Twentiethcentury Cognitive Accounts Of Emotion

The resurgence of cognitivism was largely a reaction against the stifling effects of behaviourism with its dismissal of all internal psychological states, just as behaviourism itself was a reaction against feeling theory with its overemphasis on private experience. The development of this new cognitivism went hand in hand with advances in computer technology such that, in psychology, the metaphor of the mind as a computer became dominant (e.g., Miller, Galanter, & Pribram, 1960). In the remainder of this chapter we discuss these recent developments in the philosophy of emotion. The definitions and the development of ideas about what is cognitive and what is a cognitive theory of emotions have tended to take a slightly different, though parallel, course in psychology to that in philosophy and we consider the arguments in the psychology literature in Chapter 3.

There are a number of seminal papers and books that mark the transformation of the cognitive stream from a trickle just emerging from the mountainside to the raging torrent that represents the contemporary philosophical view. Much of this work concentrates on certain aspects of emotion theory and little of it attempts to provide the kind of global view that we have become familiar with in the work of the ancient philosophers. This represents a change in the process of philosophising as a whole. Far-reaching, visionary writing has been replaced by detailed analytic dissection, in true Wittgensteinian tradition (see for example the recent collection edited by Solomon, 2004). For this reason we merely refer to most of the recent work in the philosophy of emotion, reserving the detailed discussion for the writings of William Lyons (1980, 1992, 1999), which, in style as well as content, is a throwback to the broader philosophical theories of the past and thus consistent with the spirit of the present volume.

The cognitive revival really began with the work of Magda Arnold, culminating in the publication of the book Emotion and Personality in 1960 (see Schorr, 2001, for a contemporary history). Arnold's work owes an enormous debt to Thomistic philosophy and as such is concerned with motivation as much as with emotion: "Emotion seems to include not only the appraisal of how this thing or person will affect me but also a definite pull toward or away from if (1960, Vol. 1, p. 172). At the end of the day, one might argue that Arnold's account is yet another victim of the event problem and that perhaps the chief significance of her work is the part it played in putting cognitive theories of emotion back on the map.

A few more details of this map were filled in by Anthony Kenny's 1963 book Action, Emotion and Will. Kenny is a philosopher in the Wittgensteinian mould and his book is more about how we come to know the meaning of emotion terms rather than a discussion of the concept of emotions. His ideas about what makes something an emotion emerge from the book as opposed to being explicitly stated at any point. For this reason, any brief resume of his writings is difficult. In a sentence, though, Kenny's "theory" of emotions does provide a central and causal role for cognition in the form of beliefs and appraisals. Indeed, Kenny's model is traditionally Aristotelian in this respect and we can therefore use it as a vehicle to discuss some of the problems with the approach in this simplified form.

To illustrate what we mean, let us return to our example in which Susan is still running away from the bear. Up to now we have argued that Susan holds a belief or has made an appraisal such as "the bear is dangerous", and that this cognition is causal of her emotion of fear. It seems likely, however, that at least two types of cognition are occurring in situations such as this. For example, Susan might interpret that "if the bear catches me it will eat me" and this interpretation will then lead to the appraisal "this situation is dangerous to me and I do not want such danger". In this account it is the appraisal that underlies the fear and not the original interpretation. In an alternative version, Susan might, though we agree it is far-fetched, be seriously into sensation seeking and appraise the interpretation as full of thrills, thus leading to the emotion of exhilaration. Lyons (1980) calls the interpretation of the event (e.g., if the bear catches me it will eat me) the "cognition", and the subsequent appraisal (e.g., this situation is dangerous ...) the "evaluation". However, this terminology seems confusing and, because we wish to use the term "cognitive" in a more general sense, we propose the terms interpretation and appraisal respectively.

