A brief review of the cognitive theory of emotions

From time to time, I return to Martha Nussbaum’s understanding of our emotional life as it is elaborated in her books The Therapy of Desire and Upheavals of Thought. I have had reason to do so again recently.

Diana Fritz Cates (see her book review: “Conceiving Emotions: Martha Nussbaum’s Upheavals of Thought,” The Journal of Religious Ethics 31.2 (Summer, 2003), 325-341)) helpfully summarizes Nussbaum’s cognitive theory of the emotions as involving two features. When I emote, there is the object I have in view or have imagined together with the evaluation of the importance of this object to my overall well-being (or to the well-being of those I care about). For Nussbaum, a certain kind of thought–specifically, a judgment–just is an emotion.

Gregory Johnson, in “Theories of Emotions,” which is accessible in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, elaborates further:

Nussbaum points out how the different beliefs are related to the emotion. She notes that, “each element of this set of beliefs is necessary in order for anger to be present: if I should discover that not x but y had done the damage, or that it was not done willingly, or that it was not serious, we could expect my anger to modify itself accordingly or recede” (2004, p. 188). Thus, a change in an individual’s beliefs—in his or her way of seeing the world—entails a different emotion, or none at all.

The quote is especially rich. What needs to be underscored in Nussbaum’s view is how we examine the web or network of beliefs that an individual may have. When I explore a conversation partner’s emotion in my philosophy practice, it is important for us to widen the aperture of our focus from a particular belief he may have to the conceptual net of beliefs that are necessary in order to bring on the emotion. Pointedly, a man who is often angry is taking a certain stance toward the world in which he is immanently injurable or, as it were, injured before he was born. Contrariwise, the woman who apologizes all the time takes herself to be in the way of others from the very beginning, as if she were harming them merely by existing.

On their own, negative emotions (e.g., anger, sadness, grief, etc.) are neither good nor bad but only become so within a particular context and within one’s general web of beliefs. Some negative emotions such as grief are significant in that they cue us into what we care–and perhaps ought to care–most about. Other negative emotions such as disappointment and dread suggest that we have a false picture of ourselves and the world, a picture that needs to be brought into question. How, through the loving practice of philosophy, will we come to view the ground we stand on, walk over, dance with as that which is made for giving?