Emotions and truth-aptness

There is a well-known argument against the truth-aptness of emotions that focuses on the linguistic structure of emotion-expressive sentences. In this philosophical tradition, emotions are treated as paradigmatic noncognitive states, because their linguistic expressions are best rendered as expressives that lack the truth-aptness of assertoric utterances.[1] Thus York Gunther (2003) has argued that emotions cannot have an assertoric content because they violate against the principle of Force Independence. This principle allows the distinction between the content and force of an utterance, or the distinction between what an utterance says and the way it is said. The principle of Force Independence states that the content of an utterance can be individuated independently of its illocutionary force. This means that "the same content might be expressed by sentences with different moods, for example, indicative, optative, imperative, or interrogative, or by utterances with different uses: to make an assertion or wish, to issue an order, or to ask a question" (Gunther, 2003, p. 280). The force/content distinction explains how utterances with different illocutionary force connect to each other in a principled way: by having the same content. For instance, the content of the assertion "Gertrude studied psychology" figures also in the question, "Did Gertrude study psychology?" as well as in a conditional, "If Gertrude studied psychology, William was her teacher", where the content is not asserted but merely entertained.

The argument that emotions violate against the principle of Force Independence is based on the assumption that the logical structure of emotions is identical with the logical structure of emotion-expressive sentences. Gunther assumes that the relationship between expressives and emotions parallels the relationship between assertions and beliefs. In the same way as a sincere assertion that p presupposes that one has the corresponding belief that p, a sincere expressive utterance presupposes that the relevant emotion is experienced by the individual at the moment when he or she utters the expression. Gunther presumes that the content and logical form of an emotion and its sincere utterance coincide in the same way as the content and logical form of a belief and its sincere assertion. If expressive utterances fail to exhibit full logical complexity, the same conclusion applies to the emotional content.

What does it mean that expressive utterances resist full logical complexity? Gunther points out that unlike the assertoric content of beliefs, utterances with emotional content cannot be made disjunctive or conditional. "One cannot thank someone for letting you take their class or giving you a passing grade [or] I cannot apologies that if I come late, I will make a quiet entrance" (ibid., p. 283). These kinds of expressions are grammatically unsound. Gunther observes that we may attempt to escape the problem by reformulating these utterances. However, even if such logically complex utterances as "I will not take your course or thank you for letting me enrol" or "If I am late, I will apologize" are grammatically sound, Gunther maintains that these utterances are not expressives but utterances about emotions. He argues that the same problem haunts such logically complex sentences as "Getrude is happy that if she works hard, she will impress William", or "William is sorry that Gertrude either failed or withdrew from the course". These utterances are not expressions of an actual emotion but ascriptions of dispositions to experience emotions of happiness and regret, respectively. Therefore, Gunther rejects such utterances as reliable indicators of the logical structure of emotion.

Gunther admits that there are grammatically sound utterances that express emotion and exhibit an apparent conditional structure. One might say, for example, that "If Gertrude has skipped class again, damn her, she'll fail the course". When used sincerely, this utterance requires that the speaker experiences the requisite emotion. However, the conditional structure of this utterance is not genuine. The problem is that the content of an expressive utterance cannot be entertained in the same way as the content of a belief that is merely entertained in conditional form. There is no such thing as entertaining an emotional content without experiencing it. Rather, the utterance "If Gertrude has skipped class again, damn her, she'll fail the course" requires that the speaker is already irritated about Gertrude's possible misconduct. A similar problem concerns negation. If someone asks William, "Has Gertrude skipped class again, damn her!?", and William replies, "No, she has not skipped class again, damn her!", the reply does not constitute a plausible answer to the question even if the utterance is a sincere expression of William's irritation, because he may be irritated at something else than Gertrude's skipping the class. Therefore, Gunther concludes, "If indeed there are no instances of expressive utterances that exhibit conditional, disjunctive, or genuine negative structure, then I believe there is good reason to suppose that emotions violate Force Independence" (ibid., p. 285).[2]

