Stephen T. Asma and Rami Gabriel have an interesting article at Aeon on emotions. Their main thesis is that many emotions are biological, universal, and rooted in evolution. And that they arise through “the strata of consciousness”: the physiological, the experential, and the conceptual.
They start off casting aspersions on computationalism, evolutionary psychology, and artificial intelligence research, but their main guns are focused on the ideas of Lisa Feldmann Barrett and her constructionist view of emotions, that emotions are high level conceptual constructs, concepts that we socially learn. In Barrett’s view, emotions are best thought of as predictions or interpretations of interoceptive sensations and of low level valences.
Asma and Gabriel’s view is closer to their mentor, the late Jaak Panksepp, that emotions arise in layers from sub-cortical regions. They resist the idea that emotions are conceptually constructed, but insist that they’re built on primal physiological phenomena. They discuss Panksepp’s seven primary emotions: FEAR, LUST, CARE, PLAY, RAGE, SEEKING and PANIC/GRIEF.
Similar to Panksepp, Asma and Gabriel do allow that there are differences between the low level “physiological” emotions and the higher level cognitive ones. They don’t deny the more elaborate ones have a social aspect.
It’s worth noting that constructionists like Barrett admit primal drives like the Four Fs (fighting, fleeing, feeding, mating). That puts her about halfway to Panksepp’s seven primary emotions. We can equate mating with LUST, fighting with RAGE, fleeing with FEAR, and feeding with SEEKING. It’s not hard to imagine mammals and birds having additional primal impulses to protect their young (CARE and PANIC/GRIEF) and an urge to prepare for complex activity (PLAY).
So a good part of this difference could be seen as definitional. There is a difference in which components are seen as conscious, although even this could be seen in terms of how “consciousness” is defined.
Asma and Gabriel see the lower level sub-cortical impulses as conscious ones. They draw on Ned Block’s distinction between access and phenomenal consciousness. To them the lower level impulses are part of phenomenal consciousness, but not access consciousness, in other words, they’re not available for introspection or use in reasoning. Barrett, on the other hand, sees these lower level impulses as survival circuits, unconscious reflexes.
My view is closer to Barrett’s. A distinction has to be made between the reflex and the feeling generated by that reflex. The reflex generally happens sub-cortically, being the primary impulses described above (and probably others). But the feeling happens in the cortex.
I see the reflexes as unconscious and the feelings (affect, emotion, etc) as at least potentially conscious. Asma and Gabriel’s use of the phenomenal consciousness concept here strikes me as unfortunate, showing the problems with Block’s distinction. In this view, are any perceptions unconscious ones?
But I also think Barrett is a bit too absolutist in seeing emotions as only high level constructions. Asma and Rami are right that emotions need to be viewed as multilevel phenomena, just not in a way that sees every level as conscious.
Unless of course I’m missing something?