In this section we will first raise the major questions about what an emotion is, about what the cognitive approach to psychology is in general, and about the form that a cognitive approach to emotion might take. We will also return to these questions in more detail in Chapter 2, where a number of subsidiary questions will be considered from a historical viewpoint.
What is an emotion? The question of exactly what an emotion is has been variously addressed by philosophers through the centuries and, in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, by psychologists and neuroscientists also. Two key traditions can be identified. The first stems from Plato's dualistic philosophy that came to dominate Christian theology, and which reached its height with the work of René Descartes. This approach, in its various forms, came to be known as "feeling theory". In essence, the phenomenal or conscious "feeling" occurs in a psychic or spiritual domain, but it is normally considered to be a by-product of a bodily process. For example, in William James' (1884) classic version of feeling theory the bodily process or reaction, such as trembling or running away, is considered to be the cause of the conscious feeling of anxiety, not the other way round, in contrast to the typical folk psychology belief. The most extreme step in the development of this approach was taken in Watson's (e.g., 1919) Behaviorism in which mental states such as feelings were considered outside the scope of science, which he restricted to objects or situations (stimuli) and to bodily responses (behaviour and physiology). As we will discuss in more detail in Chapter 2, despite feeling theories having dominated the approach to emotion for over 2000 years, there has been a shift away from them since the latter half of the twentieth century. Plato's approach has nevertheless left its mark on how we view emotion as "irrational" and in conflict with reason, as in the Platonic "wandering uterus" theory that provides the origin of the concept of hysteria:
In men the organ of generation - becoming rebellious and masterful, like an animal disobedient to reason, and maddened with the sting of lust - seeks to gain absolute sway; and the same is the case with the . . . womb . . . of women; the animal within them is desirous of procreating children, and when remaining unfruitful long beyond its proper time, gets discontented and angry, and wandering in every direction through the body, closes up the passages of the breath, and by obstructing respiration, drives them to extremity, causing all varieties of diseases. (from The Timaeus; Jowett, 1953, p. 779)
The second major tradition stems from Aristotle, one of Plato's better students in the Athens Academy. Aristotle argued that in order to understand something we must know both its constitution (what it is made of) and its function. In relation to emotion, therefore, it is insufficient to say that an emotion consists of a set of physiological processes or a sequence of behaviour; one must also state what the function is of the processes or the behavioural sequence. In fact, and this is the essence of modern "functionalism", similar functions may derive from very different physical constituents, just as similar physical constituents may have very different functions. As Karl Popper expressed it in more modern terminology (see Popper & Eccles, 1977), logical form and physical form need not bear any consistent correspondence to each other. This property is especially evident with the modern digital computer in which the "same" physical state of the computer could represent multiple different logical states according to which software program is running, in the same way that the "same" logical state could be implemented on many different physical forms or different types of hardware. In relation to emotion, therefore, any reductionist approach in which the logical form of an emotion is reduced to its physical form is philosophically untenable from this viewpoint. The function of an emotion within a system might be a psychological one, such as to enable the person to switch from one goal to another, or a social one, such as to communicate to another person; the important point is that without knowledge of that function, we are unable to define emotion (see Chapter 2). A second major aspect of Aristotle's approach to emotion is his observation that different beliefs or, again in more modern terminology, different types of appraisal lead to different emotions; that is, it is not the external object per se that is important, but my belief about (appraisal of) that object. I believe the knife could kill me and I feel afraid, I believe the knife could cut through the ropes that bind me and I am overwhelmed with joy. Thus, it is my belief about the knife, and the function of the knife in that context, rather than the knife itself that leads to these very different emotions.
Although we have not yet defined what an emotion is, nor, just as importantly, have we attempted to distinguish emotions from related states such as drives (see Chapter 2), we hope that we have provided a map that indicates the direction we intend to take in our theorising. We do wish to flag up at this early stage, however, that we will take the view that there are a limited number of basic emotions from which more complex emotions and the emotional disorders can be derived. Although the issue of whether or not there are basic emotions is still a controversial one (see Chapter 3), we believe that the approach has many advantages especially in relation to the emotional disorders that have yet to be fully explored. One of the sources of evidence that we will use in favour of this approach will be that basic emotions may be distinguishable from each other at the physiological level (e.g., Levenson, Ekman, & Friesen, 1990). So, the astute reader might point out, would that not be evidence that emotions can be reduced to a set of distinct physiological processes? Is that not an argument against the Aristotelian functionalism that we espouse? Well, fortunately for us, the answer to both of these questions is "No!" First, the fact that in Popperian terms logical and physical forms do not correspond one-to-one but rather correspond many-to-many, does not imply that any physical form can have any logical function. The physical and logical forms set boundary conditions or limitations on each other, not in a unidirectional way as in reductionistic approaches, but in a mutual or bidirectional way; thus, there need to be "interaction rules" by which the physical and the logical relate to each other. Secondly, let us imagine we had a machine that summed together the complete physiological state of an individual and was able, with 99% certainty, to state that the individual was "Angry". How little this wonderful machine would actually tell us! Could it tell us that the person was angry because he could only find one sock and was already late for work, that he had been unfairly accused by his boss of slipshod work, or that his mother had just been insulted by his enemy? Of course not. Instead, we must turn back to Aristotle in order to understand why in one case the individual kicks the wardrobe door, in the second case bites his tongue and keeps quiet, and in the final case takes his gun and shoots his enemy dead.
There are of course many other questions that need to be asked about emotion. We will reserve discussion of these questions until Chapter 2, when the answers will be considered in a philosophical and historical context. Instead, we will next make some preliminary remarks about the cognitive approach to psychology in general and provide some pointers about what an adequate cognitive approach to emotion might look like.
Was this article helpful?