The plausibility of Gunther's argument depends on whether the logical structure of mental states reliably corresponds to the logical structure of their linguistic expressions. Gunther adopts this assumption of the priority of language over thought from Michael Dummett (1993) who treats it as a central tenet of analytic philosophy. No doubt, the content of a belief is identical with its assertoric content; to believe that p is to assert that p. However, emotional cognitions are different. Expressive behaviours, facial expressions and other gestures, tone and pitch of voice, and so on, are often more reliable expressions of a subject's present emotion than what he or she explicitly says. Indeed, the same is true about many beliefs if Schwitzgebel (2008) is right. A happy person may express her happiness by exclaiming "I feel good!", but she may do the same by humming her favorite tune, by smiling in a relaxed way, by jumping for joy, by exclaiming "Life is wonderful!", and in several other ways that we are all more or less familiar with. Both verbal and nonverbal expressions count as evidence of an emotion, but in the same way as clinical psychologists do not trust verbal expressions alone in studying their clients' emotions, philosophers should not rely on mere verbal expressions of a certain kind in analysing the logical structure of emotions.

In fact, there are types of emotion-expressive utterances that exhibit the logical complexity of assertoric utterances. These utterances are first-person reports of one's actual emotion such as "I rejoice at my wife's success" or "I resent Gertrude being late". These indicative sentences are expressions of emotion even though they can also function as descriptions of my actual emotion or my emotional disposition. Furthermore, it makes perfect grammatical sense to say for instance that "If I rejoice at my wife's success, I am proud of her" or "Either Gertrude is in time today, or I resent her being late". Here we have expressions of emotion that are capable of entering into conditional and disjunctive contexts, albeit without the characteristic affective quality which emotions possess only when they "asserted" in actual emotional experiences. Gunther is then right insofar as the phenomenal content and force of an emotion are inseparable. However, this does not preclude emotions from having an assertoric content. Indeed, several theorists of emotion have suggested that the logical deep structure of emotions differs from the surface structure of their linguistic expressions. One of these theorists is de Sousa.

De Sousa relates the truth-aptness of emotions to their having an evaluative content. The success of an emotion "is tied to the correctness of that evaluation in any particular occurrence of that emotion" (de Sousa, 2011, p. 58). There is an analogy between emotions and beliefs. Just as to assert a belief is to present it as true, to experience an emotion is to present its object as having the relevant formal property. Thus, my belief that snow is white presents the proposition that 'snow is white' as true, and it is successful if and only if snow is white. In a like manner, my fear that terrorists will attack my hometown presents - either explicitly or implicitly - the putative state of affairs that terrorist attack my hometown as dangerous and it is successful if and only if a terrorist attack would actually be dangerous. Many theorists of emotion agree that an emotional experience puts forward a claim about its own success or warrant, while representing its condition of success in its content. Here is Bennett Helm (2001, p. 64): "The warrant of emotions is intelligible only because the emotion implicitly endorses or assents to the view of the world the emotion presents, for it is that assent, and not the mere appearance, that is evaluated as warranted or not.".[3] And since truth is the generic epistemic norm for representational mental states with the mind-to-world direction of fit, emotions are capable of being literally true and false.

Even so, some philosophers think that this argument is too quick. These philosophers argue that emotional content resembles perceptual content in being nonconceptual and therefore it is capable of being correct and incorrect but not true and false. De Sousa who favors a perceptual view of the emotions baulks at this distinction in developing his account on emotional truth. Sabine Döring, another adherent of the perceptual view, has defended the separation of correctness and truth at length, using it as an argument against the truth-aptness of emotions as well. However, since these arguments are the same as her arguments for the nonconceptual content of emotions that I discussed already in Chapter 2, I will not return to them here, besides recounting the upshot which was that only a minority of human emotions - the evolutionary primitive affect programme responses that we share with higher animals and human infants - possess a nonconceptual content. Instead, the content of most human emotions, unlike perceptual content, is semantically and evidentially related to other states and therefore conceptually structured. These conclusions undermine Dörings arguments against the truth-aptness of human emotions. Nevertheless, I address one more argument of Döring against the truth-aptness of emotions that was not discussed earlier. It focuses on the possibility of experiencing explicitly contrary emotions at the same time.

