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The Silvan S Tomkins Institute

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Donald L Nathanson Executive director

Affect & Emotion

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Positive Affect

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tomkins Silvan Tomkins has been referred to as the American Einstein. His thinking, research and writing is a massive contribution to modern psychology. 

It is perhaps surprising that some 70 years elapsed before Darwin's theories of inborn emotion and instinctive facial expression, were effectively acknowledged and moved forward by Silvan Tomkins. It is an indication of the considerable influence that Freud and the development of psychoanalysis had during the first half of the twentieth century. 

Tomkin's work on affect began in the mid-1940s and it was several decades later before his theories were even considered, let alone accepted. His concepts challenged the establishment, the drive theories of psychoanalysis and the principles of behaviourism and cognition. He was considered a rebel especially after declaring the death of drive theory at Yale University and at the International Congress of Psychology in 1954 entitled "Consciousness and the Unconscious in a Model of the Human Being". Part of this paper became the opening lines of volume 1 of Affect Imagery Consciousness (1962):

'The empirical analysis of consciousness has been delayed by two historical developments, Behaviourism and Psychoanalysis....... Freud also belittled the significance of consciousness.’

Such statements and opinions won him no friends in the American world of psychiatry and psychology of which he was very much part, but which at that time was dominated by psychoanalysts. During the forties and fifties he lectured at Harvard and later was Professor of Psychology at Princeton University. During a sabbatical year in 1955 his only child was born and he used the opportunity to study the development of affects in his infant son.

The end result was a theory of a series of innate primary affects, the features that identified them, their development and their significant role in the life of individual. (Tomkins /Demos 1995: 27) It identified positive and negative affects, as opposed to drives, biologically separated, providing a basis of human motivation. 

The fruit of this work was the first two volumes of Affect Imagery Consciousness published in 1962 and 1963. Although highly regarded for his work in American academia, initially these volumes were not widely read or accepted. The complexity and denseness of his text was a major contribution quite apart from his already known radical, anti-establishment views. 

Tomkins was not a great communicator and reading his work requires dedication and above all patience. Furthermore Volume 1 - The Positive Affects or Volume 2 - The Negative Affects, contained neither a bibliography nor an index. These appeared thirty years later when Volumes 3 and 4 were published, giving his critics in academia ample opportunity and ammunition to dismiss him.

Despite these drawbacks the four volumes of Affect Imagery Consciousness represent the lifetime work of an extraordinarily gifted man who set out to produce what he initially called 'human being theory', an affect theory of motivation. His work is now recognised as a major contribution to contemporary psychology and psychotherapy.