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Affect and Phenomenal Consciousness

An interdisciplinary research project


Overview

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Affect is a term used in philosophy, psychology, and nearby fields to refer to the “simple feelings” we have all the time: everything ranging from the build-up to a sneeze to the throbbing of a stubbed toe, or from the weighty drag of sadness to the euphoric buzz of joy. An affective state is an event that one experiences as in some sense pleasant or unpleasant. That jolt of fear you feel when you come across a snake in the woods is an affective state.

Affect is a certain kind of phenomenal consciousness. This second term refers to the kinds of experiences creatures (such as humans) have that involve their bodies and the world. There’s contention in the philosophical community regarding whether certain kinds of thoughts are or are not phenomenally conscious. But affective states are conscious by definition: they exist as feelings.

I’m interested in the ways in which affective states influence other mental processes and states, especially cognition and perception. We all know how our moods can affect the ways we interpret social situations, or interrupt our sleep, or keeps us fixated on memories that we’d rather ignore. I’m particularly interested in an idea that’s so far received less attention, both inside and outside of academia: that affective states influence quite literally the ways we perceive the world.

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Take, for example, a dram of your favorite scotch whisky. In perceiving it you likely combine different sensory signals. You can look at it, observing its amber hue as it sloshes around the glass. You can smell fragrances of malt, oak, peat, and if it’s from Islay, a touch of wet sheep. You can test its temperature on your lips. Finally, you can taste it.

If you’re into whisky, among other flavor notes you’ll likely identify, the word “delicious” might pop up. That term is related to the notion of affect I mentioned above. Whisky tastes pleasant. Is whisky delicious simply because it’s objectively a good substance? Perhaps, but that doesn’t explain why my wife can’t stand the stuff. Rather, I think there’s something to do with a whisky-drinker’s propensity to derive pleasure from whisky-drinking experiences that leads to him or her tasting deliciousness in whisky. If you find that last sentence difficult to understand, then keep an eye on this project.

 

At this stage in the project I’m focused on the convoluted relationship between affect, sensory perception, and physiology. Different kinds of creatures have very different bodies. Do they enjoy the same ranges of affective states? Do they perceive their environments (or their worlds) in the same ways as each other? I address these questions from an evolutionary perspective in a paper called “Solipsistic Sentience and Affective Perception”. You can find a draft copy of it here.

That paper is an outgrowth of my dissertation research (described in detail here), in which I developed a comprehensive theory of emotional experiences—the felt aspects of emotions. The dissertation builds on some key work in the history of emotion research (another ongoing project; see here) and incorporates claims and data from across philosophy and the sciences of mind.

Intended future work within this project will look deeper into affect’s relationships with mental imagery, decision making, and motivation. I’m also hoping to investigate philosophical issues regarding psychological conditions such as anxiety disorders and phobias.

Written works composed within this project:

  1. Taylor, J. C. V. “Solipsistic Sentience and Affective Perception”. Manuscript under review.

  2. Taylor, J. C. V. (2018). “Actually Embodied Emotions.” Publicly Accessible Penn Dissertations. 3192.

Work from this project that I’ve presented at conferences:

  1. Taylor, J. C. V. (2017, May). “Emotional primitivism and appraisal theory.” Paper presented at Representing Reality: A daylong conference on the philosophy of psychology, State University of New York at Potsdam.

  2. Taylor, J. C. V. (2016, June). “Actually embodied emotions.” Poster presented at the 42nd Annual Meeting of the Society for Philosophy and Psychology (SPP), The University of Texas at Austin.

  3. Taylor, J. C. V. (2011, November). “On experiencing and categorising one’s own emotion states.” Paper presented at the Faculty of Human Sciences Higher Research Degree Showcase, Macquarie University.

  4. Taylor, J. C. V. (2011, June). “Carruthers on pretence, emotions, and reading one’s own mind: An exploration.” Paper presented at Agent Tracking 2011: A Multidisciplinary Conference on Identification and Tracking of Human Individuals, Macquarie University.

  5. Taylor, J. C. V. (2011, June). “A cognitive model of the imagination and emotions.” Paper presented at the 15th Annual Meeting for the Scientific Study of Consciousness (ASSC), Kyoto University.