Döring (2004, pp. 267-269) argues that we can have explicitly contradictory sense perceptions and emotions, whereas this possibility is excluded for beliefs. Thus, one cannot assert both that p and ~p at the same time as they both cannot be true, whereas one can simultaneously feel contrary emotions about the same object. This appears to be possible: one can feel both happy and sad about the same situation, or hate and love the same person. This suggests that emotions may not have an assertoric content after all. However, if we take a closer look at these cases, they turn out to be more complicated.

In colloquial speech, we often say that a person is both afraid of and delighted about the same object or situation. However, this is a somewhat misleading expression, because it conceals the fact that those emotions can be about distinct aspects of the object or situation. For instance, I am both happy that my friend got the job that both she and I applied for and sad about the fact that she, rather than I, got the job. Here I have two conflicting emotions about the same event, my friend's success, evaluated differently by my two emotions. Happiness for my friend's success is warranted by reasons that emerge from our friendship, while sadness about my defeat is warranted by reasons that focus on my personal well-being. The fact that these emotions have different objects within the same general situation dispels the problem with their being truth-apt at the same time.

Unfortunately, this solution is not applicable to all cases. Contrary emotions that may have been evoked by different aspects of an object can devolve onto the entire object, as Pugmire (2005) observes. Emotions about persons, such as love, devotion, hate, shame, and forgiveness typically behave in this way. Reasons for these emotions focus on some attributes of the person, but the emotion is still felt towards the person as such. However, it is notoriously difficult to entertain intense and persistent contrary emotions toward the same person. Pugmire explains why this is so, for he suggests that "it may be a condition of ambivalent emotions that they remain inchoate, unconsolidated. That is, they can't arise massively out of the rest of one's relevant mental life (the full body of one's beliefs, imaginings, and related emotions and desires) and survive intact." (Pugmire, 2005, p. 181)[4] The only condition under which emotional contrariety can be sustained is "attenuated engagement" in imagination, remembrance, anticipation, or aesthetic experience. However, emotions that arise in these contexts are not full-bodied, because they do not share the desires, actions, physiological arousal, and general intensity of engaged emotions. This suggests that emotions are analogous to beliefs in their resistance to strict ambivalence. Therefore, I conclude that Doring's objection is not fatal to the truth-aptness of emotions.

The second main condition of a minimally truth-apt discourse is its liability to publicly acknowledged standards of warrant. Wright points out that judgments about comedy whose assertion condition is the emotional experience of amusement are disciplined enough to merit an is/seems distinction. However, our practice of criticizing emotions for their inappropriateness indicates that emotions meet this condition as well. For instance, joy is inappropriate in danger or upon experiencing a significant loss. Moreover, emotions can be badly informed and open to defeat by better information. I may, for instance, rejoice at winning a million in the lottery until I realize that my coupon was for last week's draw.

But how widely acknowledged standards of warrant do we actually have or can rationally expect to have in the emotional domain? Here we must distinguish between the content of individual emotions and their warrant. Insofar as the constitutive norm for the latter is something like irreproachability in the light of our sensibility of amusement, fear, shame, or anger, there is demand for convergence, even if not an actual convergence (Wright, 1992, pp. 104-106). And it appears that many standards of emotional sensibilities are at least communal, if not pancultural. Indeed, the fact that very idiosyncratic episodes of fear, shame, anger, and the like - sometimes even joy - are regarded as irrational or disordered and, in the latter case, treated in psychotherapy, suggests that the standards of emotional warrant are communal. This is the case even with seemingly eccentric emotions, such as nostalgia.

