The Aristotelian functionalist model of emotion

Aristotle presents his functionalist doctrine of the mind principally in the De Anima (1941). The first important distinction he emphasises is between matter and form. There are two fundamental questions that we can ask about any individual entity: first, what is it made of—what is its matter? And, second, what is it that makes it what it is rather than something else—what is its form? So, if we take the example of a hamburger, its matter is bits of salad, meat, and bread. However, if these were all shredded and placed in a pile on a plate they would not be a hamburger. What is necessary is for the meat and salad to be sandwiched between the bread; this is the form. The form of the hamburger is not a question of adding extra ingredients but rather it is a question of arranging things in a certain way.

One could be forgiven for believing, then, that form is just the shape of the matter in some simple geometric sense. However, Aristotle is making a more important point than this. For him, form is that which makes something count as what it is. So, if we take the example of a chair, its matter is what it is made of—wood, or steel, or whatever. However, its form—that by virtue of which it counts as a chair rather than some other thing—concerns its function as something that people sit on. Inevitably, this form constrains the simple geometric shape of chairs to some extent, but it is still true, as anyone who has recently visited a modern furniture store will testify, that chairs can come in all sorts of different shapes and be no less chairs as a consequence.

There is one other distinction that it is important to grasp before we can apply these ideas to an understanding of emotions, and that is the distinction between the capacity that a certain form has and the actual activity of that form. So, if we take once more the example of the chair: it can be used actively by someone as a seat; however, even when it is not being used it still has the capacity to be sat on and is again no less a chair as a consequence.

Within these preliminary ideas we have the main tenets of functionalism. Functionalism is any approach that analyses something in terms of how it functions; that is, in terms of its form. Such an understanding is independent of matter. So, in the strongest version of the argument, if we had a thorough enough grasp of the form of mental processes we could instantiate them not only in biological matter (the nervous system) but also in silicon matter (a computer) and they would be mental processes all the same.

Before moving on to consider the emotions, there is one caveat. This analysis of form and matter cuts through swathes of subtle and complex arguments in Aristotle's discussions, and the faint noise in the background is probably the sound of him shifting uneasily in his grave. We can only hope that we have hinted at the richness of his work rather than misrepresented it.

Aristotle's most comprehensive discussion of the emotions is in The Art of Rhetoric (1991). However, it is in the De Anima (1941) that he draws out the form and matter of the emotions, in this case anger:

... the student of nature and the dialectician would define what anger is differently. For the latter would define it as reaching out for retaliation or something of the sort, the former as the boiling of the blood round the heart. Of these definitions, the first gives the form or defining essence, the other the matter. (403 a29-b3)

So, as an answer to the question, what makes the boiling of the blood around the heart a case of anger?, Aristotle proposes something to do with its relationship with retaliation or similar behaviour. This is a functionalist view of emotion: that which makes anger what it is, is its function with respect to retaliation. It is important to note that, in the same way that a chair does not have to be sat upon to have the form of a chair, this retaliation does not actually have to happen for emotion to have the form of anger, but simply has to have what Frijda (1986) has referred to as an action tendency. It is the capacity for it to happen that gives anger its form. The broad functionalist view of emotions, then, is that the form of anger is defined with respect to its role or function in the psychological system. As we shall argue later, this function can be considerably more elaborate than Aristotle's disposition to certain types of behaviour such as retaliation.

We can see, then, that already Aristotle has addressed at least one of the questions posed at the beginning of the chapter: Why do we have emotions (Q.5)? He proposes that one of the functions of emotions is to give us the capacity to do things such as retaliation. Aristotle also addresses a number of the other questions listed above. To understand how he does this it is necessary to turn to the arguments contained in The Art of Rhetoric (1991).

