The Emotional Factor

The influence of emotional states on the working of the imagination is a

matter of current observation. But it has been studied chiefly by

moralists, who most often have criticised or condemned it as an endless

cause of mistakes. The point of view of the psychologist is altogether

different. He does not need at all to investigate whether emotions and

passions give rise to mental phantoms--which is an indisputable

but why and how they arise. For, the emotional factor yields

in importance to no other; it is the ferment without which no creation

is possible. Let us study it in its principal forms, although we may not

be able at this moment to exhaust the topic.


It is necessary to show at the outset that the influence of the

emotional life is unlimited, that it penetrates the entire field of

invention with no restriction whatever; that this is not a gratuitous

assertion, but is, on the contrary, strictly justified by facts, and

that we are right in maintaining the following two propositions:

1. All forms of the creative imagination imply elements of feeling.

This statement has been challenged by authoritative psychologists, who

hold that "emotion is added to imagination in its esthetic aspect, not

in its mechanical and intellectual form." This is an error of fact

resulting from the confusion, or from the imperfect analysis, of two

distinct cases. In the case of non-esthetic creation, the role of the

emotional life is simple; in esthetic creation, the role of emotional

element is double.

Let us consider invention, first, in its most general form. The

emotional element is the primal, original factor; for all invention

presupposes a want, a craving, a tendency, an unsatisfied impulse, often

even a state of gestation full of discomfort. Moreover, it is

concomitant, that is, under its form of pleasure or of pain, of hope, of

spite, of anger, etc., it accompanies all the phases or turns of

creation. The creator may, haphazard, go through the most diverse forms

of exaltation and depression; may feel in turn the dejection of repulse

and the joy of success; finally the satisfaction of being freed from a

heavy burden. I challenge anyone to produce a solitary example of

invention wrought out in abstracto, and free from any factors of

feeling. Human nature does not allow such a miracle.

Now, let us take up the special case of esthetic creation, and of forms

approaching thereto. Here again we find the original emotional element

as at first motor, then attached to various aspects of creation, as an

accompaniment. But, in addition, affective states become material for

the creative activity. It is a well-known fact, almost a rule, that the

poet, the novelist, the dramatist, and the musician--often, indeed, even

the sculptor and the painter--experience the thoughts and feeling of

their characters, become identified with them. There are, then, in this

second instance, two currents of feeling--the one, constituting emotion

as material for art, the other, drawing out creative activity and

developing along with it.

The difference between the two cases that we have distinguished consists

in this and nothing more than this. The existence of an emotion-content

belonging to esthetic production changes in no way the psychologic

mechanism of invention generally. Its absence in other forms of

imagination does not at all prevent the necessary existence of affective

elements everywhere and always.

2. All emotional dispositions whatever may influence the creative


Here, again, I find opponents, notably Oelzelt-Newin, in his short and

substantial monograph on the imagination. Adopting the twofold

division of emotions as sthenic and asthenic, or exciting and

depressing, he attributes to the first the exclusive privilege of

influencing creative activity; but though the author limits his study

exclusively to the esthetic imagination, his thesis, even understood

thus, is untenable. The facts contradict it completely, and it is easy

to demonstrate that all forms of emotion, without exception, act as

leaven for imagination.

No one will deny that fear is the type of asthenic manifestations. Yet

is it not the mother of phantoms, of numberless superstitions, of

altogether irrational and chimerical religious practices?

Anger, in its exalted, violent form, is rather an agent of destruction,

which seems to contradict my thesis; but let us pass over the storm,

which is always of short duration, and we find in its place milder

intellectualized forms, which are various modifications of primitive

fury, passing from the acute to the chronic state: envy, jealousy,

enmity, premeditated vengeance, and so forth. Are not these dispositions

of the mind fertile in artifices, stratagems, inventions of all kinds?

To keep even to esthetic creation, is it necessary to recall the saying

facit indignatio versum?

It is not necessary to demonstrate the fecundity of joy. As for love,

everyone knows that its work consists of creating an imaginary being,

which is substituted for the beloved object; then, when the passion has

vanished, the disenchanted lover finds himself face to face with the

bare reality.

