<<

. 40
( 82 .)



>>

emotional responses from readers, listeners, and viewers, often by routine tech-
niques and formulas; and it is my purpose in what follows to look at that art with
an eye to developing a theoretical framework for discussing some of the structures
artists use to elicit such emotional responses from readers, listeners, and viewers.

I I . P L AT O V E R S U S T H E C O G N I T I V E T H E O RY
OF THE EMOTIONS

Of course, as Collingwood knew, not all philosophers have been opposed to associat-
ing art with the arousal of emotion.The Greeks were not, and, as a result, Colling-
wood called their view the technical theory of art. Plato articulated this view very
elaborately in the Republic, although, as is well known, he did it in order to banish the
arts from the good city. Nevertheless, Plato does provide us with a coherent picture of
the relation of the arts to the emotions and, as such, a quick review of his theory and
its shortcomings can still afford us an instructive point of entry through which we can
dialectically develop a better theoretical framework for the discussion of the relation
of art, specifically narrative fiction, and the emotions.
Plato had a battery of arguments against dramatic art and painting, many of
which revolved around the way in which works of that kind addressed the emo-
ART, NARRATIVE, EMOTION 219
AND


tions of spectators. His central argument hinged on his conviction that the emo-
tions are irrational in the sense that they undermine the rule of reason both in the
individual and, in consequence, in society. Certain emotions, like pity and the fear
of death, were of particular concern for Plato, since they would undermine the
citizen-soldier™s capacity to wage war. That is, Plato thought that these emotions
were maladaptive. One did not want troops disposed to pity themselves or the
enemy, nor troops who feared death. Plato believed that by using dramatic texts as
the Greeks did, reading them aloud in the process of education, people would
acquire these untoward emotional dispositions by playing certain roles, that is, by
identifying with the characters who vented these emotions.
But Plato was not simply concerned that certain unsavory emotions would be
disseminated through the influence of and identification with dramatic poetry. He
distrusted the emotional address of poetry and painting irrespective of the specific
emotions they elicited, because he believed that the promotion of the emotions in
general is problematic. For the emotions, on his view, oppose reason, and any
threat to reason constitutes a threat to the community at large. Moreover, Plato
thought that drama is bound to promote emotion over reason, because artists
would have to pander to the emotions of the untutored masses if they were to
have audiences at all.That is, Plato argued, the general audience, knowing little, has
to be addressed in terms of its emotions rather than reason.That is why, a latter-
day Plato might say, shows like L.A. Law are preoccupied with the drama of office
romance rather than the drama of legal research.The latter requires a background
of legal education in order to be comprehended; the former, merely gut reactions.
Thus, Plato, in effect, proposed the first economic theory of art, explaining why
consumption dictated the unavoidably emotional address of drama.
Of these Platonic arguments, the most general and the deepest is that art essen-
tially addresses the emotions and thereby undermines reason, presenting a clear and
present danger to the community. The presupposition here is that reason and the
emotions are in some sense at odds. Reason must dominate the emotions. Left to
their own, so to speak, the emotions will gravitate toward the irrational. In Plato™s
conception of human psychology, reason and emotion appear to occupy different
regions.There is no expectation from Plato™s point of view that they will converge
and even more grounds to anticipate that they will pull in opposite directions.
Plato™s tendency is to think that the emotions are irrational or opposed to rea-
son.Thus if art or drama addresses the emotions, it will address the irrational in us
and thereby undermine reason™s control over us. But the obvious question to ask
about this argument is whether in fact the distinction between reason and the
emotions is as sharp as Plato maintains. Are the emotions necessarily irrational
forces in the way Plato supposes?
The tendency in contemporary psychology and in analytic philosophy is to
reject Plato™s presupposition that the emotions are irrational. Instead, it is more
common to maintain that reason and the emotions are not opposed, inasmuch as
reason is an ineliminable constituent of the emotions.Thus, in order to undercut
Plato™s argument and to set the stage for our own positive account of the relation
220 ART, EMOTION, MORALITY
AND


