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Philosophy of Emotions

The emotion was excluded from knowledge since ancient times, when Democritus stated that “Medicine cures diseases of the body, wisdom frees the soul from emotions”. (Diels și Kranz 1951, 68 B 31) Such a view says that “reason should be the master of passion.” The best-known inverted statement belongs to Hume, according to which reason is and should be the slave of passions. (Hume 1978, II.iii.3, 415) Emotions have been recognized as threats to rational and epistemic decisions, (Sorabji 2002, 55) correlating emotions with will or desire (emotions would be a means by which will or desire they can distort reason or perception or a rational process). Therefore, emotions must be mastered (according to the Stoics) or accepted only the “right” (according to Aristotle).

Another criticism is that emotions do not contribute to knowledge, being too subjective or private to be relevant. Also, even if it is admitted that there are emotions related to knowledge by motivating and regulating cognitive activities, the motivational force is often rejected as epistemologically irrelevant. For example, Descartes considers that emotion may motivate us to acquire a belief, but does not enter into the epistemic evaluation of faith, based on the distinction between the validity of beliefs and theories and the history of their formation on which one believes that it is epistemologically irrelevant. (Descartes 1989, par. 69) In the case of emotions that involve an evaluation of a propositional content in relation to a certain cognitive standard, they are considered to be not sources of knowledge, because their affective attitudinal aspect does not contribute to the justification of the embodied belief, being no better than the guessing acts or cases of clairvoyance.

Descartes, in Meditations, considers certainty or infallibility as the requirements of knowledge, more important deductively than inferences for epistemic foundations and algorithms to choose between competing theories. (Descartes 2016) In this regard, emotions are not promising candidates, as their cognitive outcome seems particularly weak. The analysis in terms of true belief in contemporary analytical epistemology, as a model, is also unfavorable to emotions, since the condition of justification remains related to the inferential relations between beliefs. There have been attempts to eliminate the condition of justification under the cognitive control of the epistemic subject, using ideas such as appropriate causal chains, (Goldman 1967) reliable mechanisms of belief formation, (Goldman 1976) or the proper functioning of cognitive systems. (Plantinga 1986) Such externalist tendencies in epistemic justification have blurred the distinction between the context of discovery and the context of justification.

In the epistemological context, two questions have a special relevance: “are emotions knowledge?” and “is a uniform theory of emotions necessary to evaluate the epistemological state of emotions?”. A restrictive interpretation of “knowledge” requires theories to have propositional content. In such a case, emotions are usually assimilated to normative beliefs or judgments. (Solomon 1993, cap. 5.3) More liberal interpretations of “knowledge” also include theories that interpret emotions on the perception model, such as De Sousa’s study, The Rationality of Emotion ((de Sousa 1987); cf. (de Sousa 2004)) also supported by Sabine Döring, Elgin (Brun et al. 2008) and Prinz. (Prinz 2004) A minimal definition of cognitive theories of emotions includes the assertion that emotions are intentional. (Brun et al. 2008, 225–26) According to this criterion, strictly behavioral theories and theories that reduce emotions to feelings are not cognitive.

Recently, emotions have been re-evaluated as candidates for epistemic functions, often being rated as rational or appropriate. The cognitive rationality of emotions is their ability to represent the world as it is. (de Sousa 2011) The possibility of the adequacy of emotions being interpreted as emotional truth is disputed, (Salmela 2006) contrary to the opinion that they distort knowledge. It would be fair to specify the conditions under which they contribute to knowledge. Also, the claim is made that the confidentiality and subjectivity of emotions make them epistemically useless, (Goldie 2004, 94–95) (Solomon 2007, 150–58) highlighting the analogy between emotion and perception. (de Sousa 1987, 145–58) (Deonna 2006) Current philosophical theories about emotions claim that emotions include a cognitive element and can therefore be evaluated. Their cognitive functions require an epistemological analysis that can lead to an epistemological reassessment of emotions. Thus, as opposed to the traditional properties of knowledge, by approaching cognitive activities, motivation, highlighting and relevance of emotions become epistemological aspects of interest.

According to Scarantino and de Sousa, there are three varieties of cognitive rationality for emotions: matching, assurance and coherence. (Scarantino și de Sousa 2018) Emotions are often devoid of reason, but in many cases manifest coherence, through cognitions that provide emotions with representations of their particular objects. When cognitions are beliefs, their change is consistently reflected in changes in emotions. As a special case of rationality in the coherence of emotion sets, Helm argued that emotions come in rational patterns centered around the things that are important to the agent. (Helm 2009) According to Brun, emotions are important in the context of discovery, because they influence the way researchers work, but they are irrelevant in the context of justification, because the validity of the results is independent of such emotions. (Brun et al. 2008)

