Affective Empiricism

Affective Empiricism

The classic debate between empiricism and rationalism concerning the origins of the human mind focused on the cognitive aspects of the mind.[1] Descartes and Leibniz believed that some knowledge is innate, while Locke thought that all knowledge is acquired through the senses. But there is little to nothing on the affective aspects of the mind: Locke did not insist that emotions are acquired via the senses, and Descartes and Leibniz did not cite the emotions as instances of the rationalist thesis. I think I know why: it was common ground that affective nativism is true and affective empiricism is false. Not nativism about ideas of emotions but nativism about emotions themselves: we are born with these propensities, abilities, traits, dispositions. We may not feel emotions in the womb but our genes contain them in potential form, as they contain our anatomy, physiology, and other characteristics. We don’t learn to feel emotions—by observation of others, imitation, or instruction. In this respect we are like other animals: they too are not an affective tabula rasa. And there are good biological reasons for that: these are traits it is important to have for the sake of survival, so best not left to chance. How, indeed, could such traits be acquired by means of the senses—what might the mechanism be? How could they be “abstracted” from perceived objects? Maybe you could get the idea of the emotion from observing others, but could you get the emotion itself? That would be like acquiring four legs by gazing at quadrupeds. So, there is no real dispute about the origins of emotions: we are born to feel them; we don’t learn from experience to feel them (whatever that might mean). They are written into the DNA. But if that is so, isn’t it a black mark against empiricist thinking about the mind? For, if emotions are agreed to be innate, why shouldn’t “ideas” be—beliefs, knowledge, concepts, perceptual capacities? Why would the mind be hospitable to innate emotions but not to innate cognitions? Why would nativism be half-true? Why must empiricism be true of part of the mind but not of other parts? Whence the dogmatism? Granted, the environment can play a role in shaping and developing the emotions, but the preponderance must be owed to the native constitution of the organism. On this everyone seems to be agreed.[2]

What are the emotions we inherit along with our genes? It is customary to list six basic emotions: anger, fear, disgust, happiness, sadness, surprise. We might want to add lust and sexual passion to this list (also love), but let’s leave it at that. These are the emotions that lurk in our genes just waiting to see the light of day; they are the primitive elements of the periodic affective table. They may be combined into compounds such as despair or helplessness or envy or joy. They are no more learned than pain is: we don’t acquire the ability to feel pain by observing pain in others and somehow internalizing it by abstraction. Emotions are not taught but inherited–universal, spontaneous, part of human nature. But they are not cognition-independent: they have intentionality. We are afraid of things, angry at people, sad about situations; and these objects of emotion are specific—we are not afraid (say) of just anything but of a limited class of things. Prey animals are born being afraid of big cats not butterflies; they don’t learn to be afraid of being eaten by tigers (that would be too late for the learning to have any utility). So, emotions have representational content; and that means that such contents are also innate—antelopes are born knowing what tigers are, as well as being afraid of them. They have, in the old terminology, ideas of tigers that are bound up with their fear of tigers. This means that some ideas have to be innate if emotions are, which contradicts empiricism about ideas; nativism about emotions leads to nativism about emotion-relevant ideas. Not only that; emotions are correlated with a set of expectations about the world—about what kinds of things it contains. It contains things that are scary, angering, disgusting, desirable, happy, sad, or surprising: emotions thus carry with them a “world-view”. And this world-view is innate not acquired by experience, contrary to the empiricist theory of the cognitive mind. If so, what is to prevent other ideas from being innate? To put it simply, animals are born knowing a good deal about the external world just by virtue of being born with feelings about the external world: they come into the world cognitively prepared for it, not mentally blank, not blissfully ignorant. Emotion thus paves the way for a general nativism, and affective nativism is common ground between empiricists and rationalists. Of course, there are many other arguments for the nativist position, but it is instructive that emotions provide yet another argument, and not one easily avoided by the determined empiricist. A sentimentalist in ethics would be committed to nativism about ethical attitudes, since emotions are always fundamentally innate (emotivism thus implies ethical nativism). Emotions can, it is true, be shaped and modified by experience, but the basic repertoire of emotions is original to human psychology. They are instincts not cultural acquisitions. Language is an instinct too, as is perception, and also thought, but emotions are the primal instincts; they have been coded into animal genes for millions of years. Affective nativism is the basic form of nativism.

Some psychologists have claimed that all behavior is learned no matter what might be the case for aspects of the mind. But this position is obviously unstable: if emotions are innate, so must their associated behavioral expression be innate. The prey animal must have an innate predisposition to flee at the sight of a big cat, since fear elicits the flight response (that is the point of the emotion). Flight is like salivation—a reflexive inborn response to a stimulus. So, whole behavior patterns have an innate basis: anti-nativism about behavior is another false dogma of empiricism. The correct position is that nearly all of the mind (including behavior) is innate: emotions, desires, perception, concepts, many beliefs, anything a priori, the psychological faculties (memory, reason, mathematics, ethics, etc.).[3] This is really just biological common sense. All learning, properly so-called, is based on an innate unlearned system; we learn some things only because we don’t learn everything. The tool shed model is more psychologically realistic than the empty cabinet model.

[1] I discuss this debate in Inborn Knowledge (2015). The present paper furthers that discussion.

[2] See Hume’s note 2.9 in his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding in which he asserts, as against Locke, that self-love, resentment, and sexual passion are all innate, adding that “all impressions are innate”.

[3] I am stating the nativist position very strongly so as to rectify previous empiricist bias; of course, we must allow for some contribution from the environment. The point is that the foundation is innately fixed. What is true of the body is true of the mind: the mind is not originally a blank slate, as the body is not originally a piece of formless stuff. True, the mind has memory which stores acquired information, but the body too bears the marks of experience as it interacts with the world outside of it. The mind is not empty at birth, as the body is not shapeless at birth.

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