Feeling Theories

2. Feeling Theories

The simplest theory of emotions, and perhaps the theory most representative of common sense, is that emotions are simply a class of feelings, differentiated from sensation and proprioceptions by their experienced quality. William James proposed a variant of this view (commonly known as the “James-Lange” theory of emotion, after James and Carl G. Lange) according to which emotions are specifically feelings caused by changes in physiological conditions relating to the autonomic and motor functions. When we perceive that we are in danger, for example, this perception sets off a collection of bodily responses, and our awareness of these responses is what constitutes fear. James thus maintained that “we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble, and [it is] not that we cry, strike, or tremble, because we are sorry, angry, or fearful, as the case may be” (James 1884, 190). One problem with this theory is that it is unable to give an adequate account of the differences between emotions. This objection was first voiced by Walter Cannon (1929). According to James, what distinguishes emotions is the fact that each involves the perception of a unique set of bodily changes. Cannon claimed, however, that the visceral reactions characteristic of distinct emotions such as fear and anger are identical, and so these reactions cannot be what allow us to tell emotions apart. The same conclusion is usually drawn from an oft-cited experiment performed by Stanley Schacter and Jerome Singer (1962). Subjects in their study were injected with epinephrine, a stimulant of the sympathetic system. Schacter and Singer found that these subjects tended to interpret the arousal they experienced either as anger or as euphoria, depending on the type of situation they found themselves in. Some were placed in a room where an actor was being angry; others were placed in a room where an actor was being silly and euphoric. In both cases the subjects’ mood tended to follow that of the actor. The conclusion most frequently drawn is that, although some forms of general arousal are easily labeled in terms of some emotional state, there is no hope of finding in physiological states any principle of distinction between specific emotions. The differentiae of specific emotions are not physiological, but cognitive or something else.

Subsequent research has shown that a limited number of emotions do, in fact, have significantly different bodily profiles. (LeDoux 1996; Panksepp 1998) However, bodily changes and the feelings accompanying these changes get us only part way towards an adequate taxonomy. To account for the differences between guilt, embarrassment, and shame, for example, a plausible theory will have to look beyond physiology and common-sense phenomenology.

Another problem with feeling theories is that they tempt one to treat emotions as brute facts, no doubt susceptible of biological or psychological explanation but not otherwise capable of being rationalized. Emotions, however, are capable of being not only explained, but also justified–they are closely related to the reasons that give rise to them. If someone angers me, I can cite my antagonist’s deprecatory tone; if someone makes me jealous, I can point to his poaching on my emotional property. (Taylor 1975).

Both of these problems — that of differentiating individual emotions, and that of accounting for emotions’ various ties to rationality — can be traced, at least in part, to a more fundamental oversight. Feeling theories, by assimilating emotions to sensations, fail to take account of the fact that emotions are typically directed at intentional objects. This defect is to some extent mitigated in what might be regarded as a more sophisticated “feeling theory” elaborated by Antonio Damasio (1999). On Damasio’s view the capacity for emotions involves a capacity for the brain to monitor the body’s past and hypothetical responses, both in the autonomic and the voluntary systems, in terms of “somatic markers”. The association of characteristic bodily states with past and hypothetical experiences and responses establishes some connection between the emotion and the absent world, but falls short of fully explicating the intentional nature of emotion.

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