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Emotions without Emotion: A Challenge for the Neurophilosophy and Neuroscience of Emotion

By Louis Charland

Louis C. Charland is Professor in the Departments of Philosophy, Psychiatry, and the School of Health Studies, at Western University in London, Canada. He is also an International Partner Investigator with the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, based at the University of Western Australia, in Perth, Australia.

Many scholars of the affective domain now consider “emotion” to be the leading keyword of the philosophy of emotion and the affective sciences. Indeed, many major journals and books in the area refer directly to “emotion” in their titles: for example, Emotion Review, Cognition and Emotion, The Emotional Brain (Le Doux 1996), Cognitive Neuroscience of Emotion (Lane & Nadel 2002), and The Emotional Life of your Brain (Davidson & Begley 2012). At times, “feeling,” “mood,” “affect,” and “sentiment” are argued to be close contenders, but such challenges are normally formulated by contrasting their explanatory promise, and their theoretical status, with “emotion.” Historically, debates about the nature of affective terms and posits used to revolve, in conceptual orbit, around the term “passion” and its many variants (Dixon 2003). In our new emotion-centric universe, everything seems to revolve around “emotion” and its many variants.

The problem is that, despite its popularity, “emotion” is a keyword in crisis (Dixon 2012). There are too many variants and insufficient consensus. According to some, things are so bad that we should do away with “emotion” entirely (Griffiths 1997). Ironically, this last suggestion may not be so iconoclastic. There is, apparently, relatively little interest in the question whether “emotion” demarcates a clear, legitimate, scientific domain of its own, except perhaps to deny that it does (Charland 2002; but see Griffiths 2004a). In contrast, there is much interest in the study of individual emotions and both the variety and the pace of research in this area has been impressive (Barrett 2007, Izard 2007, Panksepp 2000). Consequently, we are left with a seeming paradox. Research on individual emotions is thriving. At the same time, the question whether those emotions form a homogenous class, or natural kind, remains unresolved. Sometimes, the answer is simply, no. But that harkens back to the question why the emotions are all lumped together as “emotions” in the first place.

Historically, beginning with Paul Broca’s 1878 isolation of the so-called “limbic lobe” (grand lobe limbique), there have been influential formulations of the hypothesis that “emotion” is a natural kind with specialized brain centers and circuits tied to particular anatomical features (Papez 1937, Maclean 1952). There have also been detractors. James (1884) famously argued that there are no specialized brain centers for emotion. More recently, it has been argued that the concept of a specialized limbic system dedicated to emotion has outlived its usefulness (Le Doux 1996). Others, however, still see value in the concept of an evolutionarily primitive organizational subcortical limbic core of the brain (Panksepp 1998). Note that the hypothesis that is of concern in these discussions concerns “emotion.” That is very different from the hypothesis that some individual basic “emotions” may qualify as natural kinds (Barrett 2006, Panksepp 2000).

This latter hypothesis, which concerns individual emotions, is a worthy object of discussion in contemporary neuroscience. But its historical ancestor, which concerns the nature of emotion, appears to have fallen by the wayside. This despite the fact that it is still very common to find neuroscientists speaking of a contrast or distinction between “cognition” and “emotion,” as if this reflected a division in the natural order of things (Damasio 1994, Pessoa 2013). That distinction is also very much in circulation in contemporary philosophy of emotion and the affective sciences.

However, when we inquire into the theoretical foundations and evidence for the said distinction between “cognition” and “emotion” in philosophy, what we find is a concerted mass denial of the thesis that emotion forms a natural kind or class of any sort (Charland 2002). Surprisingly, there are very few philosophical arguments to the contrary. One notable example is Jesse Prinz, who proposes a very original and esoteric version of the hypothesis that emotion is a natural kind, though apparently to no avail (Prinz 2004). Other, quite different, formulations of that hypothesis have also been proposed, but again to no avail (Charland 1995, 2002, 2005). In the end, we are left with a seeming paradox: “emotions” without “emotion.” We have a philosophy of emotion without “emotion,” and finally, a purported scientific distinction between the theoretical domains of “cognition” and “emotion” that has no clear definition or borderline.

The sad truth is that the meaning and theoretical status of “emotion” continues to be a matter of great contention, which according to some is nothing short of a “scandal” (Russell 2012). Yet research on “emotion” continues unabated, as if the theoretical status of “emotion,” natural or otherwise, were unimportant or actually simply settled in the negative, perhaps only a chimerical scientific fantasy of no worth. What detractors fail to appreciate, or simply deny, is that ignoring the status of ‘emotion’ without attending to a solution only serves to push the question further back. We are still left with an apparent paradox that requires explanation and resolution. How can there be “emotions” without “emotion”? And, what sense is there to the distinction between “cognition” and “emotion” if there is no scientific domain that corresponds to “emotion”?

At this point, it is interesting to consider other candidates that might provide a new, theoretically healthier and more respectable, keyword for the philosophy of emotion and the affective sciences. There is one promising theoretical posit worth looking at in this regard. The concept of “core affect” is such a candidate (Russell 2003). Commendably, some forward-looking philosophers have not missed the occasion to explore its viability as an alternate foundational natural kind candidate for the philosophy of emotion, and the philosophical foundations of the affective sciences (Scarantino 2009). This said, the problems with “emotion” are still serious and ubiquitous enough to merit investigation on their own and the jury is still out on “core affect” anyway.

