What Are Emotions?


I discuss the position of Goldie on emotions.

He works with five overarching themes to form a framework within which to consider emotions. These are as follows.

There are personal perspectives/points of view.

Rationality is essentially normative.

It is a mistake to over-intellectualise emotions.

Emotions are intentional; understand ‘feelings’ to understand intentionality.

The narrative structure of a life is what makes sense of emotions.

What are emotions?

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Emotions are states on Goldie’s view. He has a somewhat strange argument for this (p. 13).

“when we use a verb to speak of a state, this verb is not used in the continuous tenses, we do not say that he was being jealous or that she is being in love”

The former (1.9m hits) and maybe latter look like false empirical claims to me.

Moreover, does Goldie need this for his account?

We might also raise the point here that Goldie is here committed to ordinary language philosophy being productive. That is not of course a fatal problem, but it is certainly a theoretical cost.

Goldie introduces phenomenological arguments (from Tolstoy) to show that:

“an emotion [. . . ] is typically complex, episodic, dynamic and structured” (p. 16)

Intentionality of emotions

We need a distinction between the Crane p.98 sense of intentionality viz. “directedness towards an object” rather than “aboutness or ofness” (p. 16).

Consider the following example. One might be proud of one’s house. The intentional object here is “my-house-which-belongs-to-me” (p. 17); not the self (Hume) or indeed merely the house.

However, intentionality questions abound here. There is a Frege point on what the account would say about non-existent intentional objects. Wittgenstein would have issues as well; these are sidestepped by Goldie. Again there are theoretical costs here at best and unaddressed objections at worst.

For Goldie, moods are distinct from emotions but only by degree. That is because moods may also have an object to some extent. So now we are interested in the motivation for this view. Goldie does not really supply a motivation.

Goldie’s argument for the distinction relies on fear. He suggests that your fear on waking “may have no very specific object” (p. 18). It could be the darkness, the curtains, the strange noise that woke you.

However, that could also be three emotions. Or three causes of three instantiations of the same type of emotion. Or three causes of the same emotion.

Goldie criticises the literature in which intentionality of emotion is cashed out in terms of belief/desire psychology. He argues that this misses out the essential. That is, it misses out “what it is like.” Here he is on stronger ground. Any account on emotions which omits what it feels like to have them is surely sorely lacking backing in lived experience. (That points a way forward for Goldie to address the ordinary language point raised above.)

Feeling Towards

In response to this alleged omission, Goldie introduces the key concept of feeling towards. Feeling towards is “thinking of with feeling” (p. 19). Each sort of emotion has a “broadly characteristic qualitative nature” (p. 19) but Goldie declines to specify it, giving the Louis Armstrong response

“If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.”

Goldie is against over-intellectualisation. Cf. Scruton: “having a belief that an object is dangerous is a necessary condition of being afraid” (p.22). That line seems to fail in the face of spiders and Count Dracula.

Goldie suggests that some emotions are factive. If you are angry, you must be angry that p” (p. 22) and p must be true. So you can’t be angry that James stole your shoelaces unless he did.

Really? Is Goldie being fair here? Surely you can be angry with James because you think he stole your shoelaces. If he did not, you are still angry with him. Is it sufficiently different that you are angry with James because you think he stole your shoelaces and he did and that you are angry with James because you think he stole your shoelaces but he did not?

For Goldie, people can be the object of emotions and not propositions. (Q: Is “some” is doing a lot of work for Goldie here?)

Educating the emotions

Is this possible? Or do we just have emotions? Maybe we can modulate them, but is that the same thing as educating them? (cf. Aristotle).

Goldie wants this proposition in order to produce a recognition/response tie. If you recognise an object as being one of the class of dangerous objects, you ought to respond to the object with fear.

This ought is “both normative and predictive” (p. 31).

