Silvan Tomkins

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Silvan Tomkins
Silvan Solomon Tomkins

(1911-06-04)June 4, 1911
DiedJune 10, 1991(1991-06-10) (aged 80)
Alma materUniversity of Pennsylvania
Known forAffect theory, script theory, queer theory
Scientific career
FieldsPsychology, affect theory
InstitutionsHarvard University
Princeton University
CUNY Graduate Center
Rutgers University

Silvan Solomon Tomkins (June 4, 1911 – June 10, 1991)[1] was a psychologist and personality theorist who developed both affect theory and script theory. Following the publication of the third volume of his book Affect Imagery Consciousness in 1991, his body of work received renewed interest, leading to attempts by others to summarize and popularize his theories.[2][3]


The following is a summary based on a biographical essay by Irving Alexander.[4]

Silvan Tomkins was born in Philadelphia to Russian Jewish immigrants, and raised in Camden, New Jersey.[5] He studied playwriting as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, but immediately on graduating he enrolled as a graduate student in psychology. However, he withdrew upon completing only the master's degree, finding the Penn Psychology Department's emphasis on psychophysics unfriendly to his interests. Remaining at Penn, he received his PhD in Philosophy in 1934, working on value theory with Edgar A. Singer, Jr.

After a year handicapping horse races, he relocated to Harvard for postdoctoral study in Philosophy with W.V. Quine. In time, he became aware of the Harvard Psychological Clinic, and in 1937 he 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's Department of Psychology 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 which he tried to establish.

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—Paul Ekman and Carroll Izard—who would later become better known than Tomkins and whose early concepts of emotion owe much to Tomkins'.

After receiving an NIMH career research award, he left Princeton for CUNY Graduate Center in 1965, then in 1968 moved to Rutgers University, from which he retired in 1975 to work on his script theory.

Affect theory[edit]

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. In these pairs, the first pair part names the mild manifestation and the second the more intense.[2] The final two affects described by Tomkins are "dissmell" and disgust. Tomkins argued that these nine affects are quite discrete (whereas emotions are complex and muddled), that they manifest a shared biological heritage with what is called emotion in animals, and that they differ from Freudian drives in lacking an object.

Script Theory[edit]

Tomkins (1979) argues that the basic unit of analysis which we use to determine scripts is called a “scene”. A scene is defined as a sequence of events linked by the affects triggered during the experience of those events. Scripts follow scenes identifying patterns in interactions and respond based on the societal perspectives.[6] In social settings, the behaviors and responses of individuals can be determined based on the setting and the interaction.[6] According to Wiederman, social scripts provide meaning and direction on how to respond to specific situations (Wiederman, 2005). Without scripts we would not be able to identify correct or appropriate responses to specific situations.[6]

Queer theory[edit]

In their paper Shame in the Cybernetic Fold: Reading Silvan Tomkins, Queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Science and Technology Studies Professor Adam Frank examine the relevance of Tomkin's work for queer theory as well as poststructuralist theory more generally, arguing that Tomkins' work may provide important epistemological insights about the self.[7]


  • Tomkins, Silvan S. (1962), Affect Imagery Consciousness: Volume I, The Positive Affects. London: Tavistock.
  • Tomkins, Silvan S. (1963), Affect Imagery Consciousness: Volume II, The Negative Affects.
  • Tomkins, Silvan S. (1991), Affect Imagery Consciousness Volume III. The Negative Affects: Anger and Fear New York: Springer.
  • Tomkins, Silvan S. and Bertram P. Karon (1962–1992), Affect, Imagery, Consciousness Volume IV New York: Springer.
  • Tomkins, Silvan S. (1934), Conscience, self love and benevolence in the system of Bishop Butler, University of Pennsylvania.
  • Tomkins, Silvan S. and H.A. Murray (1943), Contemporary Psychopathology: A Source Book. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
  • Tomkins, Silvan S. and Elizabeth J. Tomkins (1947), The Thematic Apperception Test: The Theory and Technique of Interpretation New York, Grune & Stratton.
  • Tomkins, Silvan S. and John Burnham Miner (1957), The Tomkins-Horn Picture Arrangement Test New York: Springer.
  • Tomkins, Silvan S. and John B. Miner (1959), PAT Interpretation: Scope and Technique 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 Carroll E. Izard (1965), Affect, Cognition, and Personality: Empirical Studies New York: Springer.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Cook, Joan (June 14, 1991). "Silvan Tomkins, 80, Psychologist Who Cited Power of Emotion, Dies". The New York Times. Retrieved November 9, 2014.
  2. ^ a b Nathanson, Donald L. (1992), Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self, New York: Norton, ISBN 978-0393030976
  3. ^ Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky; Frank, Adam, eds. (1995), Shame and Its Sisters: A Silvan Tomkins Reader, Duke University Press, Durham and London
  4. ^ Alexander, Irving E. (1995), "Silvan S. Tomkins: A Biographical Sketch", in Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky; Frank, Adam (eds.), Shame and Its Sisters: A Silvan Tomkins Reader, Duke University Press, Durham and London, pp. 251–263
  5. ^ Demos, Virginia (1995), Exploring affect: the selected writings of Silvan S. Tomkins, p. 3, ISBN 0-521-44832-8
  6. ^ a b c Wiederman, Michael W. (2005). "The Gendered Nature of Sexual Scripts". The Family Journal. 13 (4): 496–502. doi:10.1177/1066480705278729. S2CID 56156316.
  7. ^ Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky; Frank, Adam (Winter 1995). "Shame in the Cybernetic Fold: Reading Silvan Tomkins". Critical Inquiry. 21 (2): 496–522. doi:10.1086/448761. S2CID 143473392.


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