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Emotions, nature of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-V012-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 15, 2024, from

Article Summary

What is an emotion? This basic question was posed by William James in 1884, and it is still the focus for a number of important arguments in the philosophy of mind and ethics. It is, on the face of it, a quest for a definition, but it is also a larger quest for a way of thinking about ourselves: how should we think about emotions – as intrusive or as essential to our rationality, as dangerous or as indispensable to our humanity, as excuses for irresponsibility or, perhaps, as themselves our responsibilities? Where do emotions fit into the various categories and ‘faculties’ of the mind, and which of the evident aspects of emotion – the various sensory, physiological, behavioural, cognitive and social phenomena that typically correspond with an emotion – should we take to be essential? Which are mere accompaniments or consequences?

Many philosophers hold onto the traditional view that an emotion, as a distinctively mental phenomenon, has an essential ’subjective’ or ’introspective’ aspect, although what this means (and how accessible or articulate an emotion must be) is itself a subject of considerable dispute. Many philosophers have become sceptical about such subjectivism, however, and like their associates in the social sciences have turned the analysis of emotions to more public, observable criteria – to the behaviour that ’expresses’ emotion, the physiological disturbances that ‘cause’ emotion, the social circumstances and use of emotion language in the ascription of emotions. Nevertheless, the seemingly self-evident truth is that, whatever else it may be, an emotion is first of all a feeling. But what, then, is a ’feeling’? What differentiates emotions from other feelings, such as pains and headaches? And how does one differentiate, identify and distinguish the enormous number of different emotions?

Citing this article:
Solomon, Robert C.. Emotions, nature of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-V012-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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