“Kama muta” or ‘being moved by love’: A bootstrapping approach to the ontology and epistemology of an emotion

This chapter, in press, presents our initial approach to kama muta. We discuss what it is, and how we can know about it.  We consider the fact that one crucial way to know what other people feel is to listen to the words they use; but people use words inconsistently, and the meanings of words are vague.  Different languages label emotions differently, and some don’t seem to have any specific word for kama muta.  Yet we have made the intriguing discovery that in a number of languages from unrelated language families, the words that correspond most closely to kama muta have the literal meaning of passive physical displacement (‘moved’), passive contact (‘touched’), being swirled (‘stirred’), or being moderately heated (‘heartwarming’).

Our approach combines broad ethological and historical comparison, study of classical texts, linguistic analysis, participant observation ethnography, interviewing, diary studies, surveys, and lab experiments.  This multimethod, inductive and deductive research shows that people feel kama muta when a communal sharing relationship suddenly intensifies.  The communal sharing can be romantic love, close family ties, team spirit, patriotism, divine love, or any other relationship in which people feel one.  We posit that when people feel kama muta they increase their dedication and commitment to communal sharing relationships, and that is the adaptive function of kama muta.  We illustrate with a couple of ethnographic examples and describe some of the types of experiments that support our conclusions.

To identify instances of kama muta experiences, we need to use the combination of informants’ emotion labels, their sensations, their perceptions of sudden intensification of communal sharing, their indications that they have had a positive experience they want to share, and their motivation to enhance their communal sharing relationships.  None of these five indictors is sufficient alone, but together they are reliable and valid.

Fiske, A. P., Schubert, T. W., & Seibt, B. (in press). “Kama muta” or ‘being moved by love’: A bootstrapping approach to the ontology and epistemology of an emotion. In J. Cassaniti & U. Menon (Eds.), Universalism without uniformity: Explorations in mind and culture. University of Chicago Press. [pdf of unedited version]