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Philosophy of Mind

Nonconceptuality and the Emotions

York H. Gunther
Stanford University

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ABSTRACT: I present an argument for the existence of nonconceptual states. A nonconceptual state is an intentional state which does not require the bearer to possess all requisite concepts in order to represent the state. I frame the debate by outlining two constraints that an argument for nonconceptuality should meet. First, successful argument must present a platitude of concepts and illustrate that there are intentional states which both actually violate this platitude (the empirical constraint) and explain behavior independently of conceptual states (the robustness constraint). This ensures that the notion of nonconceptuality established by the argument will have a significant part in the explanatory arsenal of the intentional psychologist. Secondly, I formulate a platitude of concepts based on the intuition that an individual can only legitimately be held responsible for behavior caused by conceptual states. After qualifying the platitude, I argue that emotional states actually violate the platitude and meet the necessary constraints. Finally, I defend my argument against two challenges: one which denies that the empirical constraint has been met and the other which denies that the robustness constraint has been met. I conclude my discussion with some general remarks on the nature of nonconceptual representation.

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Any satisfactory model of the emotions must at once recognize their place within intentional psychology and acknowledge their uniqueness as mental causes. In the first half of the century, the theories of James and Freud had considerable influence on reinforcing the idea that emotions are non-intentional. (1) The uniqueness of emotions was therefore acknowledged at the price of denying them content, of denying them a place within intentional psychology proper. More recently, cognitive reductionists like Joel Marks and Martha Nussbaum recognize that emotions are intentional but, by reducing them to beliefs, judgements, desires, etc., fail to capture their distinctiveness as mental causes. (2) In other words, their place within intentional psychology is acknowledged at the price of denying them their uniqueness.

Anti-reductionists, as I see them, are committed to the idea that emotions are both intentional and unique. This uniqueness, however, is rarely, if ever, traced to emotional content itself. An anti-reductionist is more likely to single out, e.g., a phenomenological, evaluative or perspectival feature which, as purportedly distinctive of emotional experience, precludes the reduction of emotions to, say, cognitive states. (3) My intention is not to assess these efforts. Rather, I want to offer an argument which shows that emotions are unique in virtue of the kind of intentionality they have.

Here's how I intend to proceed. I begin by outlining two features of emotional contents which distinguishes them from the contents of higher cognitive states. Emotional contents, I claim, are unique because they resist inferential structure and generally fail to take binary connectives. Next, I argue that this uniqueness can be explained by their conflation of the content/force distinction. Unlike the contents of beliefs and judgements which can be distinguished from the attitudes which bear them, in the case of emotions this distinction is misapplied. Emotional contents, I contend, are force-dependent, which is to say that they cannot be specified independently of the attitude (state) bearing them. After showing how this explains their resistance to inferential structure and binary connectives, I consider two consequences of the view. First, emotional content cannot be integrated into orthodox theories of meaning (content), whether these theories are based on truth or assertability conditions. And second, as force-dependent, they present us with an intriguing paradigm for nonconceptual content.

1. The Uniqueness of Emotion

The uniqueness of emotional content can be illustrated in two ways: by its resistance to inferential structure and its failure to take binary connectives. To recognize this, consider an utterance containing an expletive which expresses emotion:

Gertrude has skipped class again, damn her!

It is reasonable to suppose that the utterance's sincere and appropriate use-its correctness conditions, if you will-requires that the speaker is irritated, or perhaps frustrated or angry, when she utters it. The speaker may, of course, be play acting, trying to deceive her listener or not fully in command of English. But barring such cases, as a general rule the point of an utterance containing an expletive is the expression of emotion.

What is peculiar about emotional content is its resistence to negation. (4) For example, if an interlocutor sincerely asks William, 'Has Gertrude skipped class again, damn her?!' and William replies, 'No, she has not skipped class again, damn her!', one of several things may be going on. William may have grown irritated at repeatedly being asked the same question. He may be sarcastically quoting his interlocutor's own words, perhaps poking fun at his inappropriate expression of anger. What is implausible, however, is that William's reply constitutes a negative answer to his interlocutor's question. In fact, the utterance does not even seem to be addressing the question. Matters would, of course, be different if William's interlocutor had asked him a question which didn't express emotion. In such a case, a sincere negative response could constitute a negative answer.