The argument for this is as follows:

the “process of teaching a child how to identify things which are dangerous is typically one and the same process as teaching that child when fear is merited [. . . ] ‘Don’t go near that fire, it’ll burn you’ ” (p. 30)


The “Typicality” of processes may not be enough. (Because of various Wittgenstein “slab: problems. Which aspect of the situation are we saying is dangerous to the child? The heat of the fire or its colour? This is obvious to adults – but that does not explain how they came by the information.

Teaching children may not relate to the genesis of adult emotions.
Indeed it may be a simplification/falsification for pedagogical purposes.

James Bond handles dangerous situations quite well not just without fear, but because of that lack. This splits the normative from the predictive.

“Recognition and response will feature as part of the narrative structure of the person’s emotional experience” (p. 31)

So this is a major plank of Goldie’s account and it needs more support

What are Emotions: syllogisms?

Goldie introduces the concept of a practical/emotional syllogism. He complains again about the overly intellectual nature of seeing the emotions as part of a belief/desire account of action. Davidson is accused of espousing ‘propositional emotions’ which does indeed sound odd.

Consider the explanation of why Jane hit Jim based on the following. Jane believes that Jim insulted her. She desires to get her own back on Jim. She believes that hitting Jim will satisfy that desire.

The problem here is that:

“the explanations proffered are perfectly consistent with Jane feeling no emotion at all” (p. 39)

One question here is whether this is epiphenomenalism about the qualia of emotions? Cf. Chalmers’s complaint about ignoring the ‘hard problem.’

This leads on to discussion of add-on theories. These hold that action done out of emotion is just the feelingless belief/desires/actions with some feeling added-on. Goldie thinks this is implausible because

“when an action is done out of an emotion, the whole action, and the experience of the action, is fundamentally different” (p. 40)

But how would we know whether this was true or not? Doesn’t this beg the question against the add-on theorist? The experience could be fundamentally different without the underlying action changing.

This is very important to Goldie’s account; again needs explanation of the ‘feeling towards’ idea. This is a weak point of the account.

“Feeling towards

This is covered more in Ch. 3 but we need it here.

“I am afraid of the snake because its bite is poisonous and poison would harm me” (p. 45)


Goldie rightly says this looks implausible. He doesn’t say that people are afraid also of non-poisonous snakes but this is the case. He does say that what

“really comes first is the emotional response itself – the feeling of fear towards the snake – and not the thought that its bite is poisonous and the thought that poison would harm me” (p. 45)


So, emotions are more ‘primitive’ than thoughts. This seems right, but how are we cashing out “primitive?”

Certainly you could get both the emotion and the thought simultaneously. That looks like a problem.

Taylor can construct a response which says that some people are afraid of all snakes. That would be because in the evolutionary environment, some snakes were poisonous. It was adaptive to be afraid of all of them because false positives are fine and false negatives deadly. Is the fear today somehow directed on that original snake?

Is the thought tacit? (if that makes any sense). To say that the thought stems from a tacit belief is perhaps better.

“emotional feeling towards an object (typically towards the object of the emotion) is a feeling towards that thing as being a particular way or of having certain properties” (p. 58)


Some Issues with “Feeling Towards” as an Account of What Are Emotions

There are Frege issues again here. What do we say about sense and reference in emotional intentionality?

What ways and properties are involved here? If I am happy about Santa, does that mean that Santa has a happy-making property? Presumably not, because that then risks being a virtus dormitiva non-explanation. But if not that then what?

Stocker’s example cited with approval:

“before I fell on the ice I recognised its dangers, but then I had ‘only an intellectual appreciation of the very same dangers [. . . ] Then I only saw the dangers, now I also feel them’ ” (p. 59)

But this look precisely like an add-on theory. It’s the ‘very same’ dangers after all.

Finally, note that Goldie declares himself to be a Jane Heal-type simulation theorist (p. 177), so maybe he needs to be careful about rules. I am myself a strong proponent of simulation theory but that requires that one is really careful to avoid collapsing into theory theory.

See Also:

#Proust: An Argument For #SimulationTheory

Persons Do Not Have Identity

Theories Of Reference: Evans On Russell

Can Inductive Reasoning Be Justified Without Using Induction?