Emotions and The Social World

As I laid out in Wednesday’s post, on my view emotions are about affordances that are of instrumental value for us. When we are afraid, we represent something as a danger-to-be-avoided. Since I take danger to be a relational property that constitutes the affordance in question, it might be hard to see how this approach is supposed to account for emotions such as guilt or shame. Let me first explain why and then why I think my approach can account for these emotions.

Paul Griffiths (1997) famously distinguishes between basic emotions and higher cognitive emotions. He suggests that while emotions such as fear and disgust clearly have their roots in evolution and we know a good deal about the bodily mechanisms that realize them, emotions like guilt and shame should be seen as belonging to a different natural kind. This is because we don’t have the same kind of empirical evidence when it comes to their bodily realization, and they seem to be cognitively more demanding and culturally more variable. Yet Griffith’s account has been subject to many objections. A particularly strong case has been made by Jason Clark (2010), who argues that there are no empirical grounds for the strict distinction between higher and lower emotions and that we do find bodily and behavioral reactions in emotions such as pride and shame that have their roots in evolution as well.

Following up on Clark I claim that emotions should not be seen as members of different natural kinds. Yet I think that what is referred to by Griffiths and others as the cognitive complexity of these emotions deserves special attention from embodied approaches. The psychologist Michael Lewis (2014) has argued that infants only acquire emotions such as pride and shame once they have acquired an explicit concept of the self and a conceptual understanding of social rules and norms. I argue against both of Lewis’s claims in my book, suggesting that it suffices that infants have an embodied sense of self and their relation to others, and that they grow up in socially structured contexts, where they learn that they violated a rule through very direct forms of interaction like facial expressions, gestures, a raised voice, or certain punishments. These can count as indicators or natural information occurring in our social environment that signals to the infant that it violated a social rule. The rule that has been violated is the relational property that needed to be detected in guilt, so I will say something about the ontological status of this rule violation.

A central claim of my approach is that socially constructed relational properties exist independently of whether we represent them or not. As we will see, the properties in question can exist even in a species that is not able to detect them. I will use guilt as an example. Guilt can be seen as an embodied reaction to a certain kind of norm violation. The norm itself is established in the social environment through a collective practice and the mutual acceptance of that norm in the practice. There are many rules that we make up as we go along in our social interactions. Rules can get established as conventions that the members of a social group follow without being explicitly represented beforehand. It is not a necessary criterion for a rule to be in place that somebody represents it and then purposefully establishes it. It is a criterion for a rule that it is followed and can be violated by members of a social group. But people can establish social rules without the intention of doing so and they might or might not come to represent those rules explicitly later on. Rules are visible in social contexts in the form of re-occurring patterns of behavior and in people’s sanctioning behavior when a rule is not followed. Re-occurring behavior patterns are grounded in the dispositions of people to do similar things under similar conditions.

In the case of guilt, there are typical manifestations of guilt-relevant norm transgressions. A caregiver’s stern face or raised voice might, for example, indicate to an infant not yet able to understand language that she has violated a social norm. If a raised voice or stern face are reliable signs of having transgressed a social rule or norm, it can come to be a locally recurrent source of natural information through which the infant can detect that she has violated a rule or norm. The normative property would in that case be detected through the facial expression or the tone of voice. It would supervene on the situation the caregiver is complaining about and could be grasped through natural information such as a stern face that frequently co-occurs with that property in the environment of the infant in question.

This is just a sketch so far. In my book you find a more developed account of the social ontology at work in the background and how this works for different types of emotion. But I hope you get an idea of how my view aims to account for the intentional objects of emotions in a naturalist, noncognitivist, and externalist framework.


Griffiths, P. (1997): What Emotions Really Are. The Problem of Psychological Categories. Chicago: Chicago Press.

Clark, J. (2010): Relations of Homology Between Basic and Higher Cognitive Emotions. Biology and Philosophy, 25, 75-94.


  1. Simon Frith

    You give an interesting take on the emotions as broadly embodied ‘action-oriented representations that are about affordances’. While this elaborates intriguingly on their evolved functional and behavioural roles, it doesn’t seem to give due account to their phenomenality; the hard problem – why should they feel like anything to the subject?

