Dr. Robert Cowan
It’s not very often that you can legitimately use work as an excuse to go see a film at the cinema; even rarer when it’s a Disney film. Last weekend I found myself in that unusual position. Disney’s new feature film “Inside Out” is about the emotions, which is also a topic of my research. So what better way to spend a Sunday afternoon than to engage in some philosophical reflection on the film’s treatment of the emotions whilst stuffing my face with popcorn and drinking far too much coke?
Inside Out (which, by the way, is very good) tells the story of an eleven year-old girl, Riley, and the emotional upheaval she undergoes when her family moves to a new city. The film’s novelty is that the story is primarily told from the perspective of Riley’s five emotions – Anger, Fear, Disgust, Joy, and Sadness – each of which are animated as little people inside Riley’s head.
Although it isn’t exactly a primer in neuropsychology or philosophy of mind – humans surely have more than five emotions, and you’ll be relieved to learn that no-one thinks that emotions are little human-like beings – it does touch on some important points about the emotions. In what follows, I’ll discuss two of these: the central place of emotions in our lives, and their rationality. I’ll also identify a tension in our thinking about the rationality of emotions that is implicit in Inside Out, and suggest a way of resolving it.
Firstly, Inside Out highlights the ubiquity of emotions. That is, we have lots of emotions, lots of the time. Riley’s life is dominated by her emotional responses. And that’s not just because of her current turmoil. Pretty much all of her thoughts and memories have some emotional association. I think this is something we can all identify with. Some reflection on your day so far will likely reveal that you’ve undergone some emotional experiences: mild frustration at the bus being late; indignation in response to the news report; or delight at learning there’s a new post on the Suffering Blog. Moreover, emotions are key components of scenarios of great significance and importance for us: a day when you were beaming with pride at some achievement; the joy of learning about the birth of a new family member; or the sadness felt in losing something or someone important to you.
But why are emotions so central in our lives?
The second point worth mentioning, that Inside Out appears to make, is that there is an answer to this question for each of the emotions: each of Riley’s emotions has a practical function. For example, in the opening sequence we are told that the general function of fear is to motivate Riley to avoid dangerous objects and events thus preventing harm, while disgust has the general purpose of getting Riley to avoid potential toxins or poisons. Emotions can get us to respond in beneficial ways to types of objects and events that we are likely to encounter whatever our environment.
It is remarked at the beginning of Inside Out that it is unclear what the general purpose of sadness is supposed to be:
Joy: You met Sadness. She… Well she… I’m not actually sure what she does. And I’ve checked. There’s no place for her to go.
One of the central points of Inside Out, and a lesson that Joy learns the hard way, appears to be that even Sadness has a function. Specifically, a practical function of sadness may be to signal to other people that we are not doing well and need help.
Even if sadness lacked this practical function it might still sometimes be a fitting response to some situations. Indeed, we might say, sadness is fitting when it is a response to a loss, or that fear is unfitting when is a response to something that is harmless, and so on. Inside Out also presents us with this idea. For example, at the end of the film [SPOILER] sadness was the only one of Riley’s emotions that appeared to fit her situation. The fact that Riley had undergone a serious loss – of her childhood home, friends, way of life, etc – made her sadness fitting in a way that, joy, for example, was not.
Many philosophers think that talk of ‘practical function’ and ‘fittingness’ of emotions should be thought of in terms of emotional rationality. Because emotions have practical functions, they are assessable for instrumental rationality, i.e., they can be more or less rational depending on the extent to which they fulfil their function. So, for example, your fear is instrumentally rational if it ends up motivating you to get out of a dangerous scenario. Similarly, saying that emotions can be fitting to their environment is just to say that emotions can be non-instrumentally rational responses to situations. For example, sadness is how you should feel in response to a loss, independently of whether or not this signals to others that you need help. Put another way, certain sorts of situations provide reasons for undergoing specific sorts of emotions.
