Can a Constructionist Theory of Emotions Clarify the Role of the Psalter in Spiritual Formation?

Nathan Chambers
Friday 1 July 2022
  1. Introduction
  2. Fields of Study
  3. Discussion
  4. Conclusion

1. Introduction and Hypothesis

“Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted in me?” (Psalm 42:5 AV). So asks the psalmist. Across the centuries, Christians have turned to the psalter when disquieted within, for examination and spiritual formation. In the 4th century, Athanasius wrote that within the Psalter “are represented and portrayed in all their great variety the movements of the human soul. It is like a picture, in which you see yourself portrayed and, seeing, may understand and consequently form yourself upon the pattern given…[I]n the Psalter…you learn about yourself” (quoted in Witvliet 2007, 7). Calvin, a millennia later, calls the Psalter “An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul.” After all, “there is not an emotion of which anyone can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has presented in a living image all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the emotions with which human minds are often disturbed.’ By ‘laying open all their inmost thoughts and affections, [the psalmists] call, or rather draw each of us to the examination of himself in particular” (Calvin 1844, xxxii).

However, as Walter Brueggemann has insightfully perceived, the use of the psalms for discerning and articulating one’s inner life has largely been lost in the modern life of faith (Brueggemann 1986). To recover this function of the Psalms in the life of faith, we ought to understand how the Psalms describe the inner life, what contemporary science reveals about emotions, and how these relate. I suggest that constructionist theories of emotions might clarify the role of the Psalter in spiritual formation. The following takes some initial steps toward bringing together Psalms studies and the Conceptual Act Theory of emotions.

2. Fields of Study

2.1 Psalms Studies

Modern Psalms studies have greatly advanced our understanding of the Psalms. We can briefly note some of the main trends. First, Robert Lowth drew attention to the central place parallelism (line A is parallel to line B in some way or another) in Hebrew poetry in his 1754 lectures (published as Lowth 1816). This initial insight has been refined in a series of literary studies over the last 40 years (e.g. Kugel 1981; Alter 1985; Berlin 1985). Second, at the beginning of the 20th century, Hermann Gunkel applied a form-critical approach to the Psalms, noting several recurring patterns or forms, such as the “lament,” “thanksgiving,” and “praise” psalms (Gunkel 1967). Brueggemann later reworked these insights as a sequence of “orientation,” “disorientation,” and “reorientation” which pushes beyond forms to consider the function of psalms in the life of faith (Brueggemann 1980; 1984). Third, Brevard Childs and his student Gerald Wilson highlighted the importance of the shape of the Psalter as a whole, recognizing structural elements and associations between various psalms (Childs 1979; Wilson 1985).

However, “emotions” and “feelings” have been largely neglected and have only recently received scholarly attention (Mirguet 2016, 442). There are no entries on “affections,” “emotions,” or “passions” in major Bible dictionaries (e.g. Freedman 1992; VanGemeren 1997; Longman and Enns 2008). Perhaps this is because although the Psalms use many emotion words—such as “anger,” “love,” “hate,” “fear”—and refer to various actions, gestures, and dispositions that we think of as “emotional,” there is no overarching category in biblical Hebrew analogous to our modern category of “emotions.” Harm Van Grol presupposes that there is “a basic list of emotions” in the Psalter, although “there is no consensus about the way such a list should be compiled” (Van Grol 2012, 71). Other recent studies have suggested that “emotion” is in fact a poor category for understanding how the Psalter depicts the inner life (Mirguet 2016; Lasater 2017). Might insights from contemporary psychology and neuroscience provide resources for better understanding this ‘anatomy of the parts of the soul’?

2.2 Conceptual Art Theory

Various constructionist theories of emotion have been proposed, beginning with William James’s landmark essay “What Is An Emotion?” (James 1884), which proposed an alternative to Darwin’s The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (Darwin 1872). I focus on one particular constructionist account: the Conceptual Act Theory of emotions, as first proposed by Lisa Feldman Barrett (Barrett 2006a; 2006b) and popularized in recent books (Barrett 2017; cf. LeDoux 2019).

Conceptual Act Theory maintains that “the experience of emotion results when people conceptualize their core affective state as an instance of emotion…conceptualization proceeds efficiently and automatically, transforming internal sensory information from the body into a psychologically meaningful state by combining it with external sensory information about the world and situation-specific knowledge of emotion learned from prior experience” (Lindquist and Barrett 2008, 898). Emotion words, like “love” or “fear,” are categories that “correspond to a range of mental events that emerge from the interaction of more basic psychological ingredients” (Barrett 2011, 374). This theory can be explicated as a series of interrelated hypotheses (as in Barrett 2011; Barrett, Wilson-Mendenhall, and Barsalou 2015).

