We are unable to display your institutional affiliation without JavaScript turned on.
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

Find using OpenURL

Buy This Issue

Deeper than Reason: Emotion and Its Role in Literature, Music, and Art (review)

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 31, Number 2, October 2007
pp. 420-422 | 10.1353/phl.2007.0027

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

Jenefer Robinson's lucid yet closely-argued book has four parts. The first part presents a theory of the emotions in general. The second part develops and defends the view that "some works of literature . . . need to be experienced emotionally if they are to be properly understood" (p. 3) and draws some implications for other arts. Part Three develops a new theory of expression, and Part Four examines the expression of emotion in and listeners' emotional responses to music. Robinson applies her theory of emotions and how they arise and are expressed in response to individual works of art throughout, and the extended discussions of Edith Wharton's The Reef and one of the intermezzi from Brahms's Opus 117 set are not to be missed.

Robinson's use of psychological research to develop a philosophical theory of emotion is characteristic of an increasingly popular practice in the philosophy of mind. Her descriptions of this often highly technical literature are among the best with respect to accuracy and clarity. On most accounts, emotions are mental states; on Robinson's, they are mental processes. These processes are always initiated by "an automatic 'affective appraisal' [that] induces characteristic physiological and behavioral changes and is succeeded by . . . 'cognitive monitoring' of the situation" (p. 3). The appraisal is also referred to as a 'non-cognitive' appraisal, which may sound like an oxymoron. Robinson explains: these appraisals are non-cognitive "in the sense that they occur without any conscious deliberation or awareness, and that they do not involve any complex information processing" (p. 45; see also p. 59). Appraisals have a valence, positive or negative, sufficient to induce a characteristic pattern of physiological and (roughly, involuntary) behavioral responses, such as alterations in galvanic skin response and movements of facial muscles. These changes are succeeded by cognitive monitoring of the situation, resulting in conceptually more sophisticated assessments of one's initial response with respect to its suitability to the circumstances and in relation to one's beliefs. Thus, cognitive monitoring generates the more cognitively complex emotions, and here she is in agreement with the "judgment theorists" (p. 90) that these emotions are individuated by cognitions. Robinson seeks a univocal account of emotions for humans and other sentient creatures, though with humans it is possible for a "complex cognition" to trigger the process that constitutes having an emotion and cognitive feedback may occur in general throughout the process in ways that are not possible for creatures lacking the relevant complex mental capacities (p. 93).

The fact that complex cognitions can constitute the initial stage of an emotion makes it possible to respond emotionally to literature. As in emotional situations in real life, emotions are initiated by automatic affective appraisals that have to do with one's own wants and interests, calling our attention to something important in the novel, which may lay down its own memory system, linked with bodily feelings, which is then subject to cognitive appraisal and reappraisal. Cognitive reflection facilitates the understanding of narratives as well as characters, and with respect to the latter, she argues, deploys the same mental systems that are engaged in understanding people. Further, it is not merely the beliefs that one may acquire as a result of the process that is educational, but the process of emotional understanding itself (p. 155). Indeed, Robinson endorses the strong claim that for at least some novels, those that are part of the "Great Tradition" of nineteenth-century realistic British and American literature, it is necessary to experience them emotionally to understand them.

Part Three exposits a theory of the expression of emotion simpliciter and then makes adjustments to it to build a theory of expression in art, taking advantage of Romantic theories of expression developed in the works of, for example, Collingwood. Reflection on ordinary expression allows an artist to clarify and articulate "what it is like to go through the emotion process," which may be revealed both in the way the world appears and in the thoughts, beliefs and attitudes of someone experiencing the emotion (pp. 274–75). That perceivers of artworks are able to share these emotions—in that they may go through relevantly similar processes—is defended on empirical...

You must be logged in through an institution that subscribes to this journal or book to access the full text.


Shibboleth authentication is only available to registered institutions.

Project MUSE

For subscribing associations only.