Archive for the ‘Emotion’ Category

A Room of One’s Own: The Where of Emotions

June 21, 2011

1. Introduction. Emotions are everywhere, or so it seems. Antonio Damasio talks about the importance of emotion for reason. Martha Nussbaum talks about the importance of reason for emotion. Yet, there are reasons to think that emotions are the most private, the most inner of our experiences. A pain or a colour can be pointed to; if we are asked where is it hurting, we can say ‘there.’ However, it is much harder to answer the question ‘where are you angry?’ The location of the anger might vary from moment to moment and person to person. Emotions are far more dynamic: roses might always be red, but I am not always blue. Indeed, one can define outer space as the space of all locations that can be pointed to – itself a privileging of the sensorial, especially the senses of vision and touch. Yet, space might not only be sensory space, the space of objects. Emotions, like thoughts and our eyes and fingers, are pointers; and they cannot point to themselves. We can define the distinction between inner and outer space as the distinction between the pointer and the pointed. While the geometry of the pointed is directly available to us, the geometry of the pointers is also a genuine spatial geometry, which is why I think that emotions are always somewhere and that the spatiality of emotions is a useful window into the relation between inner and outer space.

Let me start this piece with an invocation of a seemingly unrelated problem, i.e., the intractability of subjective consciousness. The argument goes as follows:

  1. We are fully, certainly aware of our own consciousness.

  2. We are infinitely far away from knowing the subjectivity of others.


  1. Inner space and outer space are permanently divided from each other.

  2. The inner is really not a space at all, it is in fact, a disembodied non-spatiotemporal soul. Or, in the modern David Chalmers’ style argument, consciousness is an independent dimension of existence, like space and time.

I am aware that I am condensing a whole range of arguments and subtle differences into one, but I do believe that the core argument schema in all of these arguments is similar enough to the above one that we can be happy with the caricature. Think of this if you will as an argument prototype where different particular arguments can be derived by metaphorical extension. Let me now recast this argument in a geometric form:

  1. The Geometry of Outer Space: continuous, indivisible and unlimited

  2. The Geometry of Inner Space: discrete, monadic, severely limited

→ G O ≠ G I and therefore the two have nothing to do with each other.


2. Counter Arguments: The role of motion and emotion in the constitution of space.


If we were really to think of emotions as like bodily tugs or stabs or flashes, then we would precisely leave out what is most disturbing about them. How simple life would be if grief were only a pain in the leg, or jealousy but a very bad headache. Martha Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought, Page 16.

I am now going to present two counter arguments against the division of inner space and outer space, with the intent of dissolving the distinction. An analysis of emotion will play a crucial role in dissolving the distinction.

Case 1: Is the stinging bee angry? Counter argument 1. Emotion is a bridge between inner and outer space. In fact, both motion and emotion serve the same purpose, i.e., as a bridge between inner and outer. Main points:

  1. Space is constituted through motion and emotion.

  2. Consider the following diagram:






Consider a man standing in front of a scene, surveying it with a cool eye – perhaps Descartes contemplating the world in those moments 1 when the furnace becomes claustrophobic, or Cortez surveying the empire of the Inca. The world appears in a uniform, outer geometric light – distantly arrayed, frozen in time (before the invading hordes destroy it forever!). Let us call this the “light map”. Now consider a different man: older, his eyes are fading and he has to walk with a stick. He hobbles from frame to frame, holding on to the walls and the furniture, stopping to rest every once in a while. The floor is too warm, but the walls feel cool to the touch, perhaps the cane furniture is too rough for him to drag his hands. Which one of these is the ‘real’ space? The correct answer, as I ‘see’ it is – both!

What if inner and outer space were replaced by a cluster of topographies? We still accept that there is a distinction worth making between inner and outer, but we replace the absolute distinction by a family of interrelated spaces, each mediated by a dominant sense – vision, touch, proprioception etc. Let us call these interrelated spaces a topographic cluster and each map within that cluster is a spatial map: a light map (for vision), a heat map (for touch) etc. Note that these maps are not in the brain (as topographic maps are typically assumed to be) but out there in the world. Both emotions and motions are acts that bind these topographic clusters together. Some spaces are inviting, others are creepy. Each emotion binds the different topographies into a single readiness to act. Each motion binds the different topographies into a single performance. This interplay of action potentials and acts is key to understanding motion, emotion and space.

So what does the picture look like?

Before: Inner space and Outer space.

After: A topographical cluster of maps bound by emotion and action.

