The Uniqueness of Human Feelings

A feeling is merely the material quality of a mental sign. C. S. Peirce

When our species acquired a capacity for metaphor and language, it changed how we feel: with the acquisition of metaphor, feelings could be interpreted. This is a uniquely human attribute. Yet our limbic system, the emotional brain, is of ancient origin, which means that human emotions cannot be entirely unique. In contrast to other primates, we can inhibit our expression of feelings, but we are also subject, as they are, to uncontrollable rages and sudden erotic impulses. What, then, is distinctive about human emotion? One obvious difference between chimpanzees and ourselves is our ability to transform our emotions—a process that Freud described as sublimation. Sublimation is uniquely human, but on the other hand, emotions in ourselves, as well as in other species, function as internal monitors of homeo-stasis and markers of value. These are some of the issues that I will discuss in this chapter.

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