Theology and Philosophy

Dr Talia Morag - 28 October

Must (some) emotions be “cognitive”?


The overwhelming majority of contemporary philosophers assume what has been called “cognitive” emotions. That is, emotions have an intentional object that is perceived under description, that they therefore have conceptual content, that they embed beliefs or belief-like states, and that they are sensitive to reason. Even those who stress the existence of “basic” emotions, which are said to be non-conceptual and shared with animals and infants, talk about other “complex” emotions that involve concepts (e.g. Griffiths). Call this the conceptualist assumption about emotions. This now orthodox assumption is well motivated. How, for example, could one feel regret without believing or at least being inclined to believe that one has made a mistake? In this paper, I examine closely the behavioural and linguistic features of emotions that motivate the view that at least some emotions must be conceptually laden. I then offer an alternative way to understand those features in a way that does not necessitate the conceptualist assumption. It is at least possible, I claim, that all emotions are part of our (non-rational) animality.


Dr. Talia Morag is an adjunct fellow at the University of Western Sydney.  She works on philosophical psychology, especially the philosophy of emotions, and the philosophical foundations of psychoanalysis, and philosophy of television. Recently her book Emotion, Imagination, and the Limits of Reason was published by Routledge (2016). She is the founding director of Psyche + Society, which organizes public conversations about social issues from a philosophical perspective enriched by psychoanalytic insights.