Going Through the Emotions

29 oktober 2009 | In Emotion theory | Comments?

Here are some words that, stringed together, are bound to make you gasp and salivate with anticipation (thus supporting the James-Lange/Tex Avery theory of emotion): The Non-Conceptual Representational Content of Emotions.

Emotions are tricky things. But what kind of tricky things are they? ”Cognitivists” believe that emotions are at least partly constituted by judgments, wereas non-cognitivists typically claim that emotions are mere experiences, uncommitted to any propositional content.

One problem for cognitivists is that judgments seem to require concepts, and we might want to say that creatures incapable of housing the relevant concepts might nevertheless experience emotions. This depends on what you require from your concept possessors: we can lower the bar, so that most animals have at least some concepts needed for certain emotions. Or we might want to exclude non-humans from the world of full-fledged emotions. Cog and Non-Cog may not disagree over the facts, but only about the terms, and the implied policies.

The problem for non-cogs is that we sometimes treat emotions as justifiable, and it is hard to see what that amounts to if emotions are not judgments. The case is analogous to perception.

Emotions can’t just be judgments since for every judgment , something could be that judgment and yet not be an emotion. I.e. even though emotions might have conceptual content, they are not exhausted by that content. We need more in order to differentiate emotions from states having the same content as an emotion.

Now, representation is a great notion to invoke here, since it’s eminently flexible: to represent somehing is a relational, i.e. non-intrinsic, feature. In order to represent something, even something propositional, you need not yourself have a propositional nature. So an emotion might be something like a pure experience, and still have non-conceptual, representational content – the ”meaning”, as it were, of the emotion, is not intrinsic to the emotion, but derived from its function. When what is represented by the emotion is a judgment, or something to that effect, we can treat it as justifiable. Analogously, again, perceptions represent things as being a certain way, but in order to represent a judgment, it need not itself be a judgment. The fear of a snake is a mental state that represents the snake as being dangerous, but it is not itself the judgment that the snake is dangerous.

Is representation essential to what you feel?  Representations according to Dretske-influenced theories (Tye, Schroeder, probably Prinz), are causal, functional affairs, and it might not be obvious to you what caused your current mental state, or what function that mental state plays. In fact, seeing how one and the same mental state might represent/be caused by different things, it might not even be introspectable what you are feeling. The feeling is obvious to you, but what the feeling is saying need not be.

Are we left with enough to identify and individuate emotions? It seems not. It is not surprising that emotions have the function to represent, since practically all mental states have that function. But that is not all it does. Indeed, there are plenty of reasons to believe that emotions are not exhausted by their function, either, let alone the strictly informational one-

I believe that ”emotion” is a usefully vague notion, but that all emotions have a hedonic component. They are either positively or negatively valenced. Also, any mental state having a hedonic constituent deserves consideration as an emotion. When they are prompted by judgments, or followed by judgments, or just associated with judgments, it makes sense to assess them accordingly. In addition, you may be held responsible for an emotion, even if that emotion is not something you can directly choose to have or not too have: you might be responsible for the judgment that prompts the emotion.

This post was inspired by reading this book, which I’m sure will prompt (and thus then be represented by) more posts over the next few weeks):

Jesse Prinz: the Emotional Construction of Morals

Jesse Prinz: the Emotional Construction of Morals

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