Sunday, 19 September 2010

Emotions and Feelings in Psychiatric Illness

The final conference in the Durham AHRC workshop and conference series on Emotions and Feelings in Psychopathology was more focused than the first one. Most papers (sadly not including mine) addressed the issue of the nature and underpinnings of emotions. Thus we heard presentations on developmental, cognitivist, enactivist and phenomenological accounts of emotions. In the main, my lingering worry concerned the relation between the person level and sub-personal accounts coupled with the issue of whether the states invoked were intentional or not. (For example, if one thinks that ‘moods’ are preconditions of intentional states, that prompts the question of whether the moods are or are not intentional states themselves. If not, then there should be nothing it is like to have them and thus they should not be the proper study of phenomenology.)

In my presentation (based on these prior thoughts) I began to address what might still be left to be done in the face of a failure to understand – in the sense of fitting into a rational pattern – someone’s experiences and utterance by way of understanding them. The kind of understanding that Wittgenstein suggests one might have of more or less ritualistic behaviour by comparing it to our own was the lead I followed. The question that caused me most worry was from Phil Gerrans who asked how it might help to understand one person’s crazy and irrational habits by realising that one has crazy and irrational habits oneself (and vice versa). My hunch was that this might simply be the limit case of a habit where there is no understanding but to be told that there’s nothing to be understood might be helpful in some contexts.

Later Mog Stapleton and I chatted about kitten ownership (I have two devon rex kittens to fill the gap left by Brix’ death) and we were both surprised by a failure to agree on whether the proper response to a beautiful kitten is a kiss. Why would it be, I thought, when it isn’t right for a shapely sofa, for example? Trying to fathom her alien kissing view, I asked whether it included sucking the tail or licking the, perhaps, oysterish taste from the cat’s ear. But this did not lead to any further shared insight of our mutually alien habits. Everyone involved in the discussion was too tactful to draw attention to the challenge this disagreement implicitly raised to my earlier Wittgensteinian hopes about the prospects for understanding.