Which leads to a question: how does emotion act as a binding agent?


Case 2: The Haunted House. Imagine walking on a dark, rainy night in a secluded part of town. You see an abandoned nineteenth century house shrouded by tall trees. The yard of the house is littered with grotesque sculptures. As you approach the house, the wind starts picking up; at the edge of the plot, a gargoyle greets you with open jaws. A flash of lightning strike the turrets and the accompanying thunder is louder than anything you have ever heard before. Your heart races, your hair stands on end, and even without realizing, you are running as fast as you can away from the house. A few hundred metres down the street you start slowing down. In the distance, the house appears run-down but benign. You shake your head, grin to yourself and keep walking.

What is the moral of the story?

  1. A potential action is an actual emotion.

  2. A potential emotion is an actual action.

  3. Space is constituted by situations: complexes of potential and actual (e)motions and motives.

  4. None of this is in your head.

The actual/potential axis explains how emotions and actions bind topographic maps. The key theoretical construct is that of a situation. A situation is exactly what you might expect: a combination of objects and events in the world in which an organism is embedded. For example, if you are walking in a forest and a cobra rears its head in front of you, you are in a situation. Every situation calls forth a unique topographic cluster. The fear you feel in front of that cobra is constitutive of that situation. That fear leads to action – stepping back slowly (good!), running away (bad!). It is the fear (actual) to running (potential) axis that binds the various maps into a topographic complex that defines the organisms’ response to the situation.


Summary: Situation 1→ (emotion)→ Topographic Cluster → (action)→ Situation 2

3. The role of space in the constitution of emotion. So far, I have only talked about the role of (e)motion in the constitution of space. However, the opposite is equally true.



Aristotle once asked the following question: how do you whether you are seeing or hearing or touching? Similarly, we can ask: how do you know whether you are afraid or happy or sad? The above clips from Asterix give us a few clues: each emotion is associated with a class of situations (where that emotion is reliably evoked) and in each such situation, there is a topographic cluster in which the emotion has a spatial footprint (metaphorically speaking). For fear, there’s the combination of the threatening object, hair standing on end, stomach churning etc. These visual/gustatory/proprioceptive maps are constitutive of fear. The emotion then is constituted by elements of the current, actual situation and elements of future, i.e., potential situations. Here, it is the shift The bodyscape embedded in the landscape is as much a part of emotion as the emotions are part of the body/landscape. To summarise, there are two pictures:

  1. The topographic cluster picture – in which emotions and actions play a binding role via the potential/actual axis running from emotion (actual) to action (potential).

  2. The affective cluster picture – in which space plays a binding role through via the potential/actual axis running from situation (current, actual) to situation (potential).

Another way to put it is as follows. Think of Self, (E)motion and World as a triad (see figure below).






Then, we can cluster this triad in two distinct ways: from the World to the self and from the self to the object. In the former, we start with situations that trigger topographic maps that in turn are bound by motions and emotions. In the latter, we start with motives that trigger affective clusters that in turn are bound by situations. Perceptions and emotions have complementary roles (Martha Nussbaum points out a version of the latter) in that perceptions arise from (constituted by?) the self going out to meet the world, while emotions arise from (constituted by?) the world coming to meet the self. In the former, the world is the foreground and the self is the background, which is why we see objects and not the self, and in the latter, the self is in the foreground and the world the background, which is why we feel the self and not the object. There is no point asking which clustering (i.e., world to self or self to world) is more fundamental; they are just two poles of the self-world axis.

Two more arguments:

The Colour Analogy: What if emotions are to the body as colours are to objects? Are colours spatial? One the one hand, it seems as if the redness of a rose has nothing to with its shape or spatial distribution – a rose chopped up into a million pieces will still be as red – but on closer consideration colour is always co-present in space. In fact, we can argue that colour inheres in a spatial locus. Similarly, we can argue that the anger of the anger is not located anywhere in the body or in response to any single situation, but we can also argue that emotions always inhere in a spatial locus. There is a major difference though: emotions are fleeting while colours are somewhat more permanent. Nevertheless, note that the analogy seems to have some traction; after all we do label emotions using colours (Red-hot angry) and colours with emotion – a calm blue.

