This issue’s historian has influenced the discipline of history for decades. William Reddy’s  works have contributed in changing how historians regard emotions, from mere expressions of irrational feelings to a historic source of social, cultural and political history. Among his works are empirical case-studies of the French Revolution and Indian monarchies in the 14th century, as well as influential theoretical reflections on how historians can analyse past emotions. Fortid is therefore honoured to present this interview with Professor Emeritus William M. Reddy.

During the last decades, the history of emotions has become one of the most burgeoning fields in the discipline of history. Some scholars even argue that the discipline is going through an emotional turn. Having influenced this development since the 1990s, William Reddy continues to contribute significantly to the historiography of emotions.

Eager to understand more about his views and notions, we humbly asked him to participate in our recurring column. Due to the six hours of time difference between Oslo and Durham, North Carolina, it was still early morning for Dr. Reddy when we sent him the e-mail, but it only took a few hours before he answered:

– Glad to hear about your special issue of emotions! I would be happy to participate. Best, Bill.


How did you find your way into the field of history?

In my college years, I could not decide what to major in, but I saw that everything had a history, so that seemed the safest route. I was at that time also interested in how the Catholic church “went off course,” as I understood it at that time – I had spent five years in Jesuit schools.

In my college years, I could not decide what to major in, but I saw that everything had a history

You also have a background in cultural anthropology?

My interest in anthropology actually came later, when I took a graduate seminar with Bernard Cohn, who was trying to develop the method of historical ethnography.


So, interested in history, religion and anthropology, how did you find you way into the history of emotions?

I first saw the possibility of including them in the range of things shaped by culture. During 1975-76, at the Institute for Advanced Study, I met Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo. I read and discussed with her, as she wrote them, a number of draft chapters of her pioneering ethnography, Knowledge and Passion.[1] My consistent concern from that year forward was, not just to do cultural history, but to broaden the range of motivations that historians took into account. Not just Marxists, but everyone, back then, focused predominately on the desire for money and power, class interest, and class conflict.

Not just Marxists, but everyone, back then, focused predominately on the desire for money and power, class interest, and class conflict

In an article from 1997, you reacted against what you considered to be an unsatisfactory trend of social constructionism. Some  examples were the discourse theory of Foucault and the practice theory of Bourdieu.[2] Why did you find this inadequate?

Initially, I was delighted with Foucault’s work. As a graduate student, for two years or so, I met with an informal group in Chicago, most of them were anthropology students, who would get copies of the latest Parisian twists on Lévi-Straussian thought, unwrap them, and read them with relish. I was introduced to both Les mots et les choses and Surveiller et Punir through this group – the latter hot off the presses. But, without fully understanding them, I felt that the latter was a betrayal of the former. Everyone else seemed to like it more, as if it was a relief that “power” was back in the picture.

Later, and quite gradually, I would find other paths through the philosophical thicket than enabled me to critique reductionistic approaches to motivation without slipping into the presupposition that there was only discourse, and that human individuals were ephemeral manifestations of discursive structures. As for Bourdieu, I have always seen practice theory as a partial solution to this problem, especially as developed by Anthony Giddens, Sherry Ortner, William Sewell. Monique Scheer has shown how to apply practice theory to the history of emotions in her article “Are Emotions a Kind of Practice?”[3] Actually, so have I, in “Saying Something New: Practice Theory and Cognitive Neuroscience.”[4]


You seem often to oppose reductive views on humans. Where does such an engagement stem from?

Hard to say. I would point again to a religious upbringing which led to my own personal disenchantment, without my losing a belief in the depth and complexity of the human self.


In 2001, you wrote The Navigation of Feeling. Your theoretical framework emphasised the feelings of individual subjects, and their relations to the social surroundings in which they exist.[5] How did the idea for such a concept arise?

