Once again, cognitive science has made my brain hurt.
I’ve just come across an interesting article by Lisa Feldman Barrett. It is titled, Are Emotions Natural Kinds? and was published in Perspectives on Psychological Science 1 (1), March 2006, 28–58. She argues our assumptions about emotions are empirically unfounded and prevent scientific progress.
our perceptual processes lead us to aggregate emotional processing into categories that do not necessarily reveal the causal structure of the emotional processing… as a result, the natural-kind view has outlived its scientific value and now presents a major obstacle to understanding what emotions are and how they work.
Philosophers like Louis C. Charland will disagree, but I appreciate this article just because it is a scientific paper making use of discussions originating from the philosophy of science, and references the concept of ‘natural kind’.
You can see the concept in arguments about scientific realism and biological species. These debates center around whether or not nature is composed of things having essential properties which group them into, you guessed it, ‘natural kinds’. Realists like this because it lets scientