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People often describe recalcitrant emotions as ‘irrational’. Is Bennett Helm right to think that this undermines the perceptual model of emotion?
The conclusion is that Helm’s objection does not undermine the perceptual model if one adopts a weaker analogy version of perception – weak perception theorists hold that emotional evaluations are like perceptions in important ways; but not that they are like them in every way. The objection also fails by sticking to the assumption that recalcitrant emotions are irrational – this position does not adequately consider the grounds that underpin emotional evaluations, as well as the actions that are associated and, further, it does not discriminate enough between basic emotions and higher cognitive emotions. Despite these claims, the resulting proposed model that emanates from Helm’s objection (the ‘felt evaluations’ approach)  has merit and is to be supported as a direction of travel for further investigation, that is, in the sense of seeing emotional evaluations as occupying a mid-way position between perception and judgement, having features in common with both.
This essay first gives a brief introduction explaining how the perceptual model has emerged. Secondly, the perceptual model is outlined along with Helm’s objection. Thirdly, the essay draws out some key responses to Helm. Finally, the essay adopts the view that in some circumstances and for some emotions (including recalcitrant emotions), what grounds the emotional evaluation as well as the actions associated, may determine whether it is irrational or not.
When thinking about emotion it is often viewed as just a matter of feeling a certain way. However, emotion and in particular an emotional response often involves imagining, thinking, desiring, judging and believing, as well as bodily and behavioural change. Further, emotions are clearly complex and diverse, there are different types and classes, and many emotions (although not all) appear to have a coherent structure, can be warranted or unwarranted, grounded or ungrounded, and provide value in terms of action, learning, goal aspiration, moral decision making and achievement (Price, 2015).
A number of approaches have attempted to capture these features. James (1890) maintained that our feeling of bodily changes as they occur is the emotion (for example, as a soldier in 1981, when I perceived danger in patrolling the streets of Belfast, this directly set off a collection of bodily responses, and my awareness of these is what constituted my fear). As Price points out: ‘Without feeling, James thinks, there would be no emotion, but only a dispassionate thought or judgement of some kind. And this he thinks, is reason enough to conclude that the emotion is the feeling’ (Price, 2015, p.17). Although the sensations theory covers the challenge of phenomenology well, there a number of potential problems regarding explanations of motivation, differentiation and intentionality – it focuses exclusively on bodily feelings making it unduly restrictive, and the theory neglects the intentionality of the emotional property. To say a state is intentional means it is about something or directed towards something (when I want a beer, I have a desire for a beer). Crucially, emotions also appear as intentional phenomena (when I bristle with anger, I’m not just angry, I’m angry about spilling my beer). These problems led to the development of evaluative or cognitive theories of emotion.
Solomon (1993) argued that emotions are not bodily feelings, rather they are judgements of a certain kind (my anger is a judgment that the spilt beer will ruin my new carpet). He asserted that an emotion is identical to a person’s emotional evaluation of a situation, and the emotional evaluation is a kind of judgement. Taking this approach allows for an explanation of intentional states – as emotional evaluations are undeniably intentional states (Price, 2015). In brief, judgmental approaches view emotions as types of judgements or entail judgements, or according to which emotions are in some other significant way analogous to judgements (Muzio, 2018). Although seen as a step forward two problems appear challenging for the judgement approach: first, that it seems undermined in cases of recalcitrant emotions – just like you cannot genuinely hold two contradictory beliefs (believe both p and not p at the same time), you also cannot hold an emotion that contradicts a belief – a judgementalist is forced to ascribe two contradictory judgements to an agent and therefore the agent is irrational when holding a recalcitrant emotion. And, secondly, explaining emotions in young children and non-human animals; that is, neither of which at first glance, have the language or conceptual tools required under the judgement approach. As a result, an alternate cognitions approach developed that identified emotions as evaluative perceptions with a distinct phenomenology.
Strong versions of this perceptual approach assume that emotions are literally sensory perceptions. Weak perceptual theories see emotions to be analogous to sensory perception, taking emotions as perceptions of formal objects rather than perceptions of bodily changes with the function of tracking objects (Scarantino & de Sousa, 2018). The perceptual approach appears to offer a better explanation of the phenomenon of recalcitrant emotion as being analogous to the persistence of perceptual illusions, and it appears to accommodate the view that emotions can present direct, non-inferential, rational grounds for belief and action (Muzio, 2018). Notwithstanding this, one prominent objection is that it still does not properly account for emotional recalcitrance – this is essentially Helm’s claim that we can now turn to.
As Helm (2015) points out, a recalcitrant emotion is an emotion one feels even though one believes the world is not as the emotion presents it, and so even though one is willing to repudiate it (for example, I fear the stuffed grizzly bear even though I know it is dead). What makes recalcitrant emotions problematic is their apparent conflict with belief or judgment. Helm’s objection is that there is an apparent strong disanalogy between emotion and perception: perceptual experiences are arational whereas emotions can be rational or irrational but that, specifically, recalcitrant emotions but not perceptual illusions, are irrational (Muzio, 2018).
