Descartes presents his theory of emotion in his pamphlet "On the Passions of the Soul", where he starts with the most wonderful dismissal of all previous philosophical discourse on the subject (academic life would be so much easier if one could also start with the same dismissal of everything that has gone before):
. . . what the ancients taught about them [the passions] is so little, and for the most part so little believable, that I cannot hope to approach the truth unless I forsake the paths they followed. For this reason I shall be obliged to write here as though I were treating a topic which no one before me had ever described. (Article 1.)
It is tempting to criticise Descartes for such a cavalier attitude to Greek philosophy; however, because we discuss his ideas with a similar shortage of enthusiasm for the content, it is perhaps wise to resist such temptation!
Having thus wiped the philosophical slate clean, Descartes sets about discussing the concepts of body and soul and their relation to each other. The body, Descartes notes, consists of our blood, bones, muscles, blood vessels, nerves, and so forth, and these organs operate as a function of the movements of so-called bodily spirits. With respect to the soul Descartes argues:
After having thus taken into consideration all the functions that belong to the body alone, it is easy to understand that there remains nothing in us that we should attribute to our soul but our thoughts, which are principally of two genera - the first, namely, are the actions of the soul; the others are its passions. (Article 17)
[N.B. Descartes uses the term "passion" in two ways. The first usage incorporates what are traditionally known as perceptions and sensations. The second, narrower usage is the one that Descartes elaborates on and it applies to those perceptions that are referred to the soul alone - namely the emotions.]
According to Descartes, the soul is principally in touch with the movement of the spirits in the body via the pineal gland in the brain through which the spirits always flow. The majority of the experiences in the soul are instances of awareness of such spirit movements. So, the experiences of seeing, hearing, feeling pain, feeling hunger, feeling fear, being angry are all forms of awareness of the movements of bodily spirits through the pineal gland. In Cartesian terminology these experiences all have the same immediate cause, i.e., the movement of bodily spirits. The ways in which these experiences differ according to Descartes is: first, in their exciting cause, i.e, that which caused the movements of the spirits in the first place (what we shall later call events); and second, in their objects, i.e., what they are about.
To illustrate these distinctions let us consider an example in the spirit of William James:
Walking through the woods one day, Susan stumbles across a large grizzly bear which then starts running towards her. She is absolutely terrified and turns and runs away. As she is running she remembers that grizzly bears cannot climb trees so she scampers up the nearest tree just as the bear catches her. In fact, his paw scratches across her leg causing her to feel a searing pain before she climbs to safety.
The first point to make about this example is that the experience of seeing the bear, the feeling of fear, and the feeling of pain are all, in the Cartesian model, experiences in the soul with the same immediate cause—the movement of bodily spirits. However, the experience of seeing has an exciting cause outside of the body, namely the bear whose image falls on the retina and excites a movement of the bodily spirits. The object of the seeing is also the bear, i.e., it is the bear that Susan sees. In contrast, the exciting cause of the pain and the object of the pain are in the body; that is, the gash on Susan's leg. Finally, the exciting cause (event) of the fear is the bear, as in the experience of seeing; however, the object of the fear is not the bear and, according to Descartes, is not in the body either but in the soul:
The perceptions that are referred to the soul alone are those whose effects are felt as in the soul itself, and of which no proximate cause to which they may be referred is commonly known. Such are the sensations of joy, anger and others like them ... (Article 25)
So, Susan's fear is not about the bear, it is about something in her soul. These differences between seeing, feeling pain, and feeling anger are shown in Table 2.1 (based on de Sousa, 1987).
It is important to elaborate on the claim that the object of emotions such as Susan's fear is in the soul, for it is here that Descartes dangles a substantial cognitive carrot. The essence of the cognitive approach, as we shall see later in our discussion of Aristotle's tripartite theory of emotions, is that the instigation to an emotion such as fear can be a mental event. In this case the belief that there is danger. That is, it is the belief that there is danger, and not the bear, which causes Susan to be afraid (although it should be noted, as we discuss in detail later, that "mental events" are not taken only to mean conscious events, but can occur at many different levels and be fully automatic and unconscious). Is Descartes, then, trying to argue something like this by suggesting that the object of Susan's fear is not the bear but something "in the
2. COGNITIVE PHILOSOPHY OF EMOTION Table 2.1 Classification of Susan's perceptions according to Descartes
Immediate cause Exciting cause
Sensory (seeing) Outside body (bear)
Proprioceptive Inside body (gash (pain) on leg)
Passion (fear) Inside soul (?)
