A Better Way to Think of the Rationality of Basic Emotions
Andrea Scarantino (Georgia State University)

part of: Emotions, Reasons, and Rational Agency
March 18, 2023, 3:00pm - 3:30pm
Department of Philosophy, University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Knoxville 37920
United States

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  • University of Tennessee Humanities Center


Essentialism, the view that folk psychological categories like fear, anger, sadness, and happiness share a deep, unseen and invariable essence, is often described as the reason why affective scientists continue to believe in a science of basic emotions despite a century-long failure to find any physical fingerprints for them. I will argue that the search for physical fingerprints never made much sense to begin with due to the heterogeneity of folk emotion categories. What basic emotion approaches need is an anti-essentialist framework which allows us to empirically test whether the observed physical variability of emotion indicators at the neural, behavioral and physiological levels is more compatible with a reflective measurement model (discrete emotions are the causes of changes in indicators) or a formative measurement model (discrete emotions are the effects of changes in indicators). I will provide such an anti-essentialist framework and argue that basic emotions are rational solutions to recurrent life challenges because of the optimal compromise they offer between speed and flexibility. At the heart of this compromise is the notion of “goal-oriented variability”, which I will try to clarify and connect to empirical data on discrete emotions.

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