Emotions – Introduction

One of the central themes that runs throughout the debate on rationality is that of emotions and their purpose. There are a large number of papers and books available on the subjects, and over the next week or so, it is probably worthwhile summarising some of the main points. The particular articles produced here are from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Most of the articles over the next two week will be by Ronald de Sousa.


First published Mon 3 Feb, 2003

No aspect of our mental life is more important to the quality and meaning of our existence than emotions. They are what make life worth living, or sometimes ending. So it is not surprising that most of the great classical philosophers–Plato, Aristotle, Spinoza, Descartes, Hobbes, Hume–had recognizable theories of emotion, conceived as responses to certain sorts of events of concern to a subject, triggering bodily changes and typically motivating characteristic behavior. What is surprising is that in much of the twentieth-century philosophers of mind and psychologists tended to neglect them–perhaps because the sheer variety of phenomena covered by the word “emotion” and its closest neighbors tends to discourage tidy theory. In recent years, however, emotions have once again become the focus of vigorous interest in philosophy, as well as in other branches of cognitive science. In view of the proliferation of increasingly fruitful exchanges between researches of different stripes, it is no longer useful to speak of the philosophy of emotion in isolation from the approaches of other disciplines, particularly psychology, neurology and evolutionary biology. While it is quite impossible to do justice to those approaches here, some sidelong glances in their direction will aim to suggest their philosophical importance.

I begin by outlining some of the ways that philosophers have conceived of the place of emotions in the topography of the mind, particularly in their relation to bodily states, to motivation, and to beliefs and desires, as well as some of the ways in which they have envisaged the relation between different emotions. Most emotions have an intentional structure: we shall need to say something about what that means. Psychology and more recently evolutionary biology have offered a number of theories of emotions, stressing their function in the conduct of life. Philosophers have been especially partial to cognitivist theories, emphasizing analogies either with propositional judgments or with perception. But different theories implicitly posit different ontologies of emotion, and there has been some dispute about what emotions really are, and indeed whether they are any kind of thing at all. Emotions also raise normative questions: about the extent to which they can be said to be rational, or can contribute to rationality. In that regard the question of our knowledge of our own emotions is especially problematic, as it seems they are both the object of our most immediate awareness and the most powerful source of our capacity for self-deception. This results in a particularly ambivalent relation between emotions and morality. I will conclude with a recapitulation of the main positions defended by some three dozen philosophers of emotion in the past half century.

1. Emotions and the Topography of the Mind

2. Feeling Theories

3. Emotions and Intentional Objects

4. Psychological and Evolutionary Approaches

5. Cognitivist Theories

6. Perceptual Theories

7. The Ontology of Emotions

8. Rationality and Emotions

9. Emotions and Self-knowledge

10. Morality and Emotions

12. Conclusion: Adequacy Conditions on Theories of Emotion

Section 1 to be published on Monday (29th January)