How we feel

Oxford University Press: 1997. Pp. 187 £18.99, $25 What Emotions Really Are: The Problem of Psychological Categories University of Chicago Press: 1997. Pp. 286.$27.50, £21.95

The common theme of these two books is human emotion. Friday's Footprint explores the contribution of emotion to the shaping of a sense of self. What Emotions Really Are provides a dense exploration of our vernacular concepts of emotion. Both books, in their own ways, are important contributions to this expanding and important area of enquiry.

The title of Friday's Footprint turns out to be an oblique reference to the fateful encounter in Robinson Crusoe. It echoes the author's longstanding interest and belief in the social basis of mental life. Leslie Brothers’ conjecture that socialization is central to the development of a concept of self and others is bolstered by data from primate and human pathological studies. The latter include syndromes such as Capgras's, in which a person comes to believe that somebody close to them has been replaced by a physically identical double, and infantile autism, which is proposed to represent a failure to develop a concept of others.

In keeping with a social interactionist view of mind, Brothers proposes that brain circuitry associated with emotional and evaluative processing is central in the development of a sense of self. An important idea is that a dedicated neural circuit, referred to as an editor, is specialized for processing behaviourally relevant aspects of the social environment.

This editor is not some high-level central system but a mechanism that signals the adaptive value of incoming sensory signals. The neural structure best fitted to meet the necessary requirements is the amygdala. Visual signals derived from the human face are put centre stage in view of its importance in emotional expression, paralinguistic display and verbalization.

What comes as a surprise is that Brothers has profound difficulties with the entire concept of emotion. Anathema to her is the implicit idea that emotion is an attribute of an isolated mind rather than, in her view, an expression of evolved mechanisms for communication and behavioural regulation. Much hostility is expressed towards the influential proposal for a fractionation of emotion into discrete subtypes as implicit in the concept of basic emotions. Brothers’ ideas in this respect hark back to those of the behaviourist philosopher Gilbert Ryle, particulary in her formulation that what is distinct about emotions is their associated action tendencies. Just because speakers of English tactitly agree on the use of the word emotion, that does not guarantee its neurobiological validity.

In What Emotions Really Are, Paul Griffiths addresses the meaning of vernacular categories of emotion. Books on emotion often get bogged down in repetitive distillations of the multiple accounts of emotion that span the social to the biological. Griffiths's approach is refreshing in that he gets to the heart of the matter by dismissing as inadequate accounts of emotion subsumed by the general umbrella term of ‘propositional attitudes’.

Griffiths also argues persuasively that cognitive theory explains very little about emotions. Emotional responses do not adjust themselves as readily as belief when new information about the environment is acquired. An example of this lack of fit between an emotional response and conscious evaluation would be a phobia. Griffiths echoes Brothers in identifying vernacular categories as a source of conceptual confusion and the absence of a priori reasons to assume that these categories have a necessary existence independent of language. A scientific psychology requires the refinement of emotion concepts to serve explanation and induction usefully.

Griffiths proposes that the general category of emotion should be replaced by, at a minimum, two distinct concepts. One would subsume the affect programs corresponding roughly to vernacular concepts of surprise, anger, fear, sadness, joy and disgust. The unity of this group is reflected in the fact that the associated affects are complex, coordinated and largely automated response patterns indexed in facial, musculoskeletal, vocal and autonomic nervous system outputs.

It should be stressed that affect programs do not explain all instances of the corresponding vernacular concepts. For instance, anger can vary from an affect program manifesting as spontaneous rage to more complex states as in plans for long-term redress of a wrong.

The latter type would best be subsumed under a second concept of emotion, distinct from the affect programs, termed the higher cognitive emotions, which account for emotions such as envy and shame. This second category describes what Griffiths terms irruptive motivations designed to enforce commitment to behaviourial strategies that would not fit with the calculations of self-interest.

The higher cognitive emotions are also characterized by their ability to access beliefs and desires. In this regard, higher cognitive emotions are more flexible in expression than the highly stereotyped responses of affect programs.

Griffiths accepts that there is no adequate framework for research into higher cognitive emotions but rejects any assumption that they represent an elaboration of more basic affects. His assumption is that, like the basic affects, these emotions are amenable to an evolutionary explanation.

It is difficult to do justice to Griffiths in a short review. His analysis of the concept of emotion and his proposal for the future direction of the field is the most compelling and best argued I have read. What Emotions Really Are makes a strong claim to be one of the best books to have emerged on the subject of human emotion.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

• Contractual Tax Reform

• Michael B. Abramowicz
•  & Andrew Blair-Stanek

SSRN Electronic Journal (2019)

• Emotions as Natural and Normative Kinds

• Paul E. Griffiths

Philosophy of Science (2004)