The indexical argument. Whatever else one might say about an emotion, we can always be assured that it has an “I,” a self to which it is attached. There is anger, but it is always my anger or your anger – even if it is the same emotion in both of us. Further, there is no such thing as an “I” that doesn’t have a location. After all, the referent of the linguistic term “I” is either you or me depending on the fact that I am here and you are there. Spatiotemporality is central to the “I.” While we could argue that the spatio-temporal location isn’t essential to the self, it is nevertheless necessary. The relation between emotions and space-time can come under the category of relations that are necessary without being essential (note the logic of modality once again). In general we could argue that the relation between space, self and emotion is within this category of necessary but non-essential relations. So the argument goes as follows:

  1. Emotions have an index.

  2. Indexes always have spatio-temporal location.

  3. Therefore emotions have a spatio-temporal location.

4. Take-home messages:

  1. Three key concepts: cluster categories, situations and the potential/actual axis.

  2. Inner space and outer space are not distinct. In fact, we should replace them with topographic clusters that are bound together by (e)motion.

  3. Emotions and space are not distinct. In fact emotion is constituted by an affective cluster that is bound by situations.

  4. The logic of modality and the logic of (e)motives are closely interrelated.


5. Conclusion. I started this essay with an argument schema that creates an ontological divide between inner and outer space. Then, I presented arguments to show that this divide is not tenable. We are now ready to revisit the original question. If we accept the argument that inner and outer space are to be replaced by topographic clusters on the organismic side and situations on the world side, what happens to the problem of subjectivity? The answer is that we should replace the certainties of our own experience and the radical doubt about other minds to the actuality of our experience and the potentiality of others. Our minds are available to each other (potentially) even if they are actually not present to us now. However, note that even our own minds have a version of this problem. If we think of inner space as being ‘in touch with oneself’ then vision is a particularly bad way of self-knowing, for it has no access to the self. To the extent we can touch others, we know their inner space as well. The hard problem of consciousness is -like many other seemingly intractable metaphysical puzzles- an artefact of the theoretical primacy of vision as anything else.

In the twentieth century, philosophers thought that they would reduce metaphysical problems to problems of logic and language; this faith in logic and language is shared by otherwise radically different philosophers from Russell and the early Wittgenstein to the logical positivists to the late Wittgenstein, the Behaviourists and the ordinary language philosophers. All of them claimed that the misuse of logic and language are responsible for a host of false philosophical problems, from the problem of existence onwards. Their hope was that a suitable re-description of the problem in a logically precise language or a careful analysis of ordinary language will make these problems disappear. In the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century, language and logic have been replaced by the mind, i.e., many philosophers and neuroscientists now claim that classical metaphysical problems will either be eliminated or reduced to scientific questions in neuroscience and cognitive science. From the nature of religion to the origins of mathematics, neuroscientists and cognitive scientists believe that the foundations of human existence are to be found in these fields. While I think we always learn much from a deep engagement with nothing but-tery, we need a method to engage with metaphysical problems not by thinning them down, but by thickening them.

I would like to propose a different method to transform metaphysical problems. I believe that many of these problems arise not from a mistaken use of logic or language or a poor appreciation of brain science. Instead, I think that many of these problems arise from an oversimplification and underestimation of the complexity of the human world. What we need are not reductions but enrichments; of understanding the web of relations that connect body-mind and world and the ability to expand reductive concepts like soul, certainty etc to thicker, fully fleshed form. Aristotle starts his physics by saying that we should first understand the principles of any domain we want to investigate; by principle, he might have well meant the methods and the support of an investigation as much as its laws. Here, I am arguing that the human world is a good principle; it is the support of any investigation into metaphysical problems. Instead of reducing these metaphysical problems to language or brain science, we should enrich, expand and then release these problems into the human world. A version of this project that is an enriched language philosophy is to use metaphor to expand the range of linguistic supports of a metaphysical problem rather than to use formalisms and syntactic considerations to reduce metaphysics to logic or grammar. Once that is done, these classic problems in metaphysics will not disappear, for that would be tragic as well as boring. Instead, they will become fertile territories for a combination of philosophical, scientific and humanistic investigation. I hope that my thickening of the problem of consciousness has convinced you – or at least piqued your interest – to shift gears from reductive principles to expansive principles.

1 It is no surprise then that the division between soul and body is tied to Descartes’ experience of the tension between two spaces – the claustrophic furnace and the open but dangerous external world with the threat of persecution awaiting at the doorstep.



Doing Justice to an Idea

June 16, 2011

This piece is part of an ongoing response to Amartya Sen’s book that continues the discussion of reason, emotion and ethics from the seminar I taught last year.

