Emotional worlds

Ute Frevert researches emotions and their expression within a historical context

March 06, 2014
A cultural historian in an institute for psychological research? Ute Frevert sees herself as a defender of the humanities – and constantly delights in putting the concepts and methods deployed by her empirically-oriented scientist colleagues to the test. What’s more, the Director of the Berlin-based Max Planck Institute for Human Development occasionally puts Romeo and Juliet, Friedrich the Great and even Angela Merkel in the stand as witnesses for her arguments.

Text Martin Tschechne

Ah yes, the years in America! It is entirely possible that Ute Frevert will incorporate an account of her own personal experience into a symposium on quality standards in the humanities: For example, a report on what happened in 2002 when she was appointed professor at Yale University; about the friendly way in which she was invited to pay her first visit there, how easy and relaxed it was for her to get to know the students, and how she was listened to – in the lecture hall, at lunch with colleagues, during question-and-answer time in the library.

Her lecture did not miss its target. The audience of university policy experts, research managers and foundation directors was frankly impressed. They may also have been a bit envious of the dependable admiration in which American students hold their lecturers, famous researchers their colleagues, politicians the professors, professors their students – and all together their system of academic education.

Even more astonishing was the form of presentation as a report from the perspective of someone who had experienced this admiration - very fresh, open and highly personal. But who says anyway that the discourse among researchers must always be based on empirically determined columns of figures? Isn’t it the ultimate goal of every scientifically-motivated collection of facts to develop a convincing narrative thread?

Ute Frevert has fond memories of those five years on the staff of the elite university on the American east coast. Her husband, the sociologist Ulrich Schreiterer, and two of their three children joined her and were equally well accommodated. Frevert tells of the transparency and fairness of procedures, of researchers and teachers who were happy to pop over from other departments to hear her account of the history of the collective present. And she tells about the students – her hand-picked and highly-motivated “Yalies,” who read, thought and debated with such enthusiasm that it was no problem to quickly accept them as equal colleagues, or, at least, future ones.

As Director at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, Ute Frevert finds herself in a completely different situation. A lone historian among psychologists, she lives with a fundamental challenge that must be faced over and again, every day. In all possible constellations, she is the outsider: among the Institute’s four-person Board of Directors, on its governing bodies and at the plenary discussions of the projects carried out by young researchers. She must constantly endure confrontation and use it to formulate other perspectives. As the defender of the humanities, she must always promote an alternative model to her many colleagues who find far greater fascination in the scientific aspects of their discipline.

Is it possible that the classical-modernist architecture of the Institute building, with its staircases, open bridges, nerve centers and synaptic connections, has something to do with the current enthusiasm of so many of the researchers who work there for brain physiology and neuronal plasticity? And is her presence in this environment akin to that of a big fish in small pond? “No,” says the scientist and laughs. “Nor am I a small female fish in a pond full of big male fish.”

The person responsible for the audacious idea - her appointment - to the Institute was of course Paul Baltes – “of course” because the former Director, who died in 2006, made such “outside-the-box” thinking into the underlying principle of his scientific endeavors. And someone who dares to and succeeds in extending the field of developmental psychology – the focus of which had previously been confined to toddlers and adolescents – to the entire human lifespan, who himself established the ageing of society and elderly existence as extremely urgent research fields, has no other option but to think outside traditional boxes and categories.

So he also appointed a historian with a mature knowledge of literature and art history and solid roots in sociology and politics to show the ladies and gentlemen of the worlds of psychology that, outside their laboratories and beyond the realm of empirical research, inspired and clever people are also working on giving structure to reality.

Ute Frevert must have been astonished herself. In an interview with the German newspaper DIE ZEIT at the time, she referred to herself as a “risky appointment.” Prior to receiving the call from the Max Planck Institute she had never had anything to do with psychologists on a scientific level. Today she says: “I see myself in a continuum of innovative ideas.”