Although emotions are often part of the processes of knowledge, it has been assumed that the function of the justification condition is to exclude beliefs that are only incidentally true. So, only the features that systematically contribute to the truth of knowledge have been seen as normative, and thus epistemologically relevant. From this perspective, emotions do not seem to be epistemologically relevant. Ernest Sosa, (Sosa 1985) James Montmarquet (Montmarquet 1993) and Linda Zagzebski (Zagzebski și Zagaebski 1996) adopted the notion of virtue from ethical theory, focusing on epistemic or intellectual virtues, reversing the direction of epistemological analysis. Virtue epistemologists begin with normative properties of epistemic agents. Emotions thus come to matter within such a strategy, contributing to the analysis of epistemic traits. The social epistemology of Lorraine Code (Code 1987) and Alvin Goldman (Goldman 1999) takes into account processes in epistemic communities, and feminist philosophy examines the epistemic significance of agents with gender differences. (Jaggar 1989) (Diamond 1991) Quine and others initiated the project of naturalizing epistemology by assimilating it into psychology and cognitive science. (Quine 1969) Philosophical theories about emotions with their cognitive significance have been resurrected (for example, (Kenny 2003)), and psychology has begun to provide emotions with a central place. (Lazarus 1999)

Discussions about the nature of emotions address a confusing variety of characteristics, such as feelings, behavior, bodily reactions, cognitions, action dispositions, etc. Emotions are also associated with causes and intentionality, and may include certain evaluations, beliefs, or another knowledge. Emotions can be analyzed in terms of narrative structure, being incorporated into society and culture. Jesse Prinz states that this multiplicity of characteristics confronts the theories of emotions with a “problem of parts” (with different characteristics of the emotions and functions), as well as with a “problem of plenty”.(Prinz 2004, cap. 1)

An emotion is intentional or object-oriented (Kenny 2003, 131–35) if it has a “formal” object, (de Sousa 2007, 5) defined as property x must have, or norm x must be respected, and if a specific emotional episode is oriented towards something (the “material” or “particular” object, which is in line with the formal object). Accounts that simply identify emotions with awareness of bodily change are not considered intentional. Alternatively to a general cognitive theory of emotions, it can be considered that certain emotions are specifically cognitive in one of the above senses.

Emotions motivate activities. (see case study from (Thagard 2002)). This makes them important for knowledge. Emotions are mechanisms that make us learn something. (Wilson și Keil 2001, 274–75) The distinction between discovery and justification contexts suggests that emotion motivation is not epistemologically relevant. But it can be counter-argued by shifting the epistemological attention from the result pursued to the pursuit itself (from knowledge and / or true belief to epistemic activities and cognitive agents). Both Elgin (Elgin 1999, 121–22) and Hookway (Hookway 2000) believe that the justification of beliefs can be conceived as dependent on the history of their acquisition. “And since beliefs have to be evaluated in relation to cognitive actions, their evaluation may also depend on the identity and properties of desires, goals, mechanisms, motivations and virtues.” (Brun) Because emotions with motivational force can be themselves normatively evaluated, they could be included. in the justifications of the beliefs. (Fairweather și Zagzebski 2001)

De Sousa believes that emotions can be a source for importance and relevance. (de Sousa 2007, 137) According to De Sousa’s argument, emotions, acting as sources of cleanliness, influence the necessary reduction of the number of actions and consequences in the case of an extremely large number of such possibilities. (Ketelaar și Todd 2001, 200–203) Emotions can become evident when they focus on certain aspects of a situation, acting as “spotlights”, (Peters 2006, 458) in extremely complex ways. Thus, Elgin regards emotion as “a frame of mind or pattern of attention that synchronizes feelings, attitudes, actions, and circumstances.” (Elgin 1999, 148) As sources of relevance and highlighting, emotions are themselves assessments, and can in turn be evaluated.

Brun (Brun et al. 2008) also consider salience as an example of epistemic immediacy, and the relevance of emotions helps if distinction between alternative scenarios is needed. (Goldman 1986) Brun also argues that emotions are an additional source of knowledge, arguing that emotions provide epistemic access to otherwise inaccessible facts; a weaker argument is that emotions can be sources of true beliefs, but they are not indispensable. According to Elgin, emotions provide epistemic access to certain response-dependent properties that are directly related to emotions.(Brun et al. 2008, 164–65)

Some authors argue that emotions are not just reactions to stimuli, they are influenced by beliefs, thus giving access to more general facts (e.g. (Goldie 2004, 94–99)) by being “sensitive to information”. (Elgin 1999, 156) In support of the strong claim that epistemically accessible facts exist only through emotions, Elgin refers to emotions that provide epistemic access to one’s own propositional attitudes and commitments, provided that someone else knows how to interpret those emotions, (Elgin 1999, 159–61) an aspect imposed by the models of emotional intelligence. Cognitive theories of emotions claim that emotions embody beliefs or other propositional content. Critics of the epistemological significance of emotions invoke the distinction between the context of discovery and the context of justification, and consider that epistemological relevance cannot be claimed for emotions in general, but only for a subset of epistemically specific emotions, and some of the mental states that epistemologists have invoked recently as emotions are not really emotions.

