A Higher-Order Theory of Emotional Consciousness

I am very happy to be able to say that the paper I have been writing with Joseph E. LeDoux is out in PNAS (Proceeding of the National Academy of the Sciences of the United States). In this paper we develop a higher-order theory of conscious emotional experience.

I have been interested in the emotions for quite some time now. I wrote my dissertation trying to show that it was possible to take seriously the role that the emotions play in our moral psychology which is seemingly revealed by contemporary cognitive neuroscience, and which I take to suggest that one of the basic premises of emotivism is true. But at the same time I wanted to preserve the space for one to also take seriously some kind of moral realism. In the dissertation I was more concerned with the philosophy of language than with the nature of the emotions but I have always been attracted to a rather simplistic view on which the differing conscious emotions differ with respect to the way in which they feel subjectively (I explore this as a general approach to the propositional attitudes in The Mark of the Mental). The idea that emotions are feelings is an old one in philosophy but has fallen out of favor in recent years. I also felt that in fleshing out such an account the higher-order approach to consciousness would come in handy. This idea was really made clear when I reviewed the book Feelings and Emotions: The Amsterdam Symposium. I felt that it would be a good idea to approach the science of emotions with the higher-order theory of consciousness in mind.

That was back in 2008 and since then I have not really followed up on any of the ideas in my dissertation. I have always wanted to but have always found something else at the moment to work on and that is why it is especially nice to have been working with Joseph LeDoux explicitly combining the two. I am very happy with the result and look forward to any discussion.

2 thoughts on “A Higher-Order Theory of Emotional Consciousness

  1. I enjoyed the paper, especially the SI. My naive thoughts ran first to interoception, and then to alexithymia. In terms of normal human variation, are higher order representations of emotion in some individuals inferences based “just” on somatic cues via interoception?

    • Thanks, I am glad to hear that you enjoyed the paper and sorry for being slow getting back to you! We briefly talked about alexithymia in the paper but I think there we were arguing against Damasio’s view of emotions, which we contra as a first-order theory. But as long as you did not just assume that this is evidence for a first-order theory, then I think we could allow that in some individuals there may be higher-order states of the kind you describe. If the inference were consciously done, i.e. if you were aware that the the higher-order state was the result of inference, then that would not result in phenomenal consciousness (on our view). However, if the inference were made in such a way so as to obscure the fact that it was arrived at via inference (the inference in that case would be made unconsciously) then, if the content of the resulting higher-order state were of the appropriate kind then it would result in a kind of emotional consciousness even though it is arrived at based “just” on somatic cues via interoception. Does that get at what you were asking or did I miss it?

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