Something similar is true of conditionals. To utter, 'If Gertrude has skipped class again, damn her, she'll get an F in the course!' requires that the speaker is already irritated, suggesting that the utterance's emotional content does not conform to the conditional. If it did, then since the expletive appears only in the antecedent, the speaker would be able to entertain rather than experience the emotional content at the time of the utterance. Had the utterance represented a fact independently of emotion, then the content of the basic assertion could be entertained in a way consistent with conditionals. For example, in the conditional assertion, 'If William is Gertrude's teacher, Gertrude will get an A in the course,' the speaker need not believe the content William is Gertrude's teacher. The antecedent in this case is being entertained rather than asserted.

Of course, this is not to say that every utterance containing an expletive has the sole purpose of expressing emotional content. In fact, it is noteworthy that whenever utterances containing expletives are logically complex, they take on another illocutionary point besides the expression of emotion. This is apparent from the cases just discussed:

No, she has not skipped class again, damn her!
If Gertrude has skipped class again, damn her, she'll get an F in the course!

Both utterances are performing a double duty, as expressive and as directive-utterances whose illocutionary point it is to get the hearer to do something. (5) In the first case, William's negative answer is a way of getting the speaker to stop asking the same question, whether because his interlocutor is annoyingly repeating it or because he finds his interlocutor's expression of anger inappropriate. In the second case, the conditional is plausibly a stern reminder or a threat, perhaps serving as an indirect way of bringing Gertrude (and those in earshot) into compliance with a strict attendance policy. However, in both cases the emotional content being expressed is logically basic: in the first it is an irritation about repeatedly being asked the same question and in the second it is an anger at Gertrude's having skipped class again.

However, when an utterance's sole point is the expression of emotional content, it generally does not take binary connectives, which brings me to the second way in which emotions are unique. Here we need only consider utterances whose role it is to thank, congratulate, apologize, condole, deplore, and welcome. Like utterances containing expletives, these speech acts are correctly (sincerely, appropriately) used only when the speaker experiences the corresponding emotion at the time of her utterance. (6) For example, the utterances

I thank you for letting me take your class
I apologize for coming late

cannot be made disjunctive or conditional. (7) One cannot thank someone for letting you take their class or giving you a passing grade. I cannot apologize that if I come late, then I will make a quiet entrance. Of course, this doesn't mean that I cannot make a conditional or disjunctive utterance about the act of thanking or apologizing. For example,

You will let her enroll in your class or you'll be sorry!
If I'm late, I will apologize

But, of course, these utterances are not expressives. The first is a command or threat and the second a conditional assertion whose consequent specifies a possible course of action, viz. an apology. My claim is only that emotional content, i.e. the content that expressives bear, do not take binary connectives.

2. Violating Force Independence

Now the question is, what might explain the uniqueness of emotional content? I want to suggest that a violation of the content/force distinction does. (8) Let's begin by clarifying what such a distinction involves.

A contrast between content and force can be made in both language and thought. In language it is tantamount to distinguishing between what a sentence or utterance says and the way it's said. When distinguished from its force, the same content can be expressed by a person in a variety of ways, whether through mood or use. It can be expressed by sentences with different moods, e.g. imperatives, interrogatives and indicatives, or it can be used by utterances in different ways, e.g. to issue orders, to ask questions and to make assertions. Similarly, when the content of an intentional state is distinguished from its force, which in the case of thought refers to the attitudes which bear content, the same content can be shared by beliefs, doubts, hopes, wishes, intentions, etc. Hence, just as I may assert that Gertrude Stein studied psychology at Radcliffe and you may ask me whether she studied psychology there, I may believe that she did and you may doubt it.

However, if content and force were conflated, if the distinction between them was not acknowledged, a difference in force would constitute a difference in content, whether locally or globally, i.e. for some or all of language and/or thought. Let us call the view that considers a difference in force to constitute a difference in content the "fusion view." (9) For example, on the fusion view the contents of the utterances "Gertrude studied psychology." and "Gertrude studied psychology?" differ since the former is an assertion and the latter a question. As a rough, first approximation, a fusion theorist might want to specify the contents as follows: the assertion that Gertrude studied psychology and the question that (whether) Gertrude studied psychology. Mutatis mutandis for sentences with different moods and intentional states with different attitudes.

