Bioethics Blogs

Jennifer Greenwood, Becoming Human: The Ontogenesis, Metaphysics, and Expression of Human Emotionality, MIT Press, 2015

Becoming Human by Jennifer Greenwood is one of the most thought-provoking books on emotion and its expression I have read. At its core, it attempts to provide an account of the development of full human emotionality and in so doing argues the emotions are “transcranial.” Emotions are radically realized outside our nervous systems and beyond our skin. As children, we are functionally integrated affectively with our mothers; so much so that in a sense our emotions are not ours alone. Regardless of whether one agrees with her radical claims, it is a must-read for those interested in emotion and expression. In order appreciate the significance of this book, let me sketch its contents and raise a few criticisms.

Many, but certainly not all, psychologists and philosophers assume that there are basic emotions (BEs) and higher-cognitive emotions (HCEs). The former include fear, anger, disgust, happiness, surprise, and sadness; and the later include guilt, shame, and pride amongst others. BEs are thought of as natural kinds involving facial expression, homologous traits shared with non-human primates, specific brain structures, and stereotyped behaviors. HCEs differ in that they often do not have unique physiological profiles, facial expressions, dedicated brain regions, and culturally vary quite a bit. Greenwood argues that there are affective precursors that develop into BEs and HCEs. However, the distinction between BEs and HCEs lulls us into naïve views about nature and nurture, biology and culture. We have not taken their development from childhood as seriously as we should. Both develop through time.

Greenwood has us consider human infants.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.