of the emotions to art, specifically to narrative fiction, it is profitable to look at the
picture of the emotions “ often called the cognitive theory of emotions7 “ that has
been developed by contemporary researchers and that challenges the prejudice
that the emotions are by their very nature irrational.
In order to determine whether emotions are irrational, we need some con-
ception of what an emotion is. Perhaps the first answer we might naturally turn to
in order to answer this question is that an emotion is a feeling.When we™re in an
emotional state, our body changes. Our heart rate may alter; we may feel our chest
expanding or contracting. Physical changes occur as we move into an emotional
state “ the adrenal glands produce corticosteroids; and there are psychological or
phenomenological changes as well. When we are angry, we may feel “hot under
the collar.” But are these physical and phenomenological changes in the body the
whole story? Supporting this view, we might notice that in English we often do
refer to emotions as “feelings.”
But proponents of cognitive theories of the emotions deny that emotions are
simply feelings “ neither merely physical alterations, nor phenomenological feel-
ings, nor a combination thereof. Why not? Because it is easy to imagine chemi-
cally inducing the sorts of bodily feeling states that are associated with emotions
where there is no question of our being in an emotional state. Suppose we chem-
ically induce the feeling states in you that you exhibited the last time that you
were angry. Here you are now alone in a room in exactly the same physical state
you were in when your colleague said something sarcastic to you in a faculty
meeting last month. Are you angry? Not if there is no one or no thing with
whom or with which you are angry. Remember that you are in the same physical
state you were in last month. But you are not in the same mental state.You are not
thinking about your colleague or anyone else.The chemicals only induce certain
changes in your body.
Admittedly, you may be in an unpleasant physical state. But you cannot be said
to be in an emotional state of anger unless there is someone who or something
that you think has done you or yours some wrong. For emotional states are
directed “ you are afraid of war, or you are in love with Mary. Bodily feelings,
however, are not directed at anything. They are physical states. They are internal
events without external reference.
But what is it that links our internal feeling states to external objects and situ-
ations? What™s the bridge, so to speak? Cognitive theorists of the emotions say that
it is our cognitive states (that™s why they are called cognitive theorists). For exam-
ple, it may be our states of belief that connect our internal feelings to external sit-
uations. Suppose that I believe that George took my money and that, in doing so,
he has wronged me.This is apt to give rise to anger.That is, taken by this belief “
which is directed at George “ my sympathetic nervous system is activated, and I
begin to feel tension throughout my body. I feel myself tightening up.The reason
that I am in this physical state is my belief that George has stolen my money.That™s
why my blood boils whenever I see him. In short, my belief that George has
stolen my money causes my blood to boil.
ART, NARRATIVE, EMOTION 221
AND