In 1995-1996, I was reading a lot of speech act theory: J. L. Austin, Searle, as well as some other U.S. analytical philosophers – Kripke, Davidson, Quine. I was interested in emotions because they had become central to the new historiography of the eighteenth century. Mostly because literary scholars and historians interested in gender had discovered 18th century sentimentalism, and showed its central role in the Enlightenment’s impact on the broader culture, e.g. Sarah Maza’s Private Lives and Public Affairs.[6] But scholars were not asking themselves, well, what are emotions? Do they have a history?

I gradually worked out what I hoped was a culturally neutral way of saying what emotions are by treating emotional expression as analogous to speech acts. Not that they are speech acts, but that they share with speech acts the odd feature of “doing things to the world.” They do things to that part of the world that consists of the whole of the self. I proposed that an emotional expression is at once exploratory and self-shaping. By saying “I love you,” one hopes to call up that “feeling” (whatever that is) of “love” that the word is, for one, associated with. If the “feeling” does not follow as expected, one has learned something about oneself. This seemed to me to explain why emotions, in so many ethnographies, were found to be considered a domain of effort of vital importance to the community, objects of constant collective ritual and discipline.

I actually offered a preliminary statement of this argument in an article, “Against Constructionism”, in 1999.[7] In the book, I made a much fuller statement, followed by a detailed application of this approach to French history between 1700 and 1850.

Many historians focus on quite specific areas and periods. In your book, The Making of Romantic Love from 2012, you turned away from the French Revolution to focus on the idea of romantic love in medieval Europe and contemporaneous Hindu Temples in Bengal.[8] What caused this shift in period and location?

At the beginning of this project, in about 2002, I wanted to bring sexuality into the range of things that historians of emotion could work on. I was convinced that the treatments of what Westerners call sexual “desire” in South Asia and in Japan—while being quite different from each other—were both quite different from standard, widely accepted, and unconsciously presupposed ideas from European history. The long-running Western idea was that sexual desire was an appetite like thirst or hunger. But I did not find this idea in any other tradition.

As I looked further into it, it seemed that the twelfth century had brought a great change with the introduction of “courtly love,” the very first formulation of love as something heroic. (In ancient European love stories, the lovers are always weak, poor warriors like Paris in the Iliad, or the lovers in the Roman elegiac tradition. David Konstan’s book, Sexual Symmetry confirmed this for me.)[9] I wanted to write a book on the whole sweep of the history of sexual love, including the Incas, Polynesia, China, Japan, India, couple of cases from Papua New Guinea and Africa, from Homer to the present. Much too ambitious. Even a scaled-back version which I tried to market to trade presses through a literary agent was turned down by fifteen different publishing houses. Meanwhile the medievalists, I was discovering, would not go along with my approach unless I offered very close, detailed argument. So, I settled on writing a monograph with a lot of footnotes that compared Europe, South Asia, and Japan in the same time slice, 900-1200 CE. This was the period of decisive change in the European tradition. I did not begin working on this version of the project until 2007 or so.

Some have complained that I did not link this work explicitly enough with the approach of Navigation, but that is only superficially the case. I paid close attention to textual records as emotional expressions, emotives, following my earlier method. Some literary scholars panned this book, but it got very good reviews in Speculum, the American Historical Review, the English Historical Review, and Annales.[10]

Now I am working on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, mostly on the question of the relation between so-called “reason” and so-called “emotion.” As with Western love versus desire, reason versus emotion is another familiar dichotomy that simply does not exist outside the range of Western cultural influence. Again, the period I have selected appears to be the crucial one.

The long-running Western idea was that sexual desire was an appetite like thirst or hunger. But I did not find this idea in any other tradition

How interesting that this dichotomy only exists within the Western cultural sphere!  Would you elaborate further on what you think makes the early modern period extra promising for your ongoing study on the relation between reason and emotions?

