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In modern psychology and philosophy we are seeing two major branches of study of emotions, that is the one that focuses on the concept of feeling and the one that focuses on the concept of the conceiving of emotions as cognitive states.

Affective states describe feeling centered concepts and cognition theories refer to thought-centered concepts. Both concepts are from the 19th and 20th century and object, even revolutionise the more orthodox concept of emotion fromt he 18th and 19th century.

The older concept is a fixture of empiricist psychology in the modern tradition. Empiricists of the 18th and 19th century saw the mind as a single field of thought and feeling, fully transparent to itself. They conceived our emotions as being a concetonation of simple tactile impressions of external things. Unlocalised feelings of pleasure and pain are included in this orthodox theory, in Locke’s words they are “internal sensations” (1975, pp. 229-30) and in David Hume’s words they are nothing more than “secondary or reflective impressions” (1978, p. 275). According to empiricists emotions are discrete sensations, and singular states of consciousness.


Cognitivist William James

William James attacked David Hume in The Priinciples of Psychology on all accounts of emotion: Discretness, Reoccurance, Combinationality of simple sensations. James argued, that our thought appears to be a continous stream of sensations and can’t be broken down, unless they occured “in an unmodified brain” at a later time, which is physiological impossible. He claimed that sensations are unrepeatable experiences and and that there are no corresponding simple, recurrent ideas which can’t be broken down into units of feeling and thought. He argued, in a concert, that we only think of hearing the same note twice and have the same sensation twice, beause we confuse sensations with the objects producing them, but never is an experience of emotion actually exactly the same.

Hume argues, Pride and Humility as well as the other passions are “simple and uniform impressions” (1978, p.277). John Deigh argues empiricists were wrong because for “their modeling emotions on external sensations” (2010, p. 20). Both Hume and Locke identified internal sensations as emotions, being secondary impressions. James argues, that empiricists make the same mistake with emotions as naturalists with species before Darwin, just categorising and catalogising the different species as being immutable with separate characters, points and effects.

James agreed however on the concept of emotions as feelings produced by changes in the body. However in his theory, the emotion did not invoke bodily action, e.g. a blushing, but the blushing, the bodily change, invokes the emotion. Or in other words, he “reversed the common sense of the order of events in an episode of emotion” by claiming that feeling changes in the body, the excitment consists in is the emotion.They do not produce any action but are effects of the bodily changes, called epiphenomena.


The commonsense’s account conceive of emotions as being sources for action. However it was difficult for many to accept, that emotions are the source of actions, thus James’ epiphenomenalism had a lot of opposition. Hume already distinguished emotions as being different in motivational strenght. According to Hume, emotions are either violent or calm depending on the degree of agitation in the mind. One passion, i.e. might be calm, yet might win over a violent passion, when the former one is experienced stronger than the latter one. Hume describes in his “doctrine of the calm passions” (Deigh, p.22), passionas that are less in strenght, and less felt than normal emotions. However, Hume could not acknowledge that they were unfelt emotions without abandoning the whole framework of empircists psychology, which after all, understands the mind as being a field of consciousness and all states in it are conscious, even emotions. Therefore Hume could not admit, that he essentially found some emotions that are unconscious.

Psychoanalytic theory

While Hume hinted at emotions to not always be conscious states, it was Sigmund Freud, 150 years later, who finally abandoned empiricist, orthodox psychology of emotion in his theory of the unconscious. Between Hume and Freud, we see some theories of the unconscious, but not much of a challenge to traditional empiricists, only claiming that unconscious emotions could be made available without much effort, by sleeping over them, essentially recalling emotions that are “on the tip of our tongues”.

It is Freud who came up with the idea of repressed thoughts, such as one’s mind blocked them from becoming conscious. For example, Freud believed some repressed thoughts were held back by one’s mind, because they were beliefs about being responsible for trauma having occured when one was very young. Only through self-defeating behaviour, dreams or illness we could make them intelligble to ourselves. Freud called them charged, (“belastet”) thoughts. The force of these charged thoughts, according to Freud, were in tension with their repressive force “the dynamic unconcisous” (as cited in Deigh, p.23). Freud talked of them being charged and energetic thoughts. There is however no coherent theory of unconscious or repressed emotion of Freud, since he, too, argued emotions being feelings would make no sense, since feelings can by definition not be unconscious. He is often misinterpreted on this while acknowledging himself that the idea of an “unconscious feeling” is self-contradictory (Freud, 1915). He did identify emotions with states that potentially could be expressed as feelings, but may be blocked from bein realised by repression.

Freud’s express opinion about unconscious emotions was very different from Willliam James’account. Freud sought explanation in the emotions of the unexplained phenomena of human life, which included parapraxes (“Versprecher”), unconventional sexual conduct, excessive fear or flat affect and somatic illnesses that had no obvious bodily cause. These phenomena recquired identification of the emotion and its realised or unrealised feeling and the object towards which the emotion was directed. The objects at which the emotions were directed at, concerned Freud, as they were real things, persons or objects, but “were sometimes mereley the products ot the subject’s fantasies” (Deigh, p24). Nonetheless, Freud observed in his patients that repressed pseudo-memories of traumatic childhood events, needed not to be real, but could be products of the subject’s fantasies. Indeed, he found out that, that whether there were incidents of real sexual abuse or just were fantasised made no difference from the subject’s viewpoint. In giving this account of his patients, Freud constituted his theory of emotions as intentional states of the mind. He observed that with each explanation of his patients, how the emotion was related to its object and gave import to the feelings or behaviour that manifested the emotion in the first place. This intentionality (“Absichtlichkeit”) of emotion, was his core concept when inventing the term in his unconscious theory of the mind.