In this handbook for orators, Aristotle considers 10 specific emotions. Of these, four are presented as positive (calm, friendship, favour, and pity) and six as negative (anger, fear, shame, indignation, envy, and jealousy). It seems unlikely that Aristotle considered this a finite list of emotions. However, the omissions and inclusions are of secondary significance to the fact that Aristotle presents all of these 10 emotions within the same tripartite scheme. Aristotle argues that for any emotion to arise it is necessary for three conditions to be satisfied: first, the individual must be in an appropriate state of mind to experience the emotion; second, there must be a stimulus of the correct kind to elicit the emotion; and third, there must be an object of the appropriate kind for the emotion to be about. (These uses of the terms "stimulus" and "object" are peculiar to Aristotle. He reserves the term stimulus for an internal mental state, whereas traditionally it can also refer to an external event. In addition, the term object is reserved for an external event, whereas traditionally it is also used to refer to an internal mental state. Aristotle's "object" is Descartes' "exciting cause" and Aristotle's "stimulus" is Descartes' "object". The Cartesian use of the word object is more traditional in philosophy. As we have noted, we use the term "event" to refer to Aristotelian objects and Cartesian exciting causes.) So, if we consider the case of fear within this scheme, Aristotle invites us to: "Let fear, then, be a kind of pain or disturbance resulting from the imagination of impending danger, either destructive or painful" (1991, 1382a). Here, the stimulus for fear is an evaluation of some impending danger. The event is whatever causes that evaluation to be made, and thus, that to which the fear is directed; for example, "those able to do wrong to those able to be wronged" or "rivals for advantages that both parties cannot simultaneously enjoy" and so on (Aristotle lists 12 putative events for fear). Finally, such events will only be evaluated as being laden with impending danger if the individual is in the appropriate state of mind; that is, possessed by a certain expectation that something dangerous might happen to him or her at some time. This does not apply to everyone:

... those in great prosperity or seeming to be would not expect to suffer, nor those who reckon they have already suffered everything terrible and are numbed as regards the future, such as those who are actually being crucified;

there must be some hope left of survival from their predicament. (1991, 1383a)

So, to reiterate, individuals who are of the state of mind that something dangerous could happen to them, when confronted with, say, a rival for something that they want, might evaluate the situation as one of impending danger and this evaluation would be a stimulus to fear. This scheme is illustrated diagrammatically in Figure 2.2 for the emotion of anger.

object e.g., those that laugh at you or jeer and scoff evaluation that an insult has occurred evaluation that an insult has occurred stimulus boiling of the propensity for blood around retaliation the heart matter form anger state of mind having some need or aspiration which can be blocked or frustrated behaviour retaliation

= possible but not necessary result of anger

Figure 2.2 Aristotle's theory of emotions as applied to anger.

Having made some progress, then, with our discussion of the concept of emotion, this seems a timely point to pause and initiate some form of debate about the nature of cognition, because Aristotle's is surely the prototypical cognitive theory of emotions. As Rapee (1991) points out, the term cognition "[has] been used broadly and inconsistently over the years. Few authors tend to define the term[s] and, as a result, a number of arguments have arisen in the literature based largely on a lack of specific definition" (p. 194). Rapee is making two points here: first, that the term cognition is used in a number of different ways; and, second, that much of the confusion is a consequence of a lack of rigorous definition. Both of these points have some truth in them. Sometimes, progress is indeed a relatively straightforward matter of pointing out mere semantic differences, as in the early rounds of the Zajonc-Lazarus prizefight over whether cognition or affect is primary (this is discussed in Chapter 3). However, it is also true that the term cognitive has a number of distinct and different uses. In this chapter we endeavour to outline what we consider to be the philosophical definition of cognitive. In Chapter 3 we go on to consider a number of other uses of the word that have emerged in the psychology literature.

What is the philosophical sense of the word cognitive? As we have seen, Aristotle draws an important distinction between what he calls the object of an emotion and the stimulus. So, if someone is a rival for an advantage that only one of us can enjoy, then this situation (object) only arouses fear if I evaluate it as being one of impending danger. On the one hand we have an event in the world—one of rivalry—whereas on the other we have a mental representation or a belief—that there is impending danger. According to Aristotle, it is this belief about danger that is the stimulus to fear (and thus to the possibility of action), not the rivalry. It is quite possible that on another occasion exactly the same situation of rivalry would not be seen as dangerous and the person would not be afraid. It is equally possible that a situation that objectively does not seem dangerous, such as a trip to the supermarket, could be evaluated as highly threatening (as in the case of agoraphobia), thus leading to intense fear. The (philosophical) use of the term cognitive, then, is the appeal to mental representations and beliefs about the world in order to describe and explain psychological experiences. So, Aristotle's cognitive theory of emotions sees them as states that are causally dependent on a cognitive belief or evaluation.

At this point we would like to propose another distinction that we feel has important implications for understanding cognitive theories of emotion. Aristotle's theory, as we have shown, views cognitions as essential to emotion. In addition, Aristotle proposes that such cognitions have a causal role; so, in the case of anger, it is the belief (cognition) that an insult has occurred that causes the boiling of the blood around the heart and is causal in the propensity for retaliation. We would like to argue that this is an example of a strong cognitive theory of emotions, i.e., one in which cognitions are both essential and causal. In contrast, a weak cognitive theory of emotions is one in which cognitions are essential but not causal. We shall consider theories of this latter kind (e.g., Spinoza's) later in the chapter.

