Scratching Where it Itches: What is Emotion?

I am interesting in showing the modern provenance of the contemporary idea of emotion, demonstrating its innovative character as a rupture from premodern accounts of human experience rooted in Aristotle’s view of the soul and the tradition of virtue.

In his The Logic of Desire: Aquinas on Emotion, Nicholas E. Lombardo, OP gives a brief account of the development of thinking about emotion in recent modernity.

A key issue in thinking about this is: what role does the body play?

William James, “What is an Emotion?” 1884 – “Our natural way of thinking about … emotions is that the mental perception of some fact excites the mental affection called the emotion, and that this latter state of mind gives rise to the bodily perception. My thesis on the contrary is that the bodily changes follow directly the PERCEPTION of the exciting fact, and that our feeling of the same changes as they occur IS the emotion.

So for James an emotion is the feeling of a perception-induced bodily change, not a mental affection that gives rise to a “bodily perception.”

James identification of emotion as bodily feeling has antecedents in Hume’s theory of the passions.

Although critics of James’ view (such as Walter Cannon) emerged, emotion-as-bodily-feeling was convenient to behaviorism (with its “purposeful avoidance of interior phenomena”) and logical positivism (with its “reduction of ethics to irrational emotivism”). On this view emotions are regarded as “physiological and nonrational,” and hence have little to do with philosophy.

But eventually Anglo-American philosophy began to shift toward a cognitive account of emotion, with the publication of Errol Bedford’s “Emotions” in 1957. Bedford argues that “emotions have a cognitive dimension that theories of emotion as pure feelings cannot explain.” 11

Then Anthony Kenney publishes an article in which he argues that emotions are “intentional,” that is, “directed toward definite objects.” Next: George Pitcher argues that emotions are interior sensations, contra Hume and James. After the subsequent work of Magda Arnold and the emergence of a new interest in cognition in philosophy and psychology, “cognitive accounts of emotion have since become dominant.”

This is true for Martha Nussbaum and Robert Solomon. Solomon maintains that emotions are inner judgements, while Nussbaum has developed a “neo-Stoic ‘cognitive-evaluative’ view, according to which emotions are forms of evaluative judgment that ascribe to certain things and persons outside one’s control great importance for a person’s own flourishing.” Bodily feeling, thinks Nussbaum, sometime accompanies emotion but is not essential to it.

Which of the two views: the more body-centered one of James & company, or the more cognitive one of Solomon / Nussbaum, is more Christian, more consistent with a Christian anthropology? That (among other things) is what I’m hoping to find out.