The key to Helm’s conclusion is the belief that we are under rational pressure to ensure that our evaluative outlook is coherent, but in cases of recalcitrant emotions this is not the case. Summarising Helm we can say the following about his position: a) he emphasises the connection between rationality and coherence – rationality is a matter of having a coherent perspective on the world; b) he asserts that we have reasons to think that a sensory experience is illusory, we repudiate it by no longer experiencing it as presenting how things are but as mere appearances; and c) his account of emotional recalcitrance along with the conflicting evaluative judgement reflects our existing values, desires and attachments – in cases of recalcitrant emotion it is difficult to say what it is we really value or care about, in other words, we can no longer make coherent sense of ourselves (OU, 2018).
According to the perceptual model emotions are perceptions of value; for example, fear would consist in perceiving something as fearsome. As Tappolet (2012) observes, the perceptual model is based upon an argument by analogy where emotions and sensory perception share a number of important features. In the case of recalcitrant emotions, they are often considered analogous to a kind of perceptual illusion; for example, as with the Muller-Lyer illusion where it appears we have two lines of different length even though they are in fact of the same length. Prinz (2008) also likens recalcitrant emotions to optical illusions and states that they persist even when we know they are in fact misrepresenting reality. Helm (2001) recognises this analogy but rejects it by asserting that recalcitrant emotions are irrational whereas sensory illusions are not. This difference is supported by Brady (2007, p.276) who states that: ‘Someone who is suffering from recalcitrant emotions is subject to a rational requirement.’ Therefore, in most cases a recalcitrant emotion will require a change to the emotion or judgement to resolve the conflict, whereas this is not the case for a sensory illusion.
Brady (2007) also agrees then with Helm that recalcitrant emotions are irrational but the reason for this is not incoherence, rather, it involves how the emotions capture and consume attention in order to continue monitoring and reassessing any given situation. For recalcitrant emotion this would be a waste of cognitive and bodily resources, resulting in the formation of false evaluative judgements. In this respect, emotions differ from sensory perceptions; and it is this difference that explains why people describe recalcitrant emotions, but not sensory perceptions, as irrational.
Tappolet (2016) responds to Helm’s objection by arguing that emotions are more plastic than perceptions, and that it is possible to gain control of our emotions in a way that we cannot for perceptions. The ability to gain control is what makes the conflict irrational in emotion but not in perception (for example, if I believe my fear to be exaggerated, I have good reason to try to eliminate it). This, Tappolet thinks, is why it makes sense to describe my fear as irrational (OU, 2018). Tappolet’s approach is one that explains the irrationality of recalcitrant emotions but argues that it does not undermine the perceptual model. One can agree with this conclusion for weak versions of the perceptual model, by emphasising that the claim she makes around plasticity does not appear to take away any of the main analogies between emotions and sensory experiences.
What is less convincing in Brady’s and Tappolet’s account, and in Helm’s intuitive conclusion, but for different reasons, is that recalcitrant emotions are irrational. If this is meant to be a universal conclusion this should be disputed, as one can think of examples where some recalcitrant emotions ought not to be described as such. Tappolet (2016, p.15) herself recognises, at the very least, that irrationality in recalcitrant emotions is of a lesser degree than what is typically involved in contradictory judgements. Döring (2014) goes further and argues that recalcitrant emotions are not irrational. For example, take my fear of walking through my local ancient forest, which conflicts with my judgement that woods in North Norfolk are not fearsome – here, my fear and my judgement present the world in different, incompatible ways. In this example, Döring (2014) would say there is cognitive conflict between them, but there is no irrationality involved. Indeed, to describe the conflict as irrational would imply irrationally endorsing two contradictory propositions, but this is not the case (I do not hold it to be true that woods in North Norfolk are fearsome while at the same time holding it to be true that they are not – my fear of woods in North Norfolk would only imply that they appear fearsome to me). Thus, just as in the case of the Müller-Lyer illusion, one line might appear longer than another without my holding that it is so. Döring (2014) goes on to conclude that the irrationality arises from the fact that one is motivated to act against one’s judgement – thus it is the action that is irrational, not the emotion.
Another credible objection to the irrationality claim is one based upon the assumption that emotional evaluations and evaluative beliefs answer to different standards of evidence. The consequence of this is that at least in some cases of recalcitrant emotions, there may be adequate grounds for both a belief and an emotional evaluation that is recalcitrant but may not be irrational. For example, I’m walking through my local ancient forest at Swanton Novers in the gloaming, I believe confidently that the wood is safe otherwise I would not be walking through it. I have good evidence for this as no one in living memory has ever been attacked nor injured in this wood. Nevertheless, as I contemplate the eerie noises, the encroaching darkness, the shrill squeals of unseen animals moving through the brush, and the wind roaring past my ears – I feel afraid. In this example, there are good reasons to believe that the fear is misplaced; however, the situation certainly looks and feels dangerous, and the feelings do not seem to arise from wrong susceptibilities as the look and feel of the wood seems to provide sufficient grounds for fear, even if appearances and feelings happen to be misleading. This example of a recalcitrant emotion does not appear irrational and, indeed, Price (2015, p.145) would support this view: ‘…our readiness to describe recalcitrant emotional responses as irrational depends, not on the assumption that the subject’s response is misplaced, but rather on the assumption that it is poorly grounded.’