This is the period of “disenchantment,” in many regions of Europe, that is, the period in which a view of nature as mechanical, and thus of the body as mechanical, came to be accepted among the educated elite and among many others as well. Suddenly, emotions were no longer subject to direct influence from outside—neither from the Holy Spirit or the devil, from magic, astrology, or providence. The self was alone with her or his emotions. While they were still seen as often emanating from the body, the body itself was disenchanted. At the same time, there was a massive rejection of Augustinian interpretations of original sin, such that trust in human reason rose, and gave a strong impetus to notions of so-called natural law, natural rights, natural religion. Emotional regimes that emphasized zeal and glory were replaced by emotional regimes that gave first rank to sweetness and sincerity. As John Locke put it, at the beginning of his Letter Concerning Toleration from 1689:

“Let any one have never so true a claim to [orthodoxy], yet if he be destitute of charity, meekness, and good-will in general towards all mankind, even to those that are not Christians, he is certainly yet short of being a true Christian himself.”[11]

In your theories, there seems to be an implicit understanding of power, such as your concept of emotional regimes. How would you describe your own notion of power?

“Power” is a side effect of the tremendous leverage human beings derive from cooperating with each other. Often, the options are stark: cooperate or die. In the long run those are the only two options, even if, in the short run, there may appear to be chances to go it alone temporarily. To gain all the benefits of cooperation, it appears, it is most effective to endow certain persons with executive or decision-making roles. Once one is possessed of such a role, it is often easy to demand privileges, to avoid distasteful tasks and risks, and, relying on the trust that is a prerequisite of cooperation, to build a favorable image of oneself and to hand out favors in return for loyalty.

Under those circumstances, “power” also derives from exemplary compliance with the emotional style that currently prevails among the decision-makers, because that is essential to winning their trust and being entrusted with decision-making roles.


Do you think the history of emotions is dependent on including the element of power involved in social and thus also emotive relations? How would you relate your own notions of power to power-oriented theoreticians, such as Gramsci or Foucault?

Well, I am more comfortable with Gramsci’s notion of hegemony than with Foucault’s conception of the diffuse “power” of discourses, disciplines, or his conception of “biopower.” I cannot help but think of power as something that individuals possess and that many individuals end up wanting and striving for. The idea of “hegemony” is closer to my idea of the emotional regime that prevails within a ruling elite. The rules and values of that “regime” are “hegemonic” in the sense that they have gained the standing of ingrained habits among decision-makers, and are difficult to question, especially since decision-makers are always subject to challenges to one extent or another and their emotional styles often include sensitivity to humiliation and a corresponding tendency to dismiss critique as empty insult.

In considering ideas of power, however, it is always very important to attend closely to the sources, and to note carefully what the documents say about “power.” They may not have, often do not have any equivalent notion. This does not mean that the persons of the period in question did not have any idea of power, but it does mean whatever idea they had was inchoate or unformulated, or enfolded in some other concept. And that itself is an important determinate of power and how it can be wielded.

I am more comfortable with Gramsci’s notion of hegemony than with Foucault’s conception of the diffuse “power” of discourses, disciplines, or his conception of “biopower.”

In your theories, based on speech act theory, emotional utterances are deeply tied to our language. Is there a risk, when examining historical documents, to misread rhetorical phrases or different literary styles as emotive expressions?

Not sure what the risk is that you have in mind. Rhetoric and literary style generally involve emotional norms, habits, ideals, penalties. It is hard to imagine someone writing like Virginia Woolf without being, herself, that is, in her everyday life, very familiar with a number of emotional styles. Idioms and clichés can always be misread if we are not familiar with them, or think the person who wrote the document created them spontaneously. But they can also have emotive effects, even if they are tired or hackneyed.

Where do your theories on emotive expressions stand now, almost twenty years later? Are there significant shifts in academic research that would alter your views today?

I have been very interested in the rise to prominence of Lisa Feldman Barrett and her associates and former students, who have recently made their mark within cognitive and emotional neuroscience. They have assembled a great deal of evidence from brain imaging that undermines the extremely reductionistic Ekman theory of basic emotions. Much of what they argue, especially the notion of “psychological constructionism,” is compatible with my own approach to emotions.

