Futurist and historian of emotion Richard Firth-Godbehere walks through the vast expanse that is the history of human emotion.
While seeking out an explanation for his wife’s affliction of emetophobia, Richard Firth-Godbehere discovered the research topic of humankind’s vast history of emotions. As he read, he found himself enamored with the subject, prompting him to dive deeper into the topic and ultimately devote himself to its study. Firth-Godbehere is a futurist and historian of emotion and an honorary research fellow at Queen Mary University of London’s Centre for the History of Emotions.
He found many outside of academia were interested in learning about the subject, which lead him to write A Human History of Emotion: How the Way We Feel Built the World We Know, which details the ways that human emotions have shaped history and the way humans have altered their understanding of those emotions through time.
S&H: How did you become interested in studying emotions?
Firth-Godbehere: My wife suffers from emetophobia, which is an extreme fear of vomiting, be that seeing it, hearing it, doing it yourself, or even feeling nauseated. I wanted to understand that. Then I discovered the history of emotions. It allowed me to explore the feelings of revulsion that underpin my wife’s phobia in a terrain I understood: history. It led to a deeper exploration than psychology alone might have allowed, because it involves not only history and psychology but linguistics, sociology, philosophy, and many other disciplines.
What led you to decide to write this book?
I love the history of emotions, but it’s something most people don’t even know exists. Every time I told people what I study, they were genuinely interested and had endless questions about it. I thought it was about time there was a book on the subject for people outside academia and that my passion for it was shared with the world.
The title A Human History of Emotion is extremely broad—entire libraries could be filled on this topic. How did you choose which historical events to include?
You are right. The papers written on this topic run into the millions, so choosing where to begin was difficult. I tried to choose moments that help explain some aspects of what the history of emotions is and what emotions can do. Things that had and have a broader impact on the world.
For example, the chapter on the ancient Greek understanding of emotions explores how early western philosophers understood their feelings—an understanding that still shapes how philosophy is debated today. There’s a chapter on how love—as they understood it—underpinned the Crusader's actions, showing how feelings we take for granted can be interpreted in very different ways. There are also chapters on witches and Shell Shock. These explore how, then and now, understandings of feelings can have a negative impact on people, especially women.
I chose topics that tell a tale—from the birth of religions to the power behind the modern culture wars—and that has something to say about both then and now.
Were there any other important examples you wanted to write about, but did not have the space to?
Yes, there were. Far too many to go into here! One example is how Nazi Germany manipulated an emotion similar to what English speakers call “disgust”—“ekel” to the Germans—to dehumanize entire populations as it committed the worst atrocity in history, the Holocaust. I left this out as others have written about this before quite brilliantly. I wanted each of my tales to be something new to a wider audience.
[Read: “Releasing Trapped Emotions.”]
What is the most interesting thing you’ve learned whilst researching emotions?
That emotions aren’t universal because emotion is more than just a feeling or smile or the urge to run away. It’s a whole package of things, like where you are and what you are doing when you have the feeling. For example, butterflies in the stomach could be because you're terrified or excited, depending on whether you're about to jump out of an aeroplane or you've just won the lottery.
Where do you see the study of emotions heading in the future?
The big new directions that I touch on briefly in the book are artificial emotions, or Affective Computing, as it’s known. Recently, attempts to give AI feelings have moved beyond the old idea of a set of simple basic emotions and they are becoming more nuanced. Also, there are growing studies into how emotions are becoming more global through shared online languages like emoticons.
If readers take only one thing from your book, what would you hope that is?
That emotions have histories, fascinating ones.
Read our review of A Human History of Emotion: How the Way We Feel Built the World We Know in the Nov/Dec 2021 issue of Spirituality & Health.