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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Theodor Gomperz   25 August 1873

Wien, Rathhausstrasse 9,

Aug. 25, 1873


I beg leave to send you a few Marginalia, which occurred to me while reading your last volume,1 hoping that you may perhaps find some grains of wheat in them, though probably mixed up with a larger amount of chaff. I shall try to be as brief as possible in order not to take up more than is strictly necessary of your precious time.

May not the puzzle of p. 230 find a solution by means of your remarks in p. 284; “if our attention continues long and earnestly absorbed, all our muscles become relaxed and the jaw … remains dropped”.2 Will this not hold good equally when our attention is turned not to any outward objects but to a subject of inward meditation? When drawing largely on our nerve-force and thereby diverting it from its innervating functions, the muscles of the face and neck will be relaxed as well as any other muscles and the head will occasionally require to be supported by gestures like those mentioned p. 230 (Not including, of course, the pulling of the beard, which seems to belong to a group of gestures caused by impatience or restlessness, to be accounted, I should think, on a very different principle.) That the heads of thoughtful men have a tendency to droop or to be inclined to one side, is, I think, a common remark, at least in Germany. I remember having once met the late Mr. Mill3 on a solitary walk near Blackheath, when he was most probably preparing (as he used to do) the theme of his next day’s composition,—and I was struck with the peculiar, almost rhythmical swing of his head. The same sort of oscillating movement I did more than once remark in the head of the deceased German poet (a profound thinker, by the way) when meeting him on his long walks, during which he was known to do a great deal of his poet’s work.

May not the unexplained “little gesture” p. 288–94 perhaps admit of the following explanation? The placing one’s hand or fingers (chiefly the index) over the mouth is a very obvious mode of enjoining silence. Now in savage life the emotion of astonishment will have been and will still be most frequently and most intensely aroused by those sights and sounds, which betoken the approach or the neighbourhood of game, of wild beasts, of enemies (the subjects of their all-engrossing fears and desires)—and the perception of these tokens must for a twofold reason suggest at once the necessity of maintaining silence. Now, could not that half-conventional gesture have become so intimately blended with the feeling of surprise or astonishment as to be called up also on occasions, when there exists no need of enjoining silence on the other members of the horde, and even when no such members are present? There would be no need of supposing, that this association was transmitted by inheritance to distant generations, since all your examples at least are taken from savage or semi-savage tribes.

A new application of the Principle of Association—which in your hands has proved such a marvellous instrument of subtle analysis—would be the following.5 Two “states of mind”, A and B may—without being “closely analogous” or even while being entirely heterogeneous—happen to have two or three concomitant gestures in common: a, b, c. Now a, b, c, may be conjoined in A with a set of other gestures: d, e, f. If then A is a more intense emotion or is more frequently experienced (or both), it follows from the elementary laws of the Association-Psychology, that d, e, f will come closely to adhere to a, b, c and will be called up in B likewise. Might not this consideration furnish the key to the solution of a difficulty occurring in p. 307?6 The compound gesture of Trembling and of a Shudder may by a mere coincidence happen to accompany the feeling of Horror as well as that of Cold. But “pressing the arms closely against the sides or chest” looks like a voluntary and serviceable gesture induced by cold, indeed like an attempt at warming our bodies. Now we and our ancestors have much more often experienced the sensation of cold than the comparatively rare emotion of horror. Therefore the above principle must, if true, have come into play—and an originally partial and merely accidental identity in the expression of two feelings may thus in this as well as in other instances have finally become a complete one.

Some ladies “believe”, as you say (p. 336), “that they have blushed in the dark”. I think, I know it as an absolute certainty, and so—having always freely blushed, I can testify in several other respects to the substantial truth of the contents of that admirable chapter.

Your pages 284 and 308 contain a passing allusion to the principle of Conservation of Force as applied to your subject.7 May I venture to suggest, that this principle would perhaps be found susceptible of still larger applications? Might not the natural or direct expression of the emotions (that which falls under your third head) be universally considered as consisting of two parts—the consequences of increase of function in some parts of the organism and of a corresponding decrease in others? Moderate and not over-prolonged excitement seems indeed to possess a self-adjusting power, since by stimulating the circulation and nutrition it tends to equalise the supply and the demand. But in the case of an excessive, and especially of a sudden demand, this resource must necessarily fail. And hence it will be that local or general atrophy, trembling, relaxation of the muscles &c. do more or less accompany all our most violent passions and emotions.

But I will no longer trespass on your time and patience and will in concluding only beg you to accept these remarks as a faint tribute of gratitude and admiration.

I am, Sir, | your obedient servant, | Theod. Gomperz | Professor at the Vienna-University.


In Expression, p. 230, CD had written that it was far from clear why in concentrated thought the hand should be raised to the mouth or face.
John Stuart Mill died in May 1873 (ODNB).
In Expression, pp. 288–9, CD discussed the placing of hand or fingers over the mouth when astonished, but remarked that he could offer no explanation for the gesture. In Expression 2d ed., p. 304 n. 16, Gomperz’s explanation for the gesture is added.
The principle of association was the central tenet of association psychology as developed by Mill. Gomperz’s translation of Mill’s System of logic (Mill 1862) had just appeared as part of a multi-volume translation of all of Mill’s works (Mill 1872–3; for more on Mill and Gomperz, see Weinberg 1963, and Filipiuk et al. eds. 1991, pp. xvi–xxix). CD added a reference to Mill in relation to the association of actions and emotions to Descent 2d ed., p. 120 n. 42. For more on CD’s understanding of Mill’s associationism, see Richards 1987, p. 209, n. 61.
In Expression, p. 307, CD had written that it was not obvious why, when feeling cold or expressing a sense of horror, people bent their arms against the body, raised their shoulders and shuddered.
In Expression, p. 284, CD discussed the opening of the mouth when astonished, and on pp. 308–9 he referred to trembling, dilation of the nostrils, etc., associated with fear, followed by utter prostration. The law of conservation of force (Erhaltung der Kraft) was first expressed by Hermann von Helmholtz (Helmholtz 1847). He argued that the quantity of force that could be brought into action in the whole of nature was unchangeable, and could not be increased or decreased. The principle was later reformulated in the first law of thermodynamics, but Helmholtz had discussed the concept with particular reference to living systems (ibid., pp. 7–13).


Comments on Expression. Suggests solutions to some of CD’s unresolved problems. Widens the "Principle of Association", whereby gestures associated with one emotion can also come to accompany a second emotion. Confirms the occurrence of blushing in the dark. Considers CD’s use of the "principle of Conservation of Force"; outlines its larger applications.

Letter details

Letter no.
Theodor Gomperz
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 165: 61
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 9027,” accessed on 26 June 2019,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 21