How does Aristotle fare as an emotion theorist so far? We have already seen that his championing of functionalism provides a partial answer to the question: What are emotions for (Q.5)? In addition, the tripartite cognitive scheme that we have just considered throws up a few more answers. First, Aristotle has suggested that the constituent parts of an emotional experience (Q.2) are that it involves an event, a stimulus, a state of mind, and the form and matter of the emotion proper. Furthermore, we have argued that his answers to these two questions make his a strong cognitive, functionalist account of emotions. Second, he has at least made some form of comment concerning the number of emotions (Q.7), although it is unclear whether he was intending his as a finite list. In addition, he spends some time discussing the relationship of different emotions to each other (e.g., anger is the opposite of calm), although here his analysis is not particularly convincing. Third, he provides us with some insight into how one emotion might be distinguished from another (Q.3) and it is his answer to this question that we will consider next.

As already mentioned, Aristotle considers 10 emotions in The Art of Rhetoric and he sets out to distinguish between them along all three dimensions of his tripartite scheme. Of these three options we would argue, with the benefit of hindsight, that one is a definite red herring, another has the potential to be a red herring, and the third, many would argue, is a perceptive insight that marks Aristotle out as someone centuries ahead of his time. The definite red herring, we suggest, is a consideration of what Aristotle calls the object and what we have called the event. Although Aristotle goes into some detail as to which events go with which emotions, as we have already stated it is our view that this can at best be an approximation (the event problem). A case of rivalry seems just as likely to be associated with anger, envy, jealousy, or indignation as it is with fear. In addition, one can think of hundreds of putative events for fear that are not included in Aristotle's list of 12 and it would be difficult to tease out what all of these events had in common; for example, fear of heights and fear of forgetting your wedding anniversary.

The possible red herring, we propose, is the consideration of states of mind, and we shall return to this when we discuss Oatley and Johnson-Laird's (1987) functional theory of the emotions in Chapter 3. In essence, we would argue that individuals' states of mind contribute to their evaluation of danger but do not determine absolutely whether such evaluations take place.

The perceptive insight, we feel, is Aristotle's attempt to distinguish between different emotions on the basis of what he calls the stimulus, and what from now on we shall call the appraisal. That is to say, emotions can be distinguished on the basis of the different stimuli or appraisals that elicit them; thus, fear is characterised by an appraisal of impending danger, anger by an appraisal of insult or belittlement, pity by an appraisal that something evil has occurred to one who does not deserve it, and so forth. This proposal immediately provides the makings of an answer to any questions about what two disparate objects (or events) such as heights and forgetting the wedding anniversary have in common—they are both, rightly or wrongly, being appraised as threatening in some way and it this appraisal that makes them instigating events of fear. What we are saying here, then, is that it is the cognitive element in Aristotle's account—the belief or representation—that allows a distinction between one emotion and another, and that allows his theory to cut so much psychological and philosophical ice.

Aristotle proffers another dimension along which one emotion can be distinguished from another and this is in terms of function or form. So, anger has the form or function of retaliation, or at least a propensity for it, and fear has the form or function of fight or flight, and so on. However, it seems that this boils down to emotions having the function of causing dispositions to correct the circumstances that give rise to the emotion in the first place. This dimension is undoubtedly important but seems insufficiently sturdy to serve as the foundation stone for a distinction between different emotions, as we saw when we discussed behaviourist theories of emotion earlier.

To summarise, Aristotle's theory of emotion is both functionalist and cognitive in its conception. The ideas that he proposed offer an explanation of the distinctions between different emotions in terms of their antecedent cognitive appraisals, and the functions of emotions in terms of the propensity for certain types of behaviour. He also outlines a tripartite framework that teases out different components of the emotional experience. Many aspects of Aristotle's psychology are remarkably contemporary and are fundamental to the theories of emotion discussed in Chapter 3 and to our own theory that we introduce in Chapter 5. However, the distinctive Aristotelian flavour of these recent approaches reflects a resurgence of interest in his work rather than a culmination of sustained study.

We suggested earlier that the Aristotelian, cognitive stream running through the history of emotion theory was largely a subterranean one, emerging only at one or two points in time prior to the twentieth century. The first major emergence subsequent to the somewhat tangential references of the Stoic philosophers was in the work of the thirteenth-century Dominican Friar Thomas Aquinas, a renowned Aristotelian scholar, and we consider his work next.

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