Sorrow rightly belongs in the category of depressing emotions, and yet,

it has as great influence on invention as any other emotion. Do we not

know that melancholy and even profound sorrow has furnished poets,

musicians, painters, and sculptors with their most beautiful

inspirations? Is there not an art frankly and deliberately pessimistic?

And this influence is not at all limited to esthetic creation. Dare we

hold that hypochondria and insanity following upon the delirium of

persecution are devoid of imagination? Their morbid character is, on the

contrary, the well whence strange inventions incessantly bubble.

Lastly, that complex emotion termed "self-feeling," which reduces itself

finally to the pleasure of asserting our power and of feeling its

expansion, or to the pitiable feeling of our shackled, enfeebled power,

leads us directly to the motor elements that are the fundamental

conditions of invention. Above all, in this personal feeling, there is

the satisfaction of being a causal factor, i.e., a creator, and every

creator has a consciousness of his superiority over non-creators.

However petty his invention, it confers upon him a superiority over

those who have invented nothing. Although we have been surfeited with

the repeated statement that the characteristic mark of esthetic creation

is "being disinterested," it must be recognized, as Groos has so truly

remarked, that the artist does not create out of the simple pleasure

of creating, but in order that he may behold a mastery over other

minds. Production is the natural extension of "self-feeling," and

the accompanying pleasure is the pleasure of conquest.

Thus, on condition that we extend "imagination" to its full sense,

without limiting it unduly to esthetics, there is, among the many forms

of the emotional life, not one that may not stimulate invention. It

remains to see this emotional factor at work,--to note how it can give

rise to new combinations; and this brings us to the association of



We have said above that the ideal and theoretic law of the recurrence of

images is that of "total redintegration," as e.g., recalling all the

incidents of a long voyage in chronological order, with neither

additions nor omissions. But this formula expresses what ought to be,

not what actually occurs. It supposes man reduced to a state of pure

intelligence, and sheltered from all disturbing influences. It suits the

completely systematized forms of memory, hardened into routine and

habit; but, outside of these cases, it remains an abstract concept.

To this law of ideal value, there is opposed the real and practical law

that actually obtains in the revival of images. It is rightly styled the

"law of interest" or the affective law, and may be stated thus: In every

past event the interesting parts alone revive, or with more intensity

than the others. "Interesting" here means what affects us in some way

under a pleasing or painful form. Let us note that the importance of

this fact has been pointed out not by the associationists (a fact

especially worth remembering) but by less systematic writers, strangers

to that school,--Coleridge, Shadworth Hodgson, and before them,

Schopenhauer. William James calls it the "ordinary or mixed

association." The "law of interest" doubtless is less exact than the

intellectual laws of contiguity and resemblance. Nevertheless, it seems

to penetrate all the more in later reasoning. If, indeed, in the problem

of association we distinguish these three things--facts, laws,

causes--the practical law brings us near to causes.

Whatever the truth may be in this matter, the emotional factor brings

about new combinations by several processes.

There are the ordinary, simple cases, with a natural, emotional

foundation, depending on momentary dispositions. They exist because of

the fact that representations that have been accompanied by the same

emotional state tend later to become associated: the emotional

resemblance reunites and links disparate images. This differs from

association by contiguity, which is a repetition of experience, and from

association by resemblance in the intellectual sense. The states of

consciousness become combined, not because they have been previously

given together, not because we perceive the agreement of resemblance

between them, but because they have a common emotional note. Joy,

sorrow, love, hatred, admiration, ennui, pride, fatigue, etc., may

become a center of attraction that groups images or events having

otherwise no rational relations between them, but having the same

emotional stamp,--joyous, melancholy, erotic, etc. This form of

association is very frequent in dreams and reveries, i.e., in a state

of mind in which the imagination enjoys complete freedom and works

haphazard. We easily see that this influence, active or latent, of the

emotional factor, must cause entirely unexpected grouping to arise, and

offers an almost unlimited field for novel combinations, the number of

images having a common emotional factor being very great.

There are unusual and remarkable cases with an exceptional emotional

base. Of such is "colored hearing." We know that several hypotheses have

been offered in regard to the origin of this phenomenon.