Nevertheless, the move to educational research was already signaled in her biography. For Frevert, who was born in 1954 to a tradesman and secretary in Bad Salzuflen in North Rhine-Westphalia, education was a locus of personal development from the outset. It was never exclusively a means, but also always the end and the theme – as a victor of the education system, she soon became its representative and, today, is a scientist who explores its possibilities. Frevert completed her Abitur (German academic school-leaving qualification) at the age of 16, was awarded a scholarship by the elite German National Academic Foundation, studied at the University of Münster, the London School of Economics and Bielefeld University, where the intellectual climate was characterized by personalities like Hans-Ulrich Wehler, Niklas Luhmann, Norbert Elias and Jürgen Kocka, who gave the subject of history new relevance and direction as historical social science.

Frevert completed her post-doctoral habilitation thesis on the duel in bourgeois society. It focused on the question of honor, specifically male honor; and her research on the history of emotions, which would shape the further course of her career, took off from here. She quickly became established as a high-profile representative of gender research, was appointed to professorships at the University of Konstanz, the Freie Universität Berlin and Bielefeld University. She became a Member of the British Academy, the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and the German Academy of Natural Sciences (Leopoldina), and published books on masculinity and emotion, military service and civil society, gender differences in the modern age, and Vergängliche Gefühle (transitory emotions), the title of a recent work.

And if anyone is foolhardy enough to describe the study of emotions and their historical development as a typically female concern, the recipient of the 1998 Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize takes great pleasure in referring them to a long list of studies about friendship and trust, shame and honor, male pride and compassion that does not start with Immanuel Kant, comes nowhere near culminating in the think tanks of the modern neurosciences: nothing but male authors. After all, objective science always subsists on its subjects, too.

As is apparent, she does a good job. Paul Baltes was already dead when she took up her position in Berlin in 2008, a circumstance that did not make her early days there any easier. However, Ute Frevert is, firstly, a woman who knows how to gracefully assume her place in the spotlight and, second, someone who enjoys a good fight. Her dazzling smile alone announces that she doesn’t shy away from disputes and that she takes considerable pleasure in completing the coup initiated by her mentor with her appointment.

With the same smile, she also recounts the story of her inaugural lecture at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, during which more than one member of the audience could heard clearing their throat with embarrassment: the history of feelings? Can she be serious? Romeo and Juliet, Pocahontas the Indian girl and British Captain John Smith, Frederick the Great and his chequered relationship with his subjects – how, if you please, does this contribute to empirical research? Admittedly, the expression of feelings may change and, perhaps also, the occasion for such expression. However, emotion itself is surely independent of historical contexts.

But Ute Frevert had a lot more to relate to her colleagues: the contribution to psychological research lies in the ideas, in the observable fact that the conception of existence is subject to constant transformation. This transpires in the historically-rooted evidence of change that is also reflected in sensitivities, fashions, norms and expectations, the zeitgeist, and the influence of emotional models: in the knowledge that no emotion should be considered without its context.

Love, sympathy, trust – these were and are topics through which Ute Frevert provides insight into the history of culture and ideas, and thus also the plasticity of emotional states, to researchers from her own and other disciplines. For Frederick, the King of Prussia, who was still firmly rooted in absolutism, trust was, perhaps, a grandiose notion derived from the idea of the enlightenment; at times an object of longing and at others also a tactical option for dealing with his subjects.

For Angela Merkel, in the last election campaign it was merely a formula that was supposed to act as a substitute for a concrete program, and so revealed the gap between politics and the electorate. The poster bearing the single word “trust,” with which the Chancellor campaigned, stands in front of Frevert’s desk in her office in Berlin. It appears to suggest that this is the stage we have reached.

The genuflection of a Willy Brandt, the tears of a Hillary Clinton, the hugs of a Vladimir Putin after the plane crash in Smolensk in 2010: the historian collects such examples for the trajectory of emotional states from their emergence and spread to the precisely calculated Gefühlspolitik (emotional politics), as Frevert entitled one of her books.