So as an initial approximation, let us say provisionally that an emotion is made
up of at least two components: a cognitive component, such as a belief or a thought
about some person, place, or thing, real or imagined; and a feeling component (a
bodily change and/or a phenomenological experience), where, additionally, the
feeling state has been caused by the relevant cognitive state, such as a belief or a
belief-like state.8 Furthermore, a conception of the emotions like this one is bad
news for someone like Plato, since it incorporates cognition into the structure of the
emotions, thereby denying that reason is totally opposed to the emotions; for if rea-
son/cognition is a constituent of an emotion, emotion cannot be the antithesis of
reason/cognition. But in order to make the problem for Plato even more explicit,
let™s look a bit more closely at the cognitive component of an emotion.
I am angry at George because I believe that he has stolen my money. But theft
of my property is only one of many occurrences that might, under suitable cir-
cumstances, provide grounds for anger. I could be angry at George for cutting
ahead of me in line, or for throttling my little brother. Theft, queue breaking,
throttling, and so on are instances of a broader class of things, any of which might
warrant anger. What is the relevant broader class of things “ that is, what must I
believe about someone if I am to be angry with him? I must believe that he has
done wrong to me or mine. I think that George has stolen my money, and that
falls into this larger class of things. So, in order to be angry with someone, I must
believe that the object of my anger has done some wrong to me or mine.
Similarly, other emotions are directed at objects that belong to a specifiable or
delimited class of things. In order to be afraid of x, I must think that x is danger-
ous “ that it belongs to the class of harmful things. X might not really be danger-
ous. But to fear x, I must perceive it to be harmful, even if it is not. In order to pity
x, I must think that x has suffered misfortune. I cannot pity someone who I think
is on top of the world in every way. In order to envy x, I need to think that x has
something that I lack. I cannot envy Quasimodo™s good looks, if I believe Quasi-
modo is grotesque. And so on. In short, what emotional state I am in is deter-
mined by my cognitive state “ by, for example, beliefs or thoughts about the
objects of the emotional state in question.
If I believe that I™ve been wronged, and this causes a feeling of agitation in me,
then, all things being equal, the state I am in is anger; but if I believe that I™m in
danger, and this causes my blood to freeze, then the emotional state I am in is fear.
That is, as these examples should indicate, emotional states are governed by criteria.
But what exactly does that mean?
In order to be angry at x, in the standard case, I must believe that certain cri-
teria have been met, for example, I must believe that x has wronged me or mine.
To fear x, I must believe that x is harmful; to pity x, I must believe that x has suf-
fered misfortune; to envy x, I must believe that x has something I have not got.To
be in these emotional states, I must be in the relevant cognitive states.These cog-
nitive states are constitutive of the identity of the emotional state in which I am.
Having the relevant cognitive states is a necessary condition for being in these
emotional states.9 These cognitive appraisals of the situations in question are crite-
222 ART, EMOTION, MORALITY
AND


rial for being in just these states. Indeed, the relevant cognitive appraisals are the
reasons that I am in these states.
If you ask me why I am angry, my reason is that I think that I or mine have
been wronged. If you ask me why I™m afraid, my reason is that I™ve been threat-
ened.Why do I pity Oedipus? Because he™s suffered grievous misfortune.Why do
I envy Donald Trump? Because he™s got lots of money and I don™t.
Now if what I™ve said so far is persuasive, then it looks as though the emotions
are necessarily governed by reasons. Indeed, to say that I am in one of these emo-
tional states, sans the requisite cognitive appraisal, would be virtually self-contra-
dictory, the very height of irrationality. To say that I am afraid of potatoes at the
same time that I genuinely believe in my heart of hearts that they are not harmful
is sheer nonsense, a logical absurdity “ what Gilbert Ryle called a category error.
Indeed, if I made such a claim, you would probably either attempt to find some
hidden, unacknowledged reason why I think that potatoes are dangerous or sus-
pect that I did not understand the meaning of my own words.These explanations
might account for the utter irrationality of my assertion. But the very search for
these kinds of accounts shows that, in the standard case, we think that the emo-
tions, contra Plato, naturally possess a kind of rationality.
Perhaps some evidence for the view that emotions possess some sort of ratio-
nality “ that is, that they are governed by reasons “ is that our emotions can be
modified or changed by changing our beliefs or reasons. Our emotions are educa-
ble. If reasons can be given to show that the object of our fear is not harmful, then
the emotion of fear typically evaporates. We try to convince the child not to be
afraid of the monster underneath the bed by proving to her that there is no such
monster. Furthermore, if I can be shown that an action that I thought was cow-
ardly is courageous, then my emotion standardly will shift from contempt to
admiration.Why does this happen? Because inasmuch as emotions are determined
by cognitive states, like belief, a change in the relevant cognitive state will change
the emotional state, either by transforming it into another emotional state alto-
gether or by sublating it entirely.The relation of emotions to cognitive states, like
beliefs, is, of course, the basis for the psychoanalytic talking cure, which, in effect,
modifies dysfunctional or inappropriate emotional behaviors by disentangling our
sedimented, mistaken, or erroneously associated beliefs and patterns of attention.
Thus, though certain emotional episodes may be irrational in the sense that they
are based on defective beliefs, the emotions as such are rationally tractable.
Moreover, if emotions are susceptible to being changed by reasons and to
being modified by cognitive states, such as belief states, then we must conclude,
contra Plato, that the emotions respond to knowledge. They respond to knowl-
edge naturally, since knowledge-like cognitive states, such as beliefs, are compo-
nents of all emotional states. The consequences of these observations for Plato™s
view should be straightforward.The emotions are not necessarily irrational.They
have rational criteria of appropriateness that are open to logical assessment.They
are naturally responsive to reason and knowledge. Thus, addressing the emotions
in the manner of drama and narrative need not necessarily undermine reason.
ART, NARRATIVE, EMOTION 223
AND


