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The Manifold of Sense Part I

The Manifold of Sense - Part I   by Sam Vaknin

"Anthropologists report enormous differences in the ways that different cultures categorize emotions. Some languages, in fact, do not even have a word for emotion. Other languages differ in the number of words they have to name emotions. While English has over 2,000 words to describe emotional categories, there are only 750 such descriptive words in Taiwanese Chinese. One tribal language has only 7 words that could be translated into categories of emotion the words used to name or describe an emotion can influence what emotion is experienced. For example, Tahitians do not have a word directly equivalent to sadness. Instead, they treat sadness as something like a physical illness. This difference has an impact on how the emotion is experienced by Tahitians. For example, the sadness we feel over the departure of a close friend would be experienced by a Tahitian as exhaustion. Some cultures lack words for anxiety or depression or guilt. Samoans have one word encompassing love, sympathy, pity, and liking which are very different emotions in our own culture."
"Psychology An Introduction" Ninth Edition By: Charles G. Morris, University of Michigan Prentice Hall, 1996


This essay is divided in two parts. In the first, we survey the landscape of the discourse regarding emotions in general and sensations in particular. This part will be familiar to any student of philosophy and can be skipped by same. The second part contains an attempt at producing an integrative overview of the matter, whether successful or not is best left to the reader to judge.

A. Survey

Words have the power to express the speaker's emotions and to evoke emotions (whether the same or not remains disputed) in the listener. Words, therefore, possess emotive meaning together with their descriptive meaning (the latter plays a cognitive role in forming beliefs and understanding).

Our moral judgements and the responses deriving thereof have a strong emotional streak, an emotional aspect and an emotive element. Whether the emotive part predominates as the basis of appraisal is again debatable. Reason analyzes a situation and prescribes alternatives for action. But it is considered to be static, inert, not goal-oriented (one is almost tempted to say: non-teleological - see: "Legitimizing Final Causes"). The equally necessary dynamic, action-inducing component is thought, for some oblivious reason, to belong to the emotional realm. Thus, the language (=words) used to express moral judgement supposedly actually express the speaker's emotions. Through the aforementioned mechanism of emotive meaning, similar emotions are evoked in the hearer and he is moved to action.

A distinction should be and has been drawn between regarding moral judgement as merely a report pertaining to the subject's inner emotional world and regarding it wholly as an emotive reaction. In the first case, the whole notion (really, the phenomenon) of moral disagreement is rendered incomprehensible. How could one disagree with a report? In the second case, moral judgement is reduced to the status of an exclamation, a non-propositional expression of "emotive tension", a mental excretion. This absurd was nicknamed: "The Boo-Hoorah Theory".

There were those who maintained that the whole issue was the result of mislabeling. Emotions are really what we otherwise call attitudes, they claimed. We approve or disapprove of something, therefore, we "feel". Prescriptivist accounts displaced emotivist analyses. This instrumentalism did not prove more helpful than its purist predecessors.

Throughout this scholarly debate, philosophers did what they are best at: ignored reality. Moral judgements every child knows are not explosive or implosive events, with shattered and scattered emotions strewn all over the battlefield. Logic is definitely involved and so are responses to already analyzed moral properties and circumstances. Moreover, emotions themselves are judged morally (as right or wrong). If a moral judgement were really an emotion, we would need to stipulate the existence of an hyper-emotion to account for the moral judgement of our emotions and, in all likelihood, will find ourselves infinitely regressing. If moral judgement is a report or an exclamation, how are we able to distinguish it from mere rhetoric? How are we able to intelligibly account for the formation of moral standpoints by moral agents in response to an unprecedented moral challenge?

Moral realists criticize these largely superfluous and artificial dichotomies (reason versus feeling, belief versus desire, emotivism and noncognitivism versus realism).