It is time to try and enlist the help of neuroscientists and neurophilosophers to help us solve this vexing paradox. What, after all, does it mean to talk of an “emotional” brain, of neuropeptides as the messengers of “emotion,” and of a cognitive neuroscience of “emotion”— arguably a contradiction in terms? The good news is that some neuroscientists are increasingly moving beyond the study of individual emotions and short-term emotional states to more foundational questions associated with emotional processes of greater scope and longer duration (see e.g. Hamann 2013 for a brief review). This line of investigation may provide one promising avenue to the nature of “emotion” by attempting to examine more complex “emotional” systems of longer duration than mere, one-time, single or repeated, emotional responses.
Faces expressing six of the passions, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
But there is a problem. Because of its experimental technologies of measurement and observation, contemporary neuroscience is very much methodologically tied to and biased towards the study of short term emotional states and processes. One consequence of this is a theoretical weakness when it comes to understanding how such short term states and processes are dynamically organized over long periods of time; like, for example, “passions” as they were understood in the formative years of the psychopathology of affectivity (Charland 2010). Passions in this sense are categorically different from emotions, since they organize and regulate emotions over time (Charland 2011).

Of course, reinstating passions in this technical sense to our current roster of affective terms and concepts does not in itself solve the problems with “emotion” we have been struggling with. But it does point to another way of conceptualizing the role of emotion in affectivity which may throw light on it. Some historians, indeed, have openly wondered whether we may have placed too many burdens on the term “emotion” when we relinquished the term “passion” to the proverbial dustbin of history (Dixon 2003).

Contemporary neuroscientists and neuropsychologists might do well to be reminded of Thèodule Ribot, who, along with William James and Willhelm Wundt, is considered one of the founding fathers of modern experimental psychology. He forcefully argued that a complete psychology had to distinguish and utilize “passions,” “emotions,” and “feelings” (Ribot 1896). There is presently no suitable analogue for passions in contemporary neuroscience and psychology, which may prevent us from appreciating the nature and role of “emotion” from a more complete theoretical perspective.

At any rate, at present, it is hard to see how neuroscience and neurophilosophy can continue to operate on the assumption that cognition and emotion constitute distinct realms of scientific inquiry, without a suitable theoretical concept of “emotion” to tie individual emotions together, either as a “kind” or prototype “family” of some sort. Of course, it is true that there has been a dramatic increase in our knowledge of how “cognition” and “emotion” interact and interface in the production of decision-making and behavior. Some frame their research in this area by relying in large part on the identification of distinct anatomical loci in the brain that are apparently related to emotion and emotional processing (Damasio 1994). Others argue that “cognition” and “emotion” do not map onto separate anatomical brain regions (Pessoa 2013). However, this still leaves us needing definitions that clearly explain what exactly those “cognitive” and “emotional” factors in the brain are, and what makes them so.

It is possible that the concept of valence might offer a solution to this internal scientific problem of demarcation: that is, the problem how to demarcate “emotion” from “cognition” (Charland 2005a). Valence might at least explain the special normative character of emotional states in general (Griffiths 2004b, Prinz 2004). But the question still remains how exactly we get from this line of argument to the assumption that “emotion” represents a distinct domain of scientific inquiry that is different from “cognition” – neuroscientifically. And valence has its own problems, which are seldom considered (Charland 2005b.) Admittedly, there are those who believe that, in this situation, “… there is something to be said for not insisting on defining terms that are the object of study [… and that …] to precisely define emotion and cognition … would be to draw … an artificial distinction between them” (Pessoa 2013, 4).

In response to this, one may say that a theory of integration and interaction of the emotional and cognitive capacities of the brain that cannot yet precisely define these terms, might still yield interesting results, but that for the relevant science to ultimately progress, we will eventually need to know the exact scientific meaning of the theoretical terms and definitions it is based on, and what this translates to in reality. Is the distinction between “cognition” and “emotion” a scientific fabrication, an artifact of culture? Or is it somehow written into the nature of some biological systems and forms of life and not others?

This last question would seem to be a matter of some importance for neurophilosophy and neuroethics. After all, the distinction between “cognition” and “emotion” is implicated in so many pressing folk psychological debates in popular culture that could benefit from a closer philosophical, neuroscientifically informed, commentary.

One explosive example is the portrayal of emotions as non-rational and allied with femininity, and cognition as the essence of reasoning, which is allied with masculinity (Jaggar 1999). Another is how to draw the line between creatures that are or will be capable of emotion, and creatures, or other forms of life, that are or will not (Panksepp 1998). It is to be hoped that, as neuroscientific and neurophilosophical research on individual emotions continues to progress at a rapid pace, equal attention will be paid to the question what it is about individual emotions that permits us to class them all together under “emotion,” and whether the distinction between “cognition” and “emotion” is a cultural myth or scientific fabrication, or somehow written into the nature of the brain and its anatomy and neural networks.

Works Cited

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