Introduction. Amartya Sen’s “The Idea of Justice” (IOJ from now on) is arguably the most awaited and critically acclaimed work of ethics of the twenty first century. In IOJ, Sen has combined sympathy for those who suffer injustice with an impressive analytic framework combining philosophical argument with social science theory. Throughout the book, Sen defends the role of public reasoning while drawing inspiration from emotional sources such as compassion. Sen walks a tight rope between deductive theories of justice that start from transcendental axioms and moral relativism that doubts the existence of universal principles. Sen’s approach is robustly “this-worldly;” he would rather reduce actual injustice than defend a theory of perfect justice.

Sen argues that we are better off looking at relative, comparative and localized conceptions of justice that improve freedoms rather than articulate a state of absolute freedom. In Indian terms, it is Dharma rather than Moksa that is the proper topic of theories of justice. Through his reasoned defense of this-worldly justice, Sen has set a high bar for his opponents, both transcendental theorists in the Rawlsian mould and relativists who believe that there is no hope for a universal theory of justice. Of these two, Sen’s main opponent throughout the book is the ethical transcendentalist.

As the title of the book suggests, Sen’s book is an extended response to John Rawl’s “A Theory of Justice.” Consequently, Sen’s primary focus is on principles and institutions that govern human relations in the realm of justice. In his attempt to walk the tightrope between transcendentalism and relativism, Sen introduces several important theoretical ideas such as the impartial spectator and the role of public reasoning. Sen uses these concepts to argue that we can achieve universal ends without transcendental means, while still remaining open to the possibility that there might not be a unique set of universal ends.

I find these theoretical concepts important, but feel that he hasn’t taken them far enough, i.e., that the scope of this-worldly reasoning is much larger than Sen’s response to Rawls. This essay is not a critique of Sen’s main argument against Rawls or his defense of public reasoning as a bulwark against relativism. My response to IOJ does not start with Sen’s positive arguments; instead I want to understand what he has omitted and why. In particular, I want to understand why Sen, despite mentioning the Buddha’s call for mercy to animals twice, has written a book that is almost entirely about the human world. Further, I believe that this-worldy ideas, suitably modified, provide a framework for addressing injustices against the non-human world. Human beings can be impartial spectators not only when it comes to evaluating other humans in other cultures, but also in evaluating the treatment of non-humans by humans. Neither geography nor biology is a rationally defensible barrier to justice.

A Summary of Sen’s Arguments. Sen has two guiding principles that he uses throughout the book: plurality and locality. Plurality is the notion that when it comes to practical reasoning, there is no single justification for an act or event, and neither is there is a hierarchy of reasoning that leads to a “best structure,” which, in the Rawlsian case will be the best institutional arrangement for a just society. An event of justice or injustice can have several rational arguments in its favour, as he shows when he cites Burke’s arguments for impeaching Hastings. Similarly, the evaluation of justice claims can have competing, well founded and irreconcilable reasons, as he shows in the example of the three children.

Locality is the notion that considerations of justice are always located in a time and place, in a particular society and relative to the demands of particular groups of people, the last of which he expands later in his exposition of positionality; positionality being a particular form of locality. Locality also leads to other consequences; it motivates a comparative approach to justice because, one set of justice claims can be evaluated with respect to a similar set of justice claims in societies that are co-located. Similarly, the locality of justice claims can be used to motivate the impartial spectator, a spectator who sits on the fence between different bounded domains (that might be societies, communities etc) and evaluates their practices objectively.

Public reasoning and rational defences of ethical intuitions helps us dislodge parochial assumptions, not only about other people and cultures but also about other species. The important part of public reasoning is that you should be able to reason it out with anyone, even those whose assumptions are different from yours (which can be particularly important if the public includes everyone in the world, and not just those from your culture). Public reasoning can quickly lead to interesting ethical situations. Consider the following situation:

Suppose there is a community X that believes girls should not be educated beyond class 10th, for two reasons tied to marriage. First, highly educated girls have fewer marital prospects since they have fewer choices of grooms. Second, if a girl does not get married by age 15, she will rapidly lose customers in the marriage market. Consider a girl G and an imagined dialogue between the father of the girl (FG) and an outsider (O):
O: You should let her study further.
FG: But she needs to get married now or else she will never get married. A very good family has made an offer. We can’t afford to ignore such offers.
O: But what about her own aspirations? Why can’t she do what she wants?
FG: But she doesn’t know what she wants. She is good at studies, but she also knows that she will lead a much better life in the family that has made an offer than if she chooses to pursue her studies.