The debate has old roots. Feeling Theories, such as Descartes', regarded emotions as a mental item, which requires no definition or classification. One could not fail to fully grasp it upon having it. This entailed the introduction of introspection as the only way to access our feelings. Introspection not in the limited sense of "awareness of one's mental states" but in the broader sense of "being able to internally ascertain mental states". It almost became material: a "mental eye", a "brain-scan", at the least a kind of perception. Others denied its similarity to sensual perception. They preferred to treat introspection as a modus of memory, recollection through retrospection, as an internal way of ascertaining (past) mental events. This approach relied on the impossibility of having a thought simultaneously with another thought whose subject was the first thought. All these lexicographic storms did not serve either to elucidate the complex issue of introspection or to solve the critical questions: How can we be sure that what we "introspect" is not false? If accessible only to introspection, how do we learn to speak of emotions uniformly? How do we (unreflectively) assume knowledge of other people's emotions? How come we are sometimes forced to "unearth" or deduce our own emotions? How is it possible to mistake our emotions (to have one without actually feeling it)? Are all these failures of the machinery of introspection?

The proto-psychologists James and Lange have (separately) proposed that emotions are the experiencing of physical responses to external stimuli. They are mental representations of totally corporeal reactions. Sadness is what we call the feeling of crying. This was phenomenological materialism at its worst. To have full-blown emotions (not merely detached observations), one needed to experience palpable bodily symptoms. The James-Lange Theory apparently did not believe that a quadriplegic can have emotions, since he definitely experiences no bodily sensations. Sensationalism, another form of fanatic empiricism, stated that all our knowledge derived from sensations or sense data. There is no clear answer to the question how do these sensa (=sense data) get coupled with interpretations or judgements. Kant postulated the existence of a "manifold of sense" the data supplied to the mind through sensation. In the "Critique of Pure Reason" he claimed that these data were presented to the mind in accordance with its already preconceived forms (sensibilities, like space and time). But to experience means to unify these data, to cohere them somehow. Even Kant admitted that this is brought about by the synthetic activity of "imagination", as guided by "understanding". Not only was this a deviation from materialism (what material is "imagination" made of?) it was also not very instructive.

The problem was partly a problem of communication. Emotions are qualia, qualities as they appear to our consciousness. In many respects they are like sense data (which brought about the aforementioned confusion). But, as opposed to sensa, which are particular, qualia are universal. They are subjective qualities of our conscious experience. It is impossible to ascertain or to analyze the subjective components of phenomena in physical, objective terms, communicable and understandable by all rational individuals, independent of their sensory equipment. The subjective dimension is comprehensible only to conscious beings of a certain type (=with the right sensory faculties). The problems of "absent qualia" (can a zombie/a machine pass for a human being despite the fact that it has no experiences) and of "inverted qualia" (what we both call "red" might have been called "green" by you if you had my internal experience when seeing what we call "red") are irrelevant to this more limited discussion. These problems belong to the realm of "private language". Wittgenstein demonstrated that a language cannot contain elements which it would be logically impossible for anyone but its speaker to learn or understand. Therefore, it cannot have elements (words) whose meaning is the result of representing objects accessible only to the speaker (for instance, his emotions). One can use a language either correctly or incorrectly. The speaker must have at his disposal a decision procedure, which will allow him to decide whether his usage is correct or not. This is not possible with a private language, because it cannot be compared to anything.

In any case, the bodily upset theories propagated by James et al. did not account for lasting or dispositional emotions, where no external stimulus occurred or persisted. They could not explain on what grounds do we judge emotions as appropriate or perverse, justified or not, rational or irrational, realistic or fantastic. If emotions were nothing but involuntary reactions, contingent upon external events, devoid of context then how come we perceive drug induced anxiety, or intestinal spasms in a detached way, not as we do emotions? Putting the emphasis on sorts of behavior (as the behaviorists do) shifts the focus to the public, shared aspect of emotions but miserably fails to account for their private, pronounced, dimension. It is possible, after all, to experience emotions without expressing them (=without behaving). Additionally, the repertory of emotions available to us is much larger than the repertory of behaviours. Emotions are subtler than actions and cannot be fully conveyed by them. We find even human language an inadequate conduit for these complex phenomena.


About Author Sam Vaknin :

Sam Vaknin is the author of Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited and After the Rain - How the West Lost the East. He is a columnist for Central Europe Review, United Press International (UPI) and eBookWeb and the editor of mental health and Central East Europe categories in The Open Directory, Suite101 and Visit Sam's Web site at

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