Sentimental perceptualism and the challenge from cognitive bases


According to a historically popular view, emotions are normative experiences that ground moral knowledge much as perceptual experiences ground empirical knowledge. Given the analogy it draws between emotion and perception, sentimental perceptualism constitutes a promising, naturalist-friendly alternative to classical rationalist accounts of moral knowledge. In this paper, we consider an important but underappreciated objection to the view, namely that in contrast with perception, emotions depend for their occurrence on prior representational states, with the result that emotions cannot give perceptual-like access to normative properties. We argue that underlying this objection are several specific problems, rooted in the different types of mental states to which emotions may respond, that the sentimental perceptualist must tackle for her view to be successful. We argue, moreover, that the problems can be answered by filling out the theory with several independently motivated yet highly controversial commitments, which we carefully catalogue. The plausibility of sentimental perceptualism, as a result, hinges on further claims sentimental perceptualists should not ignore.

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  1. 1.

    For an interpretation of Aristotle along these lines, see Moss (2013).

  2. 2.

    Shaftesbury’s view can be difficult to pin down, but see Gill (2018) for a sentimental perceptualist reading of Shaftesbury.

  3. 3.

    Audi (2004) and Huemer (2005) argue that appeals to non-affective intuition in moral epistemology are not mysterious. We are officially neutral about the issue here. Our project is internal to the sentimental perceptualist framework.

  4. 4.

    We say ‘involve’ to avoid adjudicating the question of whether sentimental perceptualists should identify affective experiences with non-doxastic normative representations or whether they should view such experiences as only a part of emotion. This question and its significance are discussed in detail in Milona (ms) and Naar (ms.).

  5. 5.

    We are assuming that perceptual experiences are representational, but some philosophers deny this (Campbell 2002). Readers who deny perceptual states represent can translate our arguments accordingly; nothing of what we argue ultimately depends on this assumption.

    Furthermore, many philosophers take desires and moods to be representational. Those who are attracted to perceptual theories of the emotions may be especially tempted to adopt such a view (see Oddie 2005; Tappolet 2018). For ease of discussion, however, we set aside these complications. We focus on the cognitive bases that have been emphasized by sentimental perceptualism’s opponents. For a discussion of the problem of ‘motivational bases’ for sentimental perceptualism, and a tentative response on behalf of the perceptualist, see Naar (2016).

  6. 6.

    It may be a conceptual truth that emotions are mediated by other mental states (Greenspan 1995, 194–6). We are neutral about this.

  7. 7.

    Roberts is aware this objection. His reply is that animals can possess concepts in the relevant sense. For example, a dog experiencing jealousy distinguishes three relevant parties: herself, the beloved, and the rival. The rival is perceived as the rival insofar as they are perceived to be threatening a cherished relationship with the beloved. For an animal to possess the concepts required for jealousy, they need only make these distinctions perceptually. An animal need not be capable of perception-independent thoughts (2013, 90). But this is to shift away from the analogy with high-level perception and towards an analogy with low-level perception. This is a move that we ultimately claim sentimental perceptualists should be pursuing (see below).

  8. 8.

    Readers who do not view low-level perceptions as non-conceptual should feel free to translate our proposal to their favored view of low-level perceptions.

  9. 9.

    See Prinz (2007, 65–68) on basic emotions (candidates for which include fear, anger, and sadness, among other) and non-basic emotions (e.g., indignation, which requires the concept of injustice). For an overview of basic emotions in the scientific literature, see Tracy and Randles (2011). According to Tracy and Randles (2011, 398), psychologists say that a basic emotion “should be discrete, have a fixed set of neural and bodily expressed components, and a fixed feeling or motivational component that has been selected for through longstanding interactions with ecologically valid stimuli (e.g., the subjective feeling and motivational component of fear is what it is because this response has historically been most adaptive in coping with typical fear elicitors).”.

  10. 10.

    Wedgwood’s specific target is Johnston (2001).

  11. 11.

    The sentimental perceptualist could concede the point and say that the analogy with perception is only at the level of justification. But this would be to place an important limit on the perceptual analogy, leaving advocates of the view with a difficult question about how emotional experiences of value could be non-accidentally correct and thus ground moral knowledge. Perhaps some plausible views could be offered, but our methodology in this paper is to preserve the analogy as much as possible, using it to develop answers to the most difficult questions about moral knowledge.

  12. 12.

    We borrow talk of formation principles (and the formation laws those principles describe) from Burge (2010) and Orlandi (2014).

  13. 13.

    This response assumes that causation is transitive, or at least that it is in these kinds of cases.

  14. 14.

    But what of conceptual perceptions? We believe that the account of robustness that we offer below may extend to many conceptual perceptions, and if so, emotions that are responses to such perceptions require no special treatment (see Sect. 7.1). But if some conceptual perceptions happen not to fit our model, then they can be treated in the manner of emotions which are responses to beliefs (see Sect. 8). Either way, the issue does not require separate treatment.

  15. 15.

    And one might think that memory is always mediated by belief.

  16. 16.

    Relying for instance on the background belief that if the world is as I believe it to be (non-normatively), then my emotions provide evidence that the world is indeed the way that it presents it as being (normatively).

  17. 17.

    Walton admits a similar sort of exception with respect to drawings by claiming that “[t]here are also doodles done automatically, while the doodler’s mind is on other things. Some such mechanically executed drawings are probably transparent.” (Walton 1984, 267).

  18. 18.

    Some theorists treat offline emotions as different in kind due to their different functional characteristics (Doggett and Egan 2007). We have no objection to this. Nothing we argue here turns on this debate.

  19. 19.

    Chudnoff (2013) proposes a theory on which we can intellectually perceive abstracta, including normative properties such as wrongness. But for reasons explained in Milona (2017), we do not believe that this is an attractive model for sentimental perceptualists.

  20. 20.

    Schroeder and Schafer refer specifically to sentimental perceptualist views of desire, but their point goes equally well for sentimental perceptualist views of emotions.


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Milona, M., Naar, H. Sentimental perceptualism and the challenge from cognitive bases. Philos Stud 177, 3071–3096 (2020).

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  • Emotion
  • Cognitive base
  • Perception
  • Moral epistemology