    You may well roll your eyes at any mention of the hard problem, but ‘Action-oriented representations’ sound to me not unlike Dennett’s ‘behavioural dispositions’, or Damasio’s ‘biological value(s)’, both of which (for me) dodge the real question of the phenomenal. After all, as long as your ‘action orientated representations’ contribute efficiently to the survival of an organism, there’s no need for them to feel like anything – is there? Ok, so the ‘feelings’ act to reinforce eco-appropriate behaviour but (for me, at least!) emotions could conceivably function equally well as purely embodied reflexive programming without any accompanying phenomenal character.

    It seems to me that at the heart of every experienced emotion is a purely subjective feeling of value on a positive/negative axis: it either feels good or bad to varying degrees , and it’s hard for even the most determined physicalist – or naturalist – to deny this (imagine her terrible grief at the death of a dearly loved one). As you point out, value of any kind is certainly not intrinsic to the intentional objects of our emotions. While it may well be intrinsic to the material relationship between the organism and its environment, the good/bad feeling of subjective value that we experience may in itself be irrelevant or even at odds with this requirement – the feelings may lead us to destructive actions – ‘danger-seeking’, rather than ‘danger-avoiding’.

    My apologies if I’ve misinterpreted what you’re saying in any way, but I’d be really very interested to know more about how you feel about the whole question of the phenomenal.

    • Rebekka Hufendiek

      Thanks for the question, Simon. You are right, I haven’t said a word on the phenomenology of emotions in my posts so far, and it certainly is an important issue.
      Generally, I tend to agree with Dretske that phenomenal properties are properties that an object is sensuously represented as having. Now while many find this terribly reductionist, I think a lot of the plausibility of the claim depends on how you unpack what it means to be “sensuously represented”. In the case of emotions it means that a complex pattern of bodily reactions is involved in the realization of an emotion. Sensuously representing something in the case of emotions means to represent it through this pattern of bodily reactions.

      I’m not sure I agree with you about your claim that at the heart of every emotion is a purely subjective feeling of value, because I’m not sure what that means. You seem to agree with me that what is of value in the end is not something subjective but that the external intentional objects are of value and when our emotions are adequate we represent them as such. Now, it is of course a living organism that has emotional feelings and experiences them from a unique perspective. But the parameters of these feelings that you mention; intensity and valence, why not account for them in embodied terms? Why not say that when grieving we represent/experience a loss through the tension, the decreased heartrate, the sobbings and so on? Giovanna Colombetti in her book “The Feeling Body” develops this idea of perceiving through the body in emotions very nicely, I think. I think that Dretske’s idea that feeling something in the end means “sensously representing something” should be accounted for in this vein.

      • Simon Frith

        Thanks for your most interesting reply. I fully accept of course that any emotion involves a complex orchestration of somatic processes and goings on which are an integral part of our ‘feeling’ of it. But doesn’t this simply pass the buck by identifying somatic processes as the intentional objects of our emotions, rather than/as well as external causes, without accounting for the brute affective value of our feelings? James Russell and Lisa Feldman Barrat have suggested that ‘core affective valence’ is a modular and irreducible building block of any emotional experience. You may not agree with this, but if we accept (as I’m inclined to do) that affective valence is where the buck stops, we have to look for a correspondingly non-reductive account of the positive/negative value system it represents, and it’s hard to see how any purely functional explanation can do this . Physics certainly is neutral -when all’s said and done, affective valence isn’t ‘out there’ (even if by that we mean the operation of our neurons ) – it’s ‘in here’, and so while it can perhaps be objectively inferred, the final authority must necessarily be the subject (only you can ever know exactly how good or bad you’re feeling). That’s what I’m getting at when I talk about a ‘purely subjective feeling of value’.
        Perhaps in the end it’s just not possible to resolve this kind of debate through semantics, and we have to end up by appealing to introspection. Always a tough call for an analytic philosopher.