Additional to grounds, recalcitrant emotions may also be warranted or unwarranted and this may also impact on its rationality. As Heijmeskamp (2017, p.34) states: ‘…recalcitrant emotions have been for the most part judged unwarrantedly negative and that not all recalcitrant emotions can be judged as irrational.’ Here a distinction is made where the practical conflict of emotions and goals can be resolved and cases where it is unresolvable – it is in the latter case that a recalcitrant emotion would be irrational (for example, I love going on death slides, here an important element is my fear, even though I know these rides are heavily regulated with impeccable safety credentials, I am not motivated to resolve this conflict between my emotion and judgement, because this conflict leads to my enjoyment).rides are safe with a rollercoaster
These examples provide sufficient grounds to challenge the assumption of Helm (and others) that recalcitrant emotions are in fact irrational. Clearly, they can be irrational, but this should not be seen as a universal proposition and, if this is the case, Helm’s objection to perceptualism, that is substantively built on the irrationality claim, is clearly questionable. Also, Helm’s objection does not appear to account fully for different classes of emotions – in fairness, this would be an observation of several approaches. This is relevant as not all emotions appear to comprise of the same phenomena, nor do they appear to be equally sensitive to perceptual or judgemental information. Price (2015), for example, recognises this by observing that what constitutes a well-grounded emotional response depends on which type of emotion we are examining.
In conclusion, Helm’s objection does not undermine the weak perception analogy approach, as he fails to properly deal with all the analogies between emotions and perceptual experiences (see footnote 3), that still exist even if his dis-analogy objection were successful by itself – a key factor supporting this is that weak perception theorists hold that emotional evaluations are like perceptions in important ways; but do not hold that they are like them in every way. Further, Helm’s objection is based upon the assumption of irrationality for recalcitrant emotions, as argued this dismisses too quickly the view that in some cases such emotions appear rational.
On a more general point, the focus on recalcitrant emotions can be misleading in order to identify a common core, involving either perception or judgement, for a theory of emotions. One should be hesitant to conclude that there is any single feature shared between all types and classes of emotion – perhaps it is the case that each emotion shares a number of features with other emotions. If this is so, then a better approach to these considerations may be to explore emotions (as well as recalcitrant emotions), within a paradigm that sees emotional evaluations as occupying a mid-way position between perception and judgement – as indeed Helm also argues for.
- Alter, T. The Knowledge Argument Against Physicalism’ The Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, ISSN 2161-0002, http://www.iep.utm.edu/, downloaded on 12 February 2018.
- Chalmers, D. (1996) The Conscious Mind. In Search of a Fundamental Theory, Oxford University Press.
- Hoffman, D. (2008)’Conscious Realism and the Mind-body Problem, in Mind & Matter, Imprint Academic, Vol. 6(1), pp. 87-121.
- Nussbaum, M. C. (2001) Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions, Cambridge University Press
- OU – Open University (2018) A854 MA in Philosophy Part 2, Block 1, Weeks 2-4, The Emotions, [Online]. Available at https://learn2.open.ac.uk/course/view.php?id=205509 (Accessed multiple occasions 6 October 2018 to 20 November 2018).
- Price, C. (2015) Emotion (Key Concepts in Philosophy), Wiley, Kindle Edition.
- Scarantino, A. de Sousa, R. (2018) “Emotion”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter Edition).
 Helm (2009) takes emotions to constitute a distinct category of psychological state. These ‘felt evaluations’, are neither perceptions nor judgements, but have features in common with both.
 Emotional systems manifest an important degree of plasticity – that is, they are largely shaped, and can also be reshaped, by their socio-cultural environment (Prinz, 2004)
 Tappolet (2016) sets out some key features supporting this view: (a) both emotions and perceptions have salient phenomenal properties, (b) both are elicited automatically by real or imagined objects, (c) both have correctness conditions because they represent the world as being a certain way, (d) both play the epistemic role of providing defeasible reasons for belief (e.g., visual perception for the belief that something is blue, and fear for the belief that something is dangerous)
 What constitutes good grounds for an emotional evaluation depends on its function and on how it is normally produced (Price, 2015). Also, Greenspan (1988) states that for an emotional response to be well grounded, it is enough that it is supported by just some significant facts.
 Whether an emotion is warranted or not is dependent on the goals a person has.
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