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Emotion and ethics: An inter-(en)active approach

Abstract

In this paper, we start exploring the affective and ethical dimension of what De Jaegher and Di Paolo (Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 6:485–507, 2007) have called ‘participatory sense-making’. In the first part, we distinguish various ways in which we are, and feel, affectively inter-connected in interpersonal encounters. In the second part, we discuss the ethical character of this affective inter-connectedness, as well as the implications that taking an ‘inter-(en)active approach’ has for ethical theory itself.

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Notes

  1. For Damasio emotion is an organismic process of self-regulation aimed at maintaining homeostasis; emotion thus conceived also provides action-guiding values, drives and preferences. Panksepp sees emotion as a collection of meaning-generating and adaptive mechanisms underpinned by specific neural and endocrine processes; emotion allows the organism to adapt to life-challenging circumstances, is constitutive of action and organises diverse behaviours, and modulates the activity of perceptual systems.

  2. One may wonder why we want to embark in this enterprise, given that social and developmental psychologists are already studying emotion in intersubjectivity. This is true, of course, and their work is very important for the development of the enactive approach itself (as the forthcoming discussion will show). Yet, first, the enactive approach is a broad theoretico-philosophical framework (see Thompson 2007) which is not reducible to hypotheses in social or developmental psychology, and which rather guides work in various disciplines (psychology, neuroscience, robotics, etc.) and helps make sense of their empirical findings. Second, the enactive approach has said little so far on the topic of emotion; the work on empathy and intersubjectivity that we mention below has not looked at emotion in much detail (if at all), and our aim in this paper is to expand and enrich existing accounts by showing how they can be used to analyse the conceptual relationship between affectivity and intersubjectivity.

  3. A terminological clarification may be useful here. We use the terms ‘feelings’, ‘affect’, ‘affective experience’ and ‘emotion experience’ as synonyms, to refer to the phenomenological-experiential aspect of emotion. When we use the term ‘emotion’ we refer to a broader phenomenon that encompasses emotion experience, as well as subpersonal neural and bodily events, and/or expression and behaviour (our terminology is thus similar to the one proposed by Damasio 2003).

  4. Thompson (2007) also talks of the moral perception of the other as a person; we deal with this level of empathy in the second part of this paper.

  5. One way of inducing non-conscious perception of visual stimuli is with the ‘backward masking’ technique. Dimberg et al. (2000) flashed pictures of happy, neutral or sad facial expressions for 30 ms, followed by a picture of a neutral expression (flashed for 5 s). The technique is called ‘backward masking’ because only the second stimulus lasts long enough to be consciously perceived, and its perception is thus said to ‘mask’ the perception of the previous stimulus.

  6. Cf. Thompson (2001, p. 17): “empathy is [...] the experience of another as an embodied subject of experience like oneself. This sort of empathy occurs through an immediate ‘pairing’ or ‘coupling’ of the bodies of self and other in action. We find here a clear connection between phenomenology and recent cognitive neuroscience, in particular to the mirror neuron findings. [...] the mirror neuron findings indicate some of the biological depth of empathy at the level of the passive association of the living bodies of self and other in embodied action”.

  7. This process is sometimes called ‘cognitive empathy’, but we shall not adopt this terminology here because we think it may lead to overlook the inherently affective nature of intersubjectivity.

  8. For the different view that sympathy does not require empathy or other modes of imaginary transposition, see Goldie (2000). Goldie draws several distinctions between ways in which we think about others’ emotions, which we do not have room to discuss here. Note however that Goldie’s notion of empathy requires, among others, enacting the other as a narrator; this requirement, we agree, is not necessary for sympathy.

  9. This is a point on which De Jaegher and Di Paolo (2007) lay particular stress, drawing on the minimalist experimental studies of interpersonal encounter, via tactile avatars, pursued by Charles Lenay and colleagues (Auvray et al., 2009).

  10. As mentioned earlier, we leave it as an open question as to what the relation is between concrete inter-individual interactions and the broader network of social norms that form the background for such concrete interactions. Steiner and Stewart (2009) discuss this wide-scale normative order at some length. In the current paper, to repeat, we are primarily concerned with the face-to-face encounters that are in the foreground to this broader normative order.

  11. We leave it open as to whether our interpretation was intended, or would be agreed, by the authors of the book.

  12. We here adapt a remark by Charles Lenay made in an email to attendees at the workshop from which this paper developed.

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Acknowledgements

We are indebted to all participants of the 2008 Powdermills workshop for inspiring discussions on these and related issues. We would also like to thank Ezequiel Di Paolo and three anonymous referees for their thoughtful remarks.

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Correspondence to Giovanna Colombetti.

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Colombetti, G., Torrance, S. Emotion and ethics: An inter-(en)active approach. Phenom Cogn Sci 8, 505 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11097-009-9137-3

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Keywords

  • Participatory sense-making
  • Enaction
  • Emotion
  • Empathy
  • Ethics