However, Ruth Leys’ recent book, The Ascent of Affect, has brought the whole neuroscientific project into question, on the grounds (not new) that one cannot consistently treat anything that is humanly meaningful as a mere epiphenomenon of mechanical or chemical events.[12] I published a piece on this in 2018 in the new French-language journal, Sensibilités; an English version of that essay will appear this summer in Emotion Review.

The history of emotions is a burgeoning field, with prominent historians talking about an “emotional turn”. What opportunities do you see for the history of emotion as a field? What particular topics do you regard as the most promising or important for future historians to explore through frameworks of emotions?

For me, the most important challenge historians face is not to reify emotions. Reifying emotions not only tends to remove the idea of “emotions” from consideration as a changing historical concept, it also tends to draw a misleading line between “emotions” and “thought”—a distinction that has its own history. Two recent model works, to my mind, are Erin Sullivan’s Beyond Melancholy: Sadness and Selfhood in Renaissance England and Laura Kounine’s Imagining the Witch: Emotions, Gender, and Selfhood in Early Modern Germany.[13] Note the term “selfhood” in both titles: these historians are not sequestering “emotions” off from the rest of this confusing, dynamic terrain of “self,” or “experience.” By avoiding this temptation, they discover the truly deep, intriguing history of emotional concepts and comportments.

It would be my hope that the history of emotions would be a bridge endeavor that could bring together intellectual and cultural history with the history of gender and sexuality, race and empire. We are beginning to get a handle on honor and shame, privilege and stigma, and keeping our eye on the big picture will bring the most progress in this important endeavor.

On the topic of bridging, how do you regard frequent concerns about the alleged ‘fragmentation’ of the field of history? Is it a threat to the future of our discipline?

I won’t opine on what “threats” the discipline faces. I do think that ignoring “emotions” entails a lot of anachronistic misunderstanding of our sources. Studying emotions requires that one look beyond “intellectual” endeavors, beyond the intellectual history of the idea of emotions, to sources that permit us to see how, in practice as well as theory, humans in past and present have treated their own “thought-feelings.”


How do you regard the works of other scholars on the field of emotion history? What would you regard as the most important difference and commonality between their work and your own, except the very topic of emotions?

This is a very large question, and I won’t try to go into it here, but I do suggest that answers are already available in Jan Plamper’s work, The History of Emotions: An Introduction, which surveys the field and, quite properly, provides a brief, critical history of psychology that has a lot in common with Leys’ new book.[14] I agree with Plamper and Leys, enthusiastically (so to speak), that the history of emotions must include a critical reading of the history of psychological thinking, of theories of the self and their practical realizations. Without that, we will end up using present-day common-sense notions of the emotions as of reason as if they were eternal truths, when they really do not apply to the periods we are studying.

The history of emotions must include a critical reading of the history of psychological thinking, of theories of the self and their practical realizations

Would you care to tell us a bit about your everyday life at the moment, having become an emeritus? How do you carry on as a researcher?

Well, this spring I have cancelled a trip to Paris and a trip to give a paper at a conference. We have been confined to the house since a relative of ours was exposed to Covid-19 around 6 March. I am focusing on writing and doing my best to get by with online resources, with all of Duke University and its libraries being closed until further notice. I feel very lucky to be able to make progress with my current project, without having any university duties, or having to switch to online teaching, as so many of our colleagues have had to do.

But, in general, as with my last three books, I am trying to work on a broad range of sources dealing with everyday life, government administration, and elite intellectual trends. Working on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century trends in thinking and practice concerning reason and its relation to emotion, I have spent some time in the National Archives in Paris and some at the Bibliothèque du Protestantisme Français.[15] The latter is an underutilized resource with great manuscript and rare printed materials from the early sixteenth century on.

One issue I have been focusing on is the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 and its effects—focusing on Pierre Bayle and also on records of the dragonnades and mass “conversions” of Protestants in the south of France.


Lastly, we have a mandatory question we ask all of our ‘Historians’: What is the most important advice you would like to give today’s student, and thus the historians of tomorrow?

