Emotions about emotions

David_Tuggy at SIL.ORG David_Tuggy at SIL.ORG
Wed May 7 13:26:00 UTC 1997

     Brian MacWhinney wrote:

> Alternatively, perhaps there is some universal of metaphor that
> excludes emotions about others' emotions.  Maybe such terms are just too
> cognitively complex according to some version of "theory of mind."

     Interesting idea. But surely not true in any strong sense, given the
     human propensity (my candidate for our most important, maybe our most
     impressive, intellectual capability) for routinizing cognitively
     complex processes to the point that they are effectively simple.  We
     easily use concepts on the order of "checkmate" or "sonata" or "tax"
     or "SGML" as the semantic poles of single words, often single
     morphemes. "Rebuttal", "response", "answer", etc., are thoughts/words
     about others' thoughts/words. Are emotions intrinsically more complex
     than thoughts? "Response" in fact often designates an emotion.

     I think a notion of it being "inappropriate" to so thoroughly
     subordinate another's emotion to one's own (tied in with the
     Japanese facts Brian alluded to?) has a better chance than "too
     complex" to explain a paucity of terms for emotions about others'
     emotions. If there is such a paucity.  Is there?

     We have a number of words in English for pity-type emotions which are
     often prompted by/directed at others' emotions (rather than (just)
     their objectively deplorable situation). "Pity" itself, of course.
     "Sympath(y/etic)", despite its etymology, is probably monomorphemic for
     most speakers, and while it sometimes means a shared emotion it more
     usually is a reponsive emotion (sadness/concern over another's pain.)
     "Compassion" or "empathy" are more learned, and their componentiality
     may be more salient.  Anyone pedantic enough to say "condolence" or
     "commiseration" is probably aware that they are not monomorphemic.
     "Feel" in "I feel for you" and "care" in "nobody cares" are certainly
     monomorphemic and in such usages are responsive emotions.

     Re Schadenfreude, I'm surprised "gloat" has gotten so little press:
     "Glee" also for me feels archaic unless it has a negative tinge; it
     now typically means delight prompted by another's discomfiture.
     ("Unholy glee" is a cliche, "holy glee" almost a contradiction.)

     --David Tuggy

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