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NDPR Forum: Christine Tappolet’s Emotions, Values, and Agency

Welcome to our latest installment of the NDPR Forum, a place for authors to discuss their books and the NDPR reviews of them. Today we welcome discussion of Christine Tappolet’s recent book Emotions, Values, and Agency, reviewed a few months ago by Benjamin De Mesel in NDPR.

From the OUP description of the book: “The emotions we experience are crucial to who we are, to what we think, and to what we do. But what are emotions, exactly, and how do they relate to agency? The aim of this book is to spell out an account of emotions, which is grounded on analogies between emotions and sensory experiences, and to explore the implications of this account for our understanding of human agency. The central claim is that emotions consist in perceptual experiences of values, such as the fearsome, the disgusting or the admirable. A virtue of this account is that it affords a better grasp of a variety of interconnected phenomena, such as motivation, values, responsibility and reason-responsiveness. In the process of exploring the implications of the Perceptual Theory of emotions, several claims are proposed. First, emotions normally involve desires that set goals, but they can be contemplative in that they can occur without any motivation. Second, evaluative judgements can be understood in terms of appropriate emotions in so far as appropriateness is taken to consist in correct representation. Third, by contrast with what Strawsonian theories hold, the concept of moral responsibility is not response-dependent, but the relationship between emotions and moral responsibility is mediated by values. Finally, in so far as emotions are perceptions of values, they can be considered to be perceptions of practical reasons, so that on certain conditions, acting on the basis of one’s emotions can consist in responding to one’s reasons.”

From De Mesel’s review: “Tappolet’s book is to be recommended, first of all, for the way in which it shows how her theory of emotion interlocks with plausible theories of value and agency, and how these interlocking theories mutually support each other. The project is ambitious, as it requires a grasp of the difficulties in different and vast fields of inquiry, but the book lives up to its ambition: it is rich, accessibly written, well-structured, and extremely well-informed. It is focused, in the sense that in many cases it provides just the right amount of information about the theories discussed.”

“An important disanalogy between emotions and sensory experiences is that ‘unlike the latter emotions can be assessed in terms of rationality’ (p. 31). Tappolet provides an explanation of this difference that I endorse. The question is, however, what place such an explanation can take in an argument that purports to show that emotions are perceptual experiences. There are, I think, two options. First, the irrationality disanalogy can be presented, as Tappolet does, as a disanalogy between emotions and sensory experiences. If it is only that, it is not clear why it would threaten the Perceptual Theory, given Tappolet’s earlier claim that a disanalogy with sensory experiences does not mean that something cannot be a perceptual experience, because not all perceptual experiences are sensory experiences. Secondly, and more plausibly, the irrationality disanalogy is a disanalogy between emotions and perceptual experiences. However, Tappolet’s explanation of the disanalogy will then amount to an implicit recognition of the fact that emotions are not perceptual experiences. It will then count against, and not in favor of, the Perceptual Theory. What the Perceptual Theory needs, in this case, is not for the difference to be explained, but for it somehow to be explained away: contrary to how things seem, there is in fact no disanalogy between emotions and perceptual experiences. Such an explanation is not attempted, but seems necessary: if emotions can be (ir)rational, (un)reasonable and/or (in)appropriate, and emotions are perceptual experiences, then how can it seem conceptually incoherent to say that perceptual experiences are (ir)rational, (un)reasonable and/or (in)appropriate?”

10 Responses to NDPR Forum: Christine Tappolet’s Emotions, Values, and Agency

  1. Reply to Benjamin De Mesel

    When I told my colleague Aude that I had to come up with a reply to Benjamin’s review, she suggested I should simply say “Thank you!”. And indeed, gratitude is just what I feel when I read this detailed and generous review. But then, I am sure some people are curious to know what I make of the different worries that are raised.

