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Canadian Journal of Philosophy Supplement Volume 32 (2006) 255-272

An Unexpected Pleasure
Timothy Schroeder

As topics in the philosophy of emotion, pleasure and displeasure get less than their fair share of attention. On the one hand, there is the fact that pleasure and displeasure are given no role at all in many theories of the emotions, and secondary roles in many others.1 On the other, there is the centrality of pleasure and displeasure to being emotional. A woman who tears up because of a blustery wind, while an ill-advised burrito weighs heavily upon her digestive tract, feels an impressive number of the sensations felt by someone who is gut-wrenchingly sad. Yet, unless she feels bad, the way she feels is only a pale echo of the feeling of sadness. If she feels good in spite of the burrito and the wind, then she does not feel at all the way she would if she were sad. Likewise, a man falling asleep can hardly fail to feel his muscles relax, his heart rate fall, and so on, but unless he feels good his state is only a shadow of feeling content.

This paper will begin with a sketch of the nature of pleasure and displeasure, and the relation between them and the feelings that are characteristic of emotions. It will then argue that the capacity to feel pleased and displeased is, quite literally, a sense modality: one allowing us to perceive net change in the satisfaction of our intrinsic desires. As with any sense modality, the capacity to feel pleased and displeased displays substantial modularity. The paper concludes by considering the ways in which the modularity of pleasure and displeasure contributes to effects that might reasonably be called "the modularity of the emotions." [End Page 255]

I. Groundwork

From Plato through to John Stuart Mill or so, philosophers had a reasonably clear idea of the nature of pleasure and displeasure (jointly: hedonic tone). Hedonic tone, they held, is a distinctive state of consciousness, not unlike feelings of warmth and coldness.

In the twentieth century, this orthodoxy was frequently, if puzzlingly, rejected by a number of philosophers. Bertrand Russell and Gilbert Ryle argue that pleasure is merely a style of behaviour (Russell 1921; Ryle 1949; 1954). Michael Tye holds a very similar view (Tye 1995). Jesse Prinz joins neuroscientist Tony Damasio in the view that hedonic tone is a matter of a whole-body "landscape" of felt changes in breathing, heart rate, piloerection, and the like, rather than a distinct kind of feeling (Damasio 1994; Prinz 2004). And Elijah Millgram goes so far as to argue that pleasure is "the rock-bottom judgment of desirability of an object of present experience" (Millgram 1997).

I side with the older orthodoxy. Hedonic tone is a distinct type of feeling, not a judgment, not a composite feeling built out of the feelings of one's viscera, not a style of behaviour. The argument for this will be brief. (I refer those who are unconvinced to work published elsewhere.2 )

First, the phenomenology of intense pleasure and displeasure should be a sufficient refutation of the view that hedonic tone is a style of behaviour. There is something it is like to be elated off and on for the whole next day after one's first kiss, and something it is like to be profoundly saddened by the death of a parent, and a reduction of these feelings to behavioural styles is not credible. This would also seem sufficient evidence to answer Millgram, unless Millgram is willing to identify rock-bottom judgments of desirability with the distinctive phenomenology of pleasure.

The whole-body landscape view of hedonic tone survives this particular challenge. In elation and sorrow, one does experience global changes in one's viscera, musculature, and the like. The main challenge to the whole-body landscape view is that it fails to account for the grouping together of instances of pleasure under that heading, and likewise for the unity of instances of displeasure. What do profound, [End Page 256] lazy...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1911-0820
Print ISSN
0045-5091
Pages
pp. 255-272
Launched on MUSE
2007-12-24
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Archived
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