Inside body (spirit movements)
Inside body (spirit movements)
Inside body (spirit movements)
Outside body (bear)
Inside body (gash on leg)
Outside body (bear)
Based on de Sousa, 1987.
soul"? It begins to look that way when he goes on to discuss the emotion of fear in more detail:
Furthermore, if that shape is very unusual and very frightful, that is, if it bears a close resemblance to things that have previously been harmful to the body, this excites the passion of apprehension in the soul, and thereupon, that of boldness or that of fear and terror .. . (Article 36).
Descartes seems to be implying that fear is somehow a result of something being dangerous or frightful; that is, fear is the result of some form of cognitive assessment of the situation. However, the dualism is lurking in the very next paragraph:
The spirits reflected from the image thus formed on the gland turn to flow in part into the nerves serving to turn the back and move the legs for running away . . . these spirits excite a particular movement in this gland [the pineal] which is instituted by nature to make the soul feel this passion. (Article 36)
What Descartes is saying here is that Susan sees the bear and this causes movements of her bodily spirits to her limbs, thus causing her to turn and run. In addition, the bodily spirits happen to flow through the pineal gland and so the soul is aware of all these spirit movements and this awareness is the emotion of fear. Fear is merely epiphenomenal. It has no cognitive component and no causal role because the spirits that control the limbs are moved by the image of the bear with no help from the soul:
Simply in virtue of the fact that certain spirits proceed at the same time toward the nerves that move the legs to flee, they cause another movement in the same gland by means of which the soul feels and perceives this flight - which can in this way be excited in the body merely by the disposition of the organs without the soul contributing to it. (Article 38)
Emotions, or more correctly passions, then, are just epiphenomenal feelings without a function. What has happened to the cognitive element now? It seems Descartes is saying that the movements of bodily spirits that are experienced as fear are excited by an external danger, but he provides no means by which this appraisal of danger can occur. It is just inherent in the exciting cause, in this case the bear. However, bears are not inherently threatening, it is what they mean to us that makes them threatening. Similarly, eating raw liver is not inherently disgusting, we merely appraise it as being so. This difficulty of trying to distinguish emotions on the basis of their exciting causes (or events as we shall call them from now on) with no reference to our understanding of those events is one that crops up again and again, and we shall refer to it as the event problem. So, we are left with the question: What is the object of a Cartesian emotion? All Descartes seems to be saying is that the object is in the soul, and we are given no clear indication of what it might be.
This idea of epiphenomenal, non-functional feelings is central to what has come to be termed the feeling theory of emotion. The feeling theory scheme for anger is illustrated in Figure 2.1.
There are numerous problems with dualism in general and the feeling theory conceptualisation of emotions in particular. For a thorough critique of dualism see Ryle (1949) or, more accessibly, Smith and Jones (1986). Here we shall confine our discussion to feeling theory. The first problem is that, as we have seen, it is not possible within a feeling theory model for emotions to give rise to behaviour. As Lyons argues:
exciting cause immediate cause emotion e.g., person causing harm movement of bodily spirits anger behaviour retaliation
It is not uncommon for someone to say something like "Jealousy caused Jones to stab his wife outside the bar" . . . if we now transcribe the sentence as "A feeling of throbbing and constriction around the heart caused Jones to stab his wife outside the bar" it becomes more or less absurd. For feelings by themselves don't lead to behaviour. (1980, p. 7)
Descartes does attempt to discuss the relationship between the passions and behaviour. He argues that passions cause the soul to will behaviour, but that the actual behaviour is caused by the movements of the bodily spirits without any help from the soul. In other words the passions cause the soul to will behaviour that is already happening.
The second problem for Descartes is that there is no basis on which to argue that emotions are appropriate or inappropriate. As Bedford (1964) argues "if someone were to say 'I felt this pang this afternoon' it would be meaningless to ask whether it was a reasonable or unreasonable pang" (p. 91). However, we clearly do have a sense of the reasonableness of emotional reactions, an issue that has considerable implications for the notion of emotional "disorder"—that is, emotional reactions that are in some sense out of proportion or unjustified.
