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The Ascent of Affect

Genealogy and Critique

In recent years, emotions have become a major, vibrant topic of research not merely in the biological and psychological sciences but throughout a wide swath of the humanities and social sciences as well. Yet, surprisingly, there is still no consensus on their basic nature or workings.
Ruth Leys’s brilliant, much anticipated history, therefore, is a story of controversy and disagreement. The Ascent of Affect focuses on the post–World War II period, when interest in emotions as an object of study began to revive. Leys analyzes the ongoing debate over how to understand emotions, paying particular attention to the continual conflict between camps that argue for the intentionality or meaning of emotions but have trouble explaining their presence in non-human animals and those that argue for the universality of emotions but struggle when the question turns to meaning. Addressing the work of key figures from across the spectrum, considering the potentially misleading appeal of neuroscience for those working in the humanities, and bringing her story fully up to date by taking in the latest debates, Leys presents here the most thorough analysis available of how we have tried to think about how we feel.

416 pages | 6 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2017

History: General History

History of Science


Philosophy of Science

Psychology: General Psychology


"If you are fed up with the binariness of emotion theories, read Ruth Leys' The Ascent of Affect . . . . Refreshingly, she doesn't start from the view that emotions are visceral, sensation-like and universal or from the view that they depend on meaning, culture and (specifically human) cognition. Instead, she evaluates the development, difficulties and merits of both these two opposed approaches, as well as elucidating the inadequacies of neuroscientific analysis."

Times Higher Education

"Psychologists have excelled in the study of simple rat behavior, in part because the behavior is simple. But when behaviorism declined and psychologists became interested in more complex constructs, the research as well as the concepts became very complex very quickly. In The Ascent of Affect, Leys (emer., Johns Hopkins Univ.) fascinatingly elucidates the research and theory on the emotions that people display and experience. She discusses the evolution of ideas on emotion, blending philosophical and psychological arguments and counterarguments about the nature of emotions that, after half a century, still defy explanation. There is no shortage of models, with each successive theory identifying the problems of its predecessors and trying to correct them. Some problems are methodological, so psychologists develop complex laboratory approaches to reconcile discrepancies, but the concept of emotion does not keep still. Rather, it wiggles in ways that force researchers to blend social, mental, and neurological ideas to capture the depth of people’s emotional lives. This complex book should make students of emotion happy—even if they have not yet solved the mystery of what that emotion really is. Recommended."


"[A] brilliant analysis of the rise and internal contradictions of affect theory. Leys's project mostly addresses the history of psychology--discussions of Sedgwick and Massumi notwithstanding. She devastates Massumi's 'The Autonomy of Affect,' to which Berlant refers. Leys reveals the mistakes on which Massumi's use of psychological research depends to justify his central claim; namely, that affect precedes both emotion and cognition. . . . She offers a detailed, critical review of developments following Tomkins's affect program theory. . . . [and] goes on to explain the most recent debates, which involve many more researchers and many more arguments . . . . meticulous history and analysis."

Modern Language Notes

"Leys’s book is an instructive and engaging account of the history of important theories of, and debates in, recent emotion research."

Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture

“There are books and there are earthquakes. The Ascent of Affect is an earthquake—it shakes the very foundations of a wide range of edifices of thought, from affect theory to Hardt and Negri’s Post-Marxism to trauma theory. All of these theoretical movements, Ruth Leys shows, are united in their elision of human intentionality. But anti-intentionalism is based on bad—indeed, wrong—science. Trenchant, razor-sharp, and always lucid, this book is bound to send shock waves through some of the most pressing intellectual debates of our time. A tour de force.”

Jan Plamper, Goldsmiths, University of London

“A masterfully told story, not simply of the history of one modern object, emotion, but of much larger shifts in human self-understanding in late modernity. The clarity of Leys’ writing makes the text accessible to the literature scholar who has modest scientific training and to the research psychologist who likely is unfamiliar with the turn to affect in the humanities and arts.”

Jill Morawski, Wesleyan University

“Anyone wishing to know more about emotions has to read this amazingly smart and well-argued book. Ruth Leys, the eminent historian of science, has written a critical genealogy of the emotion sciences as they evolved after World War II. She engages with both theoretical and experimental approaches, and takes particular aim at affect studies that have, very successfully, promoted emotions as non-intentional, non-cognitive, and non-cultural. Leys challenges such views by confronting them with critical voices that have previously gone unheard or been neglected.”

Ute Frevert, Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Berlin

Table of Contents

Introduction Setting the Stage

Chapter One Silvan S. Tomkins’s Affect Theory
Chapter Two Paul Ekman’s Neurocultural Theory of the Emotions
Chapter Three Richard S. Lazarus’s Appraisal Theory I: Emotions as Intentional States
Chapter Four Richard S. Lazarus’s Appraisal Theory II: The Battle Is Joined
Chapter Five A World without Pretense? Alan J. Fridlund’s Behavioral Ecology View
Chapter Six The Debate Continues: Paradigm Change or Status Quo?
Chapter Seven The Turn to Affect: A Critique
Epilogue Where We Are Now

Appendix 1 Animal Signaling, the Smile, and the Handicap Principle
Appendix 2 Damasio’s Somatic Marker Hypothesis (SMH)


International Society for the History of Behavioral and Social Sciences: Cheiron Book Prize

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