Embryologically, it would seem to be the result of an incomplete

separation between the sense of sight and that of hearing, and the

survival, it is said, from a distant period of humanity, when this state

must have been the rule; anatomically, the result of supposed

anastamoses between the cerebral centers for visual and auditory

sensations; physiologically, the result of nervous irradiation;

psychologically, the result of association. This latter hypothesis seems

to account for the greater number of instances, if not for all; but, as

Flournoy has observed, it is a matter of "affective" imagination. Two

sensations absolutely unlike (for instance, the color blue and the

sound i) may resemble one another through the equal retentive quality

that they possess in the organism of some favored individuals, and this

emotional factor becomes a bond of association. Observe that this

hypothesis explains also the much more unusual cases of "colored" smell,

taste, and pain; that is, an abnormal association between given colors

and tastes, smells, or pains.

Although we meet them only as exceptional cases, these modes of

association are susceptible to analysis, and seem clear, almost

self-evident, if we compare them with other, subtle, refined, barely

perceptible cases, the origin of which is a subject for supposition, for

guessing rather than for clear comprehension. It is, moreover, a sort of

imagination belonging to very few people: certain artists and some

eccentric or unbalanced minds, scarcely ever found outside the esthetic

or practical life. I wish to speak of the forms of invention that permit

only fantastic conceptions, of a strangeness pushed to the extreme

(Hoffman, Poe, Baudelaire, Goya, Wiertz, etc.), or surprising,

extraordinary thoughts, known of no other men (the symbolists and

decadents that flourish at the present time in various countries of

Europe and America, who believe, rightly or wrongly, that they are

preparing the esthetics of the future). It must be here admitted that

there exists an altogether special manner of feeling, dependent on

temperament at first, which many cultivate and refine as though it were

a precious rarity. There lies the true source of their invention.

Doubtless, to assert this pertinently, it would be necessary to

establish the direct relations between their physical and psychical

constitution and that of their work; to note even the particular states

at the moment of the creative act. To me at least, it seems evident that

the novelty, the strangeness of combinations, through its deep

subjective character, indicates an emotional rather than an intellectual

origin. Let us merely add that these abnormal manifestations of the

creative imagination belong to the province of pathology rather than to

that of psychology.

Association by contrast is, from its very nature, vague, arbitrary,

indeterminate. It rests, in truth, on an essentially subjective and

fleeting conception, that of contrariety, which it is almost impossible

to delimit scientifically; for, most often, contraries exist only by and

for us. We know that this form of association is not primary and

irreducible. It is brought down by some to contiguity, by most others to

resemblance. These two views do not seem to me irreconcilable. In

association by contrast we may distinguish two layers,--the one,

superficial, consists of contiguity: all of us have in memory associated

couples, such as large-small, rich-poor, high-low, right-left, etc.,

which result from repetition and habit; the other, deep, is resemblance;

contrast exists only where a common measure between two terms is

possible. As Wundt remarks, a wedding may be compared to a burial (the

union and separation of a couple), but not to a toothache. There is

contrast between two colors, contrast between sounds, but not between a

sound and a color, at least in that there may not be a common basis to

which we may relate them, as in the previously given instances of

"colored" sound. In association by contrast, there are conscious

elements opposed to one another, and below, an unconscious element,

resemblance,--not clearly and logically perceived, but felt--that evokes

and relates the conscious elements.

Whether this explanation be right or not, let us remark that association

by contrast could not be left out, because its mechanism, full of

unforeseen possibilities, lends itself easily to novel relations.

Otherwise, I do not at all claim that it is entirely dependent upon the

emotional factor. But, as Hoeffding observes, the special property of

the emotional life is moving among contraries; it is altogether

determined by the great opposition between pleasure and pain. Thus, the

effects of contrasts are much stronger than in the realm of sensation.

This form of association predominates in esthetic and mythic creation,

that is to say, in creation of the free fancy; it becomes dimmed in the

precise forms of practical, mechanical, and scientific invention.


Hitherto we have considered the emotional factor under a single aspect

only--the purely emotional--that which is manifested in consciousness

under an agreeable or disagreeable or mixed form. But thoughts,

feelings, and emotions include elements that are deeper--motor, i.e.,

impulsive or inhibitory--which we may neglect the less since it is in

movements that we seek the origin of the creative imagination. This

motor element is what current speech and often even psychological

treatises designate under the terms "creative instinct," "inventive

instinct;" what we express in another form when we say that creators are

guided by instinct and "are pushed like animals toward the

accomplishment of certain acts."

