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Canadian Journal of Philosophy Supplement Volume 32 (2006) 29-50

Against Emotional Modularity

I. A Political Stand

How many emotions are there? Should we accept as overwhelming the evidence in favour of regarding emotions as emanating from a relatively small number of modules evolved efficiently to serve us in common life situations? Or can emotions, like colour, be organized in a space of two, three, or more dimensions defining a vast number of discriminable emotions, arranged on a continuum, on the model of the colour cone?

There is some evidence that certain emotions are specialized to facilitate certain response sequences, relatively encapsulated in their neurophysiological organization. These are natural facts. But nature, as Katherine Hepburn remarked to Humphrey Bogart, is what we were put in the world to rise above. I shall suggest that we can consider the question not merely from a scientific point of view, but from a political point of view. And so I will try to explain how to reconcile the evidence of emotional modularity – which, as some of the contributions to the present volume illustrate, is not devoid of a certain ambiguity – with a reasonable plea for an attitude of disapproval towards the rigidities of our taxonomy.

It may seem bizarre to speak of a political stance, since modularity is a scientific issue. And so it is: but we may have choices in the matter in two ways. First, it is far from clear just what it means to speak of modular emotions. So there is at least a choice of what version of the doctrine to focus on. Secondly, one can still ask whether thinking in terms of modular emotions in the relevant sense is a "good thing" or not. The facts don't determine the attitude we take to them. There's a long tradition that recommends accepting the [End Page 29] Universe;1 but one can find reasons to endorse some parts more full-heartedly than others.

In the history of philosophy, there are well-known examples of the politicization of factual and conceptual issues. Aristotle's and Aquinas's views on nature illustrate how one might make distinctions in the natural world between how things go and how they are meant to go. Aquinas can tell just by thinking, for example, what the sexual organs are for, and doesn't have to be distracted by any facts about what people and animals actually do. And if that's unreasonable in the light of the claim that what nature intends is what happens "always or for the most part,"2 well, you can afford that in the Vatican, Mother of Theme Parks, because you have God on your side.

Without divine backing, the issue of what actually counts as a natural function needs to be somewhat more responsive to facts; but contemporary naturalistic philosophy can still distinguish in theory, among an organ's actual effects, those that are its functions. Effects merely occur, from a variety of causes. But some effects are privileged by the role played by natural selection in securing the reproduction of the mechanisms that produce them, and only those count as functions (Wright 1973; Millikan 1989).

This perspective raises a fresh problem, however, stemming from the fact that what evolution selects does not, even in the most metaphorical sense, have the goal of benefiting me – or you, or any other organism as such. Whatever view of genetics or fashionable stance on evo-devo you adopt, any particular organism remains a means for the transmission of heritable patterns. Indeed, the individual organism is strictly expendable where those larger "goals" might prove incompatible with the welfare of some particular vehicle such as you or me. So inasmuch as I can identify goals of my own, as distinct from those of natural selection, there is no guarantee at all that the pursuit of goals I identify as my own will necessarily be fostered by a policy of living according to nature (Buss 2000; de Sousa 2007). [End Page 30]

Where emotions are concerned, then, it...