To acknowledge that content and force are distinct is to regard the moods of sentences, the uses of utterances and the attitudes of intentional states as operations on or relations to their contents. By contrast, on the fusion view, mood, use and attitude are considered part of a content (at least for a portion of language and/or thought). Now granted, to say that force is part of content is susceptible to different interpretations. For example, in the "force-content" just mentioned, viz. the assertion that Gertrude studied psychology, assertion may be regarded as one more component of a complex content, on par with atomic contents such as Gertrude, studied and psychology. If this were the case, the force-content in question would share some of its component parts with the force-content, the question whether (that) Gertrude studied psychology, viz. Gertrude, studied and psychology. But the fusion view is susceptible to a stronger interpretation. Rather than being an additional component of a content, it might be regarded by a fusion theorist as inextricably connected to content. A force-content, it may be claimed, does not have parts-it is atomic rather than compositional. Thus, strictly speaking, a distinction between mood (use, attitude) and intentional content cannot be made. (10)

It is from this stronger interpretation of the fusion view-the only one I'll consider here-that important implications follow. For on the strong interpretation the inferential structure of language and thought is itself obscured. Inferential reasoning, e.g., presupposes that sentences, utterances and intentional states share constituent contents. If someone believes that if Gertrude studied psychology, then William was her teacher and she comes to believe that Gertrude studied psychology, then (ceteris paribus) she will believe that William was Gertrude's teacher. Her inference is, of course, valid since it conforms to the schema of modus ponens: F->G, F, therefore G. And of course to conform to the schema, the beliefs must share the same intentional contents, viz. F and G. In failing to share these contents, modus ponens would have no way of sinking its formal teeth into the intentional states (sentences, utterances) and therefore one would be unable to draw the conclusion that William was Gertrude's teacher.

This is what occurs with force-contents (on the strong interpretation). Although they are representational, inferential rules will generally be unable to operate on them because they are individuated too finely. Consider a simple case of conjunction. From the force-content, my belief-that-Gertrude-studied-psychology (B1) and my belief-that-William-was-her-teacher (B2), I might be able to infer a second-order conjunctive belief: thebelief-that- (I-believe-that-Gertrude-studied-psychology-and-I-believe-that-William-was-her-teacher) (B3), a belief about two of my beliefs (force-contents). But I will not be able to form a first-order belief about Gertrude and William, the belief-that-Gertrude-studied-psychology-and-William-was-her-teacher (B4) since in point of fact this force-content is not the conjunction of B1 and B2. Consequently, on the fusion view, B4 is treated as a logically basic content, a force-content which cannot be divided into conjuncts.

Just as force-contents cannot be built up in any standard way, they also cannot be used in inferential reasoning as we might suppose. For if I have the belief-that-if-Gertrude-studied-psychology-then-William-was-her-teacher (B5) and I later come to have the belief-that-Gertrude-studied-psychology (B6), I would be unable to infer the belief-that-William-was-Gertrude's-teacher (B7) Why? Again, the problem concerns the fusion view's failure to individuate (what we would otherwise individuate as) logically complex contents. On the fusion view, B5 is individuated as a distinctive and logically basic force-content, not as a conditional. And consequently, the aforementioned argument would be schematized as F, G, and therefore H, which evidently obscures its inferential structure. Hence, even if I happened to think B7, it wouldn't follow from my other beliefs by modus ponens. And in fact, most other inferences would also be obscured given the fusion view's failure to reveal the logical form of complex contents.

Of course, it would be a mistake to suppose that the contents of beliefs actually violate the content/force distinction. After all, they don't resist inferential structure and they do take binary connectives. However, in the case of the emotions the matter is quite different. As I've tried showing, their contents in fact do resist inferential structure and don't take binary connectives, and it is in virtue of these features that emotions can be distinguished from higher cognitive states like beliefs. In fact, this observation about the emotions helps to ground our intuitions that emotions are less than rational. And it is this, I claim, which is ultimately explained by the kind of contents they have. (11)

3. What Uniqueness Brings

If the conclusion that emotions conflate content and force is correct, at least two noteworthy consequences follow: emotional content cannot be integrated into orthodox theories of meaning and an alternative paradigm of nonconceptual content is exemplified by the emotions. Let me briefly review each in turn.

