Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 25, Issue 1, pp 75–94 | Cite as

Relations of homology between higher cognitive emotions and basic emotions

  • Jason A. Clark


In the last 10 years, several authors including Griffiths and Matthen have employed classificatory principles from biology to argue for a radical revision in the way that we individuate psychological traits. Arguing that the fundamental basis for classification of traits in biology is that of ‘homology’ (similarity due to common descent) rather than ‘analogy’, or ‘shared function’, and that psychological traits are a special case of biological traits, they maintain that psychological categories should be individuated primarily by relations of homology rather than in terms of shared function. This poses a direct challenge to the dominant philosophical view of how to define psychological categories, viz., ‘functionalism’. Although the implications of this position extend to all psychological traits, the debate has centered around ‘emotion’ as an example of a psychological category ripe for reinterpretation within this new framework of classification. I address arguments by Griffiths that emotions should be divided into at least two distinct classes, basic emotions and higher cognitive emotions, and that these two classes require radically different theories to explain them. Griffiths argues that while basic emotions in humans are homologous to the corresponding states in other animals, higher cognitive emotions are dependent on mental capacities unique to humans, and are therefore not homologous to basic emotions. Using the example of shame, I argue that (a) many emotions that are commonly classified as being higher cognitive emotions actually correspond to certain basic emotions, and that (b) the “higher cognitive forms” of these emotions are best seen as being homologous to their basic forms.


Homology Serial homology Function Psychological categories Biological categories Homology of function Basic emotions Higher cognitive emotions Shame 



I would like to thank an anonymous reviewer, Craig DeLancey, Paul Griffiths, Alan Love, Bence Nanay, Kim Sterelny and Michael Stocker for their comments and suggestions. Previous drafts of this paper have been presented to the members of the Minnesota Center for the Philosophy of Science ‘Biology Interest Group (BIG)’, and the 2008 Eastern Division Meeting of the American Philosophical Association, where audience members provided many helpful questions and suggestions.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Syracuse UniversitySyracuseUSA

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