A formulation of the basic emotion debate in terms of the philosophy of emotion

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In Chapter 2 we argued that the concept of emotion includes an event, a perception or interpretation, an appraisal, physiological change, a propensity for action, and conscious awareness. We further suggested that emotion as a paradigm case could also embrace overt behaviour. Within this conceptualisation we suggested that, in philosophical terms, it is only meaningful to distinguish one emotion from another on the basis of the appraisal component. That is to say, an emotion is specified as, for example, one of fear or one of sadness due to the nature of its appraisal component. We noted in Chapter 2 that a case can be made for distinguishing emotions on the basis of core components other than appraisal. For example, a number of authors such as William James have suggested that emotions can be distinguished on the basis of physiology (see Panksepp, 1998, for a review). In considering this argument, it is important to remember that the physiological component of emotion must principally be involved in preparing the system to carry out any behaviour necessary to satisfy the propensity-for-action component of the emotion. While there may be differences in this behaviour between emotions, we have argued in Chapter 2 that there is also considerable overlap and that it is not possible to distinguish emotions on the basis of their behavioural correlates alone. For example, both fear and anger can be associated with the expression of aggression and the behaviour of fighting. Of course it is possible that, despite the similarities in associated behaviour, the emotions of fear and anger could still be characterised by distinctive neurophysiological activity. However, unless this is clearly demonstrated by the empirical data, which we review in more detail below, there seems no need to endorse such a strong view. It is more parsimonious to propose that there are a number of distinct autonomic states associated with emotion, but that some states may be associated with more than one emotion and hence one cannot distinguish emotions on the basis of physiology alone.

A similar logic can be applied to the other core components of emotion, which are cited as candidates for distinguishing emotions from one another, namely propensity for action and interpretation. Different emotions can give rise to similar propensities for action, and similar interpretations can give rise to different emotions. For example, as we noted in Chapter 2, the interpretation that "the bear is going to eat me" can be a component of fear or exhilaration or both.

Having reiterated our proposed conceptualisation of emotions and underlined the point that emotions can only be meaningfully distinguished on the basis of their appraisal components, we can turn to the concept of a basic emotion. A common criticism of basic emotions is that they are an empirically driven concept with little theoretical justification (Ortony & Turner, 1990). In addition, there are numerous conflicting definitions and proposals about what basic emotions are. At this point we would like to examine the concept of basicness within the theoretical framework presented above, with the aim of providing a more powerful analysis of what it might mean to call an emotion basic. Within the framework that we have proposed, basic emotions would clearly be a small set of core emotions in the form of combinations of the components of event, interpretation, physiological change, appraisal, propensity for action, and conscious awareness. Furthermore, each emotion in this core set would be distinguished on the basis of its own distinct appraisal parameters; for example, threat in the case of fear. This analysis of basic emotions allows for the possibility that different basic emotions could include similar physiological change components or be associated with similar behavioural correlates, including facial expression.

So, what do we mean by the term basic in this analysis of basic emotions? What are the inclusion criteria for our small core list? There seem to be two possible replies to these questions; what we might call a strong basic emotion theory and a weak basic emotion theory. A strong version of the basic emotion theory would be to suggest that there is a universal set of appraisal scenarios found in all cultures, that these appraisal scenarios are distinct from each other, and that they cannot be reduced to more fundamental appraisal components. Those emotions that include these core appraisal scenarios as components can rightly be called basic. This line of argument is akin to the traditional type of interpretation of the word basic, which suggests pan-cultural, universal facial expressions or physiology associated with different emotions (see below). A weaker form of the basic emotion theory would be to argue that there are a number of common and central appraisal scenarios, distinct from each other, which emerge in human societies and which underlie and shape emotional development.

However, the existence and development of these appraisal scenarios will differ somewhat across cultures. Within this model, basic emotions would be those emotions that include these most common, central appraisal scenarios in their conceptualisation.

In sum, most researchers in the area of basic emotions have argued for a core set of emotions that can be distinguished by distinct universal or physiological components. We propose that a basic emotion is one that incorporates one of a core set of basic scenarios that may be either distinct and universal or merely distinct, ubiquitous, and subject to minor variation.

Having constructed such an appraisal-driven conceptual framework for basic emotions, it is important to outline the type of empirical data that would be seen as supportive of such a conceptualisation. Clearly the most useful evidence would consist of data in support of the existence of a set of universal appraisal scenarios, each one distinct from each other and a component of a different basic emotion. Unfortunately, there is an almost complete absence of research of this kind (see below). Much of the research that is cited and carried out under the basic emotion banner concentrates on other components of the emotional experience such as physiological change, behavioural correlates, or stimulus events. There are a number of possible reasons for this focus; for example, the conceptualisations of emotion that drive the research, when there are any, are usually different from the one we have outlined. Also, research that looks at overt behaviour such as facial expression is easier to carry out than research that considers mental concepts such as appraisal scenarios. This means that the search for a core set of basic appraisal scenarios must remain, for the time being at least, largely theoretically driven. However, there is still an important role for evidence of basicness gathered from looking at other components of the emotional experience. The reason for this is that the potential remains that, by looking at the question of basicness for a number of the components of the emotional experience including appraisal, we will be able to triangulate to a small list of emotions that could be called basic. In the next section we review briefly the various strands of evidence that pertain to this question and consider whether such a list emerges.

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