Another book, called Vertrauensfragen (questions of trust) which was published last year, outlines the history of a major emotion that arises from the autonomy of the enlightened person, becomes an obsession of the modern age and loses its meaning through its inflationary misuse in the fields of politics, finance and cheap advertising. To campaign for trust in an insurance company or blend of coffee: that is pure and simple nonsense.

Children learn basic trust through the contact with their mothers and this determines their relationship with existence itself. But can you trust an institution in principle? In her book, the history researcher does not shrink from discussing the case of Gerold Becker, the German headmaster who sexually abused young boys in his boarding school in Odenwald. The crime only became public knowledge decades after its perpetration.

And naturally, in addition to generosity, pedophilia and pedagogical eros, all of the subsequent debates mainly focused on one particular aspect: trust – trust that was given, demanded, injured, trampled on and lost. The fact that Hellmut Becker, the educational researcher and founder of the Max Planck Institute at which Ute Frevert works today, played a less than glorious role in the entanglements associated with this case, adds further explosive relevance to her “questions of trust.”

In all this, the sources on which she draws are striking in their honesty: books, letters, newspapers. Everything that has been familiar to historians since time immemorial: documents, certificates, all types of contemporary witness, but also works of art, literature and music. Goethe, Wagner and Shakespeare are all brought up for discussion by Frevert. Rodin, Kafka, Bach and Dostoyevsky – are they not first-class witnesses of the emotional states and cognitive structures of their times? Did they not give expression to certainties and convictions, and intuitions and moods, which is valid to the present day? Were they not true psychologists? So why is modern psychology so reluctant to acknowledge these facts?

Incidentally, the matter of the risk arising from her appointment has been largely laid to rest. The bridges she was appointed to build in her Institute can be crossed in both directions, and Ute Frevert recognizes the opportunity offered by this. For example, together with Tania Singer, Director of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, she has taken the plunge and approached the concept of the plasticity of emotions from two fundamentally different positions.

The illumination of the synapses in the MRI scanner made an impression on her but, as she herself summarizes the experience, her scientific world view remains intact for the time being. Instead, she recommended that her colleague read what Adam Smith or David Hume had to say on the topic of sympathy. Tania Singer was genuinely impressed.

So is a sinfully expensive laser scanner for the brain not actually necessary for researching feelings and the ways they can be changed by external influences? Ute Frevert laughs again and says nothing. Diplomacy, or, in other words, emotional politics, is a necessary and astute virtue in her position.

Not that she is withholding any objections. This was the purpose of her appointment. She already fears that her often-repeated advice aimed at young psychologists with their strictly controlled studies, from which any suggestion of uncertainty has been expunged, is gradually getting on her colleagues’ nerves: “Make your view more complex!” she tells them. “The world is not as straightforward and clear as you make it out to be in the lab.”

Of course, she also recognizes the constraints and habits which the work of many young researchers is subjected to. “Presentist” is the word she uses to describe their perspective, which is mired in the present and bound by it alone. “Historical amnesia,” she says when lunching with her colleagues. And the Institute’s other Directors actually agree with her; on this point they are of one mind: due to the compulsion to count, evaluate and present, experimentally-oriented psychologists find no time to focus on the cultural, historical or political contexts of their concepts.

Frevert criticises the fact that it would not even occur to the psychologists to do this. She praises the research cycles of her own discipline, in which the yardstick of the work and success of a scientist remains the finished, argumentatively complete book, the classic masterpiece.

Thus, the educational researcher also develops models for practice outside her Institute, which go beyond the laboratory findings of her psychology colleagues, complement them or express them more concretely, and often define completely different paths and objectives. In this context, she sometimes recalls the warmth and sense of community she experienced in the US. She envisages making vocational education better and more attractive, and targeting the path of academic study at those who, in addition to the necessary skills, also demonstrate a robust interest in thinking.

Through an extended period of community in schools, she imagines supporting the exchange of ideas, cultures and environments like that which her own children experienced and benefited from in the US. Moreover, Ute Frevert doesn’t shy away from defining values as objectives for education which are probably far too historical for her colleagues from the empirical departments: empathy, morality, openness, curiosity and, yes, sentimental education.

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