Hypothesis I: the various mental states that we call “emotions” are not basic, but are constructed out of a variety of more basic elements (psychological primitives). Sensory input, including interoception (sensations from within the body), is combined with learned category knowledge to generate various mental states, including emotions (Barrett 2014, 293). Barrett calls this process “situated conceptualization” or “categorization.” This process prepares one for situated action and so leads to automatic changes in our physical state. Barrett suggests several “ingredients” used to construct emotions.

Firstly, core affects are neurobiological states that combine valence (i.e. pleasant/unpleasant) and arousal (i.e. strong or weak affect) (Barrett 2011, 364; Barrett 2017 74).[1] A state of high arousal might be experienced as being “tense” if the valence is relatively unpleasant or as being “alert” or “excited” if the valence is more pleasant. Conversely, low arousal states could be experienced as “relaxed” or “lethargic,” depending on the valence. Core affects do not turn on and off but are a constant stream that integrates sensory information from the external world with homeostatic and interoceptive information.

Secondly, sensory processing is also an ingredient in constructing emotions. Thirdly, the core affective system and sensory processing system are combined with the conceptual system. Concepts are “aggregated memories that accumulate for a category across experiences with its instances…once concepts become established in memory they play central roles throughout cognition and perception” (Barrett, Wilson-Mendenhall, and Barsalou 2015, 93-94). Conceptualizing core affects makes them intentional, that is, they are about something when related to memories and concepts. This conceptual knowledge which categorizes affect is “tailored to the immediate situation, acquired from prior experience, and supported by language” (Barrett 2011, 365). For example, a violet might be conceptualized as a weed, flower, or food, depending on the specific situation and how we categorize it. Fourthly, Barrett suggests that the controlled attention and executive control networks are also ingredients in the construction of emotional mental states (Barrett 2011, 367 and 370).

Hypothesis II: the psychological primitives used to construct emotions are not specific to emotions but are involved in a variety of mental states (Barrett 2011, 368). Every experience of an emotion is constructed with the brain’s functional architecture using domain-general core systems. Emotions cannot be reduced to these domain-general systems, but are emergent (Barrett, Wilson-Mendenhall, and Barsalou, 2015 100).  Individual emotion categories, such as “anger,” “love,” and “fear,” do not have a single essence that can be located within a specific brain circuit. Furthermore, this suggests that cognition, perception, and emotion may be subjective distinctions rather than correlating with distinct regions in the brain.

Although constructed using general processes, including those common with other species, emotions also require abstract emotional concepts and language which are only found in humans (Barrett 2014, 293). Joseph LeDoux similarly argues that an emotional experience involves a higher order of representation (LeDoux 2019, 366), that is to say the human emotion of “fear,” for example, requires an I that feels afraid, that is having the subjective experience.

Hypothesis III: words and language play an important role in the experience of emotional mental states. Language supports the acquisition and use of concepts or emotional categories and is especially relevant in learning abstract concepts. (Lindquist, Gendron, and Satpute 2016, 581). An emotion word, such as “fear” in English, groups a population of instances despite differences. By analogy, the word “home” groups a variety of buildings I have lived in, although the buildings themselves are dissimilar (different sizes, ages, floor plans) and other buildings that I do not categorize as “home” may be more similar.

One implication of this hypothesis is that the perception and experience of emotion differs from language to language.  Another implication is that increased “emotional granularity”—having more and finer-grained concepts for categorizing our experiences—leads to increased emotional regulation (Barrett 2017, 182). To increase “emotional intelligence…gain new emotion concepts and hone your existing ones” (Barrett 2017, 180).

Hypothesis IV: wide variation is expected between different occurrences of the same emotion. Sometimes “anger” involves raised voices, other times stony silence. These variations follow from behavioral adaptions, different concepts and vocabulary used for emotion, variations in the particular situation, and the whole process of emotion construction has a stochastic or unpredictable element (Barrett, Wilson-Mendenhall, and Barsalou 2015, 98). Nevertheless, the wide variety within a given emotion is held together by functional, goal-oriented features, that prepare the body to react in a given situation (Hoemann, Xu, and Barrett 2019, 1831).

According to Conceptual Act Theory, then, an emotion is constructed when internal and external sensory input is categorized using a learned emotion concept, producing the experience of emotion.

3. Discussion

How might this constructionist theory of emotions clarify the role of the Psalter in spiritual formation?

It appears that the science of emotion is shifting away from basic emotions toward constructionist theories (so Firth-Godbehere 2021, 265). But we should be cautious as we wait for a consensus to emerge. For the time being, constructionist theories should be used heuristically, insofar as they shed light on the Psalter and on the process of spiritual formation.

