Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Contemporary Cognitive Theories of Emotions and Aristotle

Doctoral researcher Isaura Peddis considers whether cognitive theories of emotion are supported by the writings of Aristotle.

“The Emotions are all those feelings that so change men as to affect their judgments, and that are also attended by pain or pleasure. Such are anger, pity, fear and the like, with their opposites.” (Aristotle, 2008:1378a 24-26)

Aristotle is often quoted by researchers of cognitive theories of emotions to confirm the validity of their positions. However, he has never dedicated an entire piece of work to emotions; instead, he integrated them in larger topics of investigation - rhetoric in The Art of rhetoric, or happiness in Nicomachean Ethics. Therefore, in order to reconstruct Aristotle’s idea of emotions, one must compile sections referring to emotions in his different works to recreate his theory of emotions. Some of those sections have been misread and others were not considered at all, which has caused Aristotle to be wrongly labelled the “the prototypical cognitive theory of emotion”(Power and Dalgleish, 1997: 41).

Roughly speaking, the cognitive theories of emotions attribute a key role to judgments (or appraisals) in the arousal of emotions; I judge an object or situation and, from this evaluation along with the involvement of my body and its physical reactions, arises an emotion. For example, I see my father is kissing a woman, try to gain a clearer view of the situation and discover the woman is not my dad’s wife but his secretary. As a result of this judgement, I feel sad and start to cry. Emotions and feelings are different things, but emotions impact on our bodies through feelings.

Aristotle affirms that an emotion occurs when three conditions are satisfied: (Aristotle, 2008: 1378 a 24-33) a) the person must be in a suitable state of mind to experience the emotion, b) there must be a stimulus – internal mental state – of a certain type to generate the emotion, c) there must be an object – an external event – of the appropriate kind for the emotion to arise (Power and Dalgleish, 1997: 40). Anger, for example, is an emotion experienced by a person who, whilst in a particular state of mind, makes a judgement, such as this person wants to hurt my best friend, about someone.

It cannot be denied that Aristotle writes about judgement, as cognitivists do. Nevertheless, the same quotes that point to this common feature also point out a huge difference: the importance of the “state of mind”. Aristotle says that, to feel an emotion, one must be in a certain state of mind. Instead, the classical cognitive theories of emotion attribute a role to the state of mind, but define it as an opinion as an opinion or belief regarding an object. To Aristotle, the state of mind designates “a sort of feeling” which may well be connected with an opinion about an object elaborated previously, but can also influence how we feel about the opinion of another object that is not related to the previous one.

For example, if I have spent eight hours at work without a break, a lot of customers complaining for no reason, and cannot find a parking space for my car when I arrive home, I will be mad at my neighbour for parking in my spot without any authorisation. Instead, after spending a day off having fun with friends, I will react differently to the same situation and opinion related with it; I will still think that I cannot park because my neighbour’s car is on my spot, but I might not be mad because I am still in a good mood due to the wonderful day that I have had.

Aristotle. (2008) The Art of Rhetoric: Megaphone eBooks

Power M and Dalgleish T. (1997) Cognition and emotion : from order to disorder, Hove, East Sussex, UK:Psychology Press.

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