Every eye feels different colours

On the Emotions
October 6, 2000

This book is ostensibly about emotion, ranging deeply into the human psyche in a way that has become uncommon in modern philosophy. This is not to say that this is a mere exercise in wishy-washy speculative philosophising - throughout it is closely and rigorously argued. It is an example of analytical philosophy (although the book draws on sources outside that tradition) digging deep into its original motivations, proving it can still deliver brilliant insights into the human condition. Many philosophers have forgotten how to do this, abandoning the scene to professionals who chip away at esoteric minutiae or those who present a simulacrum of profundity beneath a deluge of obscurity.

On the Emotions is divided into three parts, corresponding to the original three Ernst Cassirer lectures delivered in 1991 from which the book is derived. It is complex, but not obscure. Richard Wollheim begins by distinguishing "mental states" and "mental dispositions" - the former is a transient modification of the mind, the latter a more or less persistent modification of the mind. These two categories of the mental interact. Wollheim emphasises the "psychological" reality of mental dispositions whereby talk of them refers to some psychological or physical reality that has causal power - in other words they are not just a shorthand way of talking about what someone might do .

Since Wollheim argues that emotions are a species of mental disposition, a central tenet of the book is the "repsychologisation" of emotion. Emotions as mental dispositions sometimes get confused with the mental states that manifest those emotions. Beliefs and desires are also mental dispositions, but are distinct from emotions and emotions are not reducible to them. Beliefs present us with a picture of the world; desires provide us with things at which to aim. Emotion gives a creature an orientation or attitude to the world - emotion colours the world. What Wollheim calls the "originating condition" of emotion refers to the way in which emotion fits into a narrative in one's life and is dependent upon certain facts about the way the world is. The last point alludes to Wollheim's final remark in the main text of the book that emotions would not arise if the world were either totally impervious to emotions or totally capitulated to them. The narrative in which emotions form is one in terms of desire that gives rise to satisfaction or frustration leading to various possible outcomes standardly connected with belief.

Wollheim identifies four different occasions on which emotions can form: "a desire has been satisfied or frustrated; a desire has been satisfied or frustrated, and the person has lived through the event that caused the desire to be satisfied or frustrated; a desire has not been satisfied or frustrated, but is believed to have been; and, finally, a desire is about to be satisfied or frustrated, and its satisfaction or frustration has been fully anticipated." Wollheim goes beyond the originating condition, drawing on rich sources from philosophy, literature and everyday life to explore the role that emotions play in human existence. The text is packed with illuminating examples. He proceeds to test his theory with an examination of the (as he puts it) so-called moral emotions such as shame and guilt. One criticism of the book is that given its complexity and its predilection for distinctions, visually presented taxonomies would have aided understanding considerably.

This is a marvellous book: broad, erudite and profound. The depth and experience found here should mean that it will be read by all philosophers and interested readers, not just the small band of philosophers working to understand emotion.

John Shand is associate lecturer in philosophy, Open University.

On the Emotions

Author - Richard Wollheim
ISBN - 0 300 07974 5
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £19.99
Pages - 269

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