Artistic expression

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M020-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 21, 2021, from

1. The expression of emotion

Thoughts and attitudes can be expressed. My concern here, though, is with artistic expressions of emotions, feelings and moods. I shall consider what and whose emotions are communicated in art, and the nature of expressiveness in art works.

Sometimes a person’s expressions are distinguished from their dispassionate reports of their emotions (because the emotion is not directly present in the utterance). Also, expressions might be separated from uncontrolled ventings of emotions, these latter being regarded as symptoms, like the spots of measles, that betray or symptomize the condition without expressing it. My own approach is more liberal. I count as an expression any behaviour or display that communicates the agent’s emotion, feeling or mood. Such instances of behaviour might be unintended and unthinking, or deliberate and self-conscious. (Indeed, their expressive character might depend on their being the one rather than the other. If my weeping is deliberate and controlled, this suggests pretence rather than expression; if my behaviour is unintended, then it cannot involve the use of social conventions for expression, even if it seems to match these.)

Typically, emotions depend on causal circumstances, take intentional objects and involve beliefs and desires (or make-beliefs and make-desires) concerning that object. For example, I hope for peace at a time of conflict because a treaty has been signed and because I believe treaties lead to the cessation of hostilities, which is what I desire. A person’s emotion might be apparent to another who possesses knowledge of any suitable combination of these elements.

In some cases, a person’s nonverbal actions alone will indicate that they feel an emotion. In fewer cases – those in which an emotion has an unambiguous mode of nonverbal expression – actions alone might indicate that a particular emotion is experienced. (Perhaps only the broadest categories for happiness and sadness have patterns of behavioural expression sufficiently distinctive for this to be the case; cognitively complex emotions, such as hope or jealousy, have many behavioural expressions none of which is distinctive.) More often, behaviour expresses the agent’s emotions only where the wider context is known.

There are further possibilities for the communication of emotion: one can learn of a person’s emotions from true descriptions of them given by knowledgable third parties, or from their own sincere reports. If emotions can be individuated solely by their sensational character and the dynamic structure of their phenomenology, one’s knowledge of the detail of a person’s ‘internal’ experience could communicate their emotions. Finally, note that the expression of emotion has a social, arbitrarily conventional dimension. In some cultures, for instance, the wearing of black clothes and veils is an expression of grief or respect for the dead. The relevant conventions must be followed deliberately and sincerely if the resulting actions are to express an emotion the person feels.

Citing this article:
Davies, Stephen. The expression of emotion. Artistic expression, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M020-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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