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Silvan Solomon Tomkins (b. 1911, d. 1991) is today best known as a personality theorist. Since his death, his work has stimulated remarkable interest, leading to the reader by well known gender theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and her colleague Adam Frank. There are several websites dedicated to Tomkins's work. The following is a summary based on the biographical essay by Irving Alexander.
Tomkins studied playwriting as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, but immediately on graduating, enrolled as a graduate student in psychology. He withdrew, however, upon completing only the Master’s degree, finding the Penn Psychology Department’s emphasis on psychophysics unfriendly to his interests. Remaining at Penn, however, he received his PhD in Philosophy in 1934, working on value theory with Edgar A. Singer.
After a year handicapping horse races, he relocated to Harvard for postdoctoral study in Philosophy with Quine. In time he became aware of the Harvard Psychological Clinic and in 1937 joined its staff, entering a particularly productive and happy period of his life. During this period, he published his first book, Contemporary Psychopathology, containing a survey of contemporary thought as well as his own contribution to it. He wrote a book about the projective Thematic Apperception Test, then developed the Picture Arrangement Test that combined elements of projection and forced choice.
In 1947 he married Elizabeth (BeeGee) Taylor; the marriage would last nearly three decades. The same year, he moved to Princeton University to take a position that would entail a large amount of frustration. First, he would work at the Educational Testing Service, which required him to submit documentation of the precise hours he worked in the building. At the same time he worked for Princeton University, which never fully supported the graduate program in Clinical Psychology he tried to establish.
However, during his Princeton career he was able to spend a year at the Ford Center in Palo Alto, California, where he wrote what became the first two volumes of Affect, Imagery, Consciousness. At this point in his career he began to have a mentoring relationship with two younger scholars who would become better known — Paul Ekman and Carroll Izard, whose early concept of the emotions owes much to that of Tomkins.
Disagreements among theorists persist today over Tomkins’ firm insistence that there were nine and only nine affects, biologically based. The basic six are: interest-excitement, enjoyment-joy, surprise-startle, distress-anguish, anger-rage, and fear-terror. Tomkins always described the first six, and one that “evolved later” (shame-humiliation) in pairs. As Donald Nathanson explains on the Silvan Tomkins Institute website, the first pair part names the mildest manifestation, the second the most intense. The final two are “dissmell” and disgust. Tomkins argued that these nine are quite discrete, whereas emotions are quite complex and muddied; that they manifest a shared biological heritage with what is called emotion in animals; and that they differ from Freudian drives (see Drive Theory) in lacking an object.
- Tomkins, Silvan S. 1934. Conscience, self love and benevolence in the system of Bishop Butler, University of Pennsylvania.
- 1943. Contemporary Psychopathology: A Source Book. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
- 1963 Affect, Imagery, Consciousness: Volume II, The Negative Affects.
- 1964 Affect, Imagery, Consciousness, Volume I. London: Tavistock.
- 1991 Affect, Imagery, Consciousness Volume III. The Negative Affects: Anger and Fear. New York: Springer.
- Tomkins, Silvan S., and Carroll E. Izard 1965. Affect, Cognition, and Personality: Empirical Studies. New York: Springer.
- Tomkins, Silvan S., and Bertram P. Karon 1962-1992 Affect, Imagery, Consciousness Volume 4. New York: Springer.
- Tomkins, Silvan S., and Samuel Messick 1963. Computer Simulation of Personality: Frontier of Psychological Theory. New York: Wiley.
- Tomkins, Silvan S., and John B. Miner 1959. PAT Interpretation: Scope and Technique. New York: Springer.
- Tomkins, Silvan S., and John Burnham Miner 1957. The Tomkins-Horn Picture Arrangement Test. New York: Springer.
- Tomkins, Silvan S., and Elizabeth J. Tomkins 1947. The Thematic Apperception Test: The Theory and Technique of Interpretation. New York, Grune & Stratton.
- Alexander, Irving E. 1995 Silvan S. Tomkins: A Biographical Sketch. In Shame and Its Sisters: A Silvan Tomkins Reader. E.K. Sedgwick and A. Frank, eds; pp. 251-263. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
- Sedgwick, Eve Kosovsky and Adam Frank,eds. 1995. Shame and Its Sisters: A Silvan Tomkins Reader. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
- Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky, and Adam Frank 1995. Shame in the Cybernetic Fold: Reading Silvan Tomkins. In "Shame and Its Sisters: A Silvan Tomkins Reader". E.K. Sedgwick and A. Frank, eds.; pp. 1-28. Durham and London: Duke University Press.