If I mistake not, this indicates that the "creative instinct" exists in

all men to some extent--feeble in some, perceptible in others, brilliant

in the great inventors.

For I do not hesitate to maintain that the creative instinct, taken in

this strict meaning, compared to animal instinct, is a mere figure of

speech, an "entity" regarded as a reality, an abstraction. There are

needs, appetites, tendencies, desires, common to all men, which, in a

given individual at a given moment can result in a creative act; but

there is no special psychic manifestation that may be the "creative

instinct." What, indeed, could it be? Every instinct has its own

particular end:--hunger, thirst, sex, the specific instincts of the bee,

ant, beaver, consist of a group of movements adapted for a determinate

end that is always the same. Now, what would be a creative instinct in

general which, by hypothesis, could produce in turn an opera, a

machine, a metaphysical theory, a system of finance, a plan of military

campaign, and so forth? It is a pure fancy. Inventive genius has not a

source, but sources.

Let us consider from our present viewpoint the human duality, the homo


Suppose man reduced to a state of pure intelligence, that is, capable of

perceiving, remembering, associating, dissociating, reasoning, and

nothing else. All creative activity is then impossible, because there is

nothing to solicit it.

Suppose, again, man reduced to organic manifestations; he is then no

more than a bundle of wants, appetites, instincts,--that is, of motor

activities, blind forces that, lacking a sufficient cerebral organ, will

produce nothing.

The cooperation of both these factors is indispensable: without the

first, nothing begins; without the second, nothing results. I hold that

it is in needs that we must seek for the primary cause of all

inventions; it is evident that the motor element alone is insufficient.

If the needs are strong, energetic, they may determine a production, or,

if the intellectual factor is insufficient, may spoil it. Many want to

make discoveries but discover nothing. A want so common as hunger or

thirst suggests to one some ingenious method of satisfying it; another

remains entirely destitute.

In short, in order that a creative act occur, there is required, first,

a need; then, that it arouse a combination of images; and lastly, that

it objectify and realize itself in an appropriate form.

We shall try later (in the Conclusion) to answer the question, Why is

one imaginative? In passing, let us put the opposite question, Why is

one not imaginative? One may possess in the mind an inexhaustible

treasure of facts and images and yet produce nothing: great travelers,

for example, who have seen and heard much, and who draw from their

experiences only a few colorless anecdotes; men who were partakers in

great political events or military movements, who leave behind only a

few dry and chilly memoirs; prodigies of reading, living encyclopedias,

who remain crushed under the load of their erudition. On the other hand,

there are people who easily move and act, but are limited, lacking

images and ideas. Their intellectual poverty condemns them to

unproductiveness; nevertheless, being nearer than the others to the

imaginative type, they bring forth childish or chimerical productions.

So that we may answer the question asked above: The non-imaginative

person is such from lack of materials or through the absence of


Without contenting ourselves with these theoretical remarks, let us

rapidly show that it is thus that these things actually happen. All the

work of the creative imagination may be classed under two great

heads--esthetic inventions and practical inventions; on the one hand,

what man has brought to pass in the domain of art, and on the other

hand, all else. Though this division may appear strange, and

unjustifiable, it has reason for its being, as we shall see hereafter.

Let us consider first the class of non-esthetic creations. Very

different in nature, all the products of this group coincide at one

point:--they are of practical utility, they are born of a vital need, of

one of the conditions of man's existence. There are first the inventions

"practical" in the narrow sense--all that pertains to food, clothing,

defense, housing, etc. Every one of these special needs has stimulated

inventions adapted to a special end. Inventions in the social and

political order answer to the conditions of collective existence; they

arise from the necessity of maintaining the coherence of the social

aggregate and of defending it against inimical groups. The work of the

imagination whence have arisen the myths, religious conceptions, and the

first attempts at a scientific explanation may seem at first

disinterested and foreign to practical life. This is an erroneous

supposition. Man, face to face with the higher powers of nature, the

mystery of which he does not penetrate, has a need of acting upon it;

he tries to conciliate them, even to turn them to his service by magic

rites and operations. His curiosity is not at all theoretic; he does

not aim to know for the sake of knowing, but in order to act upon the

outside world and to draw profit therefrom. To the numerous questions

that necessity puts to him his imagination alone responds, because his

reason is shifting and his scientific knowledge nil. Here, then,

invention again results from urgent needs.

