kiss… is not really what this piece is about (sorry). It’s an idea I had years ago for a short story or a novella. ‘Lust’ here would have been interpreted broadly as any state which impels a human being towards sex. I had in mind a number of axes defining a general ‘lust space’. One of the axes, if I remember rightly, had specific attraction to one person at one end and generalised indiscriminate enthusiasm at the other; another went from sadistic to masochistic, and so on. I think I had eighty-one basic forms of lust, and the idea was to write short episodes exemplifying each one: in fact, to interweave a coherent narrative with all of them in.

My creative gifts were not up to that challenge, but I mention it here because one of the axes went from the purely intellectual to the purely physical. At the intellectual extreme you might have an elderly homosexual aristocrat who, on inheriting a title, realises it is his duty to attempt to procure an heir. At the purely physical end you might have an adolescent boy on a train who notices he has an erection which is unrelated to anything that has passed through his mind.

That axis would have made a lot of sense (perhaps) to Luca Barlassina and Albert Newen, whose paper in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research sets out an impure somatic theory of the emotions. In short, they claim that emotions are constituted by the integration of bodily perceptions with representations of external objects and states of affairs.

Somatic theories say that emotions are really just bodily states. We don’t get red in the face because we’re angry, we get angry because we’ve become red in the face. As no less an authority than William James had it:

The more rational statement is that we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble, and not that we cry, strike, or tremble, because we are sorry, angry, or fearful, as the case may be. Without the bodily states following on the perception, the latter would be purely cognitive in form, pale, colorless, destitute of emotional warmth.

This view did not appeal to everyone, but the elegantly parsimonious reduction it offers has retained its appeal, and Jesse Prinz has put forward a sophisticated 21st century version. It is Prinz’s theory that Barlassina and Newen address; they think it needs adulterating, but they clearly want to build on Prinz’s foundations, not reject them.

So what does Prinz say? His view of emotions fits into the framework of his general view about perception: for him, a state is a perceptual state if it is a state of a dedicated input system – eg the visual system. An emotion is simply a state of the system that monitors our own bodies; in other words emotions are just perceptions of our own bodily states.  Even for Prinz, that’s a little too pure: emotions, after all, are typically about something. They have intentional content. We don’t just feel angry, we feel angry about something or other. Prinz regards emotions as having dual content: they register bodily states but also represent core relational themes (as against say, fatigue, which both registers and represents a bodily state). On top of that, they may involve propositional attitudes, thoughts about some evocative future event, for example, but the propositional attitudes only evoke the emotions, they don’t play any role in constituting them. Further still, certain higher emotions are recalibrati0ns of lower ones: the simple emotion of sadness is recalibrated so it can be controlled by a particular set of stimuli and become guilt.

So far so good. Barlassina and Newen have four objections. First, if Prinz is right, then the neural correlates of emotion and the perception of the relevant bodily states must just be the same. Taking the example of disgust, B&N argue that the evidence suggests otherwise: interoception, the perception of bodily changes, may indeed cause disgust, but does not equate to it neurologically.

Second, they see problems with Prinz’s method of bringing in intentional content. For Prinz emotions differ from mere bodily feeling because they represent core relational themes. But, say B&N, what about ear pressure? It tells us about unhealthy levels of barometric pressure and oxygen, and so relates to survival, surely a core relational theme: and it’s certainly a perception of a bodily state – but ear pressure is not an emotion.

Third, Prinz’s account only allows emotions to be about general situations; but in fact they are about particular things. When we’re afraid of a dog, we’re afraid of that dog, we’re not just experiencing a general fear in the presence of a specific dog.

Fourth, Prinz doesn’t fully accommodate the real phenomenology of emotions. For him, fear of a lion is fear accompanied by some beleifs about a lion: but B&N maintain that the directedness of the emotion is built in, part of the inherent phenomenology.

Barlassina and Newen like Prinz’s somatic leanings, but they conclude that he simply doesn’t account sufficiently for the representative characteristics of emotions: consequently they propose an ‘impure’ theory by which emotions are cognitive states constituted when interoceptive states are integrated with with perceptions of external objects or states of affairs.

