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Gut Reactions: A Perceptual Theory of Emotion


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Gut Reactions is a valuable, and in several ways novel, contribution to the current literature on the philosophy of emotion. Prinz stakes out a position that has recently been revised by some scientists but has long been out of favor with philosophers: the "James-Lange view" that emotions are perceptions of body states. Prinz also defends the view that emotions represent a natural kind. In recent years, only cognitivist theories of emotions (those theories that posit that emotions are in part constituted by, or otherwise require, cognitive states) have been unified accounts. Those who reject cognitivism have tended also to reject the notion that there is a natural kind for the states we call "emotions." Prinz cuts across these positions, rejecting cognitivism about emotions but arguing for a highly unified account of emotions and other affects.

Prinz begins by assessing the cognitivism debate. The concept of "cognition" is a sore point in the philosophy of emotion, since there is no consensus and almost no clarity about what it might best mean. Prinz offers a view as good as any and better than most. He argues that "cognitions are states containing representations that are under [direct] organismic control" (49). This sounds about the same as the view that cognitions are products of the will; but though organismic control or the will is itself mysterious, it is possible to see how one might go about looking for evidence that a state was answerable to the will. One can test if a subject can change the state, for example. Furthermore, Prinz goes so far as to brave a hypothesis about the brain areas that may be required for direct control: "I propose that we call a state cognitive just in case it includes representations that are under the control of structures in executive systems, which, in mammals, are found in the prefrontal cortex" (47). With this working notion, Prinz concludes that emotions are not cognitive.

Instead, emotions are perceptions of certain kinds of body states. These body states are ones that reliably track certain kinds of conditions in the environment of the agent. For example, one kind of body state reliably is caused by potential dangers in the environment. An instance of fear is a perception of an instance of this kind of body state. But because the body state perceived is reliably linked with dangers, it is appropriate to say that fear represents potential dangers in the environment. To make this distinction, Prinz introduces the terminology of nominal and real contents, so that the nominal content of the emotion as a representation is the body state, but the real content is the environmental condition that reliably causes the state -- in this case, dangers.

To clarify this point, Prinz uses Anthony Kenny's idea of a formal object. Roughly, the formal object of an emotion is the real and abstracted content of it. Prinz identifies these as core relational themes. The notion of core relational themes is taken from the psychologist Richard Lazarus, who offered a highly intuitive taxonomy of such themes for emotions. For example, Lazarus identifies "a demeaning offense against me and mine" for anger and "facing an immediate, concrete, and overwhelming physical danger" for fright. Prinz suggests that the core relational themes of emotions outlined by Lazarus present a highly plausible list of formal objects. This is a convincing move on Prinz's part: to argue that Lazarus's taxonomy of core relational themes describes not the structure of emotions (as he argues Lazarus claims) but rather the content of these emotions.

Prinz has no compelling evidence that emotions are embodied appraisals. His direct defense of the claim includes reviving the long-disputed arguments of William James and Karl Lange, and reviewing the conflicting evidence regarding emotion intensity among subjects with spinal injury. However, with no clear evidence ruling against the James-Lange theory, Prinz's fecund use of the theory is its best and most compelling defense. He demonstrates this fecundity elegantly through the remainder of the book. He argues that embodied appraisals are a natural kind, since "all emotions are embodied appraisals under the causal control of" a mechanism that links various judgments with those embodied appraisals. He seeks a compromise between nativism and social constructionism by arguing that his theory can allow for a range of different kinds of perceived body states, from universal "innate" ones to culturally specific learned ones, to count as emotions; this is possible because we can learn to associate new contents with kinds of body states, there can be cognitive-emotion hybrids, and there can be blends of basic emotions. He extends his account to offer explanations of moods and other affects. Finally, he proposes a theory of emotional consciousness on the model of perceptual consciousness.


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