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Virginia Demos: Perplexing Obscurity

Excerpted from the Editor’s Preface of Exploring Affect.

Going well beyond Darwin’s earlier insights, Tomkins constructed a comprehensive theory of the biological basis of affects, their distinctive function within the human being, and their interactions with other important human mechanisms such as cognition, perception, memory and motor functions, their importance in human motivation, their contribution to unique personality configurations, which he called scripts, and their involvement in cultural meanings and values, such as ideologies. His work has provided the conceptual and methodological underpinnings for the recent resurgence of research on emotions, as manifested, for example, by the wide-spread use of the facial affect coding system developed by Paul Ekman and Carrol Izard, both deeply influenced by Tomkins’s ideas. Yet many young researchers do not seem to be aware of Tomkins’ seminal contributions.

This current obscurity is somewhat perplexing since he received considerable recognition during his career. He taught at Harvard, was a professor at Princeton for nearly two decades, and spent his final years before retirement at Rutgers. He published over fifty articles, authored seven books, edited five others, and, at the time of his death, left several unfinished manuscripts. But in spite of this distinguished career, his ideas have not been widely read or accepted by psychologists.

There are perhaps several reasons for this. First of all, his ideas went against the major trends in American psychology. While most psychologists were concerned with behaviorism or cognition, Tomkins was focused on affect. As psychology was becoming increasingly specialized and segregated, he was reading widely and extensively, searching for unities in the biopsychosocial characteristics of human beings. And while many psychologists embraced empiricism and advances in statistical techniques, eschewing theory, Tomkins set out to construct a grand theory, arguing that science can only advance through theory-guided exploration and not through simply applying available measures.

Second, and probably related to the first, some of his most important papers were published in out-of-the-way journals. For example, his groundbreaking research paper on facial expressions was published in the journal Perceptual and Motor Skills. Also, the first two volumes of Affect Imagery Consciouness (AIC), published in 1962 and 1963 and representing the first comprehensive presentation of his theory, did not contain bibliographies. A bibliography was to appear at the end of Volume 3. Nearly thirty years later, Volume 3 became two volumes, and the bibliography finally appeared at the end of Volume 4. This unusual presentation and delay perhaps made it all too easy for psychologists to essentially ignore a major theoretical work.

And finally, his ideas are complex, sometimes counterintuitive, and demand that one never lose sight of the ever-changing multiplicity of factors operating within the human being. There is no quick, easy way to grasp Tomkins’ ideas and no single set of experiments that could verify the main tenets of his thinking. He is perhaps the only psychologist who truly accepted the complexity, uncertainty, and challenge that come with thinking in terms of systems, in which the important phenomena involve the interaction of multiple variables that cannot be studied by isolating a few variables in the usual experimental paradigm. Such a model is not eagerly embraced by a profession enamored with the experimental method and often seduced by simpler solutions.