Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Emotion? We don’t talk about it!

Louis de Saussure, Tim Wharton

Few would deny that emotions are fundamental to what it means to be human. Indeed, according to some, emotions are what make us human. Given that, and given the fact that humans communicate about their emotional states a great deal, you might think that theories of language and communication would include comprehensive accounts of how such information is communicated.

But for a number of reasons, people working in this area maintain a view in which the emotional side of linguistic communication plays very much a secondary role to the rational or cognitive one. Indeed, in most accounts it plays no role at all.

Why? Arguably, the view that emotion is antithetical to cognition has its roots in ancient philosophy, according to which emotion was assumed to be a property of the ‘soul’ rather than body and therefore of minor importance: to be treated with suspicion. For Socrates, the mind was limited by emotions. Plato believed that they were not to be trusted and that they had to be firmly controlled.

While this is a tradition that modern-day models of language and communication have arguably inherited, it was not always the case. In the early years of the twentieth century, for example, many linguists criticised the fact that most semantics – the study of meaning – focussed entirely on reason and cognition.

They suggested that the study of the expressive, emotional side of semantics might be at least as important a field of study as the cognitive, rational one. The idea, however, never really caught on. In the study of language and communication, emotion is very much in second place

This view persists. Indeed, it continues to influence the way we think about the role of emotion in our everyday interactions with other people. Faced with a difficult professional decision, imagine a friend asks your advice. You might try to help by offering a few general thoughts. In making the decision, you might suggest, they should try to be level-headed, that is, rational and logical. At the same time, you might add that they should avoid being led too far astray by their feelings or emotions. When it comes to making difficult decisions, feelings and emotions are best left firmly in the background.

Emotion, which must have served humans so well as a biological adaptation in order that it continues to play a role in our mental lives, is still viewed as something of which we need to be wary.

One of the authors of this book remembers during their undergraduate years asking a now eminent professor of linguistics where emotion might fit into the kind of pragmatic theories of communication we were discussing. ‘It doesn’t, and we don’t talk about it’, came the response.

The principal motivation for writing this book is a belief that emotional or expressive meaning, along with other affect-related, ineffable dimensions of communication play such a huge role in human interaction that theories of language and communication must account for them. And we have personal, as well as professional reasons for believing this: one of us is also a songwriter and musician; the other a published poet. The expression and communication of emotions needs to be put right back at the centre of research into language and communication. Our aim is to do just that.

In this book we explore the history of the study of language and communication, the history of the study of emotion (as well as the nature of emotions themselves) and outline the problems inherent in accommodating emotions in a modern account of the study of communication. We then sketch an approach which we believe faces those problems head-on, suggesting novel, interdisciplinary solutions.

We have to talk about emotion.

Pragmatics and Emotion by Tim Wharton and Louis de Saussure

About The Authors

Louis de Saussure

Louis de Saussure is Professor of Linguistics at the University of Neuchâtel (Switzerland) where he co-founded the Cognitive Science Centre. He has published extensively in semant...

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Tim Wharton

Tim Wharton is a linguist based at the University of Brighton. His research explores territories beyond those regarded as the 'traditional' fields of linguists and as a result, he ...

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