Emotional Consciousness

Raamy Majeed[1]


The conscious experience of emotion, or ‘emotional consciousness’ for short, is what makes emotions so significant from a first-person point of view. For some philosophers, such as Robert Solomon (2007), emotions — understood as conscious phenomena — are nothing short of what give our lives meaning. But how exactly should we understand such conscious experiences? Are the phenomenol­ogical structures of such experiences the same as the rest of our con­scious experiences or do they bear features that mark them out as unique? Moreover, what roles, if any, do the conscious aspects of emotion play in helping us navigate our physical and social environments?

Significant strides have been made in emotion research over the past thirty-odd years, no doubt owing to a growing focus on emotion in the fields of empirical psychology and cognitive neuroscience. However, while philosophers typically have a conception of emotion that takes consciousness to be one of the essential components of emotion, most empirical approaches to emotion have tended to ignore its conscious aspects; something increasingly recognized by scientists themselves (LeDoux, 2016; Adolphs and Anderson, 2018). Likewise, while there is a wealth of research on how emotions are of practical importance, e.g. in aiding decision-making (Damasio, 1994) and solving evolu­tionary challenges (Cosmides and Tooby, 2000), much of it does not confer any special status to emotions being conscious phenomena.

Taking a pluralistic approach, this collection brings together a series of potential answers to questions about the nature of emotional con­sciousness and why it is an important part of how we come to under­stand ourselves, creatures like us, and our surroundings. In answering these questions, the papers in this collection also address certain con­ceptual and methodological problems embedded in emotion research, and crucially in ways that could inform future empirical work on emotional consciousness itself.

More specifically, the collection of papers in this special issue are informed by phenomenology (Mitchell; Smith), analytic philosophy (Arnaud and Pendoley; Carman; Díaz), psychology (Silva), cognitive science (Cochrane), animal sentience research and animal welfare science (Browning and Veit), and Buddhism (Finnigan). Despite significant differences in their theoretical underpinnings, there is con­siderable overlap in their research themes, and most of them are presented in the spirit fostering collaboration between distinct strands of emotion research.

We begin with Joel Smith’s paper, ‘The Phenomenology of Emotional Expression’. A lot of the early scientific research on emotion is inspired by Darwin’s (1872/1965) work on the expression of emotion. For example, we find this in Ekman’s (1973) highly influ­ential work on the facial expression of emotion in humans (research which has made popular the idea of there being a set of pan-cultural ‘basic emotions’). Smith begins by noting that most research on emotional expression focuses on the observer’s perspective, often with an emphasis on the communicative significance of expression. Smith, however, finds these approaches problematic for a number of reasons. For instance, they don’t help differentiate between physiological changes that are expressions of emotion and ones which, though related to emotion, shouldn’t be considered emotional expressions in themselves. In order to remedy these problems, Smith argues that we should focus on the expresser’s perspective, which affords a signifi­cant role to their phenomenology; or, more specifically, their ‘con­sciousness of the relation of motivation that holds between their emotion and its expression’ (this issue, p. 13).

Next, we have Jonathan Mitchell’s article, ‘Exploring Affective Horizons’, which delves deeper into the nature of the phenomenology of emotion. Drawing on Husserl and the classical phenomenologists, Mitchell explores the possibility of conscious emotions having a feature that is overlooked. First some background: to be an intentional state, very roughly, is to be a state that is about something, e.g. an object or state of affairs (Crane, 2016). Conscious emotional experi­ences are said to be intentional in that they are about things. For instance, my anger is about my neighbour’s loud music, my sadness is about my team losing the semi-finals. While recognizing that such emotional experiences are intentional in an explicit sense, Mitchell argues that they might also be intentional in an implicit sense, in what classical phenomenologists call an ‘inner horizon’. As I understand it, the basic idea is that certain features of objects are not, in Mitchell’s words, ‘properly present’ in our conscious emotions, but still present nonetheless, and we miss something about both the phenomenology and the intentionality of emotion when we ignore such features. His example is the normative aspect of emotional intentionality. In brief, emotions are also said to be intentional in an evaluative sense; as Deonna and Teroni observe, ‘it is indeed illuminating to think of sad­ness as being connected to the evaluation of its object as a loss, of anger as connected to an evaluation of it as offensive, of fear as connected to the threatening, of admiration as connected to the beautiful, etc.’ (2012, p. 6). This much is widely recognized by philosophers of emotion; however, what is missing and implicit, Mitchell argues, is the (normative) sense that our emotions should or shouldn’t continue to evaluate their objects in such ways.