First, emotional contents seem to require a wholly independent theory. Most philosophers of mind and language attempt to provide theories of meaning (content) which, by focusing on assertion and judgement (or belief), are based on truth or assertability. However, any such theory must confront the following question: How can a theory of content be based on truth or assertability conditions when most sentences, utterances and mental states with content don't have truth or assertability conditions. Commands and wishes, e.g., have compliance and fulfillment conditions, while hopes and desires have realization and satisfaction conditions. Without resolving this difficulty, or without assuming it could be resolved, one would be compelled to abandon the prospect of a comprehensive theory of content or to deny that most sentences and mental states have content. In contemporary philosophy of mind and language, neither option is very welcome.

The way to a solution is to recognize that the kind of correctness conditions a sentence, utterance or intentional state has is linked to its force. And as such, a comprehensive theory of content must presuppose a theory of force which enables one to map sentences, utterances or intentional states that don't have truth or assertability conditions, e.g., commands, wishes, hopes and desires, onto ones that do, e.g. assertions and judgements. (12) However, without sharply distinguishing content from force, such mappings would be illegitimate since a difference in force would constitute a difference in content, suggesting that sentences, utterances and intentional states with one kind of force could not be mapped onto ones with a different kind of force. Hence, without the distinction, we would be compelled to formulate a different theory for each kind of force-content. In addition to a truth or assertability conditional theory which we'd use to specify the contents of assertions and judgements, we would require a compliance conditional theory for the contents of commands, a fulfillment conditional theory for the contents of wishes, a realization conditional theory for the contents of hopes, etc. A sharp distinction between content and force seems to be the only way of acknowledging that non-assertions and non-judgements have content and of ensuring that a comprehensive theory of content based on truth or assertability conditions can specify their contents.

However, if emotional contents violate the content/force distinction, it follows that they cannot be integrated into an orthodox theory which is based on truth or assertability. (13) Since emotions have propriety conditions, it would be illegitimate to map an emotional content onto, say, an assertoric content. Hence, as a result of their conflation of content and force, the very idea of a comprehensive theory of meaning is put into jeopardy. In fact, it becomes apparent that emotional contents require their own theory based on propriety. (14)

The second consequent concerns nonconceptual content. Nonconceptualists attempt to show that concepts alone are inadequate to account for various psychological phenomena such as animal cognition, cognitive development, visual illusions, perceptual fineness of grain, etc. To explain such phenomena, individuals are ascribed intentional contents which, in one way or another, don't require them to possess any of the concepts which may be used to specify these contents. I must admit that I find the prospect of a different kind of intentionality intriguing, even if the assumptions guiding most contemporary nonconceptualists are not. The problem is that nonconceptualists all too often seek out contents (e.g. of perceptions) through which concepts can be grounded or to which they can be reduced, i.e. nonconceptual content is taken to be epistemologically and/or ontologically more primitive than conceptual content. The very idea of a different kind of intentionality therefore rests on the assumption that such a grounding or reduction of concepts is needed or, for that matter, possible. And given the contentiousness of the assumptions, it's no wonder that nonconceptual content is looked upon with suspicion. (15)

What is distinctive about the model I've presented is that it doesn't rest on controversial epistemological and/or ontological assumptions. Emotional content, as different in kind, is arguably a form of nonconceptual content. Its resistance to inferential structure and its failure to take binary connectives suggests that it is in some sense less than rational, or arational, a characterization generally associated with nonconceptual thought. However, there is nothing about a force-content which suggests that it is epistemologically or ontologically more primitive than conceptual (i.e. force-independent) content. On the contrary, as the experience of emotions suggests, it may be that force-contents presuppose the possession of conceptual contents. The experiences of many emotions, after all, require an individual to possess higher cognitive states like beliefs and judgements. William wouldn't be angry that Gertrude skipped class if he didn't believe that she skipped class. In fact, any model of nonconceptuality which is able to accommodate the idea that nonconceptual content can depend on concepts seems well positioned to explain why aesthetic experiences are often regarded as nonconceptual even though they depend on (but cannot be reduced to) conceptual thought.

Admittedly, these ideas require further elaboration. But if indeed the uniqueness of the emotions can be accounted for, not just by phenomenology, evaluation or perspective, but by intentionality itself, then, as unique in kind, this distinctive form of content may well deserve to be called 'nonconceptual.'

