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Theories of Emotions in the News


When I wrote about Inside Out I mentioned that I wasn’t a fan of basic emotions theories, and felt a bit sniffy about Riley’s limited repertoire. Now an approach I’m drawn to, constructivism, is in the news. Whenever I’m asked to recommend a paper in my field that would be interesting to general audiences I always pick Barrett’s “Are Emotions Natural Kinds?

Alva Noë both appreciates and critiques Barrett’s Times op-ed. I critique the critique.


It’s worth noticing that there are two ways to interpret this idea that emotions are contextual.

One might simply take it to say that emotions look and feel different in different settings. Or that without information about context, it can be hard to know what you’re feeling, as I noticed as a little boy.

But there is a more radical interpretation as well. Emotions, one might say, are contextual all the way down. What we call fear in one setting might be totally different from what we call fear in another setting.

The first interpretation pushes us to revise a simple-minded theory of emotions as entities inside us. The second urges us to deny that there are emotions.

First of all, emotions could both be “contextual all the way down” and still exist. Noë understands a category, in the sense in which emotions like anger can be categories, as “having a family resemblance.” In the case of fear, for example, the easiest way to describe it is with reference to the motivational situation — fear is a bad feeling that you feel when there is a future bad outcome you want to avoid (anger a feeling that your goals are frustrated by something you ascribe agency to, sadness a feeling when you’ve lost something, etc). There may be some instances of fear that involve a racing heart, and some that don’t, but a racing heart is very nonspecific to fear. There may be instances of fear that evoke paralysis, and some that evoke aggression, so the most frequent characteristics occurring in this family are the qualities “bad” and “outcome you wish to avoid” — the latter, a context, being so important to understand what knits the family together that it’s fair to say fear is “contextual all the way down.” But it wouldn’t mean fear doesn’t exist; it would just mean that “fear” is a human, social label — a lens we’ve chosen. Social categories are real things.*

As she argues in “Are Emotions Natural Kinds?”

Emotional responding exists, can be functional, and is very likely given to us by evolution. But that does not necessarily mean that anger, sadness, and fear are useful categories for conducting science.

I think even if she’s right about the fact that they’re not natural kinds, they might be useful as long as they’re not too reified or misunderstood, but in any case, I understand her position to be that this way of carving up experience and expression was invented by people.

I also think he may be misreading Barrett when he complains about her complaint about airport security being trained to identify emotions from facial recognitions. He quotes her:

“When airport security officers are trained on the assumption that facial and body movements are reliable indicators of innermost feelings, taxpayers’ money is wasted.”

Then goes on:

Now, it may very well be that it is a waste of taxpayer money to try to train airport security officers to recognize emotional states on the basis of what passengers say and do. But nothing Feldman Barrett has said supports this claim at all. The fact that you can’t define emotions in terms of a strict set of a behavioral rules does not entail that you can’t learn to be more sensitive to a person’s emotional state by careful observation, just as the fact that variation is the norm with biological species does not entail that you can’t sort animals into species by examining them.

I think he misunderstands Barrett both in that he doesn’t see that she really is arguing what he calls the “radical” view, and also perhaps misses the work that “reliable” is doing in that sentence. I doubt she’d argue that it’s impossible to to become more in tune with implicit emotional communication, just that it’s error prone without a variety of other kinds of information from context. To argue otherwise is almost by definition absurd: of course emotional responding is communicative; that’s one of its functions; the question is whether there are discrete categories of responses that map onto our linguistic labels.

Anyway, I’m drawn to Barrett’s approach and find it appealing, but I don’t want to take the strongest stance on its correctness. Ekman and Keltner say she misrepresents the literature. I also think the paragraph of her op-ed dealing dealing with the lack of evidence for neural signatures that correspond to basic emotion categories is frustratingly argued. It doesn’t prove much that there’s no voxel (that’s the term, analogous to pixel, for a unit of volume in MRI imaging) sensitively and specifically associated with fear, other than that the grossest and most naive localization approach is not the way to understand how emotions are instatiated in the brain. Our imaging tools are so crude that not being able to find a unique voxel doesn’t say much. A friend of mine recently linked to this video and joked: “Just looks like a uniform voxel with a linear response profile to me.”

*I was about to write, “they are just different kinds of things than natural kinds,” but I realized that was a sentence I don’t feel competent to defend. I suppose it’s possible to argue that all the organization of matter into things can be sensical only because there’s some perceiving agent interacting with them. IANAPhilosopher.

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  • Are you familiar with Daniel Dennett’s rather audaciously titled 1991 tome Consciousness Explained? It’s chewy but not too jargon-laden. He takes about 200 pages to arrive at his punchline, and the second half of the book enlarging upon and defending it. I’m not persuaded that he’s delivered on the promise of the title—and I imagine he’s probably refined his model in the quarter-century since publication—but it is, as they say, thought-provoking, and even if he’s utterly out in left field, his model is at worst a useful way of describing the phenomenon, rather like Ptolemaic epicycles were a functional model of planetary movements back in the day. A considerably more concise version of his theory can be found in one chapter of Dennett’s 1994 Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, a more ambitious, wider-ranging and somewhat more accessible work.

