Why bad Moods Matter: William James on Melancholy, Mystic Emotion, and the Meaning of Life

Helena Pott*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


William James's reputation in the field of emotion research is based on his early psychological writings where he defines emotions as 'feelings of bodily changes'. In his later work, particularly in his study of mystic emotion (1902), James comes up with what looks like a completely different approach. Here his focus is on positive feelings of inspiration and joy, but also on downbeat moods like melancholy and depression. He examines how these feeling states give meaning to an individual's life. Theorists often speculate about a gap between James's early writings and his later work, and assume that the later James turned from an evolutionary-minded natural scientist into a metaphysical philosopher. In my paper, I follow Ratcliffe (2008) in his view that a sharply drawn line between the early and the late work is implausible and that James's later study of mysticism fits nicely with his early psychology. Drawing on James (1902), I show how in his later work, James develops a theory of embodied emotions that anticipates the role ascribed by twentieth century phenomenology to anxiety and other 'bad moods', as possibilities for philosophical reflection and self-understanding.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1635-1645
JournalPhilosophia: philosophical quarterly of Israel
Issue number4
Early online date9 May 2017
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2017

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