Indeed, the emotions may serve reason in general by effectively guiding our
attention to important information. Thus, there are no grounds for worrying that
the emotions, such as the emotions elicited by art, will necessarily subvert reason,
since, among other things, reason or cognition is an ineliminable constituent, indeed
a determining force, of the emotions.Therefore, it is not the case that all representa-
tions threaten reason; only those that encourage defective cognitive states, like false
beliefs, are affronts to reason “ and not because they are emotional states, but only
because they are epistemically defective. Or, in short, Plato™s most general argument
about the relation between art and the emotions must be rejected.
In addition to his general argument about art and the emotions, Plato also
claims that the specific emotions “ like pity and fear “ that are engendered by dra-
matic poetry are maladaptive. Encouraging these emotions would, he believes,
contradict certain reasons of state. Perhaps that is another reason that Plato thinks
that these emotions are irrational. Of course, whether these emotions do contra-
vene larger purposes raises at least two kinds of questions that are not of direct
interest to us: whether, in fact, these emotions really have the consequences that
Plato attributes to them, and whether, in the specific cultural circumstances, these
emotions are dysfunctional. However, if Plato fears that the emotions are mal-
adaptive in general, he is surely wrong.
For emotions are part of our biological makeup.This is not to deny that they
are culturally modified. To be angered, we must believe that we have been
wronged, but, of course, what counts as a wrong is in large measure a matter of
cultural determination.Yet, along with the influence of culture, the emotions are
also rooted in biology. And as biological phenomena, their persistence can be
explained according to the principles of natural selection.That is, in opposition to
the suspicion that the emotions are maladaptive, we may argue that we have the
emotions because they contribute to the fitness of the human organism. In other
words, we have the emotions because they enhance our prospects for survival.
Undoubtedly this is connected to the fact that they respond to knowledge and
reason. But in any case, the emotions are hardly impediments to adaptation; rather,
they are devices in the service of adapting to the environment.
Moreover, we need not base this claim on the abstract supposition that any
biological component as entrenched as the emotions must provide some adap-
tive advantage. I think that we can begin to specify with some precision the
evolutionary service that the emotions perform for the human organism. Of
course, the most obvious service that the emotions perform for the organism is
to motivate behavior, since the emotions are typically made up of desires, as
well as cognitive states. Emotional states cognitively organize our perceptions
of situations in light of our desires and values, and thereby prepare the organ-
ism to act in its perceived interests. Anger and fear, for example, prime the
organism to fight or to flee, respectively.
The bodily effects that the emotions induce ready the organism to carry out
certain activities effectively. But connected to their role in the preparation of the
organism for action, the emotions also shape our perception of situations.10 And
224 ART, EMOTION, MORALITY
AND


this, of course, rather than their action-motivating potentials, is what should be
most interesting for aestheticians.
Perception and the emotions are interrelated in a number of ways. First, it is
our attention to certain aspects of a situation “ say, the harmful ones “ that moves
us into certain emotional states in the first instance. But the emotions provide
feedback to our processes of attention. Once alerted to the harmful aspects of a
situation, our fear will impel us to search the situation “ to scan the scene “ for

<<

. 40
( 82 .)



>>