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Gut ReactionsReview - Gut Reactions
A Perceptual Theory of Emotion
by Jesse J. Prinz
Oxford University Press, 2004
Review by Adele Tomlin
Mar 22nd 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 12)

Are emotions constituted by feelings, thoughts or both? The emotional phenomenon of 'heartbreak' (which is well-documented in Western popular culture) supports the commonly held view that emotions consist of bodily feelings and sensations. Most people when asked to articulate the emotion of heartbreak would refer to the sensation of pain in the heart or chest. However, despite much empirical evidence for this common view of the emotions, various philosophers and psychologists, over the past few decades, have criticized it as being flawed or untenable. Although not always dispensing completely with the link between emotion and body, such theorists have claimed that emotions are rational and cognitive (i.e. not irrational, passive bodily feelings) because they involve judgments and thoughts (i.e. cognitions). In his excellent new book, Gut Reactions: A Perceptual Theory of the Emotion, Jesse Prinz challenges this trend for cognitive theories of emotion via a re-examination and consideration of the notion of emotion as connected to the body. Prinz concludes that emotion is connected to the body far more than most cognitive theories allow or recognize.  For Prinz, emotions are somatic (they are perceptions (conscious or unconscious) of patterned changes in the body) even though they are also fundamentally semantic.  In the first chapter of the book, Prinz gives a lucid and interesting review of contemporary theories of emotion. This is an excellent introduction for the reader who is unfamiliar with scientific and philosophical research on emotion.  The second chapter is a detailed discussion of the prevailing cognitive theories and Prinz's claim that emotions are not cognitive. Other chapters in the book consider important questions such as the role of nature and nurture in emotions, how moods and motivations relate to emotions, emotional valence and the distinction between positive and negative emotions.  For the purposes of this review, I will focus on the second chapter which forms the basis for Prinz's overall thesis.

According to cognitive theories, emotions involve judgments as to what we do and don't care about; they evaluate, assess and appraise.  For example, a person cannot be genuinely angry with someone unless they think that someone has done some wrong to them. If someone has betrayed one's trust, one may feel indignation regardless as to whether their behavior has had genuinely harmful effects. For cognitive theorists, the arousal of the emotion 'anger' in this kind of case involves a judgment (or propositional attitude) that ethical behavior is not just about consequences of actions. Although philosophical cognitive theories of emotion differ in some respects from those offered by psychology, Prinz argues that cognitive theories are generally united by three core claims. First, that the cognitive components of emotion are something above and beyond the bodily changes or inner states, i.e. they are disembodied. Second, emotions are identified with appraisal judgments and these appraisals can be used to individuate emotions. Third, emotions require the possession of complex concepts. In summary, cognitive theories are united by their vision of emotions as conceptualized, disembodied, appraisals.

Prinz's objections to cognitive theories are well supported and persuasive. First, the fact that emotions take propositional objects does not entail that they must be constituted by propositional attitudes or comparable cognitive states (Prinz gives the example of feeling sickened by something as demonstrating this). Second, Prinz is critical of the intuitive approach relied on by some philosophers. As we all know, intuitions can be idiosyncratic and theoretically biased. For Prinz, the intuition (found in many philosophical cognitive theories) that one cannot be angry at someone without believing that someone acted wrongfully can be easily doubted. It is perfectly intelligible for someone to say that a drug made them feel angry. Conceptual analysis of emotions is also prey to our intuitive beliefs about emotions and thus is prone to error. For example, the things I may have learned about emotions from others' testimony or from my own musings may be inaccurate; there is no guarantee therefore that conceptual analysis will give me a correct theory of what emotions are. As Prinz eloquently puts it philosophical "reflection may reveal more about the person reflecting than about the phenomenon on which she is reflecting." The point Prinz is making here is that the reason some people support or sign up to a cognitive theory of emotion may be more to do with their own view or experience of emotion as opposed to an objective analysis. Many of us will have come across or know people whose 'emotional life' seems quite dead or dull (mainly because they do not report or experience emotions as deeply or powerfully as we do). Although it is certainly understandable that a person who has never really experienced the searing power of a bodily emotional response may find the cognitive theory of emotion more 'intuitively' appealing, that is not evidence for its universal correctness. As Prinz argues in another paper on this subject, we can justifiably dismiss the cognitive theorists' supposed examples of disembodied emotions (such as the aesthetic emotion felt by the well-trained art critic or enduring love) as 'vague imitations' or as insincere. To avoid these intuitive errors, and to make our theories more objective, Prinz advises a combination of philosophical reflection and conceptual analysis with scientific data.