A long-standing debate concerns the extent to which the objects of emotions must be identified with their causes. Scarantino and de Sousa consider that a taxonomy of the different types of possible emotional objects is needed, defining a formal object, essential for defining a particular emotion, as a property implicitly attributed by emotion to its objective or propositional object, by virtue of whose emotion can be seen as intelligible. (Scarantino și de Sousa 2018) Darwin considered that emotional expressions once served functions, but now accompany particular emotions because of their usefulness in communication. (Darwin și Prodger 1998) Paul Ekman argues that emotional expressions are important parts of “affect programs” – complex responses found in all human populations that are controlled by mechanisms that function below the level of consciousness. (Ekman, Friesen, și Ellsworth 1972)

Cognitivists usually argue that emotions involve propositional attitudes. Some of them universalize this feature and argue that any emotion must involve some kind of attitude toward a sentence. Critics of cognitive theories assume that there are various confusions in the very concept of “knowledge” that have blurred most of the concepts that invoke this term. (Power și Dalgleish 2007) (Debes 2009) John Deigh states that these theories have the effect of excluding language-impaired animals and infants. (Deigh 1994) A frequent criticism is the “fear of flying” objection: propositional attitudes are neither necessary nor sufficient for the existence of an emotion, because I can be aware that flight is the safest means of transport and yet I am afraid of flight. (Stocker și Hegeman 1996) An analogy with perceptual illusions can be suggested here, which sometimes the right faith fails to dispel (“recalcitrant emotions”). It is impossible to assimilate at least some emotions, to judgment or to faith. (Solomon, Solomon, și Press 2004) (Brady 2009) One counterargument would be that this objection only sets the difference between the propositional content of emotion and that of belief, not that the emotions have no propositional content at all. (Peacocke 2001)

An important goal of the cognitivist theories is to avoid taxing emotions as merely “subjective”. Sometimes emotions are subjective in the sense that they reflect only something that belongs exclusively and contingently to the subject’s mind. The connection between emotion and knowledge can be argued by demonstrating the analogy between emotions and perceptions. Another way to argue this connection is to highlight the role of emotions as a framework for more conventional type of cognitions. (de Sousa 1987) (A. Rorty 1980) Under this framework, emotions are specific perceptions – ways of seeing. There is a long-term narrative approach to emotions, (A. O. Rorty 1987) according to which a story unfolds during each emotional episode, (de Sousa 1987) to which a certain “paradigm scenario” corresponds. Later, the respective stories are completed and perfected by art. Scenarios involve both a type of situation that provides the characteristic objects and a set of answers. Thus, we get to interpret various real situations through the prism of different paradigm scenarios, modifying our inherent perceptual and cognitive dispositions.

There is a debate about the philosophical theories of emotions regarding the possibility of developing a uniform theory of emotions. Amélie Rorty and Paul Griffiths have argued that emotions are not a natural type. (Solomon, Solomon, și Press 2004, 269–78) (Griffiths 2004, 76–88) Thus, Rorty argues that there is no clear distinction between emotions and other mental states, and therefore the philosophy of emotions should be integrated into a comprehensive framework. of a philosophy of mind. (Solomon 2004, 84) Griffiths argues that diversity of emotions does not allow for a unified scientific theory, that is, the category of emotions cannot be used to reliably obtain the inductive generalizations that scientists need to explain the mechanisms underlying emotions. Brun’s conclusion is that certain emotions perform some epistemic functions – perhaps only in certain circumstances – while other emotions are not appropriate for these functions or are completely epistemologically irrelevant. (Brun et al. 2008)

In order to identify the basic teleology of emotions (for what they are), one can start from the trichotomy introduced by David Marr. (Marr 1982) For this purpose we take into the subfunctions that the natural selection has created to perform the functions that are said to be affected by the emotion, and the actual neuro-physiological processes through which these sub-functions are normally performed. Simpler, universal emotions are determined by the basic needs of organisms, (Ekman, Friesen, și Ellsworth 1972) have proven to be universal. Griffiths argued that only Ekman’s six core programs form natural types. Charland  counter-argued that a sufficient level of homology can be found to unite at least the basic emotions as a class,(Charland 2002) supporting Panksepp’s integrated mechanism with seven basic emotions. (Panksepp 2000)

Dynamic systems theories have appeared relatively slowly, some of them relying on dynamic systems theory to model the evasive combination of unpredictability and patterned coherence found in evolution throughout individuality. (Magai și Haviland-Jones 2002)


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Nicolae Sfetcu
Email: nicolae@sfetcu.com

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Sfetcu, Nicolae, “Philosophy of Emotions”, SetThings (January 18, 2020), URL = https://www.setthings.com/en/philosophy-of-emotions/

  1. […] The emotion was excluded from knowledge since ancient times, when Democritus stated that “Medicine cures diseases of the body, wisdom frees the soul from emotions”. (Diels și Kranz 1951, 68 B 31) Such a view says that “reason should be … Read More […]

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