emotions as relational domains


“We move in daily life from one emotion or mood to another; we change emotions and moods as our living goes by.  If we attend to what we connote or distinguish in daily life when we distinguish moods or emotions, we may notice that we always refer to what the person, or the non-human animal that we are considering, may do, and we speak in terms of the kinds of doings that it may generate without indicating any particular one.  In other words, we claim here that what we distinguish as observers when we distinguish an emotion or a mood is a domain of relational behaviors, and not a particular doing.”

Maturana and Verden Zöller, The Origin of Humanness, p. 38

“You’re just being emotional!”

Have you heard people say this?  I have.  I think many of us have.  It comes across as a denial of the validity of what the person is saying, and it also reveals a general cultural attitude about emotions. (It also embeds a valuation of rationality over emotions, but I’ll leave that aspect for later).

One of the inaccurate premises that is entailed in the accusation is that emotions are something that occasionally happen to us.  Namely it is assumed that we are only “emotional” when particularly sad, angry, happy, etc.  People discount the most common emotions, those associated with “just being” or “just doing something” - ones we could name, if we paid attention, as attentive or tranquil.    We are always in one emotion or another.  All relationships, whether with other people, other beings, with our actions and even with our own thoughts take place in one manner or another, and the different manners that these relations can, and do, take place are what we refer to as “emotions” ... though we usually only notice when something in that manner piques our attention and interest.   We take the unremarkable manners, the unremarkable emotions for granted and just continue. 

what is “an emotion”?

Not only do we live in a culture of commodification where material goods are promoted and valued, we also speak as if immaterial notions like time, ownership, and gravity were “things.”  This happens easily enough just due to naming.  Furthermore, as we have already discussed, people often confuse the domains of processes with the resultant phenomena.  Consequently emotions are often treated as phenomena, or even “things.”  People even talk as though emotions were something inside us that causes us to act in odd and inappropriate ways.  But emotions are not things.  They are manners of being; or more precisely, they are different domains of relational behaviours.

I like to begin with a very simple case ...
lets go back to a unicellular being:

(enacted on request)

(“Is that what you wanted?”)

Homo sapiens amans

When I came to understand that emotions are different relational domains, and that the predilection for a species to engage in circumstances that led to the eminence of one relational domain, or one emotion of another, I realized that emotions are immensely relevant to the path of evolution.  This notion, I have since discovered, is further substantiated by Maturana’s own work on natural drift, or the change of the ontogenic phenotype ontogenic niche relationship.  In other words, both the organism and its niche develop together in such a manner that the emotions lived are imprinted as changes to both the bodyhood and to the niche.  As this persists from generation to generation, it becomes the grounding for the drift in evolutionary change.  Thus I concluded that one of the dynamics, perhaps the most important dynamic that alters the quality of human evolution is human emotion.  Hence the naming of our subspecies (which still can interbreed) now as Homo sapiens amans, Homo sapiens aggresans, and Homo sapiens arrogans... three fundamentally different core modalities of emotioning as I see it in the people and cultures around us. 

(Maturana prefers to speak about us now as “Homo sapiens sapiens-amans” which incorporates a subtle meaning about what was and what might be, but it takes a little more explaining)

Do animals have emotions?

We can watch an animal, even an insect, and note different ways it behaves.  We can tell the difference between a wasp looking to share our lunch and an angry one.  Whether it feels what we name anger the same way we feel when we feel angry is not at issue. Its the manner of relating that matters. 

Any of us who have pets learn to recognize that what our dog or cat will do depends on its “mood” or emotion:  we have no difficult thinking it is happy when it comes to greet us coming in the door, wagging its tail and grinning at us.   Similarly, if it has done something it knows it should not have, it lowers its ears or rolls over on its back; contrite or fearful; depending on the nuance of the circumstance. 

I wonder whether those people who claim that animals don’t have emotions like to look for ways in which they can claim that we human beings are superior to the other animals.  Further, both “they can’t really feel” and “we are superior to them” rationalize turning living animals into “natural resources” and treating domestic animals in inhumane ways.