Emotional consciousness

My dissertation examines theories of emotions across the philosophical, psychological, and neuroscientific literature. I am specifically interested in the experiential aspects of emotions: What causes emotions to feel as they do? What functional roles do our emotional experiences play in our lives? What are the conditions necessary for organisms to experience emotions? To answer these questions, I propose a novel theory of emotions that focuses on their affective features, their bodily characteristics, and their relationships with other psychological phenomena.

I take inspiration from William James's "body-first" theory of emotion, which states that the felt quality of an emotion is due to physiological changes triggered by ecologically significant stimuli. I take emotions to be primitive psychological phenomena: they are early products of evolution, at least in comparison with many of our more sophisticated cognitive abilities. In fact, I am exploring the idea that our capacities for experiencing emotions structure, in part, our capacities to perceive objects.

One result of the theory I'm building is that emotions do not constitute a natural or a psychological kind. That is, emotionality is not a feature unique to what we would identify in ourselves as episodes of emotion. Instead, it is pervasive in our mental lives. Of course, certain episodes are more emotionally salient than others, and we label them accordingly: being angry, or sad, or joyful feels different, perhaps more "severe" than being calm and relaxed and indifferent. But, I argue, those states of mind that we label "emotions" differ in degree, not kind, from our less excited moments.

History and philosophy of psychology

Psychology is not a unified science, and as disciplines go it is still fairly young. Compared to some other scientific pursuits, the methods and conceptual frameworks employed by psychologists are heavily indebted to certain epistemic and metaphysical commitments that themselves invite scrutiny. This makes it difficult to position psychology neatly and accurately within the realm of scientific inquiry.

One way in which I'm trying to understand psychology is by tracking theoretical trends and key figures across time periods. Some characters I find particularly interesting are William James, Margaret Washburn, James J. Gibson, and Robert Zajonc. Going back further, I am interested in early modern conceptions of psychology such as can be found in the works of René Descartes and Nicolas Malebranche.

You might be interested in looking at my book chapter on Malebranche's theory of emotion and imagination, or my review of a new translation of Descartes's Passions of the Soul:

  • Taylor, J. C. V. (2013). Emotional Sensations and the Moral Imagination in Malebranche. In H. M. Lloyd (Ed.), The Discourse of Sensibility: The Knowing Body in the Enlightenment (pp. 63-83). Dortrecht: Springer. // [Link to PDF]
  • Taylor, J. C. V. (2017). Review of The Passions of the Soul and Other Philosophical Writings. British Journal for the History of Philosophy. doi:10.1080/09608788.2016.1267609 // [Link to PDF]

In the contemporary scene, I am researching the debate between "classical" or "standard" cognitive science and the diverse school of embodied cognition. There are disagreements over what does or does not count as "cognitive", or where one should draw the boundaries of cognition (the brain? the skin? the external world? or an abstract "software" level?). Different solutions to these issues hold distinct implications for a theory of emotion and how the cognitive sciences should be practiced.



Understanding explanations

Between 2013 and 2016 I worked as a research assistant to Dr. Deena Weisberg at Penn's Cognition & Development Lab. We, along with Dr. Emily Hopkins, investigated how people from varying educational backgrounds interpret explanations of phenomena across a range of sciences. More specifically, we examined the "seductive allure" effect, whereby an explanation may be considered more satisfying if it is plumped up with information from a more "fundamental" science—even when that information adds nothing to the logic of the explanation.

We found that the seductive allure effect appears in many step-wise pairings (such as chemistry–physics or neuroscience–biology). In other words, the seductive allure effect appears to be a reductive allure effect. However, the effect was especially strong in the psychology–neuroscience pairing.

A follow-up study showed that people with scientific training were less prone to the effect when rating explanations within or close to their "home" discipline. More surprisingly, perhaps, subjects with philosophical training generally appear to be immune to the effect across all tested disciplines.

To date we have published three papers based on our studies:

  • Hopkins, E. J., Weisberg, D. S., & Taylor, J. C. V. (2016). Examining the specificity of the seductive allure effect. In A. Papafragou, D. Grodner, D. Mirman, & J. C. Trueswell (Eds.), Proceedings of the 38th Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society (pp. 1829-1834). Philadelphia, PA: Cognitive Science Society. // [Link to PDF]
  • Hopkins, E. J., Weisberg, D. S., & Taylor, J. C. V. (2016). The seductive allure is a reductive allure: People prefer scientific explanations that contain logically irrelevant reductive information. Cognition, 155, 67-76. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2016.06.011 // [Link to PDF]
  • Weisberg, D. S., Taylor, J. C. V., & Hopkins, E. J. (2015). Deconstructing the seductive allure of neuroscience explanations. Judgment and Decision Making, 10(5), 429-441. // [Link to PDF]

You can check out some write-ups on our work here:
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