What Is an Emotion?

  • February 27, 2014 · 7:00 PM

*** Please note that this meeting is on Thursday ***

[We are going to test Thurs as our meeting day to see if that is more convenient for members than Wed. Thank you.]


What is emotion (an emotion)?

Is it a component of a stimuli-action process?  Where does it fit into this process – stimuli, perception, recognition, cognition, intentional stance, action?  Does the process always check for an emotional component?

Granting that emotions in some way involve cognition, it is an open question and a topic of considerable debate just how cognition is related to emotion. Is cognition causally necessary?  Is it logically necessary? Or is an emotion itself a cognition? Irving Thalberg weighs the merits of the causal versus the logical account, and opts for an alternative that combines both views.

The material that follows is outlined/summarized from the introductory chapter of the book, “What Is an Emotion?  Classic Readings in Philosophical Psychology”, Eds. C. Calhoun and RC Solomon, 1984, Chap. 1.  [A more recent edition, expanded to provide emphasis on contemporary issues, is available .  In that book the introductory comments are distributed among the several parts of the book.]

A major problem with analyzing emotions is the range and dimension of the term emotion used in discourse.  As such the authors direct their efforts toward identifying the general theories that have developed to address these diversities and the various difficulties in analyzing the various uses of the term.


A. Theories

1. Classical Theories - Jamesian theory (a feeling) vs. Aristotelian view (way of conceiving of a certain situation, dominated by a desire).

2. Emotion Theories (What is an emotion?  Classic Readings in Philosophical Psychology - Chap. 1, ed. C. Calhoun and RC Solomon)

  a. Sensation and physiological

    (1)  Sensation (Hume) – Primarily a psychological feeling (e.g., overwhelmed).

    (2)  Physiological (Descartes, James) – Actual physiological changes (e.g., stomach churning or blushing).

    (3)  Causal explanations of emotions figure prominently in both theories.

  b. Behavioral – Consider distinctive behaviors associated with different emotions

    (1)  Emotions are the cause of such behaviors (Darwin)

    (2)  Actually consisting solely or primarily of patterns of behavior (Dewey, Ryle)

  c. Evaluative (Brentano, Scheler) – Compare pro-/con-emotional attitudes (e.g., liking/disliking, loving/hating) and positive/negative value judgments.

  d. Cognitive – Focus on connections between emotions and our beliefs about the world, ourselves, and others (e.g., envy, anger, empathy)


B. Ten Problems in the Analysis of Emotion

This commentary examines inherent features of emotions and their relationships and roles in various contexts.

1.  What Counts as an Emotion?

Certain passions seem to be included in every list of emotions, notably, anger, fear, jealousy, and especially intense forms of love. Some have been the subject of protracted philosophical debate.  …According to some moral philosophers, Immanuel Kant's entire ethics, in which respect for the moral law is considered to be a motive quite different from other desires and emotions, turns on this point. Is love an emotion? Certainly the adolescent variety of romantic love must be said to be so, with its typical physiological disturbances and its uncompromising obsessiveness. …Should these long-term, relatively calm emotions be called "emotions"? Or are we to call emotions only those rather violent passions, which so often present themselves explosively, momentarily, and "irrationally"?  Before we can answer the question, "What is an emotion?" we would first need to agree about what are classified as emotions.

Are moods emotions? What about joy, gloom, dread, or anxiety? Does it matter that moods may be protracted over a period of days or weeks, whereas most of the violent emotions last minutes or hours? Does it matter that most moods seem to be far less distinct about their objects-what they are "about" - than are most emotions? What about such passions as "the love of life," the fear of the unknown, or being "angry with the world"? What about those moods that do seem to be "about" something in particular, for instance, being depressed about that letter or being anxious about being rejected. Are moods emotions) Are emotions short-term, specific moods? Or should moods and emotions be sharply distinguished, as two quite distinct types of passion?

