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Natural history or psychology? Reading expressions and being read in Darwin's science of interdependence

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Charles Darwin claimed to have been the first to approach ‘the highest psychical faculties of man … exclusively from the side of natural history’. It was on grounds of his practice as a naturalist that Darwin distanced his own studies of agency from those of contemporaries who overtly styled their work as ‘psychology’ (Spencer, Bain). What hung on this distinction? And what was it Darwin took from studying the economy of nature that he believed to illuminate mind and behaviour? Setting out from his crucial concept of ‘social animals’, I aim to show that natural history meant something more and other to Darwin than evolutionary ancestry, particularly when studying human agency: namely, the here-and-now of interdependence. My case-study is of Darwin’s methods for understanding the meanings of non-verbal expressions as residing in their recognition by others. His theory of blushing takes this form of recognition to a second level (I read you as reading me). This dynamic of higher-order or ‘meta’ recognition proves to be the central principle in Darwin’s explanations for the pangs of conscience and for erotic attraction.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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