Herein lies the problem. Let us see it as explicitly as possible. Let us call the community C, marriage M and Education E. Then, in the preference ordering of C, we have:

For women, M ≥ E

Now, given a particular G and FG, they have to make a decision about E versus M. Now there is a dilemma, which can be stated as follows:

For G, E ≥ M, i.e., other things being equal, G prefers education to marriage. However, she also knows that M will bring her more long term wellbeing (if you include the other dimensions of life, such as material welfare, social acceptability etc). Therefore, other things are not equal. Further, let us suppose that the collective welfare of all women in C is furthered if E ≥ M, i.e., if women as a whole are well educated. However, in a single case (G here) she might pay too heavy a price for bucking the system. What are G and FG to do? What is the right thing for the outsider, O, to say?

This brings us to the second point of public reasoning, which is positional objectivity, PO. A reasoner has to take into account the fact that only certain choices are available to her because of her being embedded in a time and place. While G and FG above might prefer if they had lived in a society where all women are encouraged to be educated, they actually live in a society where that is not the case. The PO reasoner is constantly juggling between the space of all possible choices and the space of choices actually available. Public reasoning is needed to make sure that the most objective decision is taken given the circumstances. Comparative evaluation of different societies can help us expand the scope of choice (hence increasing our capabilities) but the space of actual choices isn’t infinitely flexible.

The problem with public reasoning is that it is an elite activity; only a few have access to it, for it requires training, access to knowledge, and objectivity, all of which are often absent from those who are the most likely victims of injustice. A person whose house is set on fire is likely to feel the injustice keenly, but may not have the calm to reason about his fate objectively. Children, mentally disabled people and the entire non-human world are incapable of public reasoning. How can they represent their interests? The representation of non-humans necessitates a theory of asymmetric ethics; the impartial spectator and the public reasoner can both be incorporated into a theory of asymmetric ethics that helps us expand the scope of justice to non-humans.

The role of public reasoning in the analysis of justice is similar to the role of language in the analysis of emotions. A sympathetic observer of non-human emotions might be able to put in language what a dog or cat cannot do for himself. Similarly, a sympathetic observer of injustice to the non-human world should be able to articulate the injustice being done to non-humans. An opponent might say, why should we bother if the other species simply does not feel the injustice as we do? Is it OK to raze trees to the ground if the tree does not feel any injustice upon being cut down? Is injustice to trees a derivative ethical dilemma, dependent on the loss to human well-being caused by the razing of forests? An inquiry into these questions leads inexorably towards an analysis of the life-world of non-humans.

The Non-human Life-World. Some of the most powerful calls for justice have come when sympathetic human observers enter into the life-world of other cultures and other species. From slavery to genocide, the sympathetic outsider is an important catalyst for ethical change. Colonial rulers often assumed that the colonized peoples lacked an essential human capacity; sympathetic descriptions by western scholars started the process of questioning the cognitive and affective uniqueness of European people. I believe that non-humans are in a similar position now, in that a sympathetic human observer will recognize that non-humans have the capacity to make judgments of value, undertake practical reasoning experience emotions. In other words, they too inhabit a world of experience that centers around their own fullness of being. Ironically, exceptionally cruel experiments done on animals by Seligman and others have shown how non-human actions are based on how they evaluate the world with respect to their own welfare, and not based on purely bodily or physiological indicators. Further, these actions aren’t based on objective states of the world, but on the animal’s evaluation of the world. Similarly, subjective reports about animals by sympathetic observers who clearly try to enter into the animal’s perspective have shown that non-humans are ‘centres of experience’. Naturalistic observation are an accepted paradigm in evolutionary biology; if Darwin could argue his case for evolution using observations alone, why should we shy away from using similar observations to guide our ethical responsibilities?

It is true that there are challenges in understanding the non-human life world, a world in which they act out of a sense of their well-being. The problem is often compounded by the fact that we interact with non-humans in a situation where they have lost all control over their lives and they have given up all hope. Further, nonhumans, like human children, are rarely aware of their own goals etc, i.e., they lack awareness of how the world is valued by them and their lack of language prevents them from reporting on their goals. Nevertheless, the lack of reflexivity and language is not an impediment, as long as humans can use language to report nonhuman experiences faithfully. Given that scientific as well as literary language has been able to describe strings, black-holes and other equally remote entities in the objective realm, why should non-human experience be a fundamental block? We need a better phenomenological terminology than is currently available to describe the life-world of non-humans. A well-crafted and rationally defensible phenomenological taxonomy will be central to both the philosophical as well as the scientific enterprises of understanding the non-human life world.