We feel nostalgic about events that we do not expect others to find nostalgic, because objects of nostalgia are so intimately connected to our individual life histories and personal values (see Ronnow-Rasmussen, 2011). Yet our reasons for nostalgia must be intersubjectively intelligible and plausible for any member of our community who takes our point of view. For instance, it may seem that it can never make sense to feel nostalgic about going to the toilet. But we can imagine a possible, or even an actual world, where this is possible. Robert Evans, the protagonist in the documentary film The Kid Stays in the Picture, looks back the days of his glory as film producer at Paramount, and feels nostalgic about having had a private toilet with a phone in his office in the late 1960s. Evans may well have felt nostalgic about going to his toilet because a toilet so luxurious symbolized the status and power he once had. And now we have arrived at intersubjectively intelligible reasons for nostalgia that anyone taking Evans' point of view could share.

The relation of emotions and their reasons shows how the notion of superassertibility can be applied to emotions in practice. For emotional perceptions of objects in terms of formal properties cannot be justified by themselves, but only by reasons. These reasons refer to the lower-level property or properties of the particular object that render it fitting for the emotion type.[5] For instance, an object is dangerous if it is capable of inflicting significant harm to the subject. But harmful is a thick evaluative concept with a rich descriptive content. Even if harm can be inflicted in many different ways, the result - and the definition - of harm is the same: disruption of the subject's vital biological, psychological, and/or social functions. Thus, the property harmful constitutes the lower-level base on which the formal property of dangerous supervenes.

The supervenience of formal properties on lower-level properties renders ascriptions of the former liable to rational evaluation and criticism. We can ask whether the actual object possesses a lower-level property or properties that warrant the ascription of a certain formal property to it in a particular community of sensibility, or whether a particular lower-level property is capable of warranting the ascription of a distinct formal property in the first place. Since lower-level properties are thick or descriptive, the warrant that they provide for the ascription of formal properties is defensible in the light of enlarged or improved information. For example, our information about what can significantly harm us may change from time to time, consequently affecting our warranted ascriptions of the property of dangerous. But if such ascription remains warranted, no matter how much our information about what is harmful for us were to be enlarged or improved, it is superassertible. In general, a true emotion is warranted by reasons that remain undefeated no matter how much our information is or will be enlarged or improved.

True fears could then, in proper conditions, include fear of radiation or terrorist attack, but also fear of extended unemployment or mental illness, because no further or enlarged information alone, without a social reform, is capable of removing the fact that these things are harmful in contemporary Western societies. This is quite unlike the voodoo case where knowledge about the causal realization of a voodoo curse through self-suggestion is capable of removing the danger of being harmed by the curse, even if this may not happen overnight. Yet it is the improved information as such, instead of eradication of voodoo as a social practice, that is capable of removing the harm of the curse and its warrant as an object of fear.

However, the proposed account may appear too quick, considering that not all disagreements about appropriate emotions are attributable to cognitive factors. In Wright's terms, "emotional discourses" do not satisfy the Cognitive Command. But is it then really possible to rationally evaluate and criticize culturally specific reasons for emotions if those reasons do not involve downright false information or distorted reasoning about the lower-level properties of emotional objects? Who are we to say to Asians that dairy products are tasty or to Muslims that pork is perfectly healthy and not at all disgusting? Similar worries arise when we think about fear of eternal damnation, a powerful religious emotion among believers, especially in the Middle Ages, or a Catholic priest's shame of his sexual fantasies.

On the one hand, Wright (1996, p. 10) argues that superassertibility is "a language-game internal notion, as it were. [It] is a projection of whatever internal discipline informs the discourse." This suggests that we are not allowed to apply external criteria for evaluating the warrant of religious emotions, for instance. One might argue that there is no such thing as eternal damnation to fear, because we do not have verifiable evidence of life after death. Yet this is probably not a sensible argument for a religious person, because he or she need not be guilty of an onto-logical mistake or a logical fallacy of reasoning. Nor do we think that the proper - let alone only - way of helping a person who is suffering from this kind of debilitating fear is to turn the person from his or her faith. Rather we - or those people whose help the person would probably seek - may try to persuade the subject to alter his or her of view of the relevant deity by citing scriptures that present the deity as loving and merciful. Likewise, a Catholic priest may learn from his confessor that sexual desire is natural for every healthy adult according to Christianity and that it becomes sinful and shameful for a priest only if he savors it to the extent that he turns away from his calling. These examples indicate that many traditions are rich enough to provide resources for challenging the warrant of emotions that appear unwarranted from an external point of view.

