Australian National University
Human Emotions: Universal or Culture-Specific?
‘yndamental human emotions” has been seriously impeded by the absence
culture-independent semantic metalanguage. The author proposes a metalanguage based on a pos-
tulated set oftlniversal semantic primitives, and shows how language-specifi meanings
terms can be captured and how rigorous cross-cultural comparisons
emotion tern can be
POINTED OUT IN
by Ben Blount (1984:
“The past decade
has witnessed, in contrast to earlier periods, an emorescence of interest in emotions.”
Some scholars proclaim the birth of a new science-a science of emotions (see, e.g.,
ard’s statements quoted in Trotter 1983). One of the most interesting and provocative
ideas that have been put forward in the relevant literature is the possibility of identifying
a set of fundamental human emotions, universal, discrete, and presumably innate; and
that in fact a set of this kind has already been identified. According to Izard and Buechler
(1980:168), the fundamental emotions are
interest, (2) joy,
(5) anger, (6) disgust, (7) contempt, (8) fear, (9) shame/shyness, and (10) guilt.
I experience a certain unease when reading claims of this kind. If lists such as the one
above are supposed
enumerate universal human emotions, how is it that these emo-
tions are all
neatly identified by means of English words?
example, Polish does not
have a word corresponding exactly to the English word
What if the psychologists
working on the “fundamental human emotions” happened
be native speakers of Polish
rather than English? Would it still have occurred to them
include “disgust” on their
list? And Australian Aboriginal language Gidjingali does not seem to distinguish lexically
“fear” from “shame,” subsuming feelings kindred to those identified by the English
under one lexical item (Hiatt 1978: 185). If the researchers happened
to be native speakers of Gidjingali rather than English, would it still have occurred to
them to claim that fear and shame are both fundamental human emotions, discrete and
clearly separated from each other?
English terms of emotion constitute a folk taxonomy, not an objective, culture-free an-
obviously we cannot assume that English words such as
are clues to universal human concepts,
to basic psychological realities.
It is not my purpose to argue against the “assumption of the innateness and univer-
sality ofthe fundamental emotions” (Izard 1969:260)
against the thesis that “the emo-
tions [presumably, the “fundamental” ones-A.
W.] have innately stored neural pro-
grams, universally understood expressions, and common experiential qualities” (Izard
1977:18). The search for fundamental emotions, innate and universal, is akin to the
search for fundamental concepts (“semantic primitives”), similarly innate and universal,