Talk of ‘emotional rationality’ might seem familiar. We say things like ‘her guilt is completely irrational’ and ‘his fears were justified’. But, this might be too quick. If emotions are supposed to be rational or irrational, this might suggest that they are the sorts of things that we can control or that we do. We thought they might be instrumentally rational because they have a function, but the heart has a function and no-one would say that the heart is rational or irrational. We thought emotions might be non-instrumentally rational because they could be fitting responses, but perceptions might be ‘fitting’ responses, in the sense of being accurate. Even so, if I have an accurate visual perception of a blue ball, for instance, we don’t say that the blue ball gave me a reason to perceive it as blue, or that my experience of blueness is rational. Plausibly, the feature the heart and perception have in common is that they are things that we lack control over, and control is essential for something to be rational or irrational.
But if control is necessary for rationality, then emotional rationality looks like it’s in trouble since it’s common to talk about the emotions as things that we don’t control. We say things like ‘I was overwhelmed by grief’ and ‘he was paralyzed with fear.’ So, there seems to be a tension in our everyday thinking about the emotions. This tension is also implicit in Inside Out: on the one hand Riley’s emotions seem to deliberate and act for reasons, but on the other, Riley also seems to lack control over these emotions. We talk about the emotions as if they are rational, but also as if they are forces beyond our control.
Something must give. It seems that we must either deny that
- Emotions can be rational or irrational.
- Emotions are outside of our control.
- Control is required for something to be rational or irrational.
I think we should deny (2) and (3).
Regarding (2) consider the following. Although we can’t stop ourselves from feeling a certain way once we are in the throes of an emotion, this doesn’t mean that we can’t sometimes deliberately initiate emotional responses. For example, I might intentionally try to get myself into an angry frame of mind prior to some confrontation and it might be rational for me to do so. More generally, people might have a more-or-less limited degree of control over their dispositions to feel emotions in response to certain sorts of stimuli. That’s why there is such a thing as Anger Management. So although we don’t have total control our emotions, we don’t totally lack control either.
To see why we should deny (3), think about beliefs. It is plausible that we don’t always have control over what we come to believe. Unless you are in a strange environment, when you see the blue ball, you don’t decide or deliberate about whether to believe that there is a blue ball in front of you. So too, we can’t always just get rid of our beliefs: maybe I just can’t help but believe that Giant Lizards are secretly ruling the Earth, or to take a more mundane example, that I am alive. Even though our control over our beliefs is limited in these ways, pretty much everyone agrees that these beliefs can be rational or irrational.
Inside Out portrays the emotions as extremely important features of our lives that have practical functions and are sometimes fitting responses. This suggests that they can be rational or irrational, but that’s in tension with the fact that it looks like we can’t control them. More needs to be said, but I think that tension can be resolved. In light of that, relief is rational.
Tappolet, C. (2012) “Emotions, Perceptions, and Emotional Illusions”. In Calabi Clotilde (ed.), Perceptual Illusions. Philosophical and Psychological Essays, Palgrave-Macmillan. 207-24
Stanford Encyclopedia entry on ‘Emotion’.
Desires, together with beliefs, are one of the main building blocks of our mental architecture. We can explain a wide range of things with desires. For example, philosophers have tried to use desires to account for our reasons for action. If you wake up in the morning, go to the kitchen, and prepare yourself a coffee, one could explain this by saying that you have the desire to drink coffee, and since you also believe that going to the kitchen and turning the coffee machine on will get you coffee, then you take the actions needed in order to obtain what you want.
But what exactly is a desire?
Even though we are familiar with desires, it is difficult to give a good theory of what they are (for a detailed discussion on desire see Schroeder, 2009). We have different desires about many different things. Sometimes we want a fresh drink on a warm day, and other times a hot chocolate during a cold night. Sometimes we desire concrete objects like a car, a house, or clothing, and sometimes we desire more abstract things like admiration, stability, or security.
