Expression and empathy part 2: The jargon of inauthenticity

In the last post we looked at Fridlund’s “ecological” view of expressive behaviour like smiles. On this view, such behaviour is not at root the manifestation of inner states. Instead, its role is essentially communicative. The smile is not an upshot of feelings and emotions but rather a beneficial behaviour within a particular ecology, or at least the evolutionary vestige of a behaviour that once was beneficial.

Fridlund sometimes describes himself as countering a “romantic” view of expressive behaviour, associated with Rousseau and many after him, on which the norm is the authentic expression of genuine and deeply-held feelings. The romantic vision is deflated, the story goes, by an approach on which smiles, snarls and the like are moves in a game played to the subject’s advantage, and the inner life drops out as insignificant.

This is a striking way of putting things. Is it accurate? I see two problems. The first is that Fridlund’s view does not make expressive behaviour itself a means of communication, if by “means of communication” we mean a method for the intentional signalling of our thoughts and feelings. Fridlund’s theory explains why we feel like smiling, or find ourselves spontaneously smiling, in situations of a certain sort. Intentions are irrelevant. It’s therefore a mistake to think that the ecological view sees expressive behaviour as strategic in any sense that implies forethought or scheming.

A second point, related to the first. The ecological view only works as critique of romanticism if we see the inner life as developing independently of expressive behaviour. But this is surely wrong: the history of the development of expressive behaviour is part of the history of the development of human emotions. Thus my smile (here and now) says something about my inner life even if an evolutionary explanation of it appeals to ecology rather than emotion.

I’m reminded of something Wittgenstein said about Tolstoy. Tolstoy insists in What is Art? that genuine art consists in the expression of the authentic, really occurrent, feelings of the artist. Wittgensten (Culture and Value, p. 58) thinks this is a mistake: “the work of art does not aim to convey something else, just itself.”

But more needs to be said about the point of view of the observer. Next post…

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