2.  Which Emotions Are Basic?

Since ancient times, theorists of emotion have attempted to list the "basic" emotions, emotions found in virtually everyone, presumably from birth, that combine to form the more specialized and sophisticated emotions. … What are the basic emotions? Before making yet another attempt to answer that question, it is essential to be clear about what it is that is being asked. Must a "basic" emotion be universal to all human beings? Or might there be different "basic" emotions in different cultures? Must a "basic" emotion be manifest from infancy or is it possible that these emotions are learned or developed? Must a "basic" emotion be an atomistic component in our emotional chem­istry, which itself cannot be broken down? Or might a "basic" emo­tion itself be a complex structure, a gestalt that gives rise to other emotions not through combination, but rather through dissolution or transformation? Indeed, are there "basic" emotions at all or might there be only an enormously complex matrix of various emotions, interwoven as different parts of a broad tapestry, so complex that few of us ever experience more ' than a part of it? Or, conversely, might there be one or a few basic emotions, with the difference between our many expressions of emotion being the difference in the way we think of or "label" the emotion as expressed, perhaps a difference in circumstance rather than structure?

3.  What Are Emotions About? (Intentionality)

… One of the most controversial issues to emerge in contemporary analyses of emotion is "intentionality," or what an emotion is "about." The phenomenon is simple to describe. An emotion is not simply an "inner" feeling, like a headache; it also has an "outer" reference, to some situation, person, object, or state of affairs. A person in love loves someone. (Even a person "in love with love" loves someone or other as the "object" of his or her love.) One is angry about something, even if one seems to be angry about everything else as well. Some emotions refer back to oneself-shame and pride, for instance-but they still have a reference over and above whatever feelings, physiology, and behavior characterize the emotion. …The problems of intentionality arise from the simple observation that our emotions are "about something." What is the relationship that this misleadingly simple word "about" represents.  …Current controversies over the intentionality of emotions are further confused by the unclear relationships between the intentionality of emotion and the forms of language used to describe intentionality (often called "intensionality" with an "s").

4.  Explaining Emotions

Emotions can be explained in at least two distinctive ways.  The first refers to the cause of the emotion, the second to the intentional object of the emotion.  Causal explanations of emotion may have the law-like form, "whenever X happens, then E (an emotion) occurs." A causal explanation of an emotion may be as simple as the designation of the incident that "triggered it," or it may be as complex and as detailed as the whole causal history of a certain emotion in a certain person. But what is critical to every causal explanation is that it cites antecedent conditions or events without which the particular emotion would not have come about (leaving aside the complex question of alternative causes).

An intentional explanation, on the other hand, explains an emotion in terms of the viewpoint of the subject, whether or not the "object" he or she describes can also play a part in a causal explanation. One might say that causal explanations are "objective" and are (at least sometimes) independent of the viewpoint of the subject, whereas intentional explanations always depend on the viewpoint of the subject. A more technical way of making this point, in the language of "intensionality," would be to say that the causal explanation of an emotion involves descriptions that are "transparent" and can be rendered in a number of ways that are independent of the subject, whereas intentional explanations involve descriptions that are "opaque" and presuppose descriptions that accurately characterize the subject's point of view.

Physiological explanations are an important form of causal explanation. We often explain a person's irritability by citing the fact that he or she had too little sleep or too much to drink. Physiological explanations are explanations that quite obviously apply whether or not the subject is aware of them. Every emotion, for instance, has its proximate causes in the brain, but only a neurophysiologist could possibly know this, and even then, it would be an odd explanation for a person to offer as an account of his or her own behavior.

More problematic are explanations citing psychological causes. For example, we can explain the fact that a person gets angry whenever he sees a certain poster, but that particular posters remind him of an old memory, and the causal chain need not be part of the anger or its object at all. Sometimes, the causal explanation and the intentional explanation appear to be identical. This was the awkwardness of Hume's analysis of pride, in which "self" occurred both as the cause and as the object of the emotion.

