Sunday, August 18, 2013

What is an Emotion?

We all use the word "emotion," we can live with the concept, but can we clarify it? Can we draw it out of the messy context in which it is actually used and present a polished - albeit artificial - definition of the word? No doubt we can, Websters should be more than sufficient for that task, but can we do so from where we are sitting right now, right off the top of our heads? I imagine any psychological thinkers in my audience could, but could the man outside that preoccupation?

I myself am not certain that I could. I tend to conflate the words "emotion," "feeling," "passion," and sometimes "impulse" or "inclination." But then, when I think of a feeling I do not think of an impulse, nor do I see passion as being quite the same as an inclination. I tend to use the word "emotion" in contrast to "reason," "analysis," or "language." I sometimes say that I think people have acted out of emotion, especially when I can not fit their behavior into the context of a larger goal or schema. I speak of an emotional part of myself, a category into which I fit certain states of being - the state of being excited or terrified or joyful.

Frankly, I think the way I use the word is a terrible mess. It lacks clarity. What appearances is it bound too? What part of the world am I trying to describe?

When I ask this question, I see something that I think is essential: the emotion is an appearance that others can not see except through me. That is, anger, say, appears to me ("that makes me so angry"), and I change in such a way that others see anger expressed through me ("look at his fists, GTW is angry"). Whereas the appearance of an object is something that we can all approach on equal footing ("there is a rock" "there is a rock") I have a special relation to an emotion that others do not share. It is more sensible to say that I am angry than it would be to say that I am appeared-to-rockly. In some sense the emotion is a part of me, it is closer to Self whereas objects are closer to Other.

Does the emotion proceed from me or does the emotion happen to me? At what point in the continuum of Self and Other do we mark "me?" Answer that and I can answer whether it proceeds or happens. Regardless it is not a neat break: we have emotions in response to that which is outside ourselves, we do not directly control the emotions, nobody can directly arouse an emotion in us on command they can only take note of those things that tend to arouse certain emotions, and sometimes the same external situation produces different emotions. This much is clear: it is much nearer to Self than objects are, and others can not experience our emotions as we do.

This is where I shall begin: an emotion is an appearance that I have privileged access to relative to other human beings.

No comments:

Post a Comment