Yet on the other hand, superassertibility involves the idea of warrant that survives "arbitrarily close scrutiny of its pedigree and arbitrarily extensive increments to or other forms of improvement of our information" (Wright 1992, p. 48). This aspect of superassertability appears to be in tension with the language-game internalize, because an arbitrarily close scrutiny of pedigree and arbitrarily extensive enlargement or improvement of information can apparently involve considerations that are capable of challenging or refuting standards of warrant in entire communities of sensibility. This view is consistent with de Sousa's account of the fittingness of emotions.

De Sousa argues that the semantic content and initial warrant of each emotion dates back to a "paradigm scenario" that involves two aspects: "first, a situation type providing the characteristic objects of the specific emotion-type, and second, a set of characteristic or 'normal' responses to the situation, where normality is first a biological matter and then very quickly becomes a cultural one" (de Sousa 1987, 182). An individual emotion is initially warranted if its eliciting situation, meaning structure, and response pattern are relevantly similar to some existing paradigm scenario of the subject. However, an initial warrant may be cancelled by critical scrutiny of the paradigm scenario or by the improvement of our information, as de Sousa admits. A paradigm scenario can be highly idiosyncratic or distorted from a wider social perspective, or a social perspective may itself turn out to be parochial or eccentric from an even more enlightened point of view.

Consider an example of locally warranted racist disdain of certain ethnic groups on the grounds of the supposedly inferior capabilities and endowments of the members of those groups. Critical reflection shows this kind of response to be immature, unimaginative, unsympathetic, and uncultivated, and therefore unwarranted within an anti-realist perspective of truth (Blackburn 1998, 304-310). First of all, such disdain does not survive scientific evidence on human capabilities and endowments. If there are any significant dissimilarities between ethnic groups, they emerge from differences in socioeconomic conditions, education, traditional social stigmas, superstitious beliefs and so on, rather than from biological facts. Moreover, an imaginative and sympathetic emotional response to possible differences, whatever their cause, is compassion for the unfortunate instead of disdain. The example suggests that superassertibility is capable of refuting even widely shared communal standards of warrant if these standards are founded on false, insufficient, biased or otherwise distorted information, or faulty, inconsistent, prejudicial, ideological, or similar reasoning in the processing of information. Obviously, a wide cross-cultural agreement on true emotions may not be forthcoming in practice. Yet the idea of truth as a focus imaginaries of a conscientious rational scrutiny is at least imaginable even in the emotional domain.

  • [1] For early formulations of this argument, see Stevenson (1947), Ayer (1936).
  • [2] Yet see Herzberg (2012) who argues that Gunther's examples fail to establish his conclusion.
  • [3] See also Döring (2007), Pugmire (2005), Goldie (2004), and Roberts (1988) for similar claims.
  • [4] Actually, I think that persistent and warranted emotional ambivalence is possible for an individual who belongs to two or more communities of sensibility whose feeling rules contradict each other. These people often include members of minority groups, whether cultural, ethnic, or sexual. However, this is not a problem for my account of emotional truth because it is cast in terms of warranted assertibility within a community of sensibility. This allows contrary emotions to be true within different communities of sensibility.
  • [5] See e.g. de Sousa (1987); Greenspan (1988); D'Arms & Jacobson (2000); and Goldie (2004). I believe that the proposed account of emotional truth is also compatible with a projectivist interpretation of emotional perception insofar as such an interpretation accepts that emotions are warranted by reasons that render the actual object of emotion fitting for the emotional response. See e.g. Gibbard (1990) and Blackburn (1998).
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