The eureka moment came when I realized all my handy concepts for emotions—anger, happiness, sadness, etc.—had been culturally constructed. Without any of these terms, I may not have access to an apparatus to interpret my internal sensations. In essence I would be emotion blind. But the category of emotion is a semantic category. It’s real the same way democracy or electronic money is real—by consent.
How much of human life is created by societal fiat but taken as substantively real? We can’t find our emotions in our brains or bodies anymore than we can look in our piggybanks for electronic currency. But our intuitions tell us our emotions are physiological facts that all people have. When we think in words, or write in words, we are using other people’s concepts—things given by society. But now my emotions are in that very category and belong to others, to everyone that speaks English.
What feelings do we take for granted in our English-speaking community? Love, hate, anger, lust, happiness, joy, pleasure, and so forth. And what circumstances encouraged our language forebears to create just such terms? And why not a word like schadenfreude, which we had to borrow from the Germans? What are we missing by not knowing the emotional words of other cultures, and how many new emotional categories can an adult learner truly pick up, or is too late after a certain age?
How would a native English speaker like me ever hope to grok this?
I wonder how much of our world is taken for granted, and how much better it could be if we elaborated more categories of experience. For example, the Japanese talk of yugen, a feeling so subtle and mysterious it seems to defy translation, but arises in the contemplation of the universe. How would a native English speaker like me ever hope to grok this? Could an English speaking child learn it an early age? Or is it simply too culturally bound, requiring an immersion in the language and culture of Japan?
For an adult learner, is their worldview already so closed in that even when they learn new information, he or she cannot budge free from their societally-imposed categories of emotion or thought? If Dr. Barrett’s theory is true, how much energy should be focussed on the cross-cultural analysis and teaching of emotional experience? At the very least, Dr. Barrett reminds us of how much of what we take for granted as reality is actually a construct of language. This also suggest a hope for andragogy and pedagogy: perhaps more fitting forms experience await the discovery of the right concept and its adoption by a linguistic community.