Indeed, in the course of the nineteenth century and on account of

growing civilization all these creations reach a second moment when

their origin is hidden. Most of our mechanical, industrial and

commercial inventions are not stimulated by the immediate necessity of

living, by an urgent need; it is not a question of existence but of

better existence. The same holds true of social and political inventions

which arise from the increasing complexity and the new requirements of

the aggregates forming great states. Lastly, it is certain that

primitive curiosity has partially lost its utilitarian character in

order to become, in some men at least, the taste for pure

research--theoretical, speculative, disinterested. But all this in no

way affects our thesis, for it is a well-known elementary psychological

law that upon primitive wants are grafted acquired wants fully as

imperative. The primitive need is modified, metamorphosed, adapted;

there remains of it, nonetheless, the fundamental activity toward


Let us now consider the class of esthetic creations. According to the

generally accepted theory which is too well known for me to stop to

explain it, art has its beginning in a superfluous, bounding activity,

useless as regards the preservation of the individual, which is shown

first in the form of play. Then, through transformation and

complication, play becomes primitive art, dancing, music, and poetry at

the same time, closely united in an apparently indissoluble unity.

Although the theory of the absolute inutility of art has met some strong

criticism, let us accept it for the present. Aside from the true or

false character of inutility, the psychological mechanism remains the

same here as in the preceding cases; we shall only say that in place of

a vital need it is a need of luxury acting, but it acts only because

it is in man.

Nevertheless, the inutility of play is far from proven biologically.

Groos, in his two excellent works on the subject, has maintained

with much power the opposite view. According to him the theory of

Schiller and Spencer, based on the expenditure of superfluous activity

and the opposite theory of Lazarus, who reduces play to a

relaxation--that is, a recuperation of strength--are but partial

explanations. Play has a positive use. In man there exist a great number

of instincts that are not yet developed at birth. An incomplete being,

he must have education of his capacities, and this is obtained through

play, which is the exercise of the natural tendencies of human

activities. In man and in the higher animals plays are a preparation, a

prelude to the active functions of life. There is no instinct of play

in general, but there are special instincts that are manifested under

the forms of play. If we admit this explanation, which does not lack

potency, the work of the esthetic imagination itself would be reduced

to a biological necessity, and there would be no reason for making a

separate category of it. Whichever view we may adopt, it still remains

established that any invention is reducible, directly or indirectly, to

a particular, determinate need, and that to allow man a special

instinct, the definite specific character of which should be stimulation

to creative activity, is a fantastic notion.

Whence, then, comes this persistent and in some respects seductive idea

that creation is an instinctive result? Because a happy invention has

characteristics that evidently relate it to instinctive activity in the

strict sense of the word. First, precocity, of which we shall later give

numerous examples, and which resembles the innateness of instinct.

Again, orientation in a single direction: the inventor is, so to speak,

polarized; he is the slave of music, of mechanics, of mathematics; often

inapt at everything outside his own particular sphere. We know the

witticism of Madame du Deffant on Vaucanson, who was so awkward, so

insignificant when he ventured outside of mechanics. "One should say

that this man had manufactured himself." Finally, the ease with which

invention often (not always) manifests itself makes it resemble the work

of a pre-established mechanism.

But these and similar characteristics may be lacking. They are necessary

for instinct, not for invention. There are great creators who have been

neither precocious nor confined in a narrow field, and who have given

birth to their inventions painfully, laboriously. Between the mechanism

of instinct and that of imaginative creation there are frequently great

analogies but not identity of nature. Every tendency of our

organization, useful or hurtful, may become the beginning of a creative

act. Every invention arises from a particular need of human nature,

acting within its own sphere and for its own special end.

If now it should be asked why the creative imagination directs itself

preferably in one line rather than in another--toward poetry or physics,

trade or mechanics, geometry or painting, strategy or music, etc.--we

have nothing in answer. It is a result of the individual organization,

the secret of which we do not possess. In ordinary life we meet people

visibly borne along toward love or good cheer, toward ambition, riches

or good works; we say that they are "so built," that such is their

character. At bottom the two questions are identical, and current

psychology is not in a position to solve them.