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Affectlessness and meaninglessness

Excerpted from A Theory of Psychological Magnification: How Things Become Meaningful, Audio of Silvan S. Tomkins, October 5, 1976. 


I am to some extent a neo-Kantian in philosophy. You remember Kant’s contribution to modern philosophy. He was perhaps the most influential modern philosopher in the last several centuries. His contribution essentially was that we do not know for sure what the nature of the world, what the nature of reality is, what the, what he called, “Das ding an sic,” the thing in itself is.


And the reason we don’t know it is because experience is necessarily filtered through what we would today call our information networks, our particular sensory organs. And so what we perceive and what we conceive is a consequence of constructive activity, which is basically neurological in nature and we inherit this and therefore space, time, causality, all of the fundamental categories through which we attempt . . . we understand the world is man-made. That was Kant’s great contribution to epistemology and philosophy.


I am following in this tradition when I tell you that the affect system is a critical part of the categories through which we necessarily experience the world in a Kantian way. And should we be born—as is possible—without the requisite receptors, without the requisite programs—just as a man born without the information of how to clot his blood is a bleeder, just as a man who is born without the correct receptors in his eyes may be colorblind—if you were born affect-blind in any way, you would have a vastly different experience of the world. It would have vastly different meaning and if you had no affects, the world would have very little meaning. Because he would not know what it would mean to be excited by anything, to enjoy anything, to be terrorized by anything or anyone, to be sad about anything, to be enraged about anything, to be ashamed of anything, to be contemptuous of anything, or to be disgusted by anything.


If you were lacking this apparatus, the world would indeed be a very pallid, unmotivated, unfeeling experience which would be meaningless. It would have no discernible meaning. It would be a matter of indifference. This is not to say he would be apathetic or in despair or depressed or alienated. These are all meaningful experiences. Unfortunate. Tragic. But not meaningless. If you had no affects, your experience would tend toward the meaningless. Just as if you had no pain receptors, your experience could never be concerned with the integrity of your body. And if you had no affect, you would never be concerned with the integrity of your personality or the world. You simply wouldn’t have the requisite mechanisms for attributing meaning to the world.

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