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Cognitive Modularity of Emotion

From: Canadian Journal of Philosophy
Volume 36 (2006) Supplement [vol. 32]
pp. 213-228 | 10.1353/cjp.2007.0030

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

I. Perceptual Fixation

In a recent survey of contemporary philosophy of emotion, Ronald de Sousa states that "in recent years … emotions have once again become the focus of vigorous interest in philosophy, as well as in other branches of cognitive science" (de Sousa 2003, 1). He then goes on to make the important observation that "in view of the proliferation of increasingly fruitful exchanges between researchers of different stripes, it is no longer useful to speak of the philosophy of emotion in isolation from the approaches of other disciplines, particularly psychology, neurology and evolutionary biology" (de Sousa 2003, 1). This last remark is particularly apt in the case of a topic like modularity and emotion, which represents an ideal opportunity for reflecting on the emerging alliance between the philosophy of emotion and emotion science. In addition to being interesting in its own right, the topic also illustrates some of the perils associated with the new alliance, as different academic traditions must adapt to interdisciplinary dialogue.

In what follows, I start by reviewing the staggered history of the concept of modularity in contemporary philosophy of emotion. This is largely a history of isolated pronouncements to the effect that there are interesting examples of modularity in emotion science. It is not always clear whether the purpose of these discussions is simply to defend a particular philosophical theory of emotion or to contribute to emotion science by providing heuristic advice that might help orient theoretical reasoning and experimental practice. Often, it appears to be a mixture of both. Even so, the overall result has been disappointing. Emotion scientists have generally failed to make any concrete experimental use of these philosophical proposals, which represents a lost opportunity for the new alliance. Philosophically, the situation is equally lackluster. The proverbial wheel is repeatedly reinvented and set to roll, with contributors regularly crossing paths without apparently knowing it.

The philosophical history of modularity and emotion contains several common promising ideas echoed by almost all contributors. However, at times it also reveals an unfortunate lack of critical discussion among participants. What is common to all contributors is the idea that there are fast and automatic perceptual processes in emotion that are relatively impervious to reasoning and changes in beliefs and desires (Charland 1995b; Clarke 1986; de Sousa 1987; Griffiths 1990, 1997; Hanoch 2005; Prinz 2004). What is often overlooked is the fact that there may also be cognitive modular factors in emotion. This last observation contradicts the reliance most philosophers have shown for the original perceptual characterization of modularity proposed by Jerry Fodor (Fodor 1983). What appears to have been missed is the fact that modularity is essentially a representation-governed phenomenon (Charland 1995a, 76–77; 1995b, 289–90; 1997, 567). That assumption invites us to consider the possibility that modularity in emotion might sometimes operate on a cognitive level. It also helps us to distinguish modularity, which is a representation-governed affair, from transduction, which is not (Charland 1995b, 296n5).

Let us therefore see what we can learn from the philosophical history of modularity and emotion and use those lessons to bolster the chances for an alternative – but complementary – cognitive proposal. This exercise should also contribute to the intelligibility of current perceptual proposals, which suffer because they fail to consider the representational character of modularity in sufficient detail. The stakes are high. For what is in question is nothing less than whether the explanation of how modularity figures in emotion should be carried out in psychological or physical terms, and when.

II. Representation-Governed Character of Modularity

In the context of an interdisciplinary alliance like the present one, what would a successful history of a topic like modularity and emotion look like? At the very least, there would have to be productive dialogue between the two parties involved – philosophers of emotion and emotion scientists. That has not happened. Apart from one lone exception, philosophical claims about the empirical merits of modularity do not appear to have led to any substantial empirical proposals or discussions. One reason for this lack of response might be pragmatic. Many emotion scientists are simply too busy to read the relevant philosophical literature, to which they may not have easy access. Another...

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