- Commentary on “Towards a Design-Based Analysis of Emotional Episodes”
To think about grief is to think about many things. My one-year-old daughter was practicing opening and closing a cabinet door as I puzzled over a response to Wright, Sloman, and Beaudoin’s “Toward a Design-Based Analysis of Emotional Episodes.” She was completely absorbed in her project, and as I watched my elf at her task, I thought about the voices of loss that speak briefly in section 3.1. How terrible it would be to lose a loved one. With that, I was overcome with a pang of love for my daughter, and further thought about the paper ceased.
In the authors’ terms, my feelings about my daughter were “perturbances,” states that interfered with the internal management of my thought process, derailing it from the deliberate project of responding to the paper. Reading and thinking about loss activated the attachment structures involving those whose loss would be most devastating to me. The activation of the attachment structure was my episode of intense feeling, arising in me with an insistence level that temporarily exceeded my academic pursuits. The whole sequence of mental events arose through the interaction of major processes of perception, beliefs, “motivators,” plans, self-monitoring, and global control. The mind, according to the authors, is a collection of such processes.
Is that all there is? The familiar objection to this brand of functionalist analysis is that it leaves out the most important part of mind, namely, conscious experience. Such an “architecture” for an “intelligent agent” is at best a simulation of some aspects of cognition, but the feelings, the moods, the subjective what-it-is-like of experience are missing. And without them, say the familiar critics, the mind is missing. The authors are naturally aware of this objection, and are careful to hedge their project: “In our discussion the ‘phenomenological problem’ is factored out and placed to one side.”
I wonder, however, whether the authors are too quick to concede that their model omits the phenomenal. The symptoms of grief expressed by its sufferers would all be considered reports of the experience of grief, aspects of its phenomenology. The authors use these reports to guide their analysis of the functional processes of grief, and their analysis in turn explains why the grievers experience their losses as they do. Functionalist psychologists usually base their analyses on strictly observable responses obtained in cognitive psychology experiments. In using first-person reports as their guide, the authors inaugurate a promising union of phenomenology and functionalism. After their treatment of grief, the left over and left out phenomenology is noticeably slimmer.
What remains of grief is its pain. In the spirit [End Page 127] of the paper, I will close with a brief speculative extension of the authors’ approach, using it to examine the core of the experience of grief. Like physical pain, emotional pain is curiously resistant to description, and not even easy to remember. (One remembers that one was in pain, and that it was hateful, but such reminiscences are faint shadows of the experience itself.) Though its phenomenology is elusive, pain has a clear function. It is aversive. As the authors note, pain involves “dispositions to terminate or reduce some state or process.” In their terms, pain is a motivator with a very high insistence level. Motivators motivate plans, and an aversive motivator would principally motivate a plan to remove the cause of the pain. However, grief and other chronic emotional pains are marked by irremediability. There can be no plan that replaces the loss, only fantasy plans or reversions to infant strategies of last resort (like crying). Within the cognitive architecture proposed by this paper, emotional pain is thus characterized by a collision of two processes, a highly insistent motive meeting a vacuum where a plan should be. The unanswered insistence would make the collision hateful, while the absent plan would leave a state partly without intentional content, and thus hard to describe or remember. This breakdown, arguably, is the pain—an emergent state or states arising in just this sort of wrenching bind.
The traditional critic will insist that the painfulness...