    Most of the worries concern the Perceptual Theory, i.e., the thesis that emotions are a kind of perceptual experience. Benjamin notes that the assumptions I make regarding the nature of perception are controversial. In particular, not everyone accepts that perceptions are representations, which have correctness conditions and are characterized by phenomenal properties. I agree that I could have strengthened my case by discussing the different options in the philosophy of perception and by making the case for the kind of account I am tacitly assuming. Apart from a confession of sheer ignorance and other lame excuses – surely Oxford would have refused a much longer book – what can be said in my defense is that the assumptions I make are not really super-controversial. Yes, there are controversies in philosophy of perception, but an account according to which your perception of a red book represents the book as red, has phenomenal properties, and is correct on condition the book is red, is, I would think, quite widely accepted.

    Benjamin is also worried about the many disanalogies between emotions and sensory perceptual experiences. The general claim I make in the book is that even if some disanalogies are real, they do not threaten the proposed account. First, one should not forget the numerous and deep analogies between emotions and sensory perceptual experiences. Second, none of the characteristics that make for disanalogies, such as the fact that there are no dedicated organs associated with emotional perceptions, are incompatible with a liberal account of what counts as a perceptual experience. For instance, there seems to be no conceptual barrier to the claim that a state that does not depend on a dedicated organ counts as a perception.

    That said, in his review Benjamin introduces some new and interesting disanalogies. He notes that the emotions and sensory perceptual experiences differ in terms of temporality. Sensory perceptual experiences can be very brief – they can last for a fraction of a second – but not emotions. Conversely, emotions can last for years, but not sensory perceptual experiences. These observations raise interesting issues, which I cannot fully address here. But let me state that as far as I can see, emotions can be very brief. Consider the bout of surprise at seeing a friend in a foreign city, or else the fright you felt when hearing an explosion. In any case, I see no a priori reason to deny that extremely brief, or indeed even instantaneous, emotions are possible. Similarly, if you keep on looking at the same landscape without ever closing your eyes for ten years, it seems that you could well have a visual experience that last ten years.

    Benjamin also notes that I say nothing regarding the fact that emotions, but not sensory perceptual experiences, are valenced and often have polar opposite. Let me immediately make amends: What I should have said is that these facts do not even begin to count against the Perceptual Theory. According to the account I favor, positive emotions track positive values, while negative emotions track negative values. To hold that this is a problem for the Perceptual Theory would amount to claiming that color perceptions cannot be perceptions because they are about colors.

    Benjamin is also right when he says that the difference between emotions and sensory perceptual experiences regarding the possibility of irrationality should not merely be explained. What I need to show is that the disanalogy does not threaten the Perceptual Theory, and I agree that I might have said too little in this respect. What I do say is that there is nothing conceptually wrong with the idea that perceptual experiences can depends on systems that are exhibits plasticity (so that it makes sense to characterize them as rational or irrational). In a forthcoming paper, I use the following analogy to make that point vivid: Imagine that children first see the world in black and white, moving only later to polychromatic vision. Surely we would not say that child who sees a lemon as light gray lacks visual perception. (See Tappolet, “Nasty Emotions and the Perception of Values”, forthcoming in Christine Tappolet, Fabrice Teroni and Anita Konzelman Ziv (eds.), The Shadows of the Soul, New York: Routledge.)

    Another difficulty that Benjamin raises for the Perceptual Theory is that one can see someone’s emotions, but it is not clear that one can see someone visual experience. It might not be quite obvious that one can literally see someone’s fear or anger. What is not controversial, however, is that one sees the facial and bodily expressions of emotions. In any case, it seems correct that there is a difference between the case of emotions and the case of perceptual experiences. Emotions, but not sensory perceptual experiences, are, at least in paradigm cases, manifested in facial and bodily expressions. However, it is not clear that this makes for a difference that impugns the thought that emotions are a kind of perceptual experience. We could imagine that when seeing colors, we express the perceived colors on our faces – when seeing red things we would blush, when seeing yellow things, we would turn yellow, and so forth. Of course, it would be wrong to infer that we have stopped perceiving colors.

