The Manifold of Sense

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin

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"Anthropologists report enormous differences in the ways that different cultures categorize emotions. Some languages, in fact, do not even have a word for emotion. Other languages differ in the number of words they have to name emotions. While English has over 2,000 words to describe emotional categories, there are only 750 such descriptive words in Taiwanese Chinese. One tribal language has only 7 words that could be translated into categories of emotion… the words used to name or describe an emotion can influence what emotion is experienced. For example, Tahitians do not have a word directly equivalent to sadness. Instead, they treat sadness as something like a physical illness. This difference has an impact on how the emotion is experienced by Tahitians. For example, the sadness we feel over the departure of a close friend would be experienced by a Tahitian as exhaustion. Some cultures lack words for anxiety or depression or guilt. Samoans have one word encompassing love, sympathy, pity, and liking – which are very different emotions in our own culture."
("Psychology – An Introduction" Ninth Edition By: Charles G. Morris, University of Michigan Prentice Hall, 1996)


This essay is divided in two parts. In the first, we survey the landscape of the discourse regarding emotions in general and sensations in particular. This part will be familiar to any student of philosophy and can be skipped by same. The second part contains an attempt at producing an integrative overview of the matter, whether successful or not is best left to the reader to judge.

A. Survey

Words have the power to express the speaker's emotions and to evoke emotions (whether the same or not remains disputed) in the listener. Words, therefore, possess emotive meaning together with their descriptive meaning (the latter plays a cognitive role in forming beliefs and understanding).

Our moral judgements and the responses deriving thereof have a strong emotional streak, an emotional aspect and an emotive element. Whether the emotive part predominates as the basis of appraisal is again debatable. Reason analyzes a situation and prescribes alternatives for action. But it is considered to be static, inert, not goal-oriented (one is almost tempted to say: non-teleological - see: "Legitimizing Final Causes"). The equally necessary dynamic, action-inducing component is thought, for some oblivious reason, to belong to the emotional realm. Thus, the language (=words) used to express moral judgement supposedly actually express the speaker's emotions. Through the aforementioned mechanism of emotive meaning, similar emotions are evoked in the hearer and he is moved to action.

A distinction should be – and has been – drawn between regarding moral judgement as merely a report pertaining to the subject's inner emotional world – and regarding it wholly as an emotive reaction. In the first case, the whole notion (really, the phenomenon) of moral disagreement is rendered incomprehensible. How could one disagree with a report? In the second case, moral judgement is reduced to the status of an exclamation, a non-propositional expression of "emotive tension", a mental excretion. This absurd was nicknamed: "The Boo-Hoorah Theory".

There were those who maintained that the whole issue was the result of mislabeling. Emotions are really what we otherwise call attitudes, they claimed. We approve or disapprove of something, therefore, we "feel". Prescriptivist accounts displaced emotivist analyses. This instrumentalism did not prove more helpful than its purist predecessors.

Throughout this scholarly debate, philosophers did what they are best at: ignored reality. Moral judgements – every child knows – are not explosive or implosive events, with shattered and scattered emotions strewn all over the battlefield. Logic is definitely involved and so are responses to already analyzed moral properties and circumstances. Moreover, emotions themselves are judged morally (as right or wrong). If a moral judgement were really an emotion, we would need to stipulate the existence of an hyper-emotion to account for the moral judgement of our emotions and, in all likelihood, will find ourselves infinitely regressing. If moral judgement is a report or an exclamation, how are we able to distinguish it from mere rhetoric? How are we able to intelligibly account for the formation of moral standpoints by moral agents in response to an unprecedented moral challenge?

Moral realists criticize these largely superfluous and artificial dichotomies (reason versus feeling, belief versus desire, emotivism and noncognitivism versus realism).

