Sunday, September 18, 2011

Introduction to Robert C. Roberts View of Emotions

Robert C. Roberts is a philosopher who engages in the contemporary discussion concerning the nature of emotions. His scholarly work defending his position may be found in his book Emotions: An Essay in Aid of Moral Psychology. He has also written a work titled Spiritual Emotions: A Psychology of Christian Virtues which elaborates on how his view of emotions assists the Christian in his or her spiritual walk. In this post, I simply want to offer a sketch of his view. However, before I sketch his view I want to give a little background on the way in which Roberts approaches the study of emotions.

In ancient and medieval philosophy, emotions were usually spoken of within the context of a broader philosophical anthropology. Aquinas, for example, differentiates the various types of souls into the natural (vegetative) soul, the sensitive soul, and the rational soul. Rational souls have the powers of the lower sensitive and natural soul; however, in addition to those powers the rational soul also has the power of reason. Aquinas locates emotions in the sensitive part of the soul. In particular, he situates them in the sensitive appetite. (Note: At this point, I do not think that the modern term “emotions” is the equivalent of Aquinas’ terms “passiones” or “affectiones”.)

By contrast, the contemporary debate makes use of neuroscience, experimental psychology, evolutionary biology, etc... Some researchers believe they have found interesting results as they study brain states and their corresponding emotional states. Others think that experimental psychology is more helpful in arriving at the nature of emotions. Anthropologists might draw their conclusions about emotion by comparing those emotions that seem to cross cultural boundaries with those that seem to be unique to a particular culture.

Roberts believes that the while the sciences may be helpful in understanding the nature of emotions, they are not sufficient for that task. Thus Roberts approach is that of a conceptual analysis. By conceptual analysis, he means “an approach to the investigation of emotions that takes major clues about them from the ways people talk about the emotions in the contexts of their life.” (Roberts 2003, p.4) That is not to say that he is simply trying to determine the nature of emotions by looking for the semantic root of the word or by a comprehensive study of the various usages of the term. His approach starts with common usage of the terms, but it seeks to interpret those usages in conjunction with reported and personal experiences of emotion.

The contemporary discussion of emotions consists largely of two main views: the cognitivist and the non-cognitivist. The James-Lange theory is an example of a non-cognitivist theory. It maintains that emotions are not cognitions but feelings which are caused by physiological states and identified by a particular set of physiological happenings. So, for example, when you see a bear you perceive danger and that cognitive perception sets off a series of biochemical processes. According to this theory, the resulting “fear” is to be identified with our awareness of the non-cognitive physiological state.

Cognitivist theories identify emotions with some kind of cognition. Robert Solomon and Martha Nussbaum are examples of cognitivists. They view emotions as a species of judgments.

Roberts is also a cognitivist. However, rather than identifying emotions as a type of judgment, he identifies emotions as a type of perception. He defines an emotion as a concern-based construal. Thus in order to have an emotion, one must be concerned about something and one must construe (perceive) a situation as either aligning with or conflicting with that concern.

For example, let’s say you just bought a new Mercedes. Let’s also say that you have been wanting one for years and as such you do not want your new car to be scratched or damaged in any way. Now let’s say that you just pulled your new SLS AMG into you drive way and you see a bunch of thug teen-agers walking down the street. You notice that they have a set of keys and as they walk down the street they are “pretending” to scratch cars with their keys. From this distance you aren’t sure if they are really scratching cars or if they are just pretending.

In this situation, your concern is for the condition of your new car. That concern disposes you to having certain emotions about your car. When you are driving your pristine vehicle down a back country road on a beautiful Saturday morning, it’s handling, it’s comfort, and the prestige you feel as others look at your amazing SLS AMG brings you joy. But now that you perceive a situation in which your car might be threatened your concern for your car, coupled with your perception of impending danger, produces a very different emotion. It might be anxiety or anger.

What this means for Roberts is that your concern acts as an emotional disposition. In other words, it disposes you to a range of emotions. So the concern, by itself, is not an emotion. It is the concern along with how you perceive the situation.

Imagine the same situation except imagine that the SLS AMG is your ex-wife’s new car. She has spent the last two years trying to make your life a living hell. She has tried to take all your money, take the children, she has done everything she can to ruin your reputation, AND she loves her new SLS AMG. You know that if these teenage thugs key her car, she would be devastated. In that case, the approaching teenagers might bring you joy even though you perceive the situation in the same way, namely that they pose a threat to the car. However, in this case your concern is not for the car, but for the inflicting grief on your ex-wife.

Thus Roberts claims that an emotion is “a way of “seeing” things, when this “seeing” is grounded in a concern”. (Roberts 2007, p.12) So there are two parts to an emotion. First, one must have a concern about something, and then one must perceive a situation in a certain way. In order to illustrate what Roberts means here by “a way of seeing” see the gestalt below.

When you see this gestalt picture, you can see either a young woman looking away or an old woman with a cloth covering her head. Visually, you are seeing the exact same thing. However, when you see the old woman, you perceive the visual stimuli differently than when you perceive the young woman looking away. The difference then is not one of sight but of perception. The difference is how you construe the visual stimuli.

Similarly, when you construe the teenagers as a threat to something you care about, namely your brand new Mercedes, that way of perceiving or construing the situation specifies the type of emotion that you will have. Additionally, the degree to which you are concerned about your vehicle will usually be reflected in your emotional response to the impending danger.

Roberts goes on to say that emotions are states in which “the subject grasps, with a kind of perceptual immediacy, a significance of his or her situation.” (Roberts 2007, p.11) To have an emotion is more than a mere recognition of the facts of some situation. It attaches significance to a situation. It is a perception of some set of events conjoined with a response that reveals how those events relate to my desires and concerns. Thus emotions, more than any other human activity, impresses upon us the significance of the events of our lives.

This view, in contrast with a non-cognitive view, allows for emotions to be appropriate or inappropriate. Pop-psychologists sometimes say things like “feelings are neither right nor wrong, they just happen”. While emotions may not be, properly speaking, moral or immoral they are certainly open to evaluation. If you doubt this, ask yourself what you would think of a grown man who has a temper tantrum on the floor because a waitress gave him lemonade instead of sweet tea. I don’t know of anyone who would find this sort of behavior acceptable.

But on what grounds do we find this behavior unacceptable? We do so on grounds that there are objective standards that should guide our levels of concerned for various objects. Since there are appropriate levels of concern for various objects, we can judge whether or not someone is unduly concerned about something. If a man is more concerned about getting his sweet tea in a timely manner than about the well being of a waitress, then we can say that his concerns are misaligned. He is not appropriately concerned about the right things.

Additionally, since our perceptions of a given situation are interpretive perceptions, we have grounds for being upset with the man who throws temper tantrums over trivial issues. As is the case with the gestalt above, our will is involved in how we perceive things. I can, by force of will, decide to construe the gestalt as a young woman or as an old woman. Likewise, I can construe someone’s comments as an insult, as a compliment, or in some other way. I can choose to construe events in a cynical way or I can, on the whole, be optimistic in my appraisal of a situation.

This short post is meant only as a brief overview of Dr. Robert’s position. His view is much more elaborate than what I have presented, and you should not take this as an authoritative source on his view. I am mainly posting this to distill my thoughts on the view of emotions as concern-based construals. If you want to know more about his views, please read the books that I listed above.

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