Neurohistory and the History of Emotions: A Rapprochement

Rob Boddice

Why do practices and experiences have unstable historical meanings and values? The question leads us to the truth of individual perception. Rather than looking for what actually happened, neurohistorians are looking for how things actually seemed. Neuroscientific developments have emphasised the plasticity of the human brain and the dynamic relationship among context, brain and experience. These insights can be employed by historians to argue that individual or group perceptions are not mere points of view or subjective perspectives on an objective reality, but reliable statements of reality as it was experienced. Neurohistorians underwrite social construction with a demonstrable relationship between context and brain. Nevertheless, the beginnings of neurohistory in the work of Daniel Lord Smail were couched in the language of ‘basic emotions’ and an evolutionary understanding of the biologically transcendent. As neurosciences themselves take a social turn, historians of emotion might undermine the biologism in neurohistory, reconciling two approaches into one. The paper is a precis of an epistolary dialogue between Daniel Lord Smail and myself.

Rob Boddice is an historian of medicine, science and the emotions, based at Freie Universitaet Berlin and McGill University. He is the author or editor of seven books, including The History of Emotions (Manchester University Press, forthcoming 2018), Pain: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2017), The Science of Sympathy: Morality, Evolution and Victorian Civilization (University of Illinois Press, 2016) and Pain and Emotion in Modern History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). Boddice holds a PhD from the University of York and is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.