A third problem for feeling theory is that it makes it difficult to distinguish one emotion from another. Descartes argues that the passions are physiologically distinct because they are based on unique movements of the bodily spirits; so, the soul experiences fear because the movements of the spirits that are being reflected are those of fear. The next question then is how did the fear set of spirit movements start instead of, say, the anger set? Here, Descartes must argue that the different types of spirit movements are associated with different exciting causes (events) and once again this leads to the event problem discussed above. However, Descartes goes further:
Moreover, I note that objects which move the senses do not excite different passions in us in proportion to all of their diversities, but only in proportion to the different ways they can harm or profit us. (Article 52)
Descartes is dangling the cognitive carrot again. Susan's fear in the bear example above is a reflection of the movements of bodily spirits caused by her perception of a frightening thing, the bear. However, this again raises the further question as to how the bear is appraised as frightening; in other words, where does the cognition reside? It is here, in our view, that Descartes offers no convincing answers.
There are numerous other problems for feeling theory, which need not concern us here. Fuller expositions can be found in Lyons (1980), de Sousa (1987), and Kenny (1963). But having found Cartesian feeling theory wanting in several respects, it is important to point out that not all is doom and gloom. There are a number of aspects of Descartes' work on the passions that we feel have substantial merit and we shall briefly consider these next.
Descartes was the first to suggest that some emotions might be more basic or primitive than others, and this idea is one that has aroused much contemporary interest and heated debate. Descartes listed six primary passions: wonder, joy, sadness, love, hatred, and desire. He argued that the other passions are compounded from these primary passions. So, pride is a mixture of happiness and love. This notion has recently been the subject of considerable empirical investigation and we shall discuss it in detail in Chapter 3.
Descartes also proposed a distinction between those emotions with immediate and exciting causes outside of the soul, as discussed above and exemplified by Susan's fear of the bear, and those emotions "which are excited in the soul only by the soul itself" (Article 147). Kenny (1963) calls these latter experiences the "intellectual emotions". To illustrate let us consider Susan's flight from the bear. Although her immediate reaction is intense fear, it is possible (though admittedly unlikely in this case) that there is a secondary "intellectual" emotion of exhilaration or excitement which, Descartes would argue, is excited in the soul, by the soul. Descartes himself uses the example of a man who mourns his dead wife while harbouring a secret joy that she is no longer alive to trouble him. Both of these examples imply secondary or intellectual emotions that are in opposition to the more immediate emotional reactions. However, although Descartes does not discuss this, it seems possible to have secondary emotions that are congruent to the primary ones—fear of fear, or depression about depression. This idea of "intellectual emotions" is something we shall return to in the chapters that follow.
We have expressed little enthusiasm for Descartes' suggestion that something inherent in an event determines the emotional response to that event in the absence of any cognitive analysis (the event problem). However, while not seeming particularly useful as a theory of all emotional experience, this analysis does seem to fit some types of emotional phenomena—what we shall call automatic emotions—and we return to this possibility in Chapter 5.
Finally, although Wittgenstein may be right to argue that "fear" is necessarily public because it involves a term in natural language, it seems indisputable that emotions do have a distinctive introspective flavour. Philosophy has coined the terms qualia and privacy to refer to these aspects of phenomenal experience. The question for philosophy and psychology is to try and account for this phenomenology adequately in theoretical structures that rely more and more on "public" criteria (see Solomon, 1993).
So, as an aspiring emotion theorist, Descartes does address the eight questions listed at the beginning of the chapter, but the problem is more that his answers are not convincing. He does outline the process of having an emotional experience (Q.4), he suggests reasons why we have emotions (Q.5) and how one emotion differs from another (Q.3), but his arguments have long since been consigned to the philosophical wilderness. More durable is his analysis of primitive and complex emotions (Q.7) and his analysis of what Kenny called intellectual emotions, so we shall return to these points in more detail later.
Was this article helpful?
Learning About Pruning The Elements Of Death In Your Life Can Have Amazing Benefits For Your Life And Success! Discover how you can give yourself new life by cutting off sources of negativity! The concept of positive thinking has interpenetrated our culture. It's a philosophy of faith that doesn't ignore life’s troubles, but instead explains a pragmatic approach to life’s full potentiality.