Sunday, September 18, 2011

Introduction to Robert C. Roberts View of Emotions

Robert C. Roberts is a philosopher who engages in the contemporary discussion concerning the nature of emotions. His scholarly work defending his position may be found in his book Emotions: An Essay in Aid of Moral Psychology. He has also written a work titled Spiritual Emotions: A Psychology of Christian Virtues which elaborates on how his view of emotions assists the Christian in his or her spiritual walk. In this post, I simply want to offer a sketch of his view. However, before I sketch his view I want to give a little background on the way in which Roberts approaches the study of emotions.

In ancient and medieval philosophy, emotions were usually spoken of within the context of a broader philosophical anthropology. Aquinas, for example, differentiates the various types of souls into the natural (vegetative) soul, the sensitive soul, and the rational soul. Rational souls have the powers of the lower sensitive and natural soul; however, in addition to those powers the rational soul also has the power of reason. Aquinas locates emotions in the sensitive part of the soul. In particular, he situates them in the sensitive appetite. (Note: At this point, I do not think that the modern term “emotions” is the equivalent of Aquinas’ terms “passiones” or “affectiones”.)

By contrast, the contemporary debate makes use of neuroscience, experimental psychology, evolutionary biology, etc... Some researchers believe they have found interesting results as they study brain states and their corresponding emotional states. Others think that experimental psychology is more helpful in arriving at the nature of emotions. Anthropologists might draw their conclusions about emotion by comparing those emotions that seem to cross cultural boundaries with those that seem to be unique to a particular culture.