Daniel Shargel

Emotions Without Objects

The near consensus among theorists working on emotion, in both philosophy and psychology, is that emotions have objects. When we are angry, we are angry at someone. When we are frightened, we are frightened of something. We can call the theory that emotions have objects the Token Object Theory (TOKEN), though the defenders of this view are so numerous and diverse that they agree on little else. The ubiquity of TOKEN reflects, among other things, Brentano’s influence on the philosophy of mind. It is inconceivable that emotions would fail to manifest features which are taken to be characteristic of all mental states. Adherents rarely treat TOKEN as a theoretical position in need of defense, with empirically falsifiable implications. In fact, some relevant empirical work has been done. I will argue that this research supports an alternative model, the Type Influence Theory (TYPE), according to which emotions of a given kind influence judgements concerning a whole class of objects. For example, anger influences judgments about anything that seems offensive, and fear influences judgments about anything that seem dangerous. According to TYPE, emotions indiscriminately influence judgments about objects of a given type, while TOKEN, I will argue, implies that emotions influence judgments in a way that discriminates between tokens of the same type (e.g. judgments about different offensive things). This distinction allows us to empirically test these theories. Mounting a persuasive defense of TOKEN poses some serious challenges. It is not enough to argue that emotions do not have objects, I need to explain why it seems so clear to so many that they do. The view sounds extremely implausible, particularly to anyone steeped in the literature. In addition, I am arguing that a certain kind of effect does not exist, which is in general difficult to do. Given these obstacles, my more modest goal is to show that TOKEN is less well supported than philosophers tend to acknowledge, and that TYPE presents a challenge that defenders of TOKEN need to address. Part 2 will introduce a criterion for determining whether emotions have objects. In short, we should only consider a mental state, whether it is a belief, desire, or emotion, to be directed at object p, if it influences thought and behavior in ways that are specific to p. Intentional states satisfy this criterion even when there is no such thing as p. In Parts 3 and 4 I will discuss in detail the two psychological studies that form the basis for my argument against TOKEN. These studies are drawn from what is widely known as the emotional misattribution literature, since participants seem to be confused about the true intentional object of their emotions. I will argue that these studies are best interpreted as evidence that there is no true intentional object about which participants are confused. Instead, each type of emotion automatically influences judgments about a given class of phenomena, and tokens of the same emotional type influence the same class of judgments. Any token state of fear makes any apparently dangerous things seem more dangerous. Emotions seem, in part, to have more targetted effects because we often attribute to them intentional objects, and then selectively suppress emotional effects in a manner that is consistent with that attribution. This selective suppression is intrinsic to the emotion, so the emotion itself fails to satisfy my criterion.

In the remainder of the paper I will consider a variety of objections. I will begin by considering other interpretation of the studies, and argue that they are less well supported. The strongest alternative is the view that emotions have two types of effects: primary effects which are specific to the intentional object of the emotion, and secondary effects which apply more broadly. On this view, the studies demonstrate the existence of the secondary effects, but do not prove that there are no additional, object-directed primary effects. In response, I argue that positing these additional effects provides no theoretical advantage. There are no emotional phenomena that can be explained by appealing to this primary effect which I cannot explain with the secondary effect alone. This is a bold claim, and it is impossible in this paper to comprehensively survey emotional phenomena. However, I will discuss a number of factors which contribute to the general impression that we can only explain emotional phenomena by attributing intentional objects. My goal is to put the burden on my opponents to defend TOKEN, rather than taking it for granted.