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Canadian Journal of Philosophy Supplement Volume 32 (2006) 3-27

Quick and Smart?
Modularity and the Pro-Emotion Consensus
Karen Jones

I. Introduction

Within both philosophy and psychology, a new pro-emotion consensus is replacing the old dogmas that emotions disrupt practical rationality, that they are at best arational, if not outright irrational, and that we can understand what is really central to human cognition without studying them. Emotions are now commonly viewed as evolved capacities that are integral to our practical rationality. An infinite mind, unencumbered by a body, might get along just fine without emotions; but we finite embodied creatures need them if we are to be capable of responding appropriately to our reasons and navigating in a risky world with poor information, limited attention, and restricted computational power.1 Emotions are clever design solutions to the problem of making fast decisions in response to significant practical problems posed by the natural and social worlds: we perceive a danger and fear immediately primes us to take protective action. On this view, the theory of emotions is an essential part of a theory of [End Page 3] ecologically situated and constrained rationality – that is to say, of human rationality (Samuels et al. 1999; Gigerenzer 2000). Pro-emotion theorists also think that their position has revisionary implications, perhaps even radical ones. There is a tendency within philosophical and commonsense thinking to disparage the emotions and to suppose that wise deliberation and objective inquiry are dispassionate. But if emotions contribute positively to ecologically situated rationality, then commonsense and philosophical norms of rationality that embed false assumptions about their disruptiveness may need to be revised (Damasio 1994; Jones 2003a).

In this article, I explore the presuppositions of the emerging consensus that emotions contribute positively to human practical rationality and that, as a result, our norms of rationality need revision. I argue that a pro-emotion position presupposes that emotions are capable of coming to be directed towards new objects in virtue of a cognitively modifiable range of triggering properties. Put another way, it presupposes that emotions can, with experience and regulation, become reason-tracking mechanisms that enable an agent reliably to track the way her concerns are implicated in concrete choice situations.

This is a substantive and controversial assumption, which is in prima facie tension with the claim that emotions are modular. I explore this tension in the light of two quite influential theories of the emotions, an evolutionary psychology account defended by Tooby and Cosmides (Tooby and Cosmides 1990; Cosmides and Tooby 2000) and Prinz's embodied appraisal account (Prinz 2004). Both accounts are put forward as modular accounts. I argue that the first account does not support a positive connection between emotion and practical rationality and that, while the second account might, there is a real question as to whether it preserves the property of cognitive encapsulation typically taken to be the hallmark of modularity. Once we are clear about the presuppositions of the pro-emotion consensus, it becomes apparent that we need more empirical research exploring the scope of strategies for effective emotional regulation, transformation, and control and that the new consensus will be entrenched or lost on the basis of such work. Despite its current vogue, there can be no easy lip service given to the pro-emotion position. [End Page 4]

II. Presuppositions of the Pro-emotion Consensus

Two distinct questions drive the emerging pro-emotion consensus: How do emotions contribute to human rationality? What norms of rationality apply to us in virtue of our being intelligent creatures equipped with both judgment and emotion? The relationship between these questions is complex and, as we will see, it is possible to maintain that emotions make an important contribution to human rationality while yet maintaining a conservative stance with respect to norms of rationality.

II.i. How do Emotions Contribute to Human Rationality?

A pro-emotion theorist might assert any one of, or any combination of, four different claims regarding the positive contribution of emotions to human rationality:

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