, even setting philological issues aside, his corpus is self-contradictory: in the Poetics, he refers to his theory of katharsis from the Politics and to his theory of emotions from the Rhetoric, but the discussions in these two books are irreconcilable, and the larger Aristotelian corpus further muddies the water with discordant remarks on the emotions’ workings in Nichomachean Ethics, On the Soul, Parts of Animals, and Movement of Animals. In light of the plain inadequacy of his remarks in the Poetics, commentators need contextual—extratextual—support, but they can only selectively choose it and must ignore the counterevidence. Not knowing Aristotle’s intentions, in other words, a critic can only ever add to the history of katharsis, by which I mean the history of how the word has been translated, the clause interpreted, [End Page 109] and the concept made to signify. And thus writing about katharsis both proliferates and continues to dissatisfy.

A more profitable vein of inquiry is historiographical: it interrogates how and why this or that interpretation came to cohere in a historical moment. This inquiry involves not only historicizing translations of katharsis but also historicizing the concept of emotion that undergirds them. For emotions do have a history: critics in different times and places have meant different things when they have written of the emotions in general or pity and fear in particular—even if they have been unaware that their presuppositions about these terms were historically constituted. After all, there is no stable thing, an “emotion” (or a “feeling” or an “affect”), that exists transhistorically, transculturally, or, indeed, outside of or prior to its cultural expressions, whether tears or dramatic scripts. Perusing key theoreticians of the emotions in Western thought—such as Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, David Hume, William James, or Sigmund Freud—one can identify the recurrent disagreements which have structured the history of emotion and which serve to distinguish its meanings. Do emotions originate in the body, with goose bumps and hot ears, or are they products of mind, generated by the mental assessment that this or that is fearful or love-worthy? Are they “irrational” (as in independent of reason) or do they attend cognitive judgments? Are they individual or social experiences: inherently solipsistic or emerging only intersubjectively? Are they active, originating with the self, or intransitive, passively received from outside? And are they best considered as causes or effects: Do I cry because I am sad or, as James and many before him would have it, Am I sad because I cry? The answers to these questions have been alloyed in various ways to produce understandings of emotion, and these understandings may have predominated in this or that cultural location. They “successively...


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