Significance, Emotions, and Objectivity: Some Limits of Animal Thought

Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh (1994)

Bennett W. Helm
Franklin and Marshall College
Rationality is the constitutive ideal of the mental. Therefore it is important to understand the sort of rationality at issue here. It is often assumed that rationality just is instrumental rationality, but this leaves us with too thin a notion of desire: Desires centrally involve the notion of things mattering or being significant, for their objects must normally be worth pursuing to the subject. Such significance is simply unintelligible in terms of instrumental rationality. Consequently, understanding significance and its rational connections to desire and action is essential to understanding rationality as a constitutive ideal. In particular, it is a crucial step in vindicating the idea of animal thought. ;I argue that significance, as well as desire, must be understood in part in terms of the emotions. Many prominent theories of emotions illegitimately conceive of significance as conceptually prior to the capacity for having emotions, in that things can be significant to a creature that does not have any emotions at all. In contrast, I argue first that a creature must have the capacity for emotions in order to be a subject of significance because to be significant is in part to be a suitable object of emotions generally. Second, emotions are essentially feelings not because they "involve" bodily sensations but because they are a distinctive kind of awareness of the significance of the world to the subject; particular occurrent emotions therefore presuppose that things are already significant to the subject. Consequently, emotions and significance form a conceptual package, with neither being prior to the other: Significance and the emotions emerge together in a pattern of instrumental and non-instrumental rationality that can be articulated in terms of their interconnected explanatory roles. ;Being a subject of beliefs and desires therefore requires more than simply rationally mediated goal-directedness, as Dennett believes. Rather, it requires being open, through the emotions, to the significance of the world and to the reasons that significance provides for action. This conclusion is shown to have important ramifications for our understanding both of a minimal sense of agency and of what it is to be a person
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