Ooouf, what a very hard time it is to be coming up and launching an academic career! But, then, it seems it is always very hard. I received a Ph.D. in 1975; in that year, there were 1500 Ph.D.s in history granted in the U.S., and 150 jobs advertised. I was working part-time as a clerk-typist, after my fellowship ran out. I was lucky enough to find two post-docs while I looked for a more permanent position. For my first three years at Duke University (1977-1980), I was a “visiting” assistant professor, working year-to-year. This sort of thing was very hard on my personal life, as I had just moved to three successive new cities in three successive years.

All I can say is that, at the time, I did not see what else I could do, what else I was suited for. I did manage to get a couple of articles accepted—that was key to keeping up belief in my possibilities.

Perhaps the most important thing for me, however, was a series of informal seminars that I got involved with, involving mostly fellow graduate students or, later, graduate students and early-career historians. We read books that were important to us as well as our own research papers, and discussed them, free of any presiding authority figures.





[1] Rosaldo, Michelle Z. Knowledge and Passion. Ilongot Notions of Self and Social Life. Vol. 4. Cambridge Studies in Cultural Systems. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

[2] Reddy, William M. “Against Constructionism: The Historical Ethnography of Emotions.” Current Anthropology, Vol. 8, No. 3 (June 1997): 327-351.

[3] Scheer, Monique. “Are Emotions A Kind of Practice (And Is That What Makes Them Have A History)? A Bourdieuian Approach to Understanding Emotion.” History and Theory 51, no. 2 (2012): 193-220.

[4] Reddy, William M. “Saying Something New: Practice Theory and Cognitive Neuroscience.” Arcadia - International Journal for Literary Studies 44, no. 1 (2009): 8-23.

[5] Reddy, William M. The Navigation of Feeling. A Framework for the History of Emotions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

[6] Maza, Sarah C., Private Lives and Public Affairs. The Causes Celebres of Prerevolutionary France. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993.

[7] Reddy, «Against Constructionism».

[8] Reddy, William M. The Making of Romantic Love. Longing and Sexuality in Europe, South Asia and Japan, 900-1200 CE. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.

[9] Konstan, David. Sexual Symmetry. Love in the Ancient Novel and Related Genres. Princeton University Press, 1994.

[10] See Andrews, Walther G, review of The Making of Romantic Love, by William M. Reddy. American Historical Review, Vol. 118 No. 4 (October 2013): 1147-48; Karras, Ruth Mazo, review of The Making of Romantic Love, by William M. Reddy. English Historical Review,Vol. 130, Issue 545 (August 2015) 958-60; Moore, Meghan, review of The Making of Romantic Love by William M. Reddy. Speculum. A Journal of Medieval Studues, Vol. 91 No. 3 (July 2016): 835-36 and Nagy, Piroska, review of The Making of Romantic Love, by William M. Reddy. Annales. Historie, Sciences Sociales (French Edition), Vol. 70 No. 2., 2015: 451-53.

[11] Locke, John. “A Letter Concerning Toleration”. In The Works of Jon Locke, Vol. 2. London: Printed at John Churchill at the Black Swan in Pater Noster-Row, 1714: 232.

[12] Leys, Ruth. The Ascent of Affect: Genealogy and Critique. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017.

[13] See i.e. Kounine, Laura. Imagining the Witch: Emotions, Gender, and Selfhood in Early Modern Germany. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018; Sullivan, Erin. Beyond Melancholy: Sadness and Selfhood in Renaissance England. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

[14] See Leys, The Ascent of Affect and Plamper, Jan. The History of Emotions: An Introduction. Translated from German by Keith Tribe. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

[15] Bibliothèque du Protestantisme Français. 13.06.2020. URL : www.shpf.fr.  

Av Jon Carlstedt Tønnessen og Sigurd Anekleiv Bækkelund (begge masterstudenter i historie ved UiO)
Publisert 23. okt. 2020 10:25 - Sist endret 23. okt. 2020 10:25