Problems of Contemporary Philosophy (PHIL*6200) | College of Arts

Problems of Contemporary Philosophy (PHIL*6200)

Term: Winter 2014


Topic: Transcending the nature/nurture dichotomy in the study of emotion.

Description: Emotions structure most social relations. For example, we learn to feel guilty in response to certain culturally defined conditions. The nature of this unpleasant experience, and its behavoural expression, are likewise conditioned by "emotion scripts" as psychologist Keith Oatley calls them. Even when we are not experiencing a particular emotion like guilt, we are aware of conditions that would trigger it and, often, we are attempting to invoke this emotion in others. Emotions from this perspective are the culturally constructed basis for most social transactions.

On the other hand, there is a long tradition that views emotions as an expression of what Adam Smith called our "animal natures". From this perspective, emotions are constrained by biology and they operate independant of, often in opposition to, practical judgment. Proto-guilt, for example, is thought to have originated in pair-bonding primates as what Robert Frank calls a "commitment securing device". Later, this "mechanism" was co-opted in social and evolution to help enforce cooperation. These Darwinian approaches claim to identify the adaptive problems that emotions are genetically "programmed" to solve.

Both views are reductionistic. The first attempts to view emotion purely as a cultural phenomenon and the second as a biological one. This course will investigate attempts to transcend this nature/nurture dichotomy. The two central questions of the course are (1) How can emotions be viewed simultaneously as biological and as a cultural phenomena? and (2) What, if any, are the explanatory benefits of a hybrid view?

The first section of the course will briefly review four influential historical theories of emotion (Descartes, Hume, James, and Darwin). We then move to contemporary developments and reactions to these positions. In particular, we will consider Antonio Damasio's claim that emotions guide reason, Paul Griffiths' claim that "higher cognitive" emotions are a distinct in kind from "affect programs", and Jesse Prinz's neo-Jamesian view. We will also investigate phenomenological theories of emotion, some cultural evolutionary accounts, and a little bit of recent social neuroscience.

Students will write weekly reflection papers (2-3 pages) and one term paper (15-20 pages) on a topic of their choosing.


PDF icon PHIL6200 W14 Syllabus.pdf130.1 KB