Emotions And De Re Thoughts

In this post, I would like to contrast two types of thoughts with one (and possibly two) types of emotions.

One type of thought is a thought that is in the space of reasons. The paradigm example is a belief. If I believe something, I may believe it for good reason or not. Whether my belief is justified or not is an objective fact about the belief and it’s not something that depends on me or what I think. It’s a justificatory fact. One example might be a simple logical mistake. Say that I think that global warming scientists are money-grubbing opportunists, and on that basis disbelieve the idea that global warming is human caused. The fact that I take the avarice of climate scientists to support my disbelief in global warming does not make me right. It is a fact that the avarice of climate scientists does not justify a disbelief in climate science. Such thoughts have objective attributes (i.e., they have certain attributes, like their justifiability, that are based on things unrelated to the thinkers who think them).

Another type of thought is a de re thought. These thoughts are different than objective attribute thoughts. Objective attribute thoughts get their attributes from the state of the world, but de re thoughts get their very coherence — their existence — from the state of the world. Pretend I’ve met two twins, one who is named Alice and the other who is named Abigail. I’ve interacted with both of them over a period of time but all along I mistakenly believed that I was only interacting with Alice. Then I say to myself “The girl I met today has a dramatic personality.” This thought does not get off the ground. It’s not a coherent thought because I didn’t just meet one girl, I met two. Therefore, my statement cannot be assessed for truth or falsity.

Now for the analogies in terms of emotions.

Some emotions are “within the space of reasons” meaning that they are normative and so can be appropriate or inappropriate. Anger is one such emotion. “He has no reason to be angry,” or “he has every reason to be angry.” So in this respect, emotions are like belief (though they don’t often respond so strongly to new reasoning as beliefs do). We don’t flip our anger off the moment we think it’s not justified.

The question though is: are there de re emotions. Emotions that fail to be the emotions they are aiming at when the corresponding state of affairs doesn’t exist? It would be nice if such emotions exist, because I think happiness would be one of them. Happiness is a feeling, but it is both rationally responsive and constitutively requires certain things, such as goals and projects. One cannot induce a feeling a happiness without also providing a project to the person. Such a feeling would not be happiness just as “that is round” would fail without there being an object for “that” to refer to in de re fashion.


2 Responses to “Emotions And De Re Thoughts”

  1. November 15, 2012 at 8:36 am

    Asking whether emotions are de re seems slightly misleading. As perceptual states, a thought about an emotion is de re (and satisfies Russell’s Principle) if there is an emotion you’re thinking about; not whether or not that emotion is ‘justified’. Your having had an emotion (anger) at time t will not change if you later discover you shouldn’t have been angry at person x. Though you may be less likely to be angry at them in the future. Thoughts about occurrent emotions are de re, so long as said emotions exist. (Of course, if you’re thinking about your past emotions, and cannot distinguish two of them from each other, like Evans’s steel balls, because you couldn’t distinguish them at the time, then possibly there’s no thought there.)

    • 2 questionbeggar
      November 15, 2012 at 4:27 pm

      Thanks for the reply. Yes you’re definitely right. When I wrote this, I think I was confusing a thought about an emotion and facts about the emotion’s object itself. I’m still very much thinking about what happiness is, and it seems to have some weird properties.

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