To return to Kenny's book, the central problem is that he does not make it clear whether, in his view, emotions are to be distinguished on the basis of different types of appraisal or on the basis of different types of interpretation. The difficulty with this is that a whole range of different interpretations could be evaluated in the same way and there are no objective criteria by which to argue that any particular one, in and of itself, is directly causal of fear. This, as we have stated many times, is essentially the event problem, except that here it might more aptly be named the interpretation problem! The conclusion, then, is that only a theory based on cognitive appraisals can provide a convincing account of emotions. This is the position that we will try to defend in the remainder of the book though, in accord with recent adaptations of the feeling theory approach by Damasio (1994, 2003) and by Prinz (2004), low-level and therefore fast-occurring body states may already be set in process by the initial perception or interpretation before appraisal has been completed, although these could also be automatic or fast-occurring appraisals (see Chapter 5).

A number of other influential philosophical accounts of emotion have been provided by Bedford (1964), Peters (1960), Pitcher (1965), and Gordon (1987); however, they only differ in the details to those we have already considered and so we shall pass over them and concentrate on the work of William Lyons (1980, 1992, 1999).

The central thesis of Lyons' 1980 book, simply titled Emotion, is the traditional Aristotelian model with the addition of the distinction between appraisals and interpretations discussed above. This framework is presented in Figure 2.4. for the emotion of fear.

As can be seen, Lyons argues for a causal chain from the instigating event (either external or internal) to interpretation to appraisal (an evaluation of the interpretation along a set of dimensions that differ with respect to the emotion concerned) and, finally, to physiological reaction, desire (that is, what the individual wishes to do about the situation) and possibly behaviour.

We are familiar by now with the components of the standard Aristotelian approach. However, a number of points should be made here about the various fixtures and fittings that Lyons throws in. First, Lyons argues that the physiological reactions are not specific to particular emotions: "... it is unlikely that there are any particular physiological changes which are to be linked conceptually with any particular emotion" (1980, p. 127), a view clearly opposed to that of William James. This argument immediately raises the question as to whether there is any difference between the physiological changes that occur in the body all of the time and those associated with emotions. Lyons tries to get around this by arguing that emotions involve "unusual" bodily changes though not physiological disturbance or upset:

Terms such as "disturbance" or "upset" . . . may lead one into the dual error of thinking that all physiological changes associated with emotion are of an alarming or disturbing nature and that all bodily changes associated with emotion are experienced by the subject of them. (1980, p. 116)

However, there are some empirical problems with this analysis. As de Sousa (1987) points out, there are still no criteria that allow us to pick out those physiological changes that count as arousal, and therefore make up emotion, and those changes which are non-emotional. In addition, the "relevant physiological states have no naturally salient boundaries" (de Sousa, 1987, p. 55) and so it is difficult to establish criteria for what is "unusual". We shall return to these issues in our discussion of basic emotions in Chapter 3.

INTERPRETATION e.g., the bear will eat me


APPRAISAL e.g., danger


Figure 2.4 The emotion of fear according to William Lyons.

Another interesting issue is raised by Lyons in his conceptualisation of emotions as consisting of the appraisal and the physiological change. So appraisal is not the antecedent of emotion, it is part of emotion proper and, indeed, it is what enables a distinction to be drawn between one emotion and another. This view of appraisal as a logically necessary ingredient of emotion seems important; however, it has been largely ignored by appraisal theorists in psychology (see Chapter 3). If the concept of emotion does not include the appraisal, and one maintains, as we do, that it is not possible to distinguish different emotions solely on the basis of events, interpretations, physiological changes, or overt behaviour, then it becomes difficult to see how any distinctions between emotions can be drawn.

A further area of debate concerns the role of consciousness. Lyons argues that all we need for something to be an emotion is an appraisal that causes an unusual physiological change. He would not claim (as is evident from the quotation above) that we need to be conscious of either of these to be in an emotional state. So, if we imagine that Dave is in an important meeting and has to concentrate very hard on the content of the discussion, it would still be possible for him unconsciously to interpret and appraise the situation as insulting, thus giving rise to a physiological reaction— the core components of the emotion of anger. However, according to Lyons, because of his concentration on what people were saying, Dave might be unaware that he appeared to be "angry" until his colleagues told him later that he had been shouting and was clearly very angry in the meeting. The question here is: If Dave is unaware of the physiological changes that are occurring in his body which have been caused by an appraisal that he is being insulted (that is, Dave is unaware of "feeling angry") is it legitimate to say that he is angry? A simpler, though slightly different way of putting this, is to ask whether it is possible to have an unconscious emotion. There may not be a definitive answer to this question; however, having stated Lyons' position, which is essentially that unconscious emotions are possible, it is incumbent on us to at least acknowledge the alternative point of view that unconscious emotions are not possible. In fact, it may be surprising that this view was held by Freud:

