3 different ways to identify an emotion

(1) The physiological brain state;

(2) The way an individual describes the feeling;

(3) The behaviour the feeling leads to.

2 Responses to “3 different ways to identify an emotion”

  1. Cheryl E. Fitzgerald says:

    First of all, it really depends on whether you take an emotion to be something that is felt, or something else and the feeling has nothing to do with what the emotion is. But to think that I can have two entirely different feelings and yet have exactly the same emotion seems ludicrous. The feeling experienced seems necessary and essential to what the emotion is.

    (1) will be extremely problematic as a source of determining emotions. By what criteria does one identify a brain state? An emotion may last for a certain duration of time, but throughout that time, the brain is doing all sorts of things. Has it really only been in one single state that whole time, despite all the goings on that occurred? If not, then what non-question-begging criteria can we rely on here to individuate brain states and what mental states they correspond to?

    (2) The emotional words we have at our disposal depend on the linguistic community(ies) from which we came and from which we learned to use the language, and live in and take part in. Those words individuate the emotions for us. But this is misleading, since it leads us to think that they exhaust all the emotions. But we learn to identify which emotions are which only from within a particular linguistic community. How a person describes a feeling, or even what emotion they identify their own feeling to be will depend on the words they learned to identify and associate with those feelings. How another person interprets the description of the feeling will depend on how he learned to use the words.

    But most importantly, description is an action, and some people are skilled at this, while some others are not so skilled. One has to learn how to describe his emotions.

    (3) presumes a necessary causal link between an emotion and a behavior. For the most part, we have no good reason to think this is true. First, it would be a strongly deterministic picture. Second, it presumes that the behavior has only one kind of cause, namely, some type of emotion. Third, it is usually taken that, metaphysically speaking, there is never a necessary link between a cause and its effect; it is always possible that there wasn’t a causal link between those two things. Even the laws of nature are taken this way: its possible that the laws of nature were different. (And I don’t mean that, at one time, they were different, or at some time, they might be different. I mean, in some possible world, the laws of nature are some such way, and that way need not ever be the way the laws of nature actually are at any time.) Fourth, not only must we deal with the influences of the culture in which a person was raised, but we must deal with any particular nuances of the immediate family in which the individual was raised. Fifth, additionally, we must address any particular nuances the person may have neurophysiologically that may give us some reason to think there is even less of a connection instantiated by him between types of emotional states and types of behaviors than we think there is for neurophysiologically “normal” people. I.e., even if we think that if we knew enough, we’d be able to generally accurately read the emotional states of people via their behaviors, neurophysiological differences a person may display will likely give us reason to suspect that the model we use to generally read people may not apply to that person. Reading that person may require an entirely different and unfamiliar model. But models, as my fourth point is intended to emphasize, are merely guidelines we can use, but they must not be used without paying attention to particularities of any case. (Perhaps you recall our discussion about ethics and ethical principles: I made a similar point about principles, that they are mere guidelines. You were emphasizing the particulars, and didn’t like the idea of using principles at all, until I made the point that they are only guidelines and I don’t think they can be used without giving attention to particular details of a case at hand. Well, it is no different here in the case of reading emotions of a person. The use of a model for reading people is analogous to the use of principles. Surely, you shouldn’t assume that the model is perfectly accurate for every single case. Surely, you know that sometimes, the model must be discarded entirely because of the particularities of the case at hand.)

    If I had to say which method had the best chance of getting the closest to accurate, then I would say (2). Despite that many people are poor descriptors of their own emotional states, one can learn. And I think that is far easier than attempting to fix the problems one faces in (3). Besides, without direct access to the other person’s mind, how could you ever know that you had read his feeling correctly via his behavior?

    As for (1), I don’t think there is any non-question-begging way to associate a neurophysiological state with an emotional state. Why did any particular neurophysiological state ever get associated with some emotional state to begin with? Because the person experiencing the emotion said he felt it. We relied first on a first-person report telling us that he experienced that emotion to inform us of what neurophysiological state his body was in at the time.

  2. Jelte says:

    All agreed, and well taken, particularly what you have to say on (2).

    In response: yes, exactly, it all revolves around the ability to individuate brain states. This may or may not be possible. But I submit that analogous challenges may face s/he who would individuate the state of ‘flooding’ in an area. “A flooding event may last for a certain duration of time, but throughout that time, the regional rivers [say] are doing all sorts of things. Have they really only been in one single state that whole time, despite all the goings on that occurred?”

    How is such a state to be individuated? One could perhaps individuate it quantitatively, by applying some matrix to the water-levels and -flows in regional rivers, say [cf. (1)]. Or one may look at qualitative effects, such as damage to landscape and infrastructure [cf. (3)].

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