  • Katie Surrence

    Are you familiar with Daniel Dennett’s rather audaciously titled 1991 tome Consciousness Explained?

    I read a little of it, yeah.

    • rea

      I remember trying to read it–I kept falling asleep.

      • Lee Rudolph

        Consciousness explained, unconsciousness achieved?

  • Underwhelmed, I gather.

  • Katie Surrence

    No, I just didn’t finish! I fail to finish many books that whelm me.

  • matt w

    I suppose it’s possible to argue that all the organization of matter into things can be sensical only because there’s some perceiving agent interacting with them. IANAPhilosopher.

    Yeah (hi Katie!), there are totally philosophers who defend the view that there aren’t any things that are composed of other things–the only things that really exist are fundamental particles.

    • matt w

      …though the social/natural kinds distinction isn’t really about organizing matter into things, it’s about organizing things into kinds. To ask “Is ‘duck’ a natural kind?” is more to ask “Are there things that all ducks have in common and other things don’t, which makes sense to think of ‘duck’ as a classification that exists in nature independently of our propensity to classify things as ducks?” Rather than “Is there a reason to think of this particular lump of matter as a thing, namely a duck, rather than as a bunch of atoms that are stuck together?”

      I’m sure that there are philosophers who defend the view that there are no natural kinds, because philosophers will defend any implausible view and this one seems a lot less implausible than “There isn’t anything except for the fundamental particles.” But I don’t know their works first-hand.

    • Srsly Dad Y

      Recently I’ve enjoyed Massimo Pigliucci’s responses to those arguments at Bloggingheads. Basically, OK, as a word game you can say your desk and computer don’t “exist” when you type that thought, your thought doesn’t exist, your coffee cup doesn’t “exist” when you set it on a table that doesn’t “exist,” but how is that a meaningful use of “exist” in the human world. Radical reductionism isn’t “true” just by assertion.

    • Yankee

      Actually as I understand my modern physics, fundamental particles (so-called, like other kinds of “fundamentalism”) don’t really “exist” but are manefstations of quantum fields, hence the work to “create” or manifest a Higgs boson. Quantum fields, I gather, might be an epiphenomenon on “strings”, but the results aren’t in on that. And I ain’t no physicist.

      • matt w

        I was kind of using “fundamental particles” as shorthand for “whatever it is that exists at the most fundamental level”–if what you say is true the philosophers I’m thinking of would probably argue that the Higgs boson doesn’t really exist, all that exists are the quantum fields.

        The main argument for this position, as I understand it, is that any fact you want to explain can be explained in terms of facts about the most fundamental layer. So any object that isn’t on the most fundamental layer isn’t doing any explanatory work, and we shouldn’t posit entities that don’t explain anything. So there’s no need to say that non-fundamental things exist. (I don’t endorse this argument, I’m just summarizing it as I understand it.)

        • Yankee

          That’s what fundamentalism or foundationalism is, and it’s a nice story but not true: “it’s turtles, all the way down”. Another nail in modernism’s coffin, nyah nyah nyah.

          • matt w

            I think you’re mixing up a lot of distinct concepts there.

            • matt w

              What I’m saying is this, I guess:
              I disagree with the view that anything on the fundamental level doesn’t exist. I do have sympathy for Pigliucci’s view as Srsly Dad Y described it (I haven’t looked at it in depth, this isn’t my main area).
              The question of whether there is a truly fundamental level at all is beyond our pay grade, and that of the metaphysicians too; you need to be doing a lot of cutting edge physics to evaluate it. (Some philosophers of physics may be able to talk about it here.)
              But there are some metaphysicians who, I think, argue that there have to be fundamental particles or something like that, as a matter of metaphysical necessity. They’re getting beyond their pay grade too.
              Foundationalism as philosophers use it is a thesis from a totally different area–it’s about whether there’s any knowledge that is the basis for all other knowledge, not about the structure of the world. Foundational knowledge could be about non-fundamental things, or vice versa.
              I’m not sure how you’re using the word “fundamentalism”–there are other fundamentalisms besides the idea that fundamental particles exist?

  • Thanks for the Barrett paper! I need to read it – sounds potentially relevant to my autistic 10yo’s difficulty with recognizing & expressing emotions.

    Dr. Surrence, do you have any favorite papers on emotions w/r/t autism?

    • Katie Surrence

      >Dr. Surrence

      I’ll try to think about this a little later, but for the moment: this assumes some facts not in evidence. :-p

  • keta

    I was commercial tuna fishing about one-hundred and twenty miles off Vancouver Island years ago when I experienced the most dangerous event I’ve had at sea to date.

    There was a storm heading our way so despite excellent fishing we pulled the pin and starting jogging back to the barn at nightfall. The fifty-foot vessel has a running speed of about seven knots so we weren’t going to find a hole to hide in for many hours, but the weather was on our bum and not yet at storm force so it was actually comfortable for the time being.

    The other crew member was on wheel watch and I was asleep in the fo’c’sle when something woke me. I lay in my bunk for a moment trying to figure out what that something was when I realized the throbbing of the engine was distinctly different than normal. I shouted up to my colleague at the wheel and when he didn’t respond I came halfway up and saw he was at the helm, headphones on and eating a bowl of stew, so I went below and had a look in the engine room.