The debate has old roots. Feeling Theories, such as Descartes', regarded emotions as a mental item, which requires no definition or classification. One could not fail to fully grasp it upon having it. This entailed the introduction of introspection as the only way to access our feelings. Introspection not in the limited sense of "awareness of one's mental states" but in the broader sense of "being able to internally ascertain mental states". It almost became material: a "mental eye", a "brain-scan", at the least a kind of perception. Others denied its similarity to sensual perception. They preferred to treat introspection as a modus of memory, recollection through retrospection, as an internal way of ascertaining (past) mental events. This approach relied on the impossibility of having a thought simultaneously with another thought whose subject was the first thought. All these lexicographic storms did not serve either to elucidate the complex issue of introspection or to solve the critical questions: How can we be sure that what we "introspect" is not false? If accessible only to introspection, how do we learn to speak of emotions uniformly? How do we (unreflectively) assume knowledge of other people's emotions? How come we are sometimes forced to "unearth" or deduce our own emotions? How is it possible to mistake our emotions (to have one without actually feeling it)? Are all these failures of the machinery of introspection?

The proto-psychologists James and Lange have (separately) proposed that emotions are the experiencing of physical responses to external stimuli. They are mental representations of totally corporeal reactions. Sadness is what we call the feeling of crying. This was phenomenological materialism at its worst. To have full-blown emotions (not merely detached observations), one needed to experience palpable bodily symptoms. The James-Lange Theory apparently did not believe that a quadriplegic can have emotions, since he definitely experiences no bodily sensations. Sensationalism, another form of fanatic empiricism, stated that all our knowledge derived from sensations or sense data. There is no clear answer to the question how do these sensa (=sense data) get coupled with interpretations or judgements. Kant postulated the existence of a "manifold of sense" – the data supplied to the mind through sensation. In the "Critique of Pure Reason" he claimed that these data were presented to the mind in accordance with its already preconceived forms (sensibilities, like space and time). But to experience means to unify these data, to cohere them somehow. Even Kant admitted that this is brought about by the synthetic activity of "imagination", as guided by "understanding". Not only was this a deviation from materialism (what material is "imagination" made of?) – it was also not very instructive.

The problem was partly a problem of communication. Emotions are qualia, qualities as they appear to our consciousness. In many respects they are like sense data (which brought about the aforementioned confusion). But, as opposed to sensa, which are particular, qualia are universal. They are subjective qualities of our conscious experience. It is impossible to ascertain or to analyze the subjective components of phenomena in physical, objective terms, communicable and understandable by all rational individuals, independent of their sensory equipment. The subjective dimension is comprehensible only to conscious beings of a certain type (=with the right sensory faculties). The problems of "absent qualia" (can a zombie/a machine pass for a human being despite the fact that it has no experiences) and of "inverted qualia" (what we both call "red" might have been called "green" by you if you had my internal experience when seeing what we call "red") – are irrelevant to this more limited discussion. These problems belong to the realm of "private language". Wittgenstein demonstrated that a language cannot contain elements which it would be logically impossible for anyone but its speaker to learn or understand. Therefore, it cannot have elements (words) whose meaning is the result of representing objects accessible only to the speaker (for instance, his emotions). One can use a language either correctly or incorrectly. The speaker must have at his disposal a decision procedure, which will allow him to decide whether his usage is correct or not. This is not possible with a private language, because it cannot be compared to anything.

In any case, the bodily upset theories propagated by James et al. did not account for lasting or dispositional emotions, where no external stimulus occurred or persisted. They could not explain on what grounds do we judge emotions as appropriate or perverse, justified or not, rational or irrational, realistic or fantastic. If emotions were nothing but involuntary reactions, contingent upon external events, devoid of context – then how come we perceive drug induced anxiety, or intestinal spasms in a detached way, not as we do emotions? Putting the emphasis on sorts of behavior (as the behaviorists do) shifts the focus to the public, shared aspect of emotions but miserably fails to account for their private, pronounced, dimension. It is possible, after all, to experience emotions without expressing them (=without behaving). Additionally, the repertory of emotions available to us is much larger than the repertory of behaviours. Emotions are subtler than actions and cannot be fully conveyed by them. We find even human language an inadequate conduit for these complex phenomena.