Freud did not consider the content of the intentionality of emotions, neither did he consider an emotions relations to its object, however he dinstinguished his conception from James strongly enough by focusing on intentionality as a precursor of emotions and not bodily feelings, the epiphenomenology as a spring for emotions. Freud claimed emotions can be causes for actions. Arguably even more importantly Freud distinguished himself from William James and David Hume by the concept he introduced, of emotions being sometimes unconscious states and therefore not congruent with feelings, but rather expressed by feelings. Lastly, Freud claimed that feelings that express emotions are important phenomena and not as with James mere indices of bodliy processes. With Freud, feelings of Grief, Shame, Fear or such had the same import as the emotions they express, because retroactively that import is transmitted back from the emotions to the feelings. For example, when one experiences the feeling of shame it has the import of appearing unworthy before others whose esteem one seeks, and in feeling shame one feels unworthy of them. By contrast the feelings in the concept James defined, that an emotion consists in feelings, and go not beyond the feelings of bodily changes, are not meaningful in the way Freud conceived of them. With James the precense of feelings of grief or shame was “mere happenstance, a consequence of the concept that ultimately yielded telling empirical criticism. (Deigh, p.25)”


Freud’s concept about intentionality of emotion was in need of a an account about its meaning which some philosophers and psychologists were able to provide without giving Freud the needed credit, essentially commiting plagiarism. They all agreed on evaluative judgements being an essential part of the intentionality of emotions. One would, for example, judge good fortune with the feeling of joy and judge undeserved misfortune with pity. Feelings that express emotions are therefore different from feelings that just register physiological changes. For example it is a difference if one is short of breath after exertion and if is someone short of breath after a panic attack. In the former one there is no emotion involved and in the latter one there is an emotion involved that has the judgement about the object of one’s fear as defining element.

To seesuch conception of a judgement being an element of an emotion, leads therefore back to a cognitivist conception of emotion, seeing an emotion as a cognitiv state. This understanding, which prevails todays understanding of philosophers and psychologists of emotions, recovers the ideas of the ancients and Stoic theory, on which emotions are taken to be identical to cognitive, evaluative judgements, even when coinciding with other elements besides articulate thought, such as agitation of the mind, autonomic behavior and impulses to action (Deigh, p. 26). A theme common to these theories is that emotion belong to cognitive though, being intelligent action and being on par with resolution, decisions, judgements. These theories believe emotions have propositional content, that is being bearers of truth or falsity in a non-linguistical sense, such as that one that is having an emotion decides whether he thinks the emotion is warrented or unwarrented, justified or unjustified. For example the evaluation if a situation is really threatening or not. Anger would be marked as being justified for a really demeaning insult and anger would be unjustified if the insult was mistakenly perceived as such, in reality being a rather innocent remark. In being so, evaluative judgements become a defining part of emotions, in a way that one would judge a person for being unworthy of one’s esteem in view of some bad behaviour. Accordingly if being angry at some one for having insulted a relative, one would judge that person of having insulted the relative according to their behaviour of being insulting. This is regarded by John Deigh as being the standard model of cognitivist theory.

There are two strong objections against the standard model, first, an emotion might lack properties one knows it should have to be warranted. For example, if you look down a steep hill, you might fear falling, although you are perfectly sage. The same is true for other phobias about certain insects or disgust at certain foods of course. The reason why cognitivist theories are not accounting for such fears, because when you look down a steep hill, you feel the fear, even though you know, that you are perfectly safe, the reaction is automatic and this fact means that the argument of a contradictory judgements that cognitivs theories bring forth against such an example is not warrented, since it does not account for this type of automatic fear reaction. The second objection to the model of cognitivistsis, is, that it does not properly account for emotions in nonhuman animals and infants (aka beasts and babies), i.e. there is a set of emotions that don’t require being understood, in the a way that require evaluative judgments, which is at least partially the core concept of cognitivst theories. Such judgements, such as belief require affirmation or rejection of propositions as a state of mind, and thus having emotions would require understanding and acknowleding propositions. This means one would need to understand language, but since neither infants nor animals do understand language, the cognitivists’s theory can’t account for their emotions. Unsurprisingly, ancient Greek and Roman Stoics, the antecedent of the cognitivist theory of emotion, claimed, that infants and animals had no emotions. Together with Descartes view, that only humans have minds, both theories are today regarded as a mere oddity of history, since in essence any theory of emotion must agree that animals as well as babies experience emotions. Cognitivist theories that rely on evaluative judgements as the core of experiencing emotions fail to agree that animals and infants are capable of experiencing emotions.

To escape these objections, cognitivists today argue that, instead of having to rely on the understanding of propositions to make evaluative judgements and experience emotions, one rather relies on perceptions. John Deigh calls this the perceptual model. This model seem to hold its ground when faced with the first objection, that one has to believe or judge about being in danger of falling down a steep cliff in order to experience emotions, since the perceptual model relies on the perception of being in danger contrary to the old cognitivst model of being able to judge or believe of being in danger. But how about the second objection, the emotions of infants and animals?


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