Monday, 30 March 2009

Emotions and feelings @ University of Durham

Knowing nothing about the philosophy of emotions, I went to Matthew Ratcliffe’s University of Durham workshop to sit at the back and listen. I let myself off asking any questions within the formal sessions. It seems to me as though the experience of listening is quite different for cases where one does and doesn’t join in the formal dialogue. Whilst for the former things are more focussed, I probably take in less overall. It is enough to find the or a fulcrum of the argument of the paper and think how to apply pressure.

That said, there were a couple of papers on more familiar territory. Peter Goldie argued in defence of a (metaphysically slim, he said) narrative sense of self, against worries about the dangers of treating life as fiction. His explicit targets seemed both to think a narrative sense was bad and also false (bad because false, he said later when I asked him, after a pause for thought) but he wasn’t particularly interested in thinking why in this particular case one might add badness to what is generally taken to be a sufficient charge in philosophy.

Dan Hutto (pictured) gave a paper in his usual thorough and robust style. I realise – to my regret – that I’ve not commented on his work here before and so I will do so properly later. But here’s what’s interesting to me. He deploys quite nitty gritty arguments against theories of mind, and against mental representations and mental modules and such like. Such arguments are within the discipline, as it were, arguing about what the empirical data about evolution or about mirror neurones show. But the net result is a position which locates all intentional and normative properties at the level of whole people, only. So one would get the same result from a firm distinction between norms and non-norms, the level of the person and the sub-personal. The reason for the detour via the sub personal is strategic: to engage with philosophers who would simply dismiss McDowellian-Wittgensteinian arguments.

Matthew Ratcliffe gave a paper on phenomenology of emotions which was thus doubly outside my area of understanding but seemed an important and distinctive project. One aspect of it involved defining the relative depth of emotions through what made what possible to shed light on guilt in depression. That said, I was not sure on first hearing which of two things he was doing:
1) On the assumption that some emotions are necessary for others, charting the logical relations between emotions to show how they fit together. This would be a kind of a priori investigation once, or on the assumption that, one could say what was a precondition for what. His first example of such a dependence was to say that the possibility of finding anything significant was a precondition of finding this bottle, say, significant. Thus a global loss of significance was ‘deeper’ than any particular loss.
2) Exploring from ‘within’ the way a subject thought of her emotions, using the idea of depth as a way of charting this. But on this second approach, the inquiry need endorse no claims about which emotions genuinely make other emotions possible. All that would matter would be what a subject thought.
My worry, though, was that 2) seems too weak - eg. there might be no agreement in thinking about what was deeper than what - but 1) is perhaps too strong. On what basis could one in general argue that one emotion was a precondition of what? You might if you believed in a kind of grammar of emotion (as though emotions were built from building blocks according to rules) but that seems implausible. But, to repeat, I was new to the idea of the project and my worry may simply reflect an initial misunderstanding.

Louis Sass was distinctly unimpressed by my critique of his book arguing (if my notes are correct) that the combination of both his assertion and retraction of solipsism as an interpretation of schizophrenia helped him (leaving as it were a shadowy residue of interpretative clues rather than nothing at all, as I think); that my bald dilemma for him would leave no space for hermeneutics; and that Schreber’s seeing his body as feminine was a simple matter as any breast, for example, might literally look feminine so that one could see any breast as feminine. I don’t think that any of these are going to help him but I will have to work out the best way of saying that before the Oxford seminar where I will rerun the paper.