This pollution or elaboration of the pure theory seems pretty sensible and B&N give a clear and convincing exposition. At the end of the day it leaves me cold not because they haven’t done a good job but because I suspect that somatic theories are always going to be inadequate: for two reasons.

First, they just don’t capture the phenomenology. There’s no doubt at all that emotions are often or typically characterised or coloured by perception of distinctive bodily states, but is that what they are in essence? It doesn’t seem so. It seems possible to imagine that I might be angry or sad without a body at all: not, of course, in the same good old human way, but angry or sad nevertheless. There seems to be something almost qualic about emotions, something over and above any of the physical aspects, characteristic though they may be.

Second, surely emotions are often essentially about dispositions to behave in a certain way? An account of anger which never mentions that anger makes me more likely to hit people just doesn’t seem to cut the mustard. Even William James spoke of striking people. In fact, I think one could plausibly argue that the physical changes associated with an emotion can often be related to the underlying propensity to behave in a certain way. We begin to breathe deeply and our heart pounds because we are getting ready for violent exertion, just as parallel cognitive changes get us ready to take offence and start a fight. Not all emotions are as neat as this: we’ve talked in the past about the difficulty of explaining what grief is for. Still, these considerations seem enough to show that a somatic account, even an impure one, can’t quite cover the ground.

Still, just as Barlassina and Newen built on Prinz, it may well be that they have provided some good foundation work for an even more impure theory.



  1. 1. Robert Daoust says:

    Those new species of robots made at Boston Dynamics ( seem to me more on the verge of being conscious than any other human-made machine. I think that ‘sentience’ or ‘qualia’ appear when sensory and motor circuits get related in such a way that a “cartesian theater” takes place and an algohedonic valence (which comes from recurrence and reverberation of multiple sensorimotor loops) begins to involve the ‘subject’ into an interest that is inherent to the meanings of that algohedonic valence. In other words, consciousness appears with the phenomenon of value, which itself appears with suffering and pleasure (in constant interrelation, never alone), which themselves appear with movements felt as impeded and facilitated (in an interrelated fashion).

  2. 2. haig says:

    I think a large portion of the higher emotions must be seen from the perspective of social psychology. So much of what happens to our bodies when we feel different emotions are signals to other members of our social group, and I argue that the emotions themselves, felt subjectively, are mostly social functions if viewed from a collective framework. Forcing people to contort a smile actually pushes them into a ‘happier’ emotional state, even if just a marginal effect, and this is evidence that emotions, at least the higher emotions, are adaptations for group cohesion which function somatically as signaling mechanisms, but also subjectively as behavioral ‘modes’. Of course the specter of qualia remains in any case.

  3. 3. Vicente says:

    In addition to haig’s social psychology comment, I believe we need to introduce the role of instincts (evolutionary psychology) to have a view of the whole picture. Lust as most cravings are there to take control of the machine, a la Dawkins.

    Besides, why must there be an order: body response -> emotion; or emotion -> body response? probably both are effects of one single cause, and arise simultaneously. Later, there could be cross coupling, if you smile… you feel a bit better.

    I am more interested in the relation of this issue with the free will problem. I think this is the case when the “free won’t” concept could apply.

    What is the mechanism by which self-controlled individuals can detect and control there emotional responses, and could be said to be in charge. This is the evolution of interest.

    Another axis could be added, at one end the beast, at the other the master.

  4. 4. Callan S. says:

    It might be worth thinking about the knee jerk reaction – how you can feel your body doing that when tapped on the knee. But you don’t get advanced notice it’s going to happen.

    Here with emotions, it’s perhaps more like advanced notice – an idea of what is building up to happen. It’s also a narrowing of perception – it’s almost dishonest to talk about anger, as if we float in freeform around the event, when really when we get angry the rest of the world gets horse blinkered out – so much so we don’t even see the blinkers and merely see the target of our anger.

    So emotions warp perception. Indeed, the best definition might be that they are all warpings of perception (combined with knee jerk like reactions that are priming themselves to fire). Fun house mirrors.

    Yeah, got a bit dark with the description, there…

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