To say that emotions are cognitions is to say nothing. We understand cognition even less than we understand emotions (with the exception of the mechanics of cognition). To say that emotions are caused by cognitions or cause cognitions (emotivism) or are part of a motivational process – does not answer the question: "What are emotions?". Emotions do cause us to apprehend and perceive things in a certain way and even to act accordingly. But WHAT are emotions? Granted, there are strong, perhaps necessary, connections between emotions and knowledge and, in this respect, emotions are ways of perceiving the world and interacting with it. Perhaps emotions are even rational strategies of adaptation and survival and not stochastic, isolated inter-psychic events. Perhaps Plato was wrong in saying that emotions conflict with reason and thus obscure the right way of apprehending reality. Perhaps he is right: fears do become phobias, emotions do depend on one's experience and character. As we have it in psychoanalysis, emotions may be reactions to the unconscious rather than to the world. Yet, again, Sartre may be right in saying that emotions are a "modus vivendi", the way we "live" the world, our perceptions coupled with our bodily reactions. He wrote: "(we live the world) as though the relations between things were governed not by deterministic processes but by magic". Even a rationally grounded emotion (fear which generates flight from a source of danger) is really a magical transformation (the ersatz elimination of that source). Emotions sometimes mislead. People may perceive the same, analyze the same, evaluate the situation the same, respond along the same vein – and yet have different emotional reactions. It does not seem necessary (even if it were sufficient) to postulate the existence of "preferred" cognitions – those that enjoy an "overcoat" of emotions. Either all cognitions generate emotions, or none does. But, again, WHAT are emotions?

We all possess some kind of sense awareness, a perception of objects and states of things by sensual means. Even a dumb, deaf and blind person still possesses proprioception (perceiving the position and motion of one's limbs). Sense awareness does not include introspection because the subject of introspection is supposed to be mental, unreal, states. Still, if mental states are a misnomer and really we are dealing with internal, physiological, states, then introspection should form an important part of sense awareness. Specialized organs mediate the impact of external objects upon our senses and distinctive types of experience arise as a result of this mediation.

Perception is thought to be comprised of the sensory phase – its subjective aspect – and of the conceptual phase. Clearly sensations come before thoughts or beliefs are formed. Suffice it to observe children and animals to be convinced that a sentient being does not necessarily have to have beliefs. One can employ the sense modalities or even have sensory-like phenomena (hunger, thirst, pain, sexual arousal) and, in parallel, engage in introspection because all these have an introspective dimension. It is inevitable: sensations are about how objects feel like, sound, smell and seen to us. The sensations "belong", in one sense, to the objects with which they are identified. But in a deeper, more fundamental sense, they have intrinsic, introspective qualities. This is how we are able to tell them apart. The difference between sensations and propositional attitudes is thus made very clear. Thoughts, beliefs, judgements and knowledge differ only with respect to their content (the proposition believed/judged/known, etc.) and not in their intrinsic quality or feel. Sensations are exactly the opposite: differently felt sensations may relate to the same content. Thoughts can also be classified in terms of intentionality (they are "about" something) – sensations only in terms of their intrinsic character. They are, therefore, distinct from discursive events (such as reasoning, knowing, thinking, or remembering) and do not depend upon the subject's intellectual endowments (like his power to conceptualize). In this sense, they are mentally "primitive" and probably take place at a level of the psyche where reason and thought have no recourse.

The epistemological status of sensations is much less clear. When we see an object, are we aware of a "visual sensation" in addition to being aware of the object? Perhaps we are only aware of the sensation, wherefrom we infer the existence of an object, or otherwise construct it mentally, indirectly? This is what, the Representative Theory tries to persuade us, the brain does upon encountering the visual stimuli emanating from a real, external object. The Naive Realists say that one is only aware of the external object and that it is the sensation that we infer. This is a less tenable theory because it fails to explain how do we directly know the character of the pertinent sensation.

