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Review of "The Subtlety of Emotions"

By Aaron Ben-Ze'ev
MIT Press, 2000
Review by on Jun 30th 2000
The Subtlety of Emotions

Emotions in general and particular, according to Aaron Ben-Ze’ev, constitute prototype rather than binary categories. There are no necessary and sufficient conditions in virtue of which a state is an emotion as opposed to a non-emotion, and there are no necessary and sufficient conditions in virtue of which an emotion is anger instead of, for instance, resentment. We may, nonetheless, describe the characteristics typical of emotional states, and a state may be classified as an emotion to the extent that that it partakes of these characteristics. Similarly, we may describe the characteristics typical of a given emotion, such as anger, and an emotion may qualify as anger to the extent that it resembles the typical case. Such prototype analysis is sufficiently rich, Ben-Ze’ev maintains, to generate psychologically and philosophically interesting insights into the nature of emotions in general and into the features of particular kinds emotions. In Part I of his book, The Subtlety of Emotions, Ben-Ze’ev delineates a framework for understanding emotion as a heterogeneous category. In Part II, he turns his attention to the characteristics typical of particular emotional states.

So what, in general, sets emotions apart from other states that aren’t emotions, like perceptions, or beliefs, or tickles on the soles of one’s feet? According to Ben-Ze’ev, (chapter 2) emotions are typically directed at people (or agents, such as animals, which resemble people in relevant respects) and are typically generated by the perception of a change that strikes us as significant in virtue of bearing upon our personal concerns. When in the grip of an emotion, we compare our new situation (or a possible situation which is known by us to be imaginary, as discussed in chapter 7), with our previous or desired state of affairs and, given such a comparison, we evaluate our actual or counterfactual situation.

This typical causal history leads emotions to enjoy a particular constellation of characteristics. In virtue of being triggered by the perception of an important change, emotions are typically intense. In virtue of the fact that the change is perceived as important due to its relevance to our personal concerns, emotions typically take a narrow and relatively egocentric focus. In virtue of the fact that no change can be perceived as a change forever (eventually, the new situation becomes the status quo), emotions are typically unstable and brief (chapter 2).

While it does hold sway, however, an emotion enjoys a feeling and a tripartite intentional component, the latter of which is composed of cognitive, evaluative and motivational elements. (chapter 3). Anger, for instance, may involve a particular sensation in the stomach, an interpretation of what someone has done, a evaluation of this behavior as blameworthy, and a desire to punish the wrong-doer. These feeling and intentional components serve to distinguish emotions from other affective states, such as sentiments, moods, affective traits and affective disorders. In particular, emotions are typically about something fairly specific and, in virtue of having a pronounced feel, are the subject of immediate experience. Sentiments, although taking a specific content, may lack the feeling component entirely and so need not be present to awareness at any given time. Moods, much like tickles, are the subject of awareness in virtue of enjoying a distinctive feel but they need not be about anything in particular. Affective traits lack both a feel and a definite content and, as such, are more on the order of dispositions to feel and behave in certain ways. Affective disorders, on the other hand, may take the extreme form of any affective state (emotion, sentiment, mood or trait). (chapter 4)

Emotions, themselves, may be distinguished from each other on the basis of the their evaluative components, and, in particular, on the basis of the positive or negative nature of this evaluation and its object (chapter 4). Envy and jealousy, for instance, involve negative evaluations of others’ good fortune (chapter 10). Pity and compassion (chapter 11) involve negative evaluations of others’ misfortune. Happy-for and pleasure-in-other’s misfortune (chapter 12) involve positive evaluations of others’ good fortune and bad fortune, respectively. Anger involves a negative evaluation of the praiseworthiness of an agent’s actions; disgust involves a negative evaluation of the appealingness of the agent; while hate and contempt both involve a negative evaluation of the appealingness and the praiseworthiness of an agent (chapter 13). Gratitude, on the other hand, involves a positive evaluation of the praiseworthiness of another’s actions. Sexual desire involves a positive evaluation of the appealingness of an agent. Love involves the positive evaluation of the appealingness and the praiseworthiness of an agent (chapter 14). Happiness and sadness, respectively, involve positive and negative evaluations of our current situation (chapter 15). Hope and fear, respectively, involve positive and negative evaluations of our possible future (chapter 16). Pride involves a positive evaluation of our actions, whereas regret, guilt and embarrassment involve negative evaluations of our deeds. (chapter 17). Pridefulness and shame, on the other hand, involve positive and negative evaluations of ourselves, respectively (chapter 18). Although no emotions are basic in any reductionistic sense, certain emotions may be considered basic insofar as their intentional components are relatively unsophisticated and don’t require the ability to refer to oneself, imagine counterfactual situations, contemplate the fortune of others, or engage in social comparison. Happiness, anger and repulsion would be basic in this sense, whereas envy, regret and shame would not be basic (chapter 4).

With such an understanding of emotion in hand, one may read Ben-Ze’ev as turning his attention to three related issues: to what extent are emotions rational; to what extent can we regulate our emotions, and what is the connection between emotional responses and morality? Although the evaluative component is at the heart of emotions, Ben-Ze’ev maintains such evaluations aren’t the result of deliberation; instead, they are typically cognitively unmediated results of the activation of an evaluative schema (chapter 3). Accordingly, (chapter 6), emotions aren’t rational in the sense of being the product of rational thinking, but they are often rational insofar as they are in accord with the results of rational deliberation and serve as functional, appropriate responses to situations that require the rapid mobilization of resources. Emotional intelligence consists of acquiring optimal evaluative schemata, or schemata that are sensitive to the right things in the right ways and which, accordingly, generate emotions that accord with the result of deliberative reason.