It is surely of the essence of an emotion that we should feel it, i.e. that it should enter consciousness. So for emotions, feelings and affects to be unconscious would be quite out of the question. (The Unconscious, 1915)

Lyons, for the most part, discusses what he calls occurrent emotions in his book. These are short-term emotional states (and are the subject of most of the previous discussion in this chapter) as opposed to longer-term dispositions. However, Lyons does devote some time to a discussion of these latter conditions. Following in the footsteps of Ryle, Lyons distinguishes two types of dispositions: those that are focused on something specific; and those that are unfocused. To give an example, if someone crashes her car she might have a focused angry disposition for a number of days such that any mention of the car causes her to become "occurrently" angry. Alternatively, she might have an unfocused angry disposition; that is, she might just be a generally angry person liable to occurrent outbursts of temper in a wide range of provoking situations. Although appealing, this analysis seems to miss the fact that dispositions caused by crashing one's car can also be somewhat unfocused. Anyone who has been around someone who has just written off a new Porsche will realise that it is not just mentioning cars that will make him or her occurrently angry—almost anything is a potential trigger!

Another issue that Lyons hints at is the idea of appraisals at different levels of the psychological system. We have already seen that there is no problem with the concept of unconscious appraisal (although it is unclear whether the concept of unconscious emotions is acceptable; see, e.g., Lambie & Marcel, 2002, and the commentary by Dalgleish & Power, 2004a). However, there seems to be a need for further elaboration. Compare, for example, the case of someone who has a phobia of spiders with the case of Susan's flight from the grizzly bear. In the first instance, the spider-phobic person can talk about spiders and agree, quite sincerely, that there is really nothing to be afraid of. However, when a spider appears, the conscious appraisal of the situation counts for little and the individual is likely to run away just as quickly as Susan from the bear. In contrast, Susan is unlikely to admit at any level that there is nothing scary or dangerous about the bear. In the spider case it seems that the emotional reaction of fear has become so automatised (or, as Lyons and behavioural psychologists would say, classically conditioned) that it will always happen in the presence of spiders irrespective of the person's conscious or "higher-level" appraisals of the situation. Lyons summarises this as follows:

. . . in all cases of Pavlovian [classically conditioned] emotions, the person concerned both knows that the conditions which previously caused her to be afraid no longer obtain, but yet still believes against all the evidence, adequate evidence, that they might still hold true. The person simply holds conflicting beliefs. (1980, p. 77)

Here Lyons owes a debt to Descartes for two reasons. First, Descartes paid some lip service to the idea that emotions are associated with those exciting causes (events) that had caused that same emotion in the past; although, as with many of the central struts of his theory, Descartes never elaborated the idea much beyond this. Second, Descartes discussed the idea of what Anthony Kenny has called "intellectual emotions" that can be seen as emotions resulting from higher-level appraisals.

The issue of different levels of appraisal has important implications for considering emotional disorder. As we have already seen, it is able to shed some light on the nature of simple phobias; furthermore, the notion of appraisals that are in opposition and which seemingly occur at different levels of the cognitive system provides a window into the role of conflict, which is apparent in so many emotional disorders. We shall discuss the utility of these ideas further in Chapter 5.

Lyons' theory of emotion provides one of the more complete philosophical analyses of the concept and, as such, offers perhaps the most comprehensive attempt at a philosophical reply to the set of questions posed to the aspiring emotion theorist at the beginning of this chapter. For this reason we shall combine our discussion of how Lyons fairs as an emotion theorist with an overall summary and review of the chapter, and endeavour to draw out how philosophical approaches in general cope with the central questions concerning emotion.

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