What do we think when we think of feeling?


Visual by Shreya Sharma

What does it mean to feel an emotion?


The James-Lange theory, one of the earliest theories of emotion, provides us with a conception many contend to be primitive. Developed by William James and Carl Lange, it argues that a stimulant instigates a physiological response within the perceiver which then produces an emotion. William James famously defines emotion as “Our feeling of [bodily changes] as they occur...” Since its formulation, numerous theories on emotion have been propounded,such as Cannon-Bard, Schachter-Singer, Cognitive Appraisal, and Facial Feedback.


Highlighting the marginal treatment of feelings in the James-Lange theory, philosophers such as Peter Goldie argue against such an omission from major cognitive theories on emotion. Misconceptions regarding the nature of feeling is a major cause, for instance, the notion that feelings have no role to play in our understanding of the world. Goldie terms this peripheral positioning of feeling as the ‘add-on’ view and states that it is the intentionality of our mind which would allow emotional feelings to be included in a theory. Goldie defines intentionality as “the mind’s capability of being directed onto things in the world…the feeling is directed toward an object, one’s body, as being a certain way or as undergoing certain changes”.


A feeling, thus, is either intentionally directed information of an emotion one is experiencing (introspective knowledge) or intentionally directed information about the world (extraspective knowledge).


Can feelings then have important epistemic value? Goldie doesn’t agree. Feelings can hint to the presence of something that might be in our environment but do not provide us with the exact answer as to what it is. You might feel that someone or something is lying next to you in bed at night when you were supposed to be home alone but this feeling does not tell us whether the ‘something’ is a person or a ghost. The belief in the existence of an object due to an ‘epistemic route’ would thus be an invalid claim.


Epistemic route here refers to inference from a bodily feeling to the (introspective) belief that one is experiencing an emotion and further inferring an extraspective belief that there is something in the environment having the emotion-proper property. For instance, the feeling of fear which arises due to our belief that there is someone else in our house bestows upon that unidentified "someone" a property of being afraid from it.

Feelings help make sense of the world by bestowing emotion-proper properties to relevant objects. But this projection of emotion-proper properties raises the question whether they are entirely private or shared by others? How do we make sense of emotions other than ours? In his article “Emotion, Feeling and Knowledge of the world”, Goldie draws a distinction between phenomenal and theoretical concepts. The former is an understanding of, say, what it is like to be happy, while the latter provides an impersonal scientific account of the emotion ‘happy’. One can have the whole explanation in the latter sense yet lack a conceptual understanding of what it is like to be happy. Consequently, for others to share our understanding, a shared set of concepts must be presumed between the speakers. These concepts allow one to recognize body language and relevant emotions. A shared understanding is possible by simply asking another, "What are you thinking?".

The intentional nature of certain feelings, being an intrinsic part of emotions, also provide us with a holistic picture of our surroundings. This can be explained through Robert C. Solomon’s key phrase, “emotions are judgments”, which perceives them as being ‘about the world’. The central trait here is their engagement with the world one lives in. Solomon’s notion of engagement differs from the traditional usage for it takes emotions to be more than being ‘intentional’. Emotions, for him, are also ‘subjective engagements’, which makes them evaluations of our surroundings.


This is inclusive of general arousal of the body and action-readiness, best explained by Solomon in his example, “Anger involves taking up a defensive posture, and some of the distinctive sensations of getting angry have to do with the tensing of the various muscles of the body and bodily preparation for physical aggression.” Thus emotions are also a physiological experience, of which feelings manifested in the form of judgments are an important constituent.

Having primarily talked on feelings, specifically emotional, the discourse has expanded to include other kinds as well. One such example would be Matthew Ratcliffe who writes on existential feeling. These are defined as being “central to the structure of all human experience”. Instead of being intentional they are more appropriately described as ‘background orientations’. Ratcliffe’s work proposes the role of existential feelings in the realm of psychiatry. With an upcoming focus on emotion, affect and feeling in philosophical and psychological discourse, their impact in areas of therapies has also been observed. Feelings, similar to cognitive theories, are becoming crucial in much of our understanding of emotion.


Katyayani Singh is a philosophy postgraduate student from Delhi University. Her areas of interest are phenomenology, cognitive science and psychology.



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