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Canadian Journal of Philosophy Supplement Volume 32 (2006) 95-113

Empathy, Primitive Reactions and the Modularity of Emotion
Anne J. Jacobson

Are emotion-producing processes modular? Jerry Fodor, in his classic introduction of the notion of modularity (Fodor 1983), holds that its most important feature is cognitive impenetrability or information encapsulation.1 If a process possesses this feature, then, as standardly understood (Currie and Sterelny 2000), "what we want or believe makes no difference to how [it] works" (147).

In this paper, we will start with the issue of the cognitive impenetrability of emotion-producing processes. It turns out that, while there is abundant evidence of emotion-producing processes that are not cognitively impenetrable, some nonetheless are. We will look at two sorts of case. The first concerns emotional reactions to observed faces, and the second involves what we can call "primitive emotions," emotions that can be activated by non-doxastic input into regions of the brain we share with more primitive animals.

In seeing how some emotion-producing processes can be cognitively impenetrable while others are not, we need to use two commonsensical theses. First, a discussion of modularity must in general operate with a taxonomy that allows for sub-processes or stages of processes. Second, we cannot infer from the fact that some emotion-producing processes have or lack a general characteristic, such as that of impenetrability, that they all do.

The examples we will consider are less easy to understand than they may seem at first. With each sort of case, we need to raise questions about the content of the emotional reactions. The philosophical [End Page 95] notion of representational content may obscure the psychological import of what is being uncovered in some very important areas of cognitive neuroscience. Accordingly, our investigation into modularity includes an examination of emotional representations.

I. Cognitive Impenetrability

Visual illusions are often appealed to in order to illustrate the phenomenon of cognitive impenetrability or informational encapsulation. Two lines may persist in looking curved even though we know they are not. In such a case, the visual input is processed independently of our beliefs or desires.

So understood, cognitive impenetrability is very closely related to the familiar contrast between top-down and bottom-up processing. We can think of the process as taking inputs and yielding outputs. A bottom-up process is wholly stimulus- or input-driven; its operations and output are not affected by information other than that carried by the input. As Fodor notes, there is an analogy between modular systems and reflexes, which "are informationally encapsulated with bells on" (Fodor 1983).

The question of cognitive penetrability in the case of emotions is involved in important issues. One concerns the extent to which human emotions are rationally and morally assessable. It sometimes seems right to appraise emotional reactions as rational or irrational, and even to censure those who have some emotional reactions. Thus, for example, one might be told that it is irrational to be afraid of flying or that it is shameful to be delighted when an opponent in some competition falls seriously ill. In short, there's a wide-spread presumption that emotions are responsive to rational and moral standards, and, if so, the processes producing them are certainly not completely encapsulated.

A second but related issue concerns the extent to which emotions are something like socially shaped, or even constructed. To what extent is one's emotional reaction to a kind of event the product of social standards and expectations? Some emotional reactions that appear as automatic reactions to events can turn out to be more like behavioural tools employed to serve some goal. For example, as little children quickly learn, raging hysterics may give one considerable power. [End Page 96] Similarly, feeling disgust can allow one to present a form of social disapproval. Such reactions may be highly sensitive to contextual influence and accompanying beliefs; they may go away if it becomes clear they are counter-productive. Despite appearances, they can turn out to be far from the...