What Are Emotions

In general terms, then, emotional sensitivity is a moral feature of personal interaction. But what are emotions? It is useful to first review some alternative views.

The first is the commonsense view in which emotion is thought to be an irreducible quality of feeling or sensation. It may be caused by physical states, but the emotion itself is the sensation we feel when we are in that state. It is a felt affect, a distinctive feeling, but not something dependent upon thought content or appraisals of situations. This view quickly appears faulty, however, when one realizes that on this view emotions become no more than private states—sensations such as itches and tickles that have little to do with what the emotions are about and how a person construes or represents those affairs.

A second view, associated with the American psychologist and philosopher William James and Danish physiologist Carl Lange is that emotions are an awareness of bodily changes in the musculature and viscera. We are afraid because we tremble or flee, not the other way around; likewise, we are angry because of the knots in our stomachs. This view, though rather counterintuitive, nonetheless captures the idea that emotions, more than other mental states, seem to have conspicuous physiological and kinesthetic components. These often dominate children's and adults' reports of their emotional experiences. They dominate the literary world, too. Consider in this vein the lines of the Greek poet Sappho composed around 600 b.c.e.:

When I see you, my voice fails, my tongue is paralyzed, a fiery fever runs through my whole body my eyes are swimming, and can see nothing my ears are filled with a throbbing din

I am shivering all over ...

Literary history, social convention, and perhaps evolution conspire to tell us this is love. But even here it is not hard to imagine that what is described could be dread or awe or perhaps, mystical inspiration. Even well-honed physiological feelings do not easily identify specific emotions. An awareness of our skin tingling or our chest constricting or our readiness to flee or fight do not specify just what emotion we are feeling. Many distinct emotions share these features, and without contextual clues and thoughts that dwell on those clues, we are in the dark about what we are experiencing (Schacter and Singer). The chief burden of the work of the American physiologist Walter B. Cannon was to show that many physiological affects are virtually identical across manifestly different states. While more current research suggests a tighter fit between specific emotions and specific autonomic system responses (such as skin temperature and heart rate), visceral responses such as these nevertheless have slow response times, too slow to determine what emotion one is actually feeling at a given time (LeDoux). So Cannon's general insight about the indeterminacy of the "feel" of an emotion still holds, though for different reasons than the ones he offered.

A third view with some kinship to the James-Lange view holds that emotions are felt action tendencies (Arnold). They are modes of readiness to act or, in the different idiom of psychoanalysis, discharge impulses. Supporting this view is the tendency of people to describe emotions in terms of dispositions to concrete behavior, for example, "I felt like hitting him," "I could have exploded," "I wanted to spit," and "I wanted to be alone with him, wrapped in his embrace." Nevertheless, the action tendency view seems at best a partial account of emotion. The basic issue here is not that some emotions such as apathy, inhibition, and depression seem to lack activation modes—while others are more a matter of the rich movement of thought so well depicted, for example, in Henry James's novels. It is rather that emotions are about something (internal or external) that people represent in thought. As such, emotions have propositional or cognitive content. They are identified by that content, by what we dwell on, whether fleetingly or with concentrated attention.

According to a fourth and most plausible view, emotions are constituted by appraisals or cognitive evaluations. (This is the view the fourth-century b.c.e. Greek philosopher

Aristotle developed in the Rhetoric, and a view the Stoics put forth in more radical form. It is the clear favorite of most philosophers of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries—for a sampling, see de Sousa, 1987; Stocker; Goldie; Nussbaum, 2001. It is also the reigning view in cognitive psychology—see Lazarus; Oatley; Frijda; Scherer, and for an important criticism, see Zajonc.) Such an account need not exclude other features of emotion, such as awareness of physiological and behavioral responses or a particular phenomenological feel. But these, when present, are dependent on the appraisals of circumstances that capture what the emotion is about. Moreover, it is compatible with this view that emotions have complex neuropsychological structures that can be investigated by science.

To be more precise, an appraisal, on this view, is a belief or evaluation about the goodness or badness of some perceived or imagined event. Anger requires an evaluation that one has been unjustly slighted by another, fear that there is present harm or danger, grief that something valuable has been lost, love that one values a person as supremely important in one's life. On the Aristotelian view, the evaluation is experienced with pleasure or pain, and in some, but not all, cases with a reactive desire, not unlike the earlier mentioned action tendency. According to Aristotle, "Anger is a desire [orexis] accompanied by pain toward the revenge ofwhat one regards as a slight toward oneself or one's friends that is unwarranted" (Rhetoric, 1378a30-32).

The appraisals constitutive of emotions can be weaker than strict beliefs (P. Greenspan). Thus, many of the thoughts that ground emotions are not judgments to which we would give assent, but are rather thoughts, perceptions, imaginings, and construals (phantasiai, Aristotle would say) that we dwell on in compelling ways, though without concern about "objective truth." Familiar sorts of examples illustrate the point. Juan may fear spiders, even though he knows that most spiders he is likely to encounter are harmless; or Clarissa may know that Joe is a no-good lover for her, but she still finds herself yearning for him. In these cases emotions have thought contents or appraisals, though ones that are at odds with more circumspect judgment. They are mental states that seem to lag behind what a person is ready to grasp through belief.

On an Aristotelian view, appraisals constitutive of emotions have a qualitative flavor—a feeling of pleasure or pain. The flavor may be intense or mild, present to consciousness or hidden somewhere as background noise. So, for example, a patient reflecting on her illness may have fears that all may not turn out well, even though she never feels any strong or noticeable tension when she focuses on that thought. Some emotions may be felt as a mix of both pleasure and pain. Even a quick "flash" of emotion, such as a

"twinge" of envy, can seem to oscillate quickly from one affective pole to another, from pain at another's good fortune to pleasure at being in a position to slight that person.

Aristotle suggests that many emotions have a motivational aspect, that is, they involve a reason or motive for action. Again, recognition of the diversity and variety of emotions is crucial here. Some emotions, such as calmness, confidence, and equanimity do not in an obvious way involve desires for action. In contrast, anger often involves a desire for revenge, just as envy seems to involve a desire to thwart others from having various goods. These sorts of desires can go on to constitute a motive or reason for full-fledged action, although often we train ourselves not to act, and not to take as a motive for action all our impulses and desires. In some cases, we act out our emotions only in our minds, as when out of anger, we slay the object of our anger in our fantasy life. Here impulses and urgings are present, but they are not taken up as reasons for action.

At yet other times we do externally act out our emotions but in a way in which that emotion still seems to fall short of constituting a full-fledged reason or motive for action. In anger, we sometimes act impulsively, slamming doors and storming out of rooms. This is a venting, a way of letting out tension, not a strategy for sweet revenge. Defiling a photograph of an ex-lover comes closer to the mark, for here at least there is symbolic aim. Nevertheless, these cases of anger do not really aim at effective revenge. They are reactive more than purposeful. And yet, they seem to be voluntary. They are certainly not the involuntary responses of the viscera. Like stroking a patient's brow or tousling a child's hair, emotion motivates the action. These two actions are likely done out of compassion and affection. But it seems strained, at least in some of these cases, to say that one does these actions in order to show compassion or affection—which is the common pattern a demand for reasons often takes. The gesture just expresses compassion or affection. The explanation stops there. It is not like drinking in order to slake thirst, in which drinking strategically promotes that end (Hursthouse).

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