Getting under my skin: William James on the emotions, sociality, and transcendence

Zygon 44 (2):433-450 (2009)
Abstract
"You are really getting under my skin!" This exclamation suggests a series of psychological, philosophical, and metaphysical questions: What is the nature and development of human emotion? How does emotion arise in social interaction? To what extent can interactive situations shape our embodied selves and intensify particular affective states? With these questions in mind, William James begins to investigate the character of emotions and to develop a model of what he terms the social self. James's studies of mimicry and his interest in phenomena now often investigated using biofeedback begin to explain how affective states develop and how it might be possible for something to "get under one's skin." I situate these studies in the history of psychology between the psychological schools of structuralism and behaviorism. More important, I suggest continuity between James's Psychology and recent research on mirror neurons, reentrant mapping, and emotional mimicry in the fields of clinical psychology and cognitive neuroscience. This research supports and extends James's initial claims in regard to the creation of emotions and the life of the social self. I propose that James's work in the empirical sciences should be read as a prelude to his metaphysical works that speak of a coordination between embodied selves and wider environmental situations, and his psychological studies should be read as a prelude to his reflections on spiritual transcendence.
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