… Psychologists, one might argue, are essentially interested in the causal explanations of emotion; phenomenologists are essentially interested in the intentional accounts of emotion. … Philosophers, in general, embrace aspects of both psychology and phenomenology have long tried to integrate them.  A third type of explanation … to the question, "Why is he so angry?" may be an answer in terms of a person's motivation in having a certain emotion. "Because he finds that he always gets his way when he gets angry" is an explanation in terms of the anticipated "payoff" of an emotion.

5.  The Rationality of Emotions

It is too often suggested that emotions are essentially "irrational," without attempting to explain what this means. First of all, if emotions involve beliefs, it is clear that they are not non-rational. Because they are, in part, "cognitive" and "evaluative" phenomena, emotions presuppose rationality in the psychological sense-the ability to use concepts and have reasons for what one does or feels. Whether these reasons are good reasons, however, is another matter.

To say that emotions are irrational, in one sense, is to admit that they are rational (in the above psychological sense), but also to deny that they have good reasons behind them. For instance, it might be suggested that emotions involve evaluations, but that these evaluations are almost always mistaken and short-sighted, and occasionally correct only by accident. But this view has little plausibility, given the perceptiveness of many emotions. Indeed, one could argue much more strongly, as does Hume, that we would have no values if it were not for our emotions.  Perhaps emotions are, by their very nature

"subjective" phenomena. On the other hand, our emotions are sometimes more insightful than the more detached and impersonal deliberations of reason. On the other hand, it is sometimes irrational to be detached and impersonal, and it is here that the rationality of emotions is most in evidence [“Blink”?].

Emotions as such are neither rational nor irrational. Some emotions are incredibly stupid, others insightful. The German philosopher Nietzsche suggests that "all passions have a phase when they are merely disastrous, when they drag down their victim with the weight of stupidity," but he then goes on to argue that this is no reason to reject the passions; it is rather a reason to educate them. Becoming angry at one's boss over a trifling comment may be stupid in the extreme, but getting angry at a certain point in a political meeting may be a stroke of genius. Falling in love may be the smartest, or the dumbest, thing a particular person ever does, and fear in the proper context, Aristotle argued in his Ethics, may be far more rational and essential to courage than mere foolhardiness, the absence of appropriate fear.

6.  Emotions and Ethics

Because emotions can be rational or irrational, intelligent or stupid, foolish or insightful, their role in ethics becomes far more complex and more central than a great many philosophers and moralists have suggested. On the one side, there is a long tradition of moral philosophers, Hume most famously, who juxtaposed reason and emotion and insisted that emotion, not reason, was the heart of ethics ("reason is, and ought to be, the slave of the passions"). On the other side, the philosopher Immanuel Kant, for instance, argued that morality was a strictly rational endeavor and that the emotions (or what he more generally called "the inclinations") were not essential to morality. What both philosophers have tended to neglect are those aspects of emotions (or at least, of some emotions) that are themselves rational and have thus undermined the premise of the entire dispute.

This age-old set of ethical theories has again come into prominence in recent philosophy. In England and America, a broad set of "meta-ethical" (literally, "about ethics") views have been defended under the general title " non- cognitivism," on the basis that ethical judgments could not be known and could not be said to be either true or false. A powerful subset of such theories are the so-called "emotivist" theories of ethics, which, as the very name indicates, held that ethics are claims of emotion rather than claims of belief. In America, Charles Stevenson similarly challenged 25 centuries of moral philosophy by distinguishing between "attitude" and "belief," insisting that ethical views are strictly a matter of the former ….  “Moral sentiment theorists," insisted that moral motivation could only be understood in terms of certain crucial emotions, in particular such empathetic emotions as "sympathy" and "compassion." This brings us to appreciate another dimension -- value of emotion, and the comparative values of various emotions. "Nothing great has been done without passion" is a frequently voiced aphorism, cited by philosophers such as Hegel, Nietzsche, and Kant.  The Bible is filled with injunctions for and against the emotions on an ethical basis. Pride, envy, and anger are "deadly" sins; faith, hope, and charity are cardinal virtues. We have long been told to avoid such "negative" emotions as hatred in favor of such "positive" emotions as love. But how do we evaluate our emotions?

