Thursday, 1 October 2009

Intelligent Emotions

It has been suggested, most notably by Robert Solomon, that emotions are ways of engaging the world. This is an idea I find very appealing. Solomon has also insisted that emotions are a form of intelligence. The second claim—that emotions are a form or intelligence—is based on the thesis that emotions involve concepts. For example, Solomon claims that fear involves the concept of danger and that being angry involves the concept of offensiveness. There are at least two ways of interpreting what it means for emotions to involve concepts. On one reading, having an emotion requires that the agent be able to deploy certain concepts. So, being afraid actually requires that the agent possess and deploy the concept of danger. At times, Solomon seems committed to this view. However, he also attributes something like emotions (let’s call them proto-emotions) to animals that clearly lack conceptual capacities. (For example, he describes roaches that scatter when the light is turned on as exhibiting “something like” fear.)

I am reluctant to attribute anything like fear to roaches and other invertebrates that only exhibit (what ethologists refer to as) “fixed action patterns”; preferring to reserve the attribution of contentful mental states only to creatures that are capable of “instrumental learning”. Still, there seems to be a danger of hyper-intellectualisation in the claim that having an emotion requires the possession and deployment of certain concepts. It seems to me very implausible that, for example, a human infant can only be said to experience fear if it has the concept (in any robust sense of the word) of danger. I should, however, hasten to add that whether one finds the aforementioned proposal tenable depends on how one defines a concept. I tend to think of a concept as (at the very least) an inferentially promiscuous item; the upshot being that an infant who cannot employ the concept of danger in an inferentially promiscuous manner does not count as possessing the concept of danger. Still, there seems to be many different conceptions of concepts, and so there appears to be some wriggly room on this particular point.

Even so, I wish to point out that there is a weaker (and what I believe to be more plausible) reading of the claim that emotions involve concepts. On the weaker reading, emotions involve concepts in the sense that we must deploy certain concepts if we are to fully characterise or describe certain emotions. For example, when we describe what it means to be afraid, we must deploy the concept of danger. Otherwise, our description of the emotion will be incomplete. (In other words, merely referring to a set of physiological processes won’t be enough.) However, being afraid does not require that the agent experiencing the fear actually have and deploy the concept of danger. In short, we need to distinguish between needing concepts to describe a phenomenon or state of affairs and needing concepts to instantiate a phenomenon or state of affairs. For example, one needs the concept of mammary glands to describe what it is to be a mammal, but one does not need the concept of mammary glands to instantiate being a mammal. I believe an analogous point holds with respect to the emotions.


Tony Russo said...

I have a little trouble with the notion that emotions are ways of engaging the world, I think they're too far removed from experience for that. The view that reason and emotion have to somehow be reconciled and one proclaimed dominant has nagged at me forever. I think it might be better to think only in terms of experience and relating it (even relating it to ourselves).
My best brief analogy so far goes like this: reason is blue, emotion is yellow. Although they make green they have nothing to do with the color of a leaf but are necessary if we're to represent it. (For this to work the store has to have been all out of green paint, but you get my point).
I tried really hard but it takes too much work to accept Solomon's intelligent emotion. Further, too much of the reason/emotion debate feels as if it needs to explain one at the cost of the other.
But try and think as the baby you mentioned must. Falling is only the experience. Thinking about falling is one step removed from the experience. Like the leaf, it can only be recreated (that is, understood) by reconstructing it without re-experiencing it.


Hi Tony,
Thanks for the thoughtful feedback. I haven’t read enough of Solomon to arrive at a broad assessment of his views. However, the claim that emotions are ways of engaging the world (at least in a large number of cases) seems plausible to me. Consider the emotion of fear, which most psychologists consider one of the “basic emotions”. Roughly, to be afraid of X is for X to be represented as dangerous. This is to represent X as standing in a certain relation to oneself—one that reflects one’s concerns and interests. Moreover, to represent objects in the world as standing in a certain interest-laden relation to oneself just is to engage the world (at least as I understand the relevant sense of engagement).

Furthermore, it seems to me that many emotions (the basic ones in particular) are actually closely tied to experience. For example, the feeling of fear that a human infant (or puppy) undergoes while falling seems to arise in response to the experience of falling itself, and not in response to thoughts about falling. In fact, it is not clear that the infant (or puppy) even has thoughts about falling (in any sense robust enough to stand in contrast to its experience of falling). Moreover, many of us have had the experience of suddenly feeling afraid while walking through a dark alley, even before the thought occurred to us that we were somewhere dangerous. In fact, the feeling of being afraid may even give rise to the thought, instead of the other way around.

Finally, it seems to be often the case that our emotions influence or shape the nature of our experience. For example, my feelings of fear may cause me to perceive a spider as dangerous even though I firmly believe (i.e., think) it is harmless (as in the case of someone with arachnophobia). My fear may actually cause me to perceive the spider as about to strike, such that if I were not afraid I would not perceive the spider as about to strike. Consequently, emotions do not seem to be necessarily far removed from experience at all.

mike said...

I've been thinking about this for years and have come to the conclusion that emotions are food for some invisible force.We are basically dairy cows with blinders on.