Emotion: An introductory picture
Emotion: An introductory picture

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Emotion: An introductory picture

3.5 Emotions as passions

I have already suggested that in stressing the connection between emotions and bodily changes, James might be seen as endorsing the intuitive picture of emotion that I set out earlier on. James's thesis could also be taken to sanction the view that emotions are passive, involuntary responses.

Perceptual states are often regarded as passive, involuntary states. To say this is to say that we cannot exercise direct control over our perceptual states. If my mouth is full of pickled herring, I cannot decide not to experience the taste of herring; nor can I decide to experience the taste of chocolate instead, no matter how much I might wish to. If this is the correct view of perception, and if bodily feelings are perceptual states, we should expect that they too will not be under our direct control: if my face is flushing and my heart is pounding, I cannot decide not to feel it.

The claim that emotions are passions needs to be distinguished from another claim: this is the claim that we have no control over, and so no responsibility for, our emotions. Sometimes we say ‘I can't help how I feel’; and sometimes we attempt to disclaim responsibility for an action by saying that we were ‘carried away’ by emotion. However, even if it is right to regarded emotions as involuntary states, which cannot be controlled directly, this does not imply that they cannot be controlled in any way. We may still be able to control our emotions indirectly, by modifying the perceptions and bodily changes that generate bodily feelings.

For example, on James's account, Larry could try to control his anger by trying not to think about Bella's behaviour, and so damping down the bodily changes that are generating his feelings. Moreover, James argues that it is possible to engender an emotional response by enacting certain forms of expressive behaviour – for example, Larry might try to make himself feel happy by smiling and taking up a more relaxed stance (ibid., pp. 462–6). These forms of control are limited. In many cases, they can only be used to bring an emotional response under control once it has started, rather than preventing it from occurring at all. Nevertheless, the claim that emotions are passive, involuntary states does not imply that we have no control over our emotions, or that we can never be blamed (or praised) for an emotional response.

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