If Conceptual Act Theory (or any other variety of constructionist theory) holds, then we cannot assume that there are basic emotions that transcend all cultures. Different cultures, past and present, use different words to name their experiences and so, given the pivotal role of concepts in constructing emotions, the actual experience differs. Even distinctions between emotions, sense, and cognition may be subjective (and peculiar to modern Western culture) rather than rooted in our neural architecture. Perhaps then it is no longer useful “to think in terms of emotions, sense, and cognition (or mind, or soul) as discrete elements of human experience, but rather to see them all as culturally contingent and dynamically connected parts of a whole” (Boddice and Smith 2020, 30). As cultures and modes of discourse change, the embedded human experience is also subject to change and, therefore, must be investigated within its own cultural context. That is to say, the great variety of experiences reflected in the Psalter should not be reduced to a set of presupposed basic emotions.

This raises concerns about the possibility of “translating” emotional experiences across cultures. There are often broad similarities from culture to culture since emotional concepts develop in response to analogous situations (the birth of a child, the loss of a parent, the threat of death, and so on). But particular experiences must be understood on their own terms, in relation to each other, as they are imbedded in the discourse of the Psalter. For example, that Psalms refer to the heart as involved in cognition (Psalm 77:6), affect (Psalm 27:3, 39:3), and desires (Psalm 37:4) should not be dismissed as simply pre-scientific but recognized as a culturally specific way conceptualizing experience.

“Emotions” is not a value-neutral meta-category for organizing affective experiences. Systems of classification affect how we understand the object of study. “Emotions” is a category with a history, rising to dominance in the mid-19th century under the influence of Thomas Brown and the Edinburgh Medical School (Dixon 2003). But the category “emotions” more homogenizing than the twofold category “passions and affections” which it replaced (Lasater 2017, 527). Moreover, “emotions” are not porous to God in the same way that the affective experiences of the Psalms seem to be.  Perhaps something like “feelings” would be a more appropriate category than “emotion” when considering the Psalms, and it is clear that cognitive and affective dimensions should not be strictly opposed to each other (Migruet 2016, 464).

Should we propose a moratorium on studying “emotions” in the Psalms, since it distinguishes human experiences that the psalmists did not seem to recognize as distinct? Not necessarily. As R.W.L. Moberly notes, “questions of how to understand the Bible in its own right, of how to understand the Bible in terms of contemporary categories, and of how to relate these perspectives are the questions of biblical interpretation” (Moberly 2000, 76). We too are embedded in a culture that shapes our experience, and so we almost unavoidably experience “emotions.” But we must keep in mind that our experiences are not necessarily identical with those described in the Psalms. We must negotiate the hermeneutical space between our experience and those described in the Psalms.

Conceptual Act Theory implies that the sorts of experiences that we call “emotions” are not evolutionary hangovers. When the “emotions” were invented, they were opposed to reason and, especially under the influence of Darwin, considered animalistic. But Conceptual Act Theory maintains that self-awareness is necessary for the construction of emotions and, therefore, the emotions are central to human distinctiveness. This has broad implications for theological anthropology: human emotions (or passions and affections!), as much as our capacity for reason, are distinctive. For Psalms study in particular, this theory draws attention to the importance of the affective dimension.

Finally, Conceptual Act Theory has specific implications for the use of the Psalms in spiritual formation. The Psalms should be studied in their historical particularity. But the way of experiencing the world embedded in the Psalter is not simply a historical artifact. Rather, the concepts and affective scripts of the Psalter can be learned. This works at two levels. First, insofar as the Psalms form part of our upbringing and culture, that is, they are part of our discipleship, they will shape the way we experience the world. Second, on an individual level the Psalms can refine our emotion concepts. As Calvin observes, the psalmists lay open their inmost thoughts and affections and so draw us into self-examination. But the Psalms are never mere introspection; they are addressed to God and so self-examination is in dialogue with God. The Psalms then have the potential to refine our emotion concepts by shaping our experiences in a way that is more open to God.

4. Conclusion

This puzzle asked if a constructionist theory of emotions could clarify the role of the Psalter in spiritual formation?  The hypothesis advanced here is that the Conceptual Act Theory, a variety of constructionist theory of emotions, has a number of implications which clarify our understanding the Psalms, theological anthropology, and the use of the Psalms in spiritual formation. This, of course, is not a definitive resolution of the puzzle. But hopefully it will alert theologians and biblical scholars to a major shift in the science of emotions and some of its potential implications.


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[1] Although constructionist theories of emotion are often developed explicitly in opposition to the theory of basic emotions, the pivotal role of “core affects” in Conceptual Act Theory perhaps plays an analogous role to “basic emotions.”

Cite this article

Chambers, Nathan. 2022. “Can a Constructionist Theory of Emotions Clarify the Role of the Psalter in Spiritual Formation?”  Theological Puzzles (Issue 10).

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Nathan Chambers
Email: [email protected]

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