The possibility of modifying our evaluative schemata enables us to regulate our emotions and promises that the promptings of emotion may be reconciled with the requirements of morality. With respect to emotional regulation, Ben-Ze’ev maintains that two general factors determine the intensity of any given emotional experience: characteristics of the emotion-generating event itself, such as strength, reality and relevance, and issues related to the agents involved, such as accountability, readiness and deservingness (chapter 5). Emotional regulation can be accomplished by manipulating these factors, thereby modifying the emotion’s intensity, or by changing the three intentional components of the emotion, especially the evaluative component previously discussed, thereby transforming or eliminating the emotion itself (chapter 8). Furthermore, in light of the indirect control we exercise over our emotions and in light of our ability to structure our evaluative schema to accord with the results of moral deliberation, emotions are both the proper subject of moral evaluation and, in the life of an emotionally well-educated person, may support, rather than impede, ethical behavior (chapter 9).

Such, in short, is the substance of The Subtlety of Emotions. It presents a wealth of material in an engaging and accessible style. From a philosophical point of view, Ben-Ze’ev has a gift for taxonomy, introduces a number of thought-provoking categorizations and occasionally uses such categorizations to admirable effect. He puts his distinction between affective attitudes to very good use, for instance, when he cites their differing intentional emphases to account for their various epistemological roles. Emotions, which enjoy a significant intentional component, can stand as reasons for actions, can have reasons given for them and can be assessed in terms of their justification. Moods, however, lack robust intentionality and as a consequence of this they can be causes, but not reasons, for actions, can have causes, but not reasons, themselves, and can not be properly considered justified or unjustified (p. 91).

Unfortunately, The Subtlety of Emotions suffers from serious problems, on both the global and local levels, which prevent it from being as insightful as one might wish. Globally, the book is most notably marred by a certain sprawling lack of focus and structure. (Note how significantly the above summary reordered the text.) Digressions and repetitions regularly distract from the main thrust of the book, and the reader is left with the feeling that, at least in this case, less would have been more. Although interesting in their own right, the section on pretence and gossip in chapter 6, the section on the impact of computerization on emotions in chapter 7, the section on emotions and tolerance in chapter 9, and the discussion of mercy in chapter 11 are badly out of place and their omission would have resulted in a more cohesive work.

More narrowly speaking, the text is remarkably thin on argumentation and sometimes reads more like a string of assertions. A number of these assertions make potentially important points which Ben-Ze’ev unfortunately fails to develop, as when, on pages 121-122, he claims that conflicting emotions bear a certain similarity to moral dilemmas. Worse, other assertions appear to be false, or at least fail to appear to be true, as when, on page 397, Ben-Ze’ev maintains that self-hate is virtually impossible to imagine, insofar as it would require a desire to eliminate, or be separated from, the self. "Even those who commit suicide" he writes, "do not do so out of self-hate, but primarily out of frustration." One wonders what conceivable support this claim could have.

Perhaps most regrettable of all, the few philosophical arguments which Ben-Ze’ev presents often fall short of the mark. Consider, for example, his argument on page 91 to the effect that because feelings themselves are nonintentional they are best dealt with physiologically, that because emotions have a significant intentional component they may be dealt with psychologically, and that because moods and affective disorders enjoy a primitive intentionality they may be treated with either psychological or physiological methods. Although it may be interesting to speculate that the psychological tractability of a given affective state is correlated to the prominence of its intentional aspect, and although this claim enjoys a certain prima facie plausibility (it would seem that strongly cognitive mental states should readily yield to cognitive methods), Ben-Ze’ev’s argument, such as it is, doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Schizophrenic delusions, to depart from the affective realm, are sharply intentional but may be best treated with psychopharmaceutics. One can’t quickly infer an affective state’s degree of psychological modifiability from the salience of its intentional component.

As another example of Ben-Ze’ev’s hasty argumentative style, he writes on page 233 that "[i]t may be argued that we actually regulate all of our emotions, as the generation of emotions depends on our cognitive interpretation of the situation, and we interpret the situation in the way we wish. At the basis of this argument is the contention that there is no difference between cognitive interpretation and cognitive manipulation. This contention also underlies the claim that there is no truth, since any claim to truth depends on our cognitive capacities" (p. 233). Truth, Ben-Ze’ev alleges, is undermined by the contention that there is no difference between cognitive interpretation and manipulation, coupled with the contention that our truth-claims depend upon our cognitive capacities. This might be so, but it isn’t obvious. If cognitive interpretation is indistinguishable from cognitive manipulation, then it may follow that our beliefs are more a product of our will than of the world; and from this it may follow that we have no reason to think that any of our beliefs are true; but exactly how such a claim is supposed to endanger the notion of truth is unclear, especially since the claim itself relies upon this notion. If there is no truth, then it’s meaningless to observe that we can’t determine which of our beliefs are true.

In short, The Subtlety of Emotions could introduce readers, especially those with a pre-existing interest in the subject and a ready eye for philosophically important issues, to a more focused and rigorous study of affective states. It’s debatable whether such readers would get much out of the text that they didn’t themselves put into it, but it could easy serve as a catalyst for further research and reflection. To that extent, the text is worth reading, albeit quickly.

Dôna Warren earned her Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota in 1995, where she wrote her dissertation on psychological explanation. Her interests include the philosophy of psychology.

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