The Situated Perspective on Emotions: A Philosophical Roadmap


 Achim Stephan, Institute of Cognitive Science, University of Osnabrueck & Sven Walter, Institute of Cognitive Science, University of Osnabrueck

 walter stephanIn cognitive science, cognitivism is the claim that the human mind is an input-output-device that transforms representations by means of neuronally implemented operations. Cognition is thus the “intracranial filling” mediating between input from, and output to, the rest of the body and the environment. Situated approaches to cognition, in contrast, stress that cognition is based on reciprocal real-time interactions of embodied agents with their environments.

The emerging consensus is that, as Daniel Dennett once quipped, just as we cannot do much carpentry with our bare hands, there is not much thinking we can do with our brains alone. What about emotions? If the brain alone cannot do much thinking, can it alone do some emoting? If not, what else is needed? Do (some) emotions (sometimes) cross an individual’s boundary? If so, which supra-individual systems can have affective states, and why? And does that make emotions “situated” in the sense cognition is said to be situated? Although body and environment have long been a central topic in emotion research, we believe that applying insights from the situated cognition debate can open up new avenues of research in the philosophy and science of emotions.

Already in 1984 during the heydays of cognitivism, Robert Zajonc, one of the most eminent emotion psychologists, co-authored a paper with Hazel Marcus on “Affect and Cognition” strongly critical of the then prevailing “disembodied” theories of cognition, which had even led some emotion researchers (e.g. Solomon 1976) to forget the indispensable role of the body in emotional processes. In particular, Zajonc and Marcus argued that a proper understanding of cognition “is virtually incompatible with the type of computer model of information processing prevalent in contemporary psychology” (1984, pp. 81-82). Their criticism turned out to be farsighted. Nowadays, the role of the body, as well as that of the physical and social environment, is acknowledged in its influence on cognitive processes, and it is increasingly recognized as having a key impact on various affective phenomena.

Cognitive and affective processes that essentially involve body and environment are often characterized as embodied, embedded, extended, or distributed, respectively. Thus far, the conceptual geography of these new terms has not been established; they are used with various meanings and are not part of a generally accepted framework. We use the expression “situated” as the most general term to refer to all of them and offer some suggestions in what follows about how to best understand and use the aforementioned new terminology. This will reduce the amount of talking at cross-purposes, and lead to a better appreciation of how emotion theory can benefit from situated approaches.

In the current literature, to characterize affective processes as being embodied can mean two quite different things: first, that they essentially involve extra-cranial bodily processes, i.e. depend on or stretch out into processes of the body minus the brain (Niedenthal et al. 2009) or, second, that they involve at least (intracranial) bodily format representations, which are often treated as simulations of bodily processes (Bastiaansen et al. 2009). Although some years ago such views may have been news for cognitive science, they do not contain genuine news for affective science. Bodily processes (or at least representations of the body) have always played an essential role in all sorts of feeling theories, and they are also essential components in appraisal theories such as, e.g., Scherer’s component process model of emotions (Scherer 2005). Only radical cognitivists had downplayed the role of the body in emotions for a while in their historical amnesia.

With respect to environmental and social factors, however, things are somewhat different. Although emotions are typically conceived of as responses to changes in the environment, there is no pre-established consensus on how the environment can have a substantial impact on our affective life beyond merely triggering, or providing background conditions for, emotions. This is what a robust notion of embeddedness should establish.

The task here is to find affective analogues of the familiar notion of “scaffolding” in situated cognition, which refers to the active structuring of an environment with the goal of reducing cognitive load (e.g. when setting up an automatic reminder system for important deadlines). Examples where we actively structure the environment as an “affective scaffold” in order to influence our emotional well-being are not hard to find: We furnish our apartment in a way that feels comfortable, we remove everything that reminds us of our ex-partner to alleviate the pain of separation, we deliberately undergo psychotherapy in order to get over our anxieties etc. The idea of active structuring is crucial for strategies of emotion regulation, e.g. in situation selection, situation modification and attentional deployment (Gross 2002, Stephan 2012).

Interesting as the idea of embedded emotions may be, it does not address the question of whether some emotions are extended in the sense that they literally cross an individual’s boundary (Colombetti and Roberts 2014). For even if the environment is a (potentially indispensable) scaffold for an individual’s affective life, scaffolded emotions as such do not extend beyond the organism’s body.

Originally, the idea of extended cognition was introduced and motivated by considering the behavior of an Alzheimer patient (called Otto) whose entries in a notebook were claimed to be part of what realizes his memories since the entries function in a similar way vis-à-vis his cognitive and behavioral competences as do brain-based memories in healthy adults (Clark and Chalmers 1998). In Otto’s case, we may say that his memory processes are extended in the sense that they are partially constituted by extrabodily processes, which function in a way similar to comparable internal processes.

Consider now an autistic person (Otto’s cousin Arnold) incapable of directly perceiving and recognizing the emotional states of others in social interactions. If Arnold is equipped with a headset camera connected to a computer running a program for decoding human emotional states, his appraisal system may be supplied with online-information in real time about the emotional states of his interaction partners. On this basis, Arnold can immediately appraise the situation and adequately interact with other people. In analogy with Otto’s case, we can say that some of Arnold’s emotional processes extend beyond his brain and body, because the device plays a similar role for his appraisal processes (which are constitutive of his emotional processes) as does the notebook for Otto’s memory processes (Stephan et al. 2014).

While extended emotions have an individual agent as their “center”, distributed emotions “spread out” over a collective, no individual member of which can be singled out as the “center” of these processes. Consider, for instance, social interactions like a quarrel among friends in which emotions are dynamically unfolding between social agents, where the outcome is initially open, with many factors influencing the development of this process, such as the social setting, cultural conventions and practices (Parkinson 1996). In such cases, there is not just an individual’s emotional reaction to someone else’s action, but a continuous exchange between socially interacting agents: affective signals are sent back and forth, are received by either party and shape the emotional responses on-line (Griffiths and Scarantino 2009, Van Kleef 2009).

Dynamic affective phenomena of this kind are not only philosophically interesting, but illuminating also for other disciplines. Cole (2009), for example, provides an enlightening psychiatric perspective on the role of social interaction, and Goodwin and Goodwin (2000) view emotions from an anthropological perspective as social phenomena organized and made visible through situated practices used by individuals to construct their lifeworld.

In conclusion, the situated perspective, in all of its varieties, has the potential of revolutionizing affective science as much as it has revolutionized cognitive science, offering new research hypotheses, new experimental paradigms and a new perspective on the interpersonal, dynamic and context-dependent functions of emotions in social interactions.


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