In the last third of the nineteenth century the issue that artists and critics know as the “problem of expression” came to occupy a central place both in some of the sciences and in the domain of aesthetics. Fechner and Darwin, and the great scientific traditions they represented or initiated, were signs of this profound concern with what to many seemed a newly discovered dimension of existence, the expression of modes of psychic reality. How are emotions manifested, and how is it that these manifestations seem to be instantly understood by spectators? Moreover, how should we account for the strange fact that emotional characters are perceived in parts of nature that, we were taught to believe, are devoid of feeling? How should we account, for example, for our speaking of a serene or a melancholy landscape? Questions like these attracted much interest in the decades beginning about 1870.
Fechner's answer, as we have seen, was ultimately reminiscent in some way of the old beliefs in a World Soul. To a reader grossly overstating the case it may have seemed that Fechner was thinking of a mysterious Soul that infused everything with an intrinsic Life, thus creating a bridge between the different realms and layers of being. Darwin intended to leave little room for metaphysical assumptions, but he, too, wondered how an infant so naturally grasps the meaning of expressions of specific emotions. In summarizing the wealth of distinct observations and penetrating analyses he made in his The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, Darwin reminded the reader of a fact well known from everyday experience: “… when a child cries or laughs, he knows in a general way what he is doing and what he feels….” How does the infant know it, how does he or she acquire this knowledge? Darwin continued: “But the question is, do our children acquire their knowledge of expression solely by experience through the power of association and reason?” And in conclusion: “As most of the movement of expression must have been gradually acquired, afterwards becoming instinctive, there seems to be some degree of a priori probability that their recognition would likewise have become instinctive.”1