An Emotional History of Capitalism

Friday, January 4, 2019: 10:50 AM
Hancock Parlor (Palmer House Hilton)
Susan J. Matt, Weber State University
Focusing on the nerves, stress, and anxiety felt by middle-class businessmen in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this paper will offer an emotional history of capitalism. It will examine how key shifts in the way emotions were conceived in America and Western Europe affected Americans’ undestandings of their own market activities. As a number of historians (including Thomas Dixon and Ute Frevert) have demonstrated, over the course of the nineteenth century, the category of “emotion” came to supplant older notions of feelings.Eighteenth-century philosophers had conceived of feelings in terms of passions, appetites, sensibilities, sentiments, affections. These were mental and moral states, subject to volition, connected to the soul. By the early twentieth century, however, “emotion” had become the new category with which to describe and understand feelings. The term implied a physical, innate, involuntary, non-cognitive, irrational, experience. The moral meanings that had once surrounded feeling were now absent as was the possibility that cognition informed and shaped feeling. While that transition has been well documented by scholars, there has been little work done in evaluating how this transition played out in individual lives. Taking as a starting point some of the new maladies of capitalism—neurasthenia, anxiety, stress—which arose as this view of emotion took shape, this paper will use memoirs, diaries and psychological studies to probe how an intellectual transformation played out in Americans’ daily lives.