        • Rebekka Hufendiek

          Hi Simon, sorry for the easter-delay. I don’t know about semantics, but its certainly not possible to solve such a debate in posts on a blog 😉 but let me try to briefly follow up on some of your points:

          “But doesn’t this simply pass the buck by identifying somatic processes as the intentional objects of our emotions, rather than/as well as external causes, without accounting for the brute affective value of our feelings”

          Not quite, I think. According to my account values are relational properties to be found in the environment of an organism. Bodily responses are set up to detect them – this is what they evolved for. Things in the environment being of (dis)value for them created a permanent selection-pressure and therefore we developed bodily responses through which we represent external objects. The bodily responses are not intentional objects but rather nonconceptual modes of presentation.
          So the interesting question for me is not if there is the core-affective-module that Feldman Barrett and Russell describe. I actually don’t quite agree with them, but I might agree with them and would still claim that the module was set up to detect things of (dis-)value in the organisms environment.

          “Physics certainly is neutral -when all’s said and done, affective valence isn’t ‘out there’”

          I’m a Gibsonian at heart, when it comes to this question. Gibson says: “Physics may be value free, but ecology is not”. Things in our environment are of value for us. That we are creatures with affective and valent responses to this values, doesn’t mean that we need a non-reductive account to account for these values. Or, to be more precise: You might want to call my account non-reductive because I tend to say that biological/ecological descriptions can’t be reduced to physical descriptions and we need the biological/ecological level to see the place of the values in the story – but I don’t think we need to add a non-reductive level to account for the valence of our affects. To repeat my self and Dretske: An adequate description of how we sensously represent things is enough.

  2. Katrina Sifferd

    Thank you, Rebekka, for these excellent posts. I’m particularly interested in the way in which your account might handle moral emotions or reactive attitudes. I imagine you might support a view of blame/retributive sentiments as related to affordances that are of instrumental value for us — namely, identifying and reacting to persons who cause harm. Is that right? Do you discuss the reactive attitudes in the book?

    • Rebekka Hufendiek

      Hi Katrina, that is a very good question! And not an easy one to answer.
      I do not develop a sentimentalist account in the book myself, but that certainly would be an option. You rightly assume that I would opt for there being sentiments that dispose us to react with certain emotions to certain affordances. Yet the question is whether that offers a satisfying account of what people call “moral emotions”. I don’t talk about moral emotions in the book, but I do briefly distance myself from moral realist or intuitionist accounts that claim that we perceive moral values through emotions.
      If moral norms are supposed to be context-independent, unconditional, and obligatory, then I’m afraid these are not really the norms I’m offering an ontological account for in the book. I do introduce social norms that people make up in certain contexts and I claim that emotions are about these. So you might want to say that when we experience moral emotions that we take these emotions to be moral while they are really just about social norms, but that is kind of an awkward stance for a sentimentalist. Or you might want to say that I’m wrong about these norms actually being as conditioned as they are, that people make up these norms again and again for good reasons and that we therefore also have good reasons to emotionally respond to them.
      The truth is that I’m not quite sure, which of the two options I prefer, so I postponed the answer. Does that help at all? What do you think?

      • Katrina Sifferd

        Thanks for your quick response! It seems to me your theory could provide a sensible account of the moral emotions. I certainly don’t think moral norms need not be context-independent or unconditional — even our most important moral norms, including the norm against killing an innocent, seem dependent on context when one is interested in ascribing responsibility (as I am). It seems to me that moral norms might be social norms on steroids: the moral emotions evolved as a means to perceive and respond to features of cooperative living, and moral norms are social norms that are fairly stable over time and across human societies due to the consistency of aspects of the human social environment. They seem more important or obligatory than other social norms, but this is just a contingent fact given the sort of harm they are tied to and the sort of responses they produce.

        But I’m sort of just feeling around at this point!

        • Rebekka Hufendiek

          Hi Katrina,
          sorry for the easter-delay. You are certainly right that it is possible to follow up on my account saying that moral norms might be social norms on steroids – thereby making moral norms context-dependent and draw the difference between social and moral norms in the intensity of responsive feelings. But I’m not sure I want to to that. I guess I would prefer to say something about certain norms and values being more central to human needs than others, which is why we might have evolved “steroids” to respond to them. But mainly why they tend to occur and be stable in many social systems.
          Anyways, I don’t have a definite answer to that and left the moral question open in the book.
          But please keep me posted on your work about these issues!

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