Bioethics Blogs

Emotions without Emotion: A Challenge for the Neurophilosophy and Neuroscience of Emotion

By Louis Charland


Louis C. Charland is Professor in the Departments of Philosophy, Psychiatry, and the School of Health Studies, at Western University in London, Canada. He is also an International Partner Investigator with the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, based at the University of Western Australia, in Perth, Australia.

Many scholars of the affective domain now consider “emotion” to be the leading keyword of the philosophy of emotion and the affective sciences. Indeed, many major journals and books in the area refer directly to “emotion” in their titles: for example, Emotion Review, Cognition and Emotion, The Emotional Brain (Le Doux 1996), Cognitive Neuroscience of Emotion (Lane & Nadel 2002), and The Emotional Life of your Brain (Davidson & Begley 2012). At times, “feeling,” “mood,” “affect,” and “sentiment” are argued to be close contenders, but such challenges are normally formulated by contrasting their explanatory promise, and their theoretical status, with “emotion.” Historically, debates about the nature of affective terms and posits used to revolve, in conceptual orbit, around the term “passion” and its many variants (Dixon 2003). In our new emotion-centric universe, everything seems to revolve around “emotion” and its many variants.

The problem is that, despite its popularity, “emotion” is a keyword in crisis (Dixon 2012). There are too many variants and insufficient consensus. According to some, things are so bad that we should do away with “emotion” entirely (Griffiths 1997). Ironically, this last suggestion may not be so iconoclastic. There is, apparently, relatively little interest in the question whether “emotion” demarcates a clear, legitimate, scientific domain of its own, except perhaps to deny that it does (Charland 2002; but see Griffiths 2004a).

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