Silvan TomkinsThis article describes the profound impact Silvan Tomkins had on our understanding of human emotions. It was written in collaboration with Donald Nathanson, MD.

“We do not possess a systematic statement of the psychoanalytic theory of affects”
(Rappaport, 1953, p. 476).

“Tomkins began a limited revolution — a paradigm shift, in Kuhnian terms”
(Knapp, 1987, p 221).

Freud “had no satisfactory hypothesis to account for
affectivity in general… Adequate explanations were finally proposed by Tomkins”

(Gedo, 2005, p. 90).

Working within the traditions of both Darwin and Freud, Silvan S. Tomkins fused evolutionary and psychodynamic concepts to describe the specific kinds of affects, their mechanism of action, and their development. Tomkins detailed the nature of affect itself and the triggers for each of the nine affects, demonstrating 1) the nature, development, and transformations of the affect system; 2) its virtually unlimited ideo-affective structure; 3) the importance of affect as the source of all motivation; 4) its functional relation to both cognition and the drives; and 5) the clinical implications of these concepts. Psychoanalytic theorist Michael Franz Basch called Tomkins the “founder of modern affect theory” (1991, p. 296).

Silvan Solomon Tomkins was born June 4, 1911, in Philadelphia and died June 10, 1991, at the nearby New Jersey shore he loved so deeply. He entered the University of Pennsylvania with the intent to become a playwright, earned an MA in psychology, and left in 1934 with a doctorate in philosophy. The topics of his dissertation — logic and value theory — remained central throughout his career. In 1936 he began postdoctoral study in philosophy at Harvard University, where he became fascinated by the pioneering work on personality emerging from the Harvard Psychological Clinic under the leadership of Henry A. Murray and Robert W. White. In 1947 he began an 18-year tenure in Princeton University’s Department of Psychology, where his interest in the relation between emotion (which he came to call “affect”) and personality formation became the defining theme of his career.

Tomkins’s life work saw print as the four volumes of Affect Imagery Consciousness (1962, 1963, 1991, 1992). Central was the question: How do such varied internal and external stimuli as biological drives, external events, memory, imagination, thinking, words, and other affects, all trigger the relatively small number of discrete responses he defined as the nine innate affects? Collected as his Affect Theory, Tomkins’s answer involves his definition of the affect system as a set of physiological responses to the increase, decrease, or level (quantity) of any stimulus, and it takes into account both the environment (stimuli) and individual variation (temperament).

Most of the basic inborn affects he described were given a range name to indicate the scope of their variations: interest-excitement, enjoyment-joy, surprise-startle, distress-anguish, anger-rage, fear-terror, shame-humiliation, disgust (reaction to noxious tastes) and dissmell (reaction to noxious odors). These affects combine with each other and with any form of experience to become our complex emotional life. His Script Theory organizes a sophisticated understanding of character structure and draws together a wide range of clinical observations and treatment implications.

Tomkins was mentor to and colleague with Virginia Demos, Paul Ekman, Carroll Izard, and Donald Nathanson, among many others. In the latter half of the 20th century this group was instrumental in advancing the understanding of affect by more specifically describing these universal inherited emotional processes and how they develop and function. As nicely described by Ekman (1998), this work provided compelling evidence to help reject the cultural relativism of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson; current scientific data overwhelmingly support the evolutionary and inherited roles of expressions of emotion (Ekman, 1998; Mayr, 2001; Panksepp, 1998).

Tomkins’s theoretical, experimental, and clinical work has been extended by a number of former students, many now working under the banner of The Silvan Tomkins Institute. His ideas have taken root in several fields, and the subject of innate affect now intrigues a new generation of scholars and clinicians. Undoubtedly, time will increasingly enhance our understanding of human feelings and motivation, but perhaps Demos says it best: “Tomkins’ theory represents the state of the art at this time” (1998, p. 102).

(For those interested, the website for the Tomkins Institute is


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