    Benjamin also notes that we have meta-emotions – I can be sad about your anger, for instance. This he claims is a problem because it seems difficult to hold that I can be sad about a perception. Again, it can be agreed that the idea of meta-perception is hard to make sense of. Could we see that we see, for instance? However, it is not clear that the idea of having an emotion regarding a perceptual experience is problematic. I could be sad that a friend sees the world in tones of grey, for instance. In the case of emotional perceptions of values, the sadness seems even more intelligible. Surely the appraisal of the world in terms of offensiveness or fearsomeness can be a sad thing.

    Benjamin ends this part of the discussion with the observation that many things we say about emotions – that we are in the grip of an emotion, that we can give way to an emotion, that we can control an emotion, that we can give expression to emotions, or else suppress them – are not things we are inclined to say about perceptual experiences. However, to my mind at least, it is not obvious that such things cannot be said of perceptual experiences. I can be gripped by the experience of looking at the spiraling circles of the waterfall illusion, for instance. And I can control at least some part of my visual experience by opening or closing my eyes, or by focusing my attention on some parts of my visual field.

    But even when there are genuine differences, the question is what should we make of them? I have already discussed expression: In my view it is not incompatible with the claim that a state is a perceptual experience. More generally, for each of these points, we would need, I believe, an argument to show that a) it makes for a real difference with paradigmatic cases of perceptual experiences; b) that difference is one that is incompatible with a reasonable account of what is required to count as a perceptual experience; and c) that difference, in addition with the other points of comparison, tips the balance in favor of a non-perceptual account of emotions. As far as I can see, there is not, as yet, sufficient reason to dismiss the Perceptual Theory.

    The last set of worries raised by Benjamin concern my discussion of Strawsonian accounts of responsibility, according to which the concept of responsibility is tied to that of attitudes such as resentment or gratitude. Benjamin holds that if we consider that moral responsibility is nothing more than blameworthiness and praiseworthiness then nothing bars one from going for a Strawsonian account. I agree that a response-dependent account of blameworthiness and praiseworthiness is plausible. Roughly:

    (B/P) S is blameworthy/praiseworthy if and only blame/praise with respect to S is appropriate.

    As such, (B/P) leaves many questions open. First, there is room to distinguish between the notion of responsibility and that of blameworthiness or praiseworthiness, thereby resisting the idea that responsibility is nothing more than blameworthiness or praiseworthiness. Second, (B/P) is naturally understood in terms of what I call “affective” blame or praise. Even so, it could also be understood in terms of mere judgements regarding the blameworthiness or praiseworthiness of agents. However, the main point to stress here is that if it is understood in terms of affective blame or praise, I have no qualms at all with (B/P). As far as I can see, this thesis is nothing but an instance of the neo-sentimentalist account of evaluative concept, which I endorse.

    Benjamin ends with an intriguing suggestion regarding the so-called ‘Middleman Objection’. According to that objection, the appeal to reactive attitudes seems otiose when the account one holds also provides substantive conditions for responsibility, such as a knowledge condition or a control condition. Benjamin suggests that the Strawsonian account could be seen as giving the possession conditions of the concept of responsibility; by contrast, the substantive conditions would aim at giving the applications conditions of that same concept. I am not quite sure what to make of this suggestion. But the question that arises, it seems, is why we would need to have emotional capacities in order to possess a concept that can be applied just by checking some facts, something which can be done without any appeal to emotions. It seems that we would lack the motivation to invoke emotions.

    One worry here is whether this point is not liable to backfire on my story concerning evaluative concepts. As far as I can see, there is no such risk. Emotions feature in the possession conditions of concepts such as admirable or fearsome because they are our primary way of establishing whether or not something is admirable or fearsome. This epistemic role is particularly important because we have no clear idea of the natural properties on which evaluative properties supervene. In my view, such properties are highly disjunctive. By contrast to a situation that Benjamin imagines regarding responsibility, we thus badly need emotional capacities to make evaluative judgements.