In ‘Personal Intentionalism and the Understanding of Emotion Experience’, Sarah Arnaud and Kathryn Pendoley take a very differ­ent (yet I think compatible) approach to emotional intentionality, one rooted in analytic philosophy. Arnaud and Pendoley aim to defend ‘strong intentionalism’ about emotion — roughly the view that the phenomenology of emotion is determined by its intentional content: the objects they represent and the ways in which these objects are represented. The key to this defence is recognizing that subjects’ cares and concerns are integral features of the content of their emotions. They unpack this idea using the notion of formal objects. Normally when we say that emotions are about objects, we mean particular objects, e.g. I am angry at my neighbour, I am afraid of nukes. How­ever, emotions are also said to have formal objects: roughly the values we attribute to particular objects (Kenny, 1963). For instance, in being angry at my neighbour, I evaluate him as offensive; in being afraid of nukes, I evaluate them as dangerous, and so on. Arnaud and Pendoley argue that the formal objects of our emotions are shaped by our cares and concerns. As they argue, ‘the qualitative aspect of an emotion is shaped by the idiosyncratic features of each person: each person will have a slightly different notion of the formal object — danger for instance — due to differences in their personal history, beliefs, etc. which are likely in turn shaped by each person’s physiological form (perhaps to a lesser extent) and sociocultural context’ (this issue, p. 73). Strong intentionalism has always been a bold position, one sub­ject to a litany of objections. Arnaud and Pendoley argue that recog­nizing the personal aspects of emotional intentionality helps us over­come such objections and see strong intentionalism about emotional phenomenology as an attractive option.

We find a similar approach to emotion in Mary Carman’s article, ‘Intentional Feelings, Practical Agency and Normative Commit­ments’. Unlike the last two papers, Carman is not concerned, at least not directly, with providing a more detailed picture of the phenom­enology of emotion. Rather, hers falls within the emerging area of emotion research which aims to decipher the role emotions play in practical agency. Carman begins by observing that a dominant strand in this area construes emotions as providing us with reasons for action; and they do so via their intentional content. For example, my anger at my neighbour provides me with reason for avoiding him. Carman argues that paying attention to emotional phenomenology (including its intentional nature) lets us envision the role emotions play in practical agency in a richer way. In particular, like Arnaud and Pendoley, Carman notes that a focus on emotional phenomenology lets us see more clearly how our emotions are shaped by our back­ground cares and concerns. Drawing on this, she argues that we should rethink the role emotions play in practical agency, namely as commitments to action. As she summarizes, ‘Once we do identify with the things we care about, when we undergo an emotional experi­ence we express a commitment to those cares as well as to a pattern of response appropriate to how those cares are apprehended as being affected’ (this issue, pp. 106–07). Carman offers this as a tentative account, but one she sees as a rival to standard accounts of emotion-based practical agency.

The final paper that relates to the theme of emotional intentionality is Bronwyn Finnigan’s ‘Fear is Anticipatory: A Buddhist Analysis’. On a surface reading, this paper heralds a radical departure from those that came before it, in that Finnigan aims to investigate emotion, in particular fear, through engagement with the Buddhist Nikāya Suttas. However, appearances can be deceiving. Finnigan develops an account where fear is an ‘intentional anticipatory state’. To elaborate, by focusing on the phenomenology of emotion, especially its intentionality, Finnigan argues that fear is anticipatory because to fear something is to construe is as dangerous (recall formal objects), which in turn is to anticipate that it will cause suffering. Moreover, she argues that individual variation in emotional phenomenology can be accounted for by ‘how much the anticipated effects matter to the indi­vidual (their perceived magnitude, cost, or goal relevance)’ (this issue, p. 130) — in other words, the subject’s own cares and concerns. Finnigan also explores an aspect of emotion that has so far gone unaddressed in this special issue, i.e. its motivational aspect. Here she identifies the motivational force of fear, e.g. in producing aversive behaviour, in terms of its phenomenology: its ‘disturbing feeling’. Finnigan ends by exploring how this account might relate to antici­patory accounts of fear in the sciences, e.g. cognitive neuroscience.

The next three papers in this collection are more directly concerned with topics at the intersection of philosophy and the sciences. Taking an approach that is in the remit of cognitive science, in ‘Conscious­ness, Attention, and the Motivation–Affect System’ Tom Cochrane offers an account of how affective phenomena and attention can help us understand consciousness — not just emotional consciousness, but (phenomenal) consciousness more generally. The ‘motivation–affect system’ is a term of art Cochrane introduces to refer to our affective states and drives. Cochrane’s hypothesis, in a nutshell, is that this ‘system’ controls a sub-type of attention, i.e. alerting attention, which in turn plays a role in how we come to have conscious experiences. Cochrane situates his account within the global workspace theory (Baars, 2002). A simple (and very rough) way to unpack this idea is to say that the content that becomes conscious is that which gets broad­cast to the mind. On such a picture, different contents (e.g. sensory inputs) compete for consciousness. Cochrane’s suggestion is that some contents ‘achieve motivational priority’ on account of the way the motivation–affect system directs our attention. If Cochrane is right, there is a fundamental link between affective phenomena and consciousness, which is a theme we also find in his book, The Emotional Mind: A Control Theory of Affective States (2018).