    Uh-oh. Seawater was halfway up the engine and the entire space was awash. Not a pretty sight one hundred miles offshore with a storm building up force and no other vessels in the vicinity.

    I called down my crewmate and we discovered we’d blown the hose off the through-hull fitting for our main bilge pump, which effectively meant we’d had a four-inch hole in the hull for a few hours. We managed to fire up the secondary bilge pump and once the water level was considerably down we changed the engine oil while still running because we weren’t certain it would start again if we shut it down, and with no steerage-way we would have wallowed in the trough, which was becoming a mighty big hole. The big diesel continued to purr along and we made landfall a few hours later. A thorough inspection revealed no serious damage to the power plant that a good round of maintenance wouldn’t put right. It was a very happy ending to a very dicey situation.

    When we did finally get dockside I asked my crewmate if he’d been scared at any point during the crisis and he replied, “Scared? Not really…more concerned than anything. You know, a uniform voxel responding in a linear fashion sort of thing.”

    I concurred, and chuckled knowingly.

    • jim, some guy in iowa

      how do they set up marine diesels so that you can change the oil with the engine running?

      • keta

        We drained and added oil simultaneously. A properly-supplied fishing vessel has lots of extra/spare stuff, including lubricants.

        • jim, some guy in iowa

          kinda thought so. Having another set of hands helps- gotten used to doing stuff on my own, but that would be a bit much- especially because I can see myself dropping the damn drain plug and running the engine out of oil under those circumstances

  • matt w

    BTW is the second paragraph in the second blockquote supposed to be outside of it?

    • Katie Surrence

      yes, thanks, fixed!

  • Seems to me that emotions are largely rhetoric, ways of affecting the behavior of ourselves and others, often by bodily signs such as tears and smiles. Rhetoric always has a context. You can’t understand it by neurological reductionism. My feelings are mine; but even sincerity is a move in the game, a display that convinces because it is costly and hard to fake.

    • Hogan

      Emotions and particular expressions of emotions are not the same thing.

  • Vance Maverick

    Blog owners, the site is going nuts. Try watching network traffic in the Chrome developer tools while loading an individual post like this one.

    Katie, I’m glad to see the idea that emotions aren’t natural kinds getting play, in science and in popular discussion. Hope to follow up when my browser can handle the site.

    • Yes, I had to disable Shockwave Flash in Chrome before I could even post the above comment. I suspect some of the problem is in the ads.

      • … nope, crashed on me just now, tho I’m surprised it posted that comment.

    • I had about a twenty-second lag for each keystroke on my first comment (I ended up composing it in a text editor and pasting it in). The problem appears to have been resolved.

    • Redwood Rhiadra

      I noticed there’s a widget frame over on the right (just below the Donate button and above the Recent Comments widget) which loads an entire page from the archives (though you can only see the top left of it.) And this is possibly recursive!

      It appears to come from some subdomain of amazon-adsystem.com – I set my adblocker to block that entire domain, and the site works a lot better now.

    • Adblock tells me that it’s currently blocking 842 items on this page.

  • Yankee

    Words are also not “natural categories” (as if there were such a thing) and semantics is totally dependent on context. Or as we used to like to say in as many variations as possible, “Don’t crush that dwarf, hand me the pliers.” Fun times.

    • “What? You never did. –The Kenosha Kid”, etc. (Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow)

  • Thanks for this post. I haven’t had time to read it all yet today, but I think the topic is interesting.

  • Latverian Diplomat

    Thanks for the Ekman and Keltner link which seems to me to pretty devastating to what Barrett is trying to say.

    To the extent that there are some basic Autonomic Nervous System processes that seem to operate consistently across people, it seems reasonable to associate these with some foundational elements of what we call emotion.

    We’re not just talking about “voxel response curves” here. Some of this stuff could be measured well before MRI machines or PET scans.

    • Katie Surrence

      I don’t think that’s inconsistent with what Barrett’s saying at all. You would basically have to be insane to say there aren’t basic ANS processes across people, and I quote her above saying, “Emotional responding exists, can be functional, and is very likely given to us by evolution.” But “arousal,” for instance, is not an emotion the way most people understand the word “emotion.” It can be a component or category of an emotion. But seeing someone sweating is not a tell for a particular interior state with much specificity at all.

      Barrett’s position, or at least the way I understand it in the context of all the work of hers I’ve seen, not just the Times op-ed, is that our ideas of what the emotion categories are don’t map on to discrete categories. Ekman and Feldman retort is that a few “basic emotion” categories — fear, disgust, sadness, happiness, and surprise — have an expressive and biological signature universal in humans, conserved across more than one mammalian species, and are an evolutionary result of the adaptive function of the co-occurrence of an expression and a certain physiological state. Barrett disagrees and things there is not a universal fear (sadness, happiness, etc.) response.

  • Vance Maverick

    The blonde was strong with the madness of love or fear, or a mixture of both, or maybe she was just strong.

    — Chandler, The Big Sleep

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