I will not offer a complete definition of desire; however, I will mention three characteristics that can help us understand what desires are.
First, desires are intentional. That is to say, desires are about something. You could desire an ice cream, an expensive lifestyle, to be healthy, the welfare of your family, world-peace, etc. You could also have meta-desires, you may have desires about other desires. For example, you may desire not to have the desire to smoke, since you are concerned about your health. In any case, desires are always about something or, to put it in other words, if you have a desire, there is always something that is desired.
Many philosophers think that another feature of our desires is that they can be either intrinsic or extrinsic. Let’s suppose that you desire an ice cream. If you desire it intrinsically, that means that you desire an ice cream for its own sake. In contrast, if you desire it extrinsically, that means that you desire it only as a means to something else. For example, you might not like eating ice cream—maybe your gums are very sensitive. However, after the removal of a wisdom tooth, dentists sometimes advise eating ice cream because it is cold and so can help reduce swelling. Imagine that your dentist has given you this advice. Since you don’t want your gums to swell, you may desire an ice cream even if you don’t particularly like eating it. In this case, we might say that your desire for an ice cream is extrinsic; you only want an ice cream because it is the means to something else, i.e. reducing the swelling.
The last feature that I will mention about desires is they can be satisfied. One useful way of understanding this is by understanding the notion of direction of fit. This notion is often explained by using Elizabeth Anscombe’s example about a shopping list (Anscombe, 1963, §32). Anscombe asks us to imagine a man who goes to the supermarket. The man has a shopping list that he uses to make his purchases, but there is also a detective following him who makes a list of everything that the man buys. John Searle used Anscombe’s example to explain the notion of direction of fit in the following way:
[T]he function of the two lists will be quite different. In the case of the shopper’s list, the purpose of the list is, so to speak, to get the world to match the words; the man is supposed to make his action fit the list. In the case of the detective, the purpose of the list is to make the words match the world; the man is supposed to make the list fit the actions of the shopper… I propose to call this difference a difference in direction of fit. The detective’s list has the word-to-world direction of fit (as do statements, descriptions, assertions, and explanations); the shopper’s list has a world-to-word direction of fit (as do requests, commands, vows, promises). (Searle, 1979, pp. 3-4)
Searle uses the notion of direction of fit in order to distinguish different uses of language. However, many philosophers have also thought that this notion can be used to distinguish different kinds of mental states. Some mental states have one direction of fit, and some have another.
In particular, we can use this distinction to better understand the difference between beliefs and desires. Beliefs have a direction of fit that is rather similar to the detective’s list, i.e., beliefs have a mind-to-world direction of fit. Our beliefs should match the way the world is. But desires have the opposite direction of fit: desires have a world-to-mind direction. Our desires indicate how we want the world to be.
We can now use this notion to better understand what it is for a desire to be satisfied. In the same way that a belief is only accurate if “the mind fits the world”, a desire is only satisfied if “the world fits the mind”. Compare, for example, the belief that it is raining with the desire that it rain. Your belief will be accurate if it “fits the world” and it is raining; if it is not raining, your belief has to change to be accurate. In contrast, if you desire that it rain, your desire will be satisfied if the world “fits your mind”; if it isn’t raining, it is the world that has to change for your desire to be satisfied.
So, how can we use these features to better understand your desire for coffee in the morning? First, your desire is intentional, this means that your desire is about coffee. Second, your desire might be intrinsic, if you want the coffee for its own sake, or it might be extrinsic, if you want coffee for something else, e.g., because you need it to wake up. Finally, your desire will be satisfied when the “world fits the mind”, that is, when the world is such that you actually get the coffee you wanted.
Anscombe, G.E.M., (1963), Intention, Oxford : Blackwell, c1957.
Schroeder, T., “Desire”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2015/entries/desire/>.
Searle, J., (1979), Expression and meaning : studies in the theory of speech acts, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.