    Acknowledgements: Thanks to Aude Bandini, Richard Healey, Hichem Naar, Angie Pepper and Mauro Rossi for comments and discussions.

  2. First of all, let me repeat that I recommend this book to anyone interested in emotions, motivation, values, moral responsibility, and agency. Christine has illuminating things to say about all of these matters and, in particular, about the ways in which they interconnect.
    Secondly, I would like to thank Dave and Christine for setting up this discussion. Christine’s detailed reply to my review clarifies much, and some of the worries that I had have disappeared.

    I would like to come back to two points.

    1. I said in my review that some of the assumptions made by Christine regarding the nature of perception are controversial. I am not a specialist in theories of perception (maybe someone who knows more about this could help here?), and I understand Christine’s reasons for not going into the different options. Nevertheless, it is of crucial importance for Christine’s project that three claims about perception are true: (1) that they represent the world as being a certain way, (2) that they are characterized by phenomenal properties and (3) that they have correctness conditions. Christine argues that these three points are true of perceptions as well as of emotions, and these analogies support the Perceptual Theory. If the claims are not true of perceptions, however, there is a problem for the Perceptual Theory.
    The reason why I said that the assumptions regarding perception are controversial has to do, I assume, with my background in Wittgenstein studies. Several authors inspired by the later Wittgenstein have argued that representative theories of perception are mistaken. See, for example, this book (an edited volume on Wittgenstein and Perception), this one (Charles Travis, Perception), and this one (P.M.S. Hacker, Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience, chapter 4). I would like to recommend, in particular, two chapters in P.M.S. Hacker, The Intellectual Powers. A Study of Human Nature (chapter 7 on sensation and perception, and chapter 8 on perception). Hacker discusses what he calls the representative causal theory of perception (pp. 301-306) and the modern causal theory of perception (pp. 307-315) and judges them both to be deeply mistaken. He argues as follows against the idea that thoughts are representations (and the same argument can be applied to the idea that perceptions are representations): ‘A picture of St John’s College is a pictorial representation of the College. The opening bars of Strauss’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra is a musical representation of a sunrise. Assertoric sentences (spoken or written) are (commonly) verbal representations of the states of affairs described. It is a feature of representations that they require a medium of representation (paint, notes, speech, script). And it is an essential feature of a representation that it have non-representational properties in virtue of which it is a representation. These are the properties of the medium of representation. There is no such thing as a representation that has no medium. Without a medium – the representation could not be perceived – and there is no such thing as an imperceptible representation. […] Non-representational properties of speech are the timbre of the voice, the loudness of utterance, the speed of speaking. […] Unless a representation has non-representational properties in virtue of which it is a representation, it cannot represent anything. It follows that thoughts are not representations at all. To repeat what was emphasized in chapter 2, they are all message and no medium. This should have been obvious from the mere consideration of the non-perceptibility of thoughts – of one’s own as well as of others. But, misled by the metaphor of introspection, it is widely assumed that we ‘introspect’ our own thoughts, and know what we think by inner perception’ (pp. 389-390).
    I will not go into the arguments provided against the claims that perceptions are characterized by phenomenal properties and that they have correctness conditions. I only want to say that the authors mentioned above provide arguments against these claims (in the chapters that I mentioned) that I regard as powerful and that have to be taken seriously, even if they go against current philosophical orthodoxy. It may be true that, as Christine says, her assumptions about perception are widely accepted. I doubt, however, whether they are true (which is not to say, of course, that I am convinced of their falsity), and these doubts have an immediate effect on my evaluation of the Perceptual Theory.

