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Reviewed by:
  • What Is the History of Emotions? eds. by Barbara H. Rosenwein and Riccardo Cristiani
  • Darrin M. McMahon
What Is the History of Emotions? By Barbara H. Rosenwein and Riccardo Cristiani ( Medford, Mass., Polity Press, 2018) 163 pp. $19.95

Polity's Press's "What is History?" series asks leading practitioners to summarize the principal methods, findings, and interventions of important sub-disciplines in the historical field. Rosenwein and Cristiani's welcome volume addresses the currently thriving sub-discipline of the [End Page 487] history of emotions. Rosenwein, a prominent contributor to the field, and her co-writer offer four succinct chapters, framed by a concise introduction and conclusion, creating a helpful "map," as they describe it, for anyone seeking a general introduction to the field.

After briefly tracing the relatively recent emergence of "emotions" as a specific category of analysis in the nineteenth century out of such older conceptions as the passions, Rosenwein and Cristiani's first chapter treats the principal scientific theories that were developed to explain them—from those of Darwin and James to the more recent interventions of social constructivists and social-affect theorists.1 To a large extent, historians must still reckon with these theories even as they develop their own approaches; the authors treat them accordingly, introducing readers to the questions that drive their work: Are emotions innate or acquired, universal or culturally constructed, cognitive or performative, instinctive or instrumental? Biologists, psychologists, sociologists, and historians have developed their own responses to such questions; examining them occupies the bulk of the second and third chapters. The authors clearly present the most influential approaches—"emotionology" pioneered by Peter and Carol Stearns, Reddy's theory of "emotives" (or emotional expressions) and emotional regimes, Rosenwein'sown conception of overlapping emotional communities, and the recent view of emotions as performances—illustrating them with numerous examples from the literature.2 Even more creatively, the authors put those approaches into practice, examining a key historical text, the American Declaration of Independence, from the perspective of each of these four main methodological approaches.

The various readings are more suggestive than exhaustive, but that is precisely the point. The authors seek to show how different approaches yield different responses, and how innovative historians might draw on multiple methodologies in the history of emotions to yield new and creative readings of familiar texts. The chapter about "bodies" makes a similar point, underlining just how much the history of emotions has drawn from the innovative approaches of other sub-disciplines—from the history of medicine, gender, and sexuality to the affect theory and the study of space and material culture as practiced recently by literary theorists and scholars in cultural studies. The history of emotions, in turn, has given as good as it gets, infusing these various approaches with its own insights, while placing emotions on the agenda of a wide range of scholars. [End Page 488]

Historians, as a rule, are better at describing the past than looking toward the future, and Rosenwein and Cristiani are no exceptions. Their final chapter about the future prospects of the discipline is less compelling than the others. They describe the history of emotions, despite its early interdisciplinary promise, as having turned inward to some extent, speaking increasingly to members of its own guild, a victim of its own success. At the same time, the authors observe, "We (in the West) live in an age fascinated with emotions," and they lament that more people don't look to historians for guidance. "It is time for educators, politicians, religious leaders, parents, and media creators to consider the history of emotions," they conclude. Fair enough, but to do so means reaching out—and not just in the West, where the history of emotions has largely been confined. This volume has little to say about emotions elsewhere. Researchers could begin by venturing farther afield but also by seeking to provide a historical explanation for our current fascination with emotions. That is a labor of the future that students of the past are well-placed to perform.

Darrin M. McMahon
Dartmouth College


1. Charles Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (London, 1872); William James, "What Is...


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