The Conceptual Space of the Affective Mind


Research Project funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation

Summary of Research Project

Affective states are states that feel good or bad. For instance, it feels bad to have a headache, and good to be happy about a reciprocated smile. During recent decades, the empirical sciences have made remarkable progress in getting to grips with affective states, e.g. by detailing some of the brain activation patterns associated with them. Yet these advances have cast relatively little light on a crucial question: How do we, who feel pain or feel happy, understand our affective states? In other words, what are the nature, content and structure of our affective concepts? Answering these key questions has proven difficult for three reasons. First, an analysis of our concepts of pain and emotion seems to disclose a paradox in our thinking about affective states. More specifically, we seem to conceive of pains and emotions as both mental and bodily states. Second, feelings of pains and emotions have (i) a sensory phenomenology, (ii) an affective phenomenology, and (iii) represent the world in a complex manner. However, our affective concepts seem to lack the structure to separate and denote these various aspects. Third, the standard view of the conceptual space in the metaphysics of mind has largely emerged from taking a purely descriptive perspective, neglecting the influence of normative considerations. During the last decade, however, philosophers and psychologists alike, have discovered that concepts like intentionality, cause, happiness, etc. are partially shaped by moral evaluations of the context in which these concepts are used.  In a nutshell, our conceptual apparatus seems—at the same time—too sophisticated but also too simple and malleable to reflect the true nature of pains and emotions.

This project aims to advance our understanding of the conceptual space of the affective mind, i.e. our understanding of how we conceive of affective states like pains and emotions.  In order to specify the mental and bodily, phenomenal and intentional, as well as descriptive and normative dimensions of affective concepts, we will use an experimental-philosophical approach. Taking as a starting point various philosophical theories about pains and emotions, we will (a) study whether these theories are empirically adequate by devising vignettes to test people's intuitions about pains and emotions; (b) investigate people's use of pain and emotion language by analyzing linguistic corpora; (c) develop and test various hypotheses to investigate the influence of normative considerations on people's affective concepts. Preliminary work already suggests that the traditional view about the affective mind is found wanting in crucial respects. By showing that the cognitive aspects of affective states have radically different features than traditionally assumed, we aim to produce a better theoretical framework for the study of pains and emotions, and to fundamentally improve our understanding of the way subjects communicate their affective states.

The Research Project "The conceptual space of the affective mind", is funded by the SNF and is conducted at the Institute of Philosophy, University of Bern.

Two PhD Students have now been selected to work with me on the project. These are:

                    Rodrigo Diaz                                     Michael Sienhold