    2. My second point concerns the last paragraph of Christine’s reply. She writes: ‘Emotions feature in the possession conditions of concepts such as admirable or fearsome because they are our primary way of establishing whether or not something is admirable or fearsome. This epistemic role is particularly important because we have no clear idea of the natural properties on which evaluative properties supervene. In my view, such properties are highly disjunctive. By contrast to a situation that Benjamin imagines regarding responsibility, we thus badly need emotional capacities to make evaluative judgments.’
    Here I cannot see why a similar argument could not be made with respect to moral responsibility: ‘Emotions/reactive attitudes feature in the possession conditions of concepts such as moral responsibility because they are our primary way of establishing whether or not someone is morally responsible. This epistemic role is particularly important because we have no clear idea of the natural properties on which the property of being morally responsible supervenes. In my view, such properties are highly disjunctive.’

  3. There are many things to ask about here. It looks to be a fascinating book, and I’m grateful to the both of you for starting a discussion here about it and Benjamin’s review. (So it should be obvious that I haven’t yet read the book, but I am planning on teaching it in a grad seminar in the spring.)

    I’m not sure from the exchange what your ultimate view is about the possible response-dependent account of responsibility articulated via your B/P, Christine. It seems like you are okay with facts about the “worthiness” of blame/praise simply consisting in facts about the fittingness (correctness) of blaming emotions like anger or gratitude. You suggest that these facts could still be put in terms of judgments, but they would (I would say) be “glossing” judgments, where pressing for clarity on the judgments could only be answered by appeal to our sentimental responses. In other words, anger evaluates some event as a “slight,” but what counts as a slight (given the wide variety of disjunctive slight-making properties in different contexts) is best explained by reference to the sorts of things that tend to make us (with refined sensibilities) angry.

  4. Thanks, Benjamin, for these further thoughts. Regarding your first point, I cannot but agree: these arguments against the received view in the philosophy of perception need to be taken seriously. One interesting question is how considerations regarding the importance of the medium fare in the case of emotions. Emotions appear to have many non-representational features – I am thinking of bodily changes that are involved in emotions, for instance – in virtue of which even a Wittgensteinian could consider them to be representations.

    Regarding the second point, I thought that the possibility that was under discussion was one in which we were supposed to have a good grasp of the substantive condition, such as the epistemic and the control condition, in which someone is responsible: this assumption is necessary for the Middleman objection to arise. So, I was assuming that the properties in question are not highly disjunctive. But I agree that this can be questioned. If the properties at stake are highly disjunctive, I would agree that if emotions such as anger, etc. were well-placed to play a central epistemic role with respect to the concept of responsibility, then the case of responsibility would be perfectly parallel to that of affective concepts, such as admirable.

    David, I’ll get back to you later – I have to get ready for my seminar!

  5. Thanks for these questions, David.

    Let me try to clarify what I say regarding blameworthiness and praiseworthiness – something which in fact goes beyond what I argue in the book. The account of these notions I would favor is on the lines of neo-sentimentalism regarding evaluative concepts: it is in terms of appropriate emotional reactions of blame and praise that such concepts have to be elucidated, not in terms of judgement. I mentioned the construal in terms of judgement rather than emotions mainly because it seems to me that blame can take many forms, and one should not assume that it is necessarily emotional. Blaming someone need not amount to feel an emotional reaction, even if the concept of blameworthiness is conceptually tied to emotional reactions of blame.

    Note that in fact, I think that (B/P) is only a rough statement. If we blame or praise someone, it is because of what that person has done, and because of the fact that what has been done reflects badly on her, something which in my view comes from the fact that she is responsible for what she has done. In any case, what I recently suggested in a reply to Tori McGeer (which I hope will be published next year – fingers crossed) here is what seems true:

    (B/P-plus) S is blameworthy/praiseworthy for having done x if and only if affective blame/praise is appropriate towards S given that x reflects badly/well on S.

  6. David Shoemaker says:

    Thanks, Christine. I agree that blame is too capacious a notion to be captured by some or another unified theory, but that when it does have a constitutive emotional component, *that* can be captured by a (neo-)sentimentalist theory (one I would further insist is response-dependent). Or maybe this isn’t quite what you mean, given that you say that “the concept of blameworthiness is conceptually tied to emotional reactions….” I’d like to include Scanlon’s non-emotional examples of blame under the rubric too (quietly unfriending you on Facebook, say, or withdrawing your normally friendly “Hello!”).

