In “What are Affects,” the first essay by Silvan Tomkins in Eve Sedgwick and Adam Frank’s collection of his writings, Tomkins opens his theorization of affect with a pointed claim about how humans differ from other animals:

“All animals ‘want’ but only man concerns himself with the nature of his own wants.” (Shame and its Sisters: A Silvan Tomkins Reader, p. 3).

Tomkins, writing in English, does not use the Freudian word “desire” here. This not-use of desire resonates with Foucault’s not-use of desire in The Use of Pleasure (discussing instead the cultivation of bodily pleasures)Both Tomkins and Foucault have reason to step away from Freud’s dominant schema. I am not an expert in Tomkins’s thought, so this post is offered on the plain of speculation. His opening salvo in terms of “want” seems to portend Tomkins’s double interest in drives and affects, that is, his approach to the human being as requiring attention both to the “wants” of food and sex, which Freud designates as drives, and also to the “wants” of interest, joy, fear, anger, shame, etc., which Tomkins calls affects and adamantly separates from Freudian drives. This separation of affect from drive, I posit, enables the human “concern with the nature of” that I think (I am supposing) grounds Tomkins’s understanding of human freedom.

To Tomkins, humans are organized as feedback systems (drives) that always intersect with and are subtended by affects.  Affects are felt but not always known. Tomkins indicates that affects unconsciously subtend human feedback systems (drives) and also sometimes come to intersect with them consciously. Though the clinical goal is to bring affects into conscious engagement with the drives, Tomkins sensitively draws on his vast clinical experience to suggest the rarity of meeting this goal. In one passage, Tomkins describes how a person can develop an early and unconscious affective activation in response to a “want” and then many years later feel this activation kick into gear, without ever really understanding what this feeling is or why s/he feels it:

“The infant passively enjoys or suffers the experience of his [sic] own affective responses long before he is capable of employing affect as part of a feedback mechanism in instrumental behavior. He does not know ‘why’ he is crying, that it might be stopped, or how to stop it. Even many years later he will sometimes experience passively, without knowledge of why or thought of remedial action, deep and intense objectless despair.” (37)

The lack of conscious grasp on the reasons for our affects is not, I’d caution, the same thing as a lack of cognitive connection with it. Here I follow William James in assuming that feeling and thinking an emotion are the same thing. The man knows (cognizes) that he is feeling “deep and intense objectless despair” even if he cannot know (explain, understand) its etiology. (Or we might say, channelling Aristotle, that the separation of drive and affect is yet felt by the “inner touch” that conjoins all of our sense capacities, even if they remain separate from intellection.)

In a section that discusses the feasibility of making a human-like AI, Tomkins connects the “critical gap” between affective responses and knowledge of what activates these affective responses to human freedom, indeed to why humans differ, in our greater freedom, from other animals (42). Previously, Tomkins had discussed freedom in terms of complexity of wanting and capacity to attain what is wanted:

“A human being becomes freer as his [sic] wants grow and as his capacities to satisfy them grow. Restriction either of his wants or abilities to achieve them represents a loss of freedom” (36).

Human subjects emerge out of a complex and temporally varying interplay of the drive system and the affect system. The drive system is relatively fixed (when we are hungry we have to have food), while the affect system is relatively liquid (when we are angry, any number of things can amplify or dampen or work through our anger). The affect system, however (1) tends to operate paraconsciously (as felt but not understood) and (2) can deliquify into  emotionally-laden habits that become tremendously hard to relinquish. Again, Tomkins argues that it is this interplay between drive and affect, between fixity and fluidity, that explains how and why humans are freer than other animals and yet it’s clear that this is not a freedom of will or action in the senses we are used to claiming for ourselves. He writes,

“The human affect system by its complexity gives rise to the extraordinary competence and freedom of the human organism” (38),

and yet this competence and freedom is not about attaining a Stoic and rational mastery of the affects since,

“most human beings never attain great precision of control of their affects” (38, bold added).

The split between drive and affect induces the “critical gap” that Tomkins describes as “the necessary price which must be paid by any system which is to spend its major energies in a sea of risk, learning by making errors” (38-39). This gap between drive and affect is thus precisely what enables the “learning to learn” that Gregory Bateson made central to his systems-theory approach to biology. Tomkins stresses that the gap between drive and affect pitches humans into a “sea of risk”, so that we have to learn to learn by engaging that risk and making (and overcoming) errors. But inevitably, the way in which we engage risk into a “what-is-learned” comes to deliquify affect into relatively set and emotionally-charged habits. According to Tomkins, it is this capacity to respond to the chaos of the world by navigating risk, making errors, and settling into some kind of habituated response to patterned stimuli that “frees consciousness, or the transmuting mechanism, for new learning” (39)–in other words, this is the developmental and pedagogical system that makes humans freer and more complex than other animals. But by calcifying old learning into bodily loops of reaction that are not fully available to consciousness, it also makes personal and institutional change very difficult.

In short, the imperfect and split systems of drive, affect, and cognition create the stunning complexity and richness of human life and culture, but do so through a systemic “critical gap” that prods humans to “learn how to learn” (40). This is the origin and essence of our freedom. Human freedom is hardly a picture of human mastery. Indeed, Tomkins writes,

“affective responses seem to the individual to be aroused easily by factors over which he has little control, with difficulty by factors which he can control and to endure for periods of time which he controls only with great difficulty if at all. They are in these respects somewhat alien to the individual. They are the primitive gods within the individual” (62).

By Tomkins’s theory of human want and human freedom, what humans “learn to learn” hardly results in clear and distinct knowledge of ourselves or the world, but instead is more akin to diplomatic settlements with an ongoing divine possession that results in something like a good-for-now set of cobbled together tactics for muddling through.