7.  Emotions and Culture

Emotions are often treated as matters of "instinct," as vestiges of a more primitive past, as aspects of our biology as much as of our psychology, unlearned and uneducatable. But insofar as emotions involve concepts and beliefs, they may also be learned in a particular culture and, perhaps, learned somewhat differently in different cultures. There is some evidence that suggests that emotions may be different in different cultures. Anthropologist jean L. Briggs, for instance, published a book some years ago entitled Never in Anger, in which she argued that certain Eskimo tribes do not get angry. It is not just that they do not express anger; they do not feel angry, either. Indeed, they do not even have a word for anger in their vocabulary (the closest word to it, significantly, means "childish"). It has been noted that a great many cultures do not share our obsession with romantic love and that such emotions as envy, jealousy, and grief obviously have very different fates in different cultures. How much these are matters of emphasis or differences in expression, how much they are matters, rather, of the circumstances in which people feel this or that emotion-should be investigated and debated.

8.  Emotions and Expression

The expression of emotion in behavior has often been considered a part of the essence of emotion. Indeed, the more radical behaviorists have argued that an emotion ultimately is nothing more than a pattern of behavior. This, however, leaves the exact connection between an emotion and its expression a matter of some confusion. If, for example, an emotion is nothing other than a certain disposition to behave in certain characteristic ways, then the connection between an emotion and its expression is more one of definition than of cause and effect. Indeed, the suggestion that one might have a certain emotion without the appropriate dispositions to behave becomes non-sensical. Perhaps we could say that every emotion demands some expression, and that the disposition to "vigorous action," as William James called it, is an intrinsic part of every emotion. But this weakens the behavioral thesis and certainly tells us very little about the differences between emotions. Our primary example of emotional expression must not be the tendency to kick the cat in a fit of rage. The most meaningful expression of an emotion may well be nothing more than a telling glance or a certain spring in one's stride. But then again, it may be that the whole of one's behavior, and nothing less, is the context in which emotions are expressed, rather than the action or gesture.

One might catalog the more typical expressions of emotion, and, working backward, surmise, along with Darwin, what purpose such emotions and their expression served in the days before they were subjected to such rigorous scrutiny and societal control. (Darwin suggests that our inclination to gnash our teeth when angry represents an earlier tendency to bite our enemies.) But the more philosophical question concerns the nature of expression itself. In what sense does an action or a gesture "express" (literally, "force out") an emotion? Sometimes, the connection between the desires built into the emotion and the expression in action could not be clearer. For example, if Aristotle is right about anger being the desire for vengeance, then it would be hard to question the appropriateness of punitive action, for instance, raising a fist or a sword, as an expression of that emotion. But when the natural expression is suppressed - when we are angry with a superior or someone stronger than ourselves-that is when the nature of expression becomes particularly difficult to understand. Why bother to kick a tree or bite one's lip?

9.  Emotions and Responsibility

Insofar as our emotions are physiological reactions, or the movement of what Descartes called "animal spirits," our passions do indeed render us "passive." They happen to us; we "suffer" them. But if our emotions have other components, such as beliefs and ways of behaving, it is not so clear that we are-as the saying goes-the "victims" of our emotions. We are, to a certain extent, responsible for our beliefs, and we can control our behavior, even our engrained habits, if only with some effort.  Sometimes, we find ourselves actively creating an emotion for ourselves, "working ourselves up" into a rage or setting ourselves up for disappointment. It is an open question how much a person is the "captive" of his or her emotion and how much the obsession is willfully maintained, and even protected against distraction or interference by any number of voluntary means. 

Insofar as our emotions involve beliefs, and insofar as we are in some sense responsible for what we believe, we are also responsible for our emotions. A student with false beliefs, in a subject in which he or she is expected to be thoroughly prepared, is not excused by ignorance. A bigot is not unaccountable for his or her beliefs, even if he or she has been brought up in an environment in which such beliefs were common. Insofar as anger involves a sense of injustice, that sense of injustice is subject to all the rational constraints and responsibilities of any more reflective moral claim.