What is indisputable is that sensation is either an experience or a faculty of having experiences. In the first case, we have to introduce the idea of sense data (the objects of the experience) as distinct from the sensation (the experience itself). But isn't this separation artificial at best? Can sense data exist without sensation? Is "sensation" a mere structure of the language, an internal accusative? Is "to have a sensation" equivalent to "to strike a blow" (as some dictionaries of philosophy have it)? Moreover, sensations must be had by subjects. Are sensations objects? Are they properties of the subjects that have them? Must they intrude upon the subject's consciousness in order to exist – or can they exist in the "psychic background" (for instance, when the subject is distracted)? Are they mere representations of real events (is pain a representation of injury)? Are they located? We know of sensations when no external object can be correlated with them or when we deal with the obscure, the diffuse, or the general. Some sensations relate to specific instances – others to kinds of experiences. So, in theory, the same sensation can be experienced by several people. It would be the same KIND of experience – though, of course, different instances of it. Finally, there are the "oddball" sensations, which are neither entirely bodily – nor entirely mental. The sensations of being watched or followed are two examples of sensations with both components clearly intertwined.

Feeling is a "hyper-concept" which is made of both sensation and emotion. It describes the ways in which we experience both our world and our selves. It coincides with sensations whenever it has a bodily component. But it is sufficiently flexible to cover emotions and attitudes or opinions. But attaching names to phenomena never helped in the long run and in the really important matter of understanding them. To identify feelings, let alone to describe them, is not an easy task. It is difficult to distinguish among feelings without resorting to a detailed description of causes, inclinations and dispositions. In addition, the relationship between feeling and emotions is far from clear or well established. Can we emote without feeling? Can we explain emotions, consciousness, even simple pleasure in terms of feeling? Is feeling a practical method, can it be used to learn about the world, or about other people? How do we know about our own feelings?

Instead of throwing light on the subject, the dual concepts of feeling and sensation seem to confound matters even further. A more basic level needs to be broached, that of sense data (or sensa, as in this text).

Sense data are entities cyclically defined. Their existence depends upon being sensed by a sensor equipped with senses. Yet, they define the senses to a large extent (imagine trying to define the sense of vision without visuals). Ostensibly, they are entities, though subjective. Allegedly, they possess the properties that we perceive in an external object (if it is there), as it appears to have them. In other words, though the external object is perceived, what we really get in touch with directly, what we apprehend without mediation – are the subjective sensa. What is (probably) perceived is merely inferred from the sense data. In short, all our empirical knowledge rests upon our acquaintance with sensa. Every perception has as its basis pure experience. But the same can be said about memory, imagination, dreams, hallucinations. Sensation, as opposed to these, is supposed to be error free, not subject to filtering or to interpretation, special, infallible, direct and immediate. It is an awareness of the existence of entities: objects, ideas, impressions, perceptions, even other sensations. Russell and Moore said that sense data have all (and only) the properties that they appear to have and can only be sensed by one subject. But these all are idealistic renditions of senses, sensations and sensa. In practice, it is notoriously difficult to reach a consensus regarding the description of sense data or to base any meaningful (let alone useful) knowledge of the physical world on them. There is a great variance in the conception of sensa. Berkeley, ever the incorrigible practical Briton, said that sense data exist only if and when sensed or perceived by us. Nay, their very existence IS their being perceived or sensed by us. Some sensa are public or part of lager assemblages of sensa. Their interaction with the other sensa, parts of objects, or surfaces of objects may distort the inventory of their properties. They may seem to lack properties that they do possess or to possess properties that can be discovered only upon close inspection (not immediately evident). Some sense data are intrinsically vague. What is a striped pajama? How many stripes does it contain? We do not know. It is sufficient to note (=to visually sense) that it has stripes all over. Some philosophers say that if a sense data can be sensed then they possibly exist. These sensa are called the sensibilia (plural of sensibile). Even when not actually perceived or sensed, objects consist of sensibilia. This makes sense data hard to differentiate. They overlap and where one begins may be the end of another. Nor is it possible to say if sensa are changeable because we do not really know WHAT they are (objects, substances, entities, qualities, events?).