    I’m assuming that “reflecting badly/well on” someone is compatible with lots of agential features on which the event might reflect: character, judgment, regard? I am worried, though, that that account might be *too* inclusive, as one’s family, or one’s facial blemishes, might reflect poorly on one as well (that’s what many cases of shame are all about).

  7. Christine Tappolet says:

    Rigth, we agree on this: I also take the concepts of blameworthiness and praiseworthiness which is involved in the (B/P) bi-conditional to be response-dependent.

    To your second point: I quite agree that more needs to be said here. In the book, I introduce the notion of reflecting badly or well in order to account for the indirect relation, which holds between the concept of responsibility and the emotional responses. What I suggest is that it is insofar as your action reflects badly or well on you, something which is true because you are responsible for that action, that negative or positive emotional reactions are appropriate. More precisely, what I call the mediation thesis (MT), because the link between responsibility and emotions is mediated by values:

    (MT) Positive/negative reactive attitudes towards an agent, S, given x are
    appropriate because a) S is responsible for x, b) x has a positive/
    negative normative status, and given a) and b), c) x reflects well/
    badly on S.

    The major difference with a neo-strawsonian account is that (MT) does not aim at explaining what responsibility is. I let you guys, who work on responsibility, tell me what account I can plug into the story! Any such account will do, as long as it is not one that says that you’re responsible for x just if reactive attitudes are appropriate!

  8. Heath White says:

    I have only just read the review and this thread, but a point jumped out at me, prompted by the discussion of temporality:

    The reason you cannot visually perceive the same landscape for years on end is that pretty soon you will fall asleep. Yet we say people are angry for years on end, and they sleep during that time. This seems to indicate an important difference between perception and emotion, namely that perceptions are necessarily occurrent while emotions are often dispositional. (Like other mental states, e.g. belief.) The dispositional character of an emotion seems to explain some other features of it too that Benjamin notes: that we can control, give way to, and suppress emotions. Also, perhaps, that emotions do not exist for fractions of a second.

    What would be lost (here, reading the whole book would be useful, of course) if, instead of saying emotions were perceptions of value, we substituted some other cognitive state: beliefs, say, or inclinations to believe? One might allow that these could have an experience of value as a trigger or species, in something like the way that looking at a squirrel ordinarily also involves believing there is a squirrel in front of you.

  9. Christine Tappolet says:

    Thanks, Heath, for your post, and sorry to be a bit slow with my reply. (It’s Thanksgiving here in Canada!)

    As it is common in the philosophy of emotions, I distinguish between episodes of emotions (or “occurrent emotions”), such as the fear at a dog I experienced the other day, and emotional dispositions, such as the disposition to feel fear when I encounter dogs. Now, I agree that if occurrent emotions were dispositional states, it would become difficult to hold that they are perceptual experiences. And I agree that occurrent emotions can last for months or years (and not only minutes and hours as many emotions theorist hold). So, yes, occurrent emotions can last while you are asleep. However, this does not entail that emotions are dispositional. The main point here is that non-dispositional states allow for interruptions. Migraines, for instance, can last for several days, even if you manage to get some sleep every now and then.

    You ask what would be lost if instead of holding that emotions are non-sensory perceptual experiences, one would claim that they are beliefs or inclinations to believe. The answer depends on what you take beliefs, etc. to involve. If you take beliefs to involve conceptual contents, for instance, this makes for an important difference with the story I want to spell out. In the same way, if beliefs don’t have phenomenological properties, there is an important difference with the perceptual account of emotions.

    Also, you suggest that emotions could depend on value experience. Note that this is a view that has been defended by Max Scheler and more recently by Kevin Mulligan. The problem, in my view, is that there seems to be little reason to postulate such independently existing experiences of values.

  10. Heath White says:

    Thanks, Christine, that’s helpful.

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