Being responsible for our emotions to some extent is not the same as being able to control them, but it is clear that the two sets of considerations belong together and that at least some degree of control is presumed in assigning responsibility. This does not mean that a person must be able to change his or her emotions "at will".  It does mean that the extent to which our emotions are voluntary and corrigible should not be dismissed as mere passivity, which provides us with so many convenient excuses.

10.  Emotions and Knowledge

Among the various ways we have of controlling or eliciting our emotions (taking drugs, avoiding or looking for certain situations), by far the most philosophical, and sometimes the most effective, is self-understanding. A further knowledge of ourselves and our emotions may be the first step to changing our emotions, and gaining a new fact or two may be a sure way of getting rid of, or adding, an emotion. In the simplest possible case, finding out that the belief upon which one's emotion is based is false immediately changes the emotion. If beliefs are essential components of emotion, then a change in the belief will typically (although not always) alter the emotion, and knowledge must be considered as contributing to, not opposing, our emotions. Of course, there are irrational emotions, based upon demonstrably false beliefs. And it is also true that, even with a radical change in knowledge, the emotion may still remain.  But even if changing beliefs does not always change an emotion, knowledge is nevertheless a critical determinant of emotion, and often the test of its rationality as well.  The beliefs that are essential to our emotions, however, are not always so readily apparent or so easily changed.

Knowledge and self-understanding help to control or to elicit our emotions, but we also gain knowledge and self-understanding through our emotions. We can often learn far more about our values and morals by paying attention to our emotions than by listening to the more abstract deliberations of "practical reason,"  Without emotion, there would be no values, rather only rules and methods without inspiration. It is emotion, not reflection, that most endows the world with meaning.


The importance of learning how to include the emotional component in our lives is underscored in the literature on Emotional Intelligence (EI) described in “Emotional Intelligence:  Why It Can Matter More Than IQ” (D. Goleman, 2005) and the work of P. Salovey and J. Mayer, “Emotional intelligence. Imagination, Cognition, and Personality Definitions”, 1990.  The ability to express and control our own emotions is important, but so is our ability to understand, interpret, and respond to the emotions of others.  Salovey and Mayer, proposed a model that identified four different factors of emotional intelligence: the perception of emotion, the ability reason using emotions, the ability to understand emotion and the ability to manage emotions.

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  • Carolyn

    It's always emotionally stimulating to consider multi viewpoints. Good meet. Thanks for sharing.

    February 28, 2014

  • Gene R.

    'Body Atlas' shows where emotions hit the hardest
    By Rich McCormick
    Finnish researchers have attempted to pinpoint the ways in which our emotions affect our bodies. The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, asked 773 participants to indicate how certain emotionally charged materials made them feel. The participants were first shown words, stories, movies, and expressions, and then asked to highlight on computer-modeled human silhouettes the areas of the body they felt decreasing or increasing activity.
    http://www.theverge.com/2013/12/31/5259884/finnish-study-maps-emotions-onto-a-human-body

    February 27, 2014

  • Carolyn

    From a generic perspective, true emotion would appear to be involuntary and subjective, even to manipulation. I see it as the result to all interactions and/or reactions to every stimulus exposed to, be obvious or composed.

    February 25, 2014

  • Larry

    Hope I'm not being too "unchecked" but as a biologist I think of it is a concept of the mind and relate the experience of emotion to physiological functions. I define the primary emotions as anger, fear, pleasure, sadness, and disgust. Emotions can be conceptualized in terms of their functional or adaptive (help us survive) significance. Negative emotions such as anger and fear may promote avoidance or defensive behavior whereas the positive emotion of pleasure may facilitate ingestive, exploratory, sexual, or novel-seeking behavior. Thus, emotions and feelings may serve to achieve homeostasis or to facilitate adaptive
    behavior and equilibrium.

    February 24, 2014

  • Carolyn

    OK, feet first for this one, I hope we can keep "them" in check while we remember what the doormouse said.

    February 22, 2014

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