Other philosophers suggested that sensing is an act directed at the objects called sense data. Other hotly dispute this artificial separation. To see red is simply to see in a certain manner, that is: to see redly. This is the adverbial school. It is close to the contention that sense data are nothing but a linguistic convenience, a noun, which enables us to discuss appearances. For instance, the "Gray" sense data is nothing but a mixture of red and sodium. Yet we use this convention (gray) for convenience and efficacy's sakes.

B. The Evidence

An important facet of emotions is that they can generate and direct behaviour. They can trigger complex chains of actions, not always beneficial to the individual. Yerkes and Dodson observed that the more complex a task is, the more emotional arousal interferes with performance. In other words, emotions can motivate. If this were their only function, we might have determined that emotions are a sub-category of motivations.

Some cultures do not have a word for emotion. Others equate emotions with physical sensations, a-la James-Lange, who said that external stimuli cause bodily changes which result in emotions (or are interpreted as such by the person affected). Cannon and Bard differed only in saying that both emotions and bodily responses were simultaneous. An even more far-fetched approach (Cognitive Theories) was that situations in our environment foster in us a GENERAL state of arousal. We receive clues from the environment as to what we should call this general state. For instance, it was demonstrated that facial expressions can induce emotions, apart from any cognition.

A big part of the problem is that there is no accurate way to verbally communicate emotions. People are either unaware of their feelings or try to falsify their magnitude (minimize or exaggerate them). Facial expressions seem to be both inborn and universal. Children born deaf and blind use them. They must be serving some adaptive survival strategy or function. Darwin said that emotions have an evolutionary history and can be traced across cultures as part of our biological heritage. Maybe so. But the bodily vocabulary is not flexible enough to capture the full range of emotional subtleties humans are capable of. Another nonverbal mode of communication is known as body language: the way we move, the distance we maintain from others (personal or private territory). It expresses emotions, though only very crass and raw ones.

And there is overt behaviour. It is determined by culture, upbringing, personal inclination, temperament and so on. For instance: women are more likely to express emotions than men when they encounter a person in distress. Both sexes, however, experience the same level of physiological arousal in such an encounter. Men and women also label their emotions differently. What men call anger – women call hurt or sadness. Men are four times more likely than women to resort to violence. Women more often than not will internalize aggression and become depressed.

Efforts at reconciling all these data were made in the early eighties. It was hypothesized that the interpretation of emotional states is a two phased process. People respond to emotional arousal by quickly "surveying" and "appraising" (introspectively) their feelings. Then they proceed to search for environmental cues to support the results of their assessment. They will, thus, tend to pay more attention to internal cues that agree with the external ones. Put more plainly: people will feel what they expect to feel.

Several psychologists have shown that feelings precede cognition in infants. Animals also probably react before thinking. Does this mean that the affective system reacts instantaneously, without any of the appraisal and survey processes that were postulated? If this were the case, then we merely play with words: we invent explanations to label our feelings AFTER we fully experience them. Emotions, therefore, can be had without any cognitive intervention. They provoke unlearned bodily patterns, such as the aforementioned facial expressions and body language. This vocabulary of expressions and postures is not even conscious. When information about these reactions reaches the brain, it assigns to them the appropriate emotion. Thus, affect creates emotion and not vice versa.

Sometimes, we hide our emotions in order to preserve our self-image or not to incur society's wrath. Sometimes, we are not aware of our emotions and, as a result, deny or diminish them.

C. An Integrative Platform – a Proposal

(The terminology used in this chapter is explored in the previous ones.)

The use of one word to denote a whole process was the source of misunderstandings and futile disputations. Emotions (feelings) are processes, not events, or objects. Throughout this chapter, I will, therefore, use the term "Emotive Cycle".

