Interdisciplinary Research on Emotions in Neuroscience and Philosophy

Philosophical Subproject: Emotions and affective intentionality

The main thesis underlying our research project states that the kind of affective world-directedness which is central to emotions is a variety of intentionality which is fundamental to any world-directedness of feeling creatures.

The notion of affective world-directedness is intended to capture the fact that events and processes in the world are not conceived on the basis of neutral and intersubjectively accessible standards but are rather viewed through the looking-glass of the subject's concerns and evaluative attitudes and thus have their repercussions in emotional reactions. Accordingly, emotions form the grounds of the most basic evaluations and are hence the most important constituent of what we can call 'values'. Emotions are also motivational in a characteristic way: Apprehending the world according to its specific import in the case of emotions implies that they motivate the subject to engage in particular actions.

The majority of theories of intentionality rest upon the fundamental conceptual distinction between cognition and conation, i.e. the faculties of knowledge and desire, respectively. Emotions, however, cross-classify this strict distinction. They can neither be reduced to belief and judgment, nor to the domain of desire and volition. In the latter case, emotions' relation to action would be overemphasised at the expense of ignoring their epistemic and evaluative properties. The former case would amount to a one-sided focus on the aspect of world-directedness, yet neglect those elements characteristic of their affective dimension. Emotions are always partly cognitive, evaluative and motivational; and what we take to be the classical cognitive and conative capacities - perceiving, remembering, contemplating, desiring, decision-making and rational action - can only be successfully exercised if these aspects go together in the absence of any (external) disturbance. A theory of mind which uncritically accepts the strict separation of cognition and conation is in danger of missing the essential role of emotions.

Therefore, our aim is to provide a comprehensive structural description of the constitutive role played by affectivity in human behaviour and experience. This involves first of all the development of an account of emotions in which all the aforementioned aspects are taken into full consideration, including an adequate description of how they interrelate. Our account is related to emotional cognitivism, since the key role played by the intentional content of emotions may be regarded as (genuine) cognitive content at least in the sense that it is evaluable for correctness according to rational criteria. But this quasi-cognitive content is not all there is to emotions, since not all of the central aspects of emotional processes are derivative of cognitition-like processes. Moreover, our theory rests upon an alternative understanding of cognition which clearly diverges from classical-cognitivist theories fixated on beliefs and judgements.

Second, we intend to investigate what follows from this theory of emotions for the understanding of the human mind more generally. We assume that an adequately explicated concept of emotion (or "affective state" more generally) may even be such as to become the fundamental category of a modified philosophy of mind. This intuition is further developed and articulated under the title "affective intentionality". The task is to establish a concept that is apt to play a similarly fundamental role as the concepts "belief" and "desire" in traditional philosophy of mind. This is not meant to imply that these latter concepts will become superfluous. Rather, they will be part of a context in which they will be fully intelligible in the first place.

Thematically, the philosophical part of the project is closely interrelated with other subprojects. The core thesis of the entire project, the close entanglement of emotion and cognition, is the target of empirical investigation in the second subproject. Here the focus is on the question to which extent affective processes may be cognitively controlled and on the particular role played by reappraisals of emotion-eliciting situations. The goal is to test this empirically by means of fMRI studies. The third subproject deals with an aspect which is currently a much debated topic in the philosophy of emotion: the significance of emotions for morality, more precisely: for the motivation to engage in moral behaviour. One of the main questions is whether the interplay of evaluation and motivation in emotion described in the first subproject offers an adequate solution to the motivation problem in moral philosophy. Are emotions the missing link between insight into what is morally appropriate and the actual execution of the corresponding morally proper action? This highly interdisciplinary subprojects conjoins the philosophical, the neuroscientific, and the psychological perspectives on human morality. Our Bonn based neuroscience team is conducting fMRI studies in order to investigate the neural basis of moral decision-making in humans. Obviously, this poses some conceptual problems - the most important one being the distinction between genuinely moral cases from merely social ones - and thus needs to be informed by philosophical conceptions of morality and moral decision-making (see neuroscience section for further information).

  Top    Home