What is emotional truth?

While the problem of emotional authenticity concerns emotions that are true to the self, an opposite problem focuses on the relation of emotions to their objects in the world. The latter problem is usually identified as that of the appropriateness of emotions. The idea that emotions can be appropriate, correct, or rationally warranted responses to their particular objects returned to the philosophical centre stage together with the rise of cognitive theories of emotion in the 1980s. Indeed, the ability of cognitive theories to accommodate and explicate the intentionality and rationality of emotions was a major asset of these theories in comparison to their traditional rivals, noncognitive feeling theories and behaviourism, which had no room for such idea.

The problem of emotional appropriateness was alien to feeling theories that identified emotions in terms of noncognitive sensations such as thrills, twinges, pangs, throbs, wrenches, or itches that are not intentional states in the first place. Bodily sensations may have a certain location, as when we feel "butterflies in the stomach", but they are not about anything else. Behaviourism rendered emotions as dispositions of distinct response patterns that tend to occur in a law-like manner in certain stimulus situations. An angry person, for instance, is disposed to shout aloud, pound tables, slam doors, pick fights and so on, and the emotion of anger is defined as the disposition to enact behaviours of this kind in certain stimulus situations. Unfortunately, the intentionality and appropriateness of emotions evade behaviourism as well. The account of emotions as stimulus-response pairs does not allow us to problematize the appropriateness of emotional responses to their eliciting situations because the latter are identified merely in terms of their causal role in triggering emotional responses.

Cognitive theories amended these views by ascribing to emotions an intentional, evaluative content that is directed at particular objects of emotion. The appropriateness of an emotion depends then on the fittingness of the emotional response to its particular object. For this purpose, cognitive theorists introduced the notion of formal object, an evaluative property that each token emotion of the same type explicitly or implicitly ascribes to its particular object and that provides the standard of fittingness for individual emotions of that type (Kenny, 1963; de Sousa, 1987; Goldie, 2004; Teroni, 2007). Examples of formal objects are danger or threat for fear, loss for sorrow, insult or offence for anger, and shamefulness for shame. An individual emotion is appropriate if the particular object of emotion has the formal property that the emotional evaluation ascribes to it. Even if this conceptual framework for analyzing emotional appropriateness is more congenial to cognitive than noncognitive theories of emotion, the latter theories have found ways of accommodating this framework as part of the recent rapprochement in emotion theory. Thus theorists on both sides of the divide have suggested that emotions are capable of "getting things right" or "getting the world right" in their evaluation of particular objects, or "tracking" the evaluative properties of those objects (D'Arms & Jacobson, 2000a; Roberts, 2003; Goldie, 2004). The challenge is then to specify the conditions in which emotions are capable of getting things or the world evaluative right - if emotional truth of this kind is possible in the first place.

Skeptics on the possibility of emotional truth can be divided into two main groups. In the first group are theorists who reject the possibility that emotions can veridically represent or track evaluative properties in the first place. These theorists are noncognitivists who doubt that emotions have an evaluative content in either an intrinsic or a derivative sense. William James's (1884) classic view of emotions as perceptions of bodily changes as they occur is such a view. Other noncognitivists argue that emotions can be evaluated in terms of their situational appropriateness only in so far as we have control over them. And since we do not have control over our emotions but only over their elicitors, emotions are strictly speaking arational - beyond rational evaluation - even if they have a content (Prinz, 2004). At most, emotions can be evaluated for their adaptiveness in relation to the subject's needs. However, since the majority of contemporary noncognivists accommodate the idea of emotional content, they are more likely to belong to the second group of sceptics who challenge truth as the standard of situational appropriateness for emotions rather than the idea that emotions have one. These theorists who also include some cognitivists prefer to compare emotions to sense perceptions whose standard of successful representation is correctness rather than truth. They support this view with arguments about logical similarities between emotions and perceptions on the one hand, and about logical differences between emotions and beliefs - paradigmatic cognitive states - on the other hand (Gunther, 2003; Döring, 2003, 2004, 2007, 2009). The truth-aptness of emotions depends on the whether they resemble beliefs more than perceptions. I shall focus on this milder type of skepticism about the idea of emotional truth in Chapter 5, in which I shall also defend emotional truth against rival standards of emotional appropriateness. The stronger skepticism will be dealt with in the preceding chapters on what emotions truly are.

If situationally appropriate emotions adequately represent particular objects in terms of the relevant formal objects, then these emotions may help us in tracking or determining those evaluative properties that the formal objects denote. This has been the aim of neosentimentalist theories in contemporary meta-ethics. The basic idea is that certain value properties and their concepts depend fundamentally on human sensibilities as these values can be analyzed or identified in terms of appropriate or correct or warranted sentiments. Values of this kind include the properties of admirable, funny, offensive, embarrassing, envious, dangerous, and shameful, while the corresponding emotions are admiration, amusement, anger, embarrassment, envy, fear, and shame, respectively. Neosentimentalist theories disagree on whether emotions allow us to track values that exist independently of our responses, or whether emotional responses constitute and determine values. Even so, those theorists agree on the basic idea of analyzing sentimental values in terms of appropriate emotions, which justifies their classification into the same approach.

Neosentimentalist theories of value have two main problems. The first problem concerns the relation between evaluative concepts and the associated emotional responses. It seems that in order to avoid a vicious circle, we must deny that emotional responses involve those evaluative concepts that we purport to analyze or explicate in terms of the relevant responses. For instance, if we claim that amusement contains the concept of being funny, we cannot analyze this concept in terms of amusement, because understanding this emotion already requires a grasp of the concept of being funny that is part of the emotion. Many sentimentalists have avoided this problem by adopting noncognitive or nonconceptual theories of emotion. However, since the plausibility of these theories must be judged on independent grounds, this solution cannot be taken for granted.

The other main problem of neosentimentalist theories concerns the difficulty of distinguishing between reasons that are relevant and irrelevant to the appropriateness or warrant of emotions. The problem is that several types of reasons -epistemic, axiological, moral, strategic, or all-things-considered reasons - may underlie our actual emotional responses. Yet when we ask, for instance, whether or not a particular joke is funny or a particular action is offensive, we are not interested in whether it is strategically beneficial for us to laugh at the joke or take offence at the action. It may sometimes be beneficial to be amused at bad jokes or take offence at minor incidents in order to gain advances in social interaction, but these emotional responses do not reliable track or determine the evaluative properties that these emotions ascribe to their particular objects. The task is then to explicate the conditions on which this kind of reliable tracking or determination of evaluative properties is possible.

In the concluding chapter of the volume (Chapter 7), I shall apply my account of emotional truth, presented in Chapter 5, to these two problems of neosentimentalist theories of value. I suggest that the circularity problem that focuses on the possibility of analyzing value concepts in terms of appropriate emotional responses may indeed be unsolvable, because most human emotions have conceptual content - as I will argue in Chapters 2 and 3. However, this problem does not affect the metaphysical version of neosentimentalism, because it may still be possible to track or determine value properties by means of appropriate emotions that ascribe the same properties to particular objects and events, provided that we can solve the problem with the right kind of reasons for appropriate emotions. I shall argue that my account of emotional truth is capable of making headway towards solving this problem, thus contributing to the project of identifying sentimental values.

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