The genesis of the Emotive Cycle lies in the acquisition of Emotional Data. In most cases, these are made up of Sense Data mixed with data related to spontaneous internal events. Even when no access to sensa is available, the stream of internally generated data is never interrupted. This is easily demonstrated in experiments involving sensory deprivation or with people who are naturally sensorily deprived (blind, deaf and dumb, for instance). The spontaneous generation of internal data and the emotional reactions to them are always there even in these extreme conditions. It is true that, even under severe sensory deprivation, the emoting person reconstructs or evokes past sensory data. A case of pure, total, and permanent sensory deprivation is nigh impossible. But there are important philosophical and psychological differences between real life sense data and their representations in the mind. Only in grave pathologies is this distinction blurred: in psychotic states, when experiencing phantom pains following the amputation of a limb or in the case of drug induced images and after images. Auditory, visual, olfactory and other hallucinations are breakdowns of normal functioning. Normally, people are well aware of and strongly maintain the difference between objective, external, sense data and the internally generated representations of past sense data.

The Emotional Data are perceived by the emoter as stimuli. The external, objective component has to be compared to internally maintained databases of previous such stimuli. The internally generated, spontaneous or associative data, have to be reflected upon. Both needs lead to introspective (inwardly directed) activity. The product of introspection is the formation of qualia. This whole process is unconscious or subconscious.

If the person is subject to functioning psychological defense mechanisms (e.g., repression, suppression, denial, projection, projective identification) – qualia formation will be followed by immediate action. The subject – not having had any conscious experience – will not be aware of any connection between his actions and preceding events (sense data, internal data and the introspective phase). He will be at a loss to explain his behaviour, because the whole process did not go through his consciousness. To further strengthen this argument, we may recall that hypnotized and anaesthetized subjects are not likely to act at all even in the presence of external, objective, sensa. Hypnotized people are likely to react to sensa introduced to their consciousness by the hypnotist and which had no existence, whether internal or external, prior to the hypnotist's suggestion. It seems that feeling, sensation and emoting exist only if they pass through consciousness. This is true even where no data of any kind are available (such as in the case of phantom pains in long amputated limbs). But such bypasses of consciousness are the less common cases.

More commonly, qualia formation will be followed by Feeling and Sensation. These will be fully conscious. They will lead to the triple processes of surveying, appraisal/evaluation and judgment formation. When repeated often enough judgments of similar data coalesce to form attitudes and opinions. The patterns of interactions of opinions and attitudes with our thoughts (cognition) and knowledge, within our conscious and unconscious strata, give rise to what we call our personality. These patterns are relatively rigid and are rarely influenced by the outside world. When maladaptive and dysfunctional, we talk about personality disorders.

Judgements contain, therefore strong emotional, cognitive and attitudinal elements which team up to create motivation. The latter leads to action, which both completes one emotional cycle and starts another. Actions are sense data and motivations are internal data, which together form a new chunk of emotional data.

Emotional cycles can be divided to Phrastic nuclei and Neustic clouds (to borrow a metaphor from physics). The Phrastic Nucleus is the content of the emotion, its subject matter. It incorporates the phases of introspection, feeling/sensation, and judgment formation. The Neustic cloud involves the ends of the cycle, which interface with the world: the emotional data, on the one hand and the resulting action on the other.

We started by saying that the Emotional Cycle is set in motion by Emotional Data, which, in turn, are comprised of sense data and internally generated data. But the composition of the Emotional Data is of prime importance in determining the nature of the resulting emotion and of the following action. If more sense data (than internal data) are involved and the component of internal data is weak in comparison (it is never absent) – we are likely to experience Transitive Emotions. The latter are emotions, which involve observation and revolve around objects. In short: these are "out-going" emotions, that motivate us to act to change our environment.

Yet, if the emotional cycle is set in motion by Emotional Data, which are composed mainly of internal, spontaneously generated data – we will end up with Reflexive Emotions. These are emotions that involve reflection and revolve around the self (for instance, autoerotic emotions). It is here that the source of psychopathologies should be sought: in this imbalance between external, objective, sense data and the echoes of our mind.

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