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(1) Emotions, according to James, are felt physiological processes (1890, 449) and, according to Freud, they are necessarily (and perhaps sufficiently) feelings (1915, 179).

(2) Marks, e.g., claims that an emotion is a combination of belief and desire (1982) and Nussbaum, in her interpretation of Chrysippus' theory of the emotions, tentatively endorses the view that emotions are evaluative judgements.(1994, chapter 10)

(3) See Perkins 1962 for the phenomenological view, Helm 1994 for the evaluative view, and de Sousa 1987 for the perspectival view.

(4) A similar observation is made by Bernard Williams about language (1973, 210-212) and by de Sousa about the purported perspectival character of emotions (1987, 156-158).

(5) See Searle 1979, 13-14.

(6) In claiming that the illocutionary point of expressives "is to express the psychological state specified in the sincerity condition" (1979, 15), Searle seems to overlook the fact that expressives exclusively express emotion. Although not exhaustive, his own list of expressives verbs helps to illustrate this: to thank expresses gratitude, to congratulate expresses pleasure in sympathy with, to apologize expresses regret, to condole expresses sympathy in sorrow with, to deplore expresses grief for or disgust at, and to welcome expresses gladness or a pleasure in receiving.

(7) The case of conjunction is more complicated and requires an independent treatment.

(8) For the present I won't review alternative explanations.

(9) See Fodor 1978, 326f. As Fodor notes, the fusion view has been contemplated (though not endorsed) by Dennett (1969) and Goodman (1976). As I suggest in footnote 15, a local version of it (the view that commands and wishes conflate content and force) seems to have been supported by Frege.

(10) In Fodor 1978, it is the stronger interpretation which is considered.

(11) There may be other intentional contents which conflate content and force as well, e.g. those of low-level motivational states like desires, longings and lustings. See Gunther 1999, chapter 4.

(12) Mark Platts refers to these mappings as the "monistic transformational component" of a theory of force.(Platts 1980, 3)

(13) As an historical aside, it's worth noting that Frege believed that the content/force distinction applied to assertions and questions (see, e.g., Frege Begriffschrift, I2 and Frege 1918, 329), but suggested that it didn't apply to commands and wishes, even though he acknowledged that they too have meaning.(Frege 1918, 329) This led him to place commands and wishes on the same level as thoughts (i.e. the contents of assertions and questions), regarding them as different kinds of meanings due to their apparent conflation of content and force. (See Dummett 1991, 114f.) While Frege's claim about commands and wishes may be unfounded, we might wonder whether he wasn't right in a more general sense, that is, right to suppose that there are intentional contents which are force-dependent. In other words, where most philosophers of language and mind willingly apply the distinction to all sentences, utterances and intentional states, Frege seems to have recognized the possibility that it may only apply to some.

(14) Elsewhere I argue that a response-dependent framework is especially well-suited for specifying emotional content. See, e.g., Gunther 1999, chapter 4.

(15) For example, see McDowell 1994 and Sedivy 1996.


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de Sousa, R. 1987. The Rationality of Emotion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Frege, G. 1918. Thought. Reprinted in The Frege Reader.

Freud, S. 1915. The Unconscious. Reprinted in Metapsychology. London: Penguin Books, 1984. Goodman, N. 1976. Languages of Art. Cambridge: Hacking Publishers.

Gunther, Y. 1999. Nonconceptual Content: A Critique and Defense. Dissertation, Columbia University.

Helm, B. 1994. The significance of emotions. American Philosophical Quarterly, 31, No. 4.

James, W. 1890. The Principles of Psychology, Vol. II. Dover Publications, 1950.

Lyons, W. 1980. Emotion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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McDowell, J. 1994. Mind and World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Nussbaum, M. 1994. The Therapy of Desire. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Perkins, M. 1962. Emotion and feeling. The Philosophy of Mind, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Platts, M. 1980. Introduction. Reference, Truth and Reality, Platts (ed.). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Searle, J. 1979. Expression and Meaning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sedivy, S. 1996. Must conceptually informed perceptual experience involve non-conceptual content? Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 26, No. 3 (September).

Williams, B. 1973. Morality and the emotions. Problems of the Self. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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