Center for Interdisciplinary and Intercultural Studies

Topic 2014

Emotions and Rationality

For this year's Unseld Lecturer, the neuroscientist António Damásio there is no separation between mind and body. He rejects classical Cartesian dualism which holds that rationality is connected to the mind, distinct from the body, and hence isolated from any passions, including feelings and emotions. To the contrary, in his well-known book "Descartes' Error" Damásio shows that certain aspects of emotions and feelings are indispensable for rationality.

Damásio takes up an idea which was formulated by James and Lange at the end of the 19th century for the first time. According to this idea emotions are caused by bodily symptoms: we do not cry because we are sad, but we are sad because we cry. Emotions, therefore, simply consist of the neural monitoring of bodily symptoms which are evoked by an event such as recognizing a viper, i.e. a racing heart, high release of adrenaline, tensed muscles etc. They are neural and chemical responses through which the body monitors changes in its internal situation.

The mere imagination of possible actions may as well lead to the arousal of neural patterns representing emotions and, thus, evoke these emotions and its respective bodily states. The link between imagined actions and the evocation of emotions is most relevant for decision making processes since the evoked emotions help us to evaluate possible actions beforehand. Damásio describes this capacity to link imaginations with emotions as theory of "somatic markers".

He claims that his theory of somatic markers can be generalized and applied to all mental states: they all arise from the monitoring process of a set of bodily and behavioral responses. The mind is not just embodied; it is about the body. Its purpose and essence is to regulate and represent the state of the body.

However, Damásio's theory of emotions and feelings is strongly debated. The philosopher of emotion Sabine Döring from Tübingen University holds that what is crucial for an emotion is its intentionality or 'world-directedness'. Emotions cannot be explained by the awareness of bodily changes alone. According to her, an emotion is to be analyzed by means of its intentional content. For example anger and indignation may be accompanied by the same perception of bodily changes. In order to discriminate the two we have to consider the different representational content, i.e. the kind of things in the world these emotions are directed at.