The issue at stake here is not whether thoughts can indeed effect emotions (this is an obvious truism according to Prinz) but whether we can a) identify the thoughts that influence the emotion and b) whether thoughts are necessary for emotions. Prinz effectively points out that experimental evidence does not categorically show either a) or b), particularly as many experiments rely on subjects' self-introspection (which is not always reliable) and is often guided by very specific, leading questions. According to Prinz, the way to respond to these issues is to clarify what we mean by cognition. For Prinz, there is a difference between a cognition (or a thought) and a cognitive act (or thinking). One can have thoughts without thinking.  Prinz argues that emotions do not occur as acts of cognition, that most of the time emotions are passive: "When we react to a snake or an exam, it is not by act of will. We do not choose to be afraid. In fact we often explicitly try not to be afraid." So if emotions do not involve acts of cognition are they cognitive? According to cognitive theorists the answer is yes. The ability to imagine emotions such as anger, joy and fear suggests that we exercise cognitive control over our emotions. However, as Prinz effectively argues, our capacity to willfully generate emotions (based on memory) does not mean that our everyday emotional episodes are conceptual (i.e. thoughts). The fact that we have stored copies of our emotions in memory does not render them cognitive just as the fact that we have the concept red does not make ordinary red experiences conceptual. Moreover we may have no concepts, or capacity, to recognize some of our emotions. In conclusion, Prinz claims that most of the time emotions are not generated by acts of cognition and are not conceptual.

Although Prinz does not think that emotions are cognitive, he is nonetheless concerned that somatic theories of emotion do not adequately address the intentionality of emotions. Prinz's aim is to fix this problem without abandoning the core idea of somatic theories. To do this, Prinz concludes that emotions are embodied appraisals (explored in detail in Chapter 10) and his argument for this conclusion is overwhelming persuasive.  First, Prinz marshals together substantial empirical evidence which confirms the claim that emotions are embodied. The most famous example is the 'subtraction argument', offered by James and Lange, which claims that if we imagine an emotion and then subtract all bodily changes characteristic of that emotion we are left with no 'mind-stuff' out of which the emotion can be constituted.  There is also empirical evidence that people with spinal chord injuries or bodily anaesthesia show a major reduction in emotion.  Furthermore, we often voluntarily change our bodily states to impact our undesirable emotions (e.g. "smiles produce happiness").  Also, direct scientific evidence comes from functional neuroimaging studies which show that when people experience emotions, brain areas that detect bodily changes are activated.  Second, and central to Prinz's claim about emotions being appraisals (albeit embodied ones), is Lazarus's notion of 'core relational themes', i.e. organism/environment relations that bear on well-being. Examples of core relational themes are dangers, losses, threats, achievements and transgressions. In each case, there is an object, situation or event that bears some relation to the organism. On the somatic theory, emotions are perceptions of bodily states that are caused by changes in the body.  For Prinz, if those changes in the body are reliably caused by the instantiation of core relational themes, then our perceptions of the body may also represent those themes (if we follow contemporary theories of mental representation whereby a mental state gets its intentional content in virtue of being reliably caused). We do not, therefore, have to abandon the core idea of the somatic theory in order to capture the intentionality of emotions. An appraisal, for Prinz, is not an evaluative judgment, but any representation of an organism/environment relation that bears on well-being. Certain bodily perceptions have this property and thus carry information about how we are faring in the world.

Prinz's book is utterly compelling and a valuable read for any student or researcher of the emotions, philosophy of mind and perception. Although the book is superbly written, a lot of the language is technical and many of the issues discussed do require a reasonable familiarity with theories in philosophy and cognitive science.  One objection to Prinz's thesis is that it involves an acceptance of his theoretical claims about cognitions, perceptions and mental representations (which people may want to take issue with). (For more information on Prinz's theory about concepts see his book  Furnishing the Mind: Concepts and their Perceptual Basis (2002) reviewed by James R Beebe on Metapsychology in March 2002).  However, based on the evidence and argument in this book, there is no clear reason why we cannot accept Prinz's commitments and conclusion.  The notion that our bodies have the capacity to appraise, and thus carry and generate meaning, is not only very interesting but also confirms our everyday experience of emotion. Following Plato and Descartes, Western philosophy has often blindly accepted the view that the mind (or brain depending on your theoretical commitments) is the sole carrier and producer of rational thought and understanding. Philosophers who have challenged this view include Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger and, over the past few decades, feminist thinkers who have successfully argued that the privileging of 'mind' over 'body' has played a significant role in a sexist hierarchy of language, where 'mind' is male and 'body' is female (with 'body' implicitly meaning inferior and irrational). However, historical assumptions are hard to shift and even though nowadays it is generally accepted that most communication is non-verbal, many philosophers still privilege conceptual thought and speech as producers and bearers of meaning and understanding. The idea that our bodies carry significant emotional information, and with that the capacity for meaning and understanding, is not to degrade or diminish our emotions. By recognizing that our emotions are embodied we give them real substance. In summary then, our 'gut reactions' to situations or people are not necessarily irrational and may tell us a lot more about ourselves and the world than our mind could ever know or conceptualize. Or as Shakespeare famously put it: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

 

© 2005 Adele Tomlin

 

Adele Tomlin is a PhD student in Philosophy at King's College, London and a Visiting Lecturer in the Philosophy Department, University of Hertfordshire. Her current research is on the value and significance of emotion in both ethical and aesthetic experience. Forthcoming publications include Aesthetic Experience and Perception (Routledge), co-edited with Prof. Richard Shusterman. More information on Adele can be found at her website  http://www.freewebs.com/atomgirl/cv.htm


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