Laura Silva’s paper, ‘Towards an Affective Quality Space’, also draws on cognitive science, here as a means to understand emotional phenomenology. As Silva notes, philosophers typically draw on intro­spection to understand phenomenology (e.g. Smith, Mitchell, Carman; this issue). However, an altogether different, empirically tractable, way is provided by the quality space theory (QST), which maps our capacities for perceptual discriminations for a given perceptual modality. To pick an example from Silva, ‘since red is experienced as more similar to orange than to blue, it will be mapped in the colour quality space as closer to orange than to blue’. In this paper, Silva aims to offer an analogous quality space for emotional phenomenol­ogy, drawing on both QST in cognitive science, as well as affective quality spaces often employed in psychology to compare emotional phenomena. Indeed, part of this project involves exploring how these two distinct literatures speak to one another, as well as laying out a set of methodological constraints and combating a list of possible objections. If it works, it promises to bridge the gap between psychol­ogical and philosophical work on emotional phenomenology.

The next article, ‘Studying Animal Feelings: Bringing Together Sentience Research and Welfare Science’ by Heather Browning and Walter Veit, also aims at bridge-building. Starting with the observa­tion that both animal sentience research and animal welfare science focus on the ‘felt experiences’ of animals, Browning and Veit provide histories of these two (often) disparate fields, including their various individual challenges, before drawing out ways in which integrating these fields can lead to mutually benefiting results. In very general terms, they argue that such an integration can strengthen the theo­retical and conceptual bases of both fields. Just to pick one example, they argue that welfare measures, such as the fact that pessimistic biases are found in honeybees after negative experiences (Bateson et al., 2011), might help sentience researchers develop new markers for animal sentience. Likewise, work done on the evolution of conscious­ness in animals, they argue, could be of use for animal welfare researchers in creating new indicators for animal welfare. For, as Browning and Veit demonstrate, such collaboration not only stands to strengthen these distinct research programmes, in some cases it might actually prove vital for future success.

To end, perhaps it is worth recognizing that any research on con­sciousness is going to attract its fair share of detractors. While the articles listed so far focus on how we might undertake interdisci­plinary work on the topic of emotional consciousness, in the final paper, ‘Against Emotions as Feelings: Towards an Attitudinal Profile of Emotion’, Rodrigo Díaz warns against taking emotions as essentially conscious phenomena. Díaz’s central focus is unconscious emotions. He offers a critique of the ways some philosophers have argued that they aren’t really emotions. Moreover, he then goes on to offer a positive account of how we should understand them. For Díaz, unconscious emotions are ‘non-phenomenal attitudes that regard their contents as relevant to ones motivations’ (this issue, p. 223).

This brings us back full-circle. A lot of scientific work done on emotion ignores its conscious aspects. If Díaz is right, such work, even when it focuses on unconscious emotional phenomena, should still be considered work on emotion. However, this does not undercut the need to also investigate the conscious components of emotion. The papers in this special issue bear testimony to the fact all aspects of emotion, be they conscious or unconscious, should form an integral part of emotion research. There is much to lose when we bracket them away.


Adolphs, R. & Anderson, D.J. (2018) The Neuroscience of Emotion a New Synthesis, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Baars, B.J. (2002) The conscious access hypothesis: Origins and recent evidence, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 6 (1), pp. 47–52.

Bateson, M., Desire, S., Gartside, S.E. & Wright, G.A. (2011) Agitated honeybees exhibit pessimistic cognitive biases, Current Biology, 21 (12), pp. 1070–1073.

Cochrane, T. (2018) The Emotional Mind: A Control Theory of Affective States, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cosmides, L. & Tooby, J. (2000) Evolutionary psychology and the emotions, in Lewis, M. & Haviland-Jones, J. (eds.) Handbook of Emotions, 2nd ed., pp. 91–115, New York: The Guilford Press.

Crane, T. (2016) The Mechanical Mind: A Philosophical Introduction to Minds, Machines and Mental Representation, 3rd ed., London: Routledge.

Damasio, A.R. (1994) Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, New York: Putnam.

Darwin, C. (1872/1965) The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Reprint, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Deonna, J.A. & Teroni, F. (2012) The Emotions: A Philosophical Introduction, London: Routledge.

Ekman, P. (1973) Darwin and Facial Expression, New York: Academic Press.

Kenny, A. (1963) Action, Emotion and Will, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

LeDoux, J.E. (2016) Anxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and Anxiety, New York: Viking.

Solomon, R.C. (2007) True to Our Feelings: What Our Emotions Are Really Telling Us, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[1]      University of Manchester, UK.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Stay Informed, Stay Inspired

Discover the frontier of academic insights with our newsletter. Imprint Academic brings a world of scholarly discourse right to your inbox. Stay updated on the latest publications, special offers, and the vibrant conversations shaping today’s academic landscape. Your quest for knowledge deserves a companion as dedicated as our newsletter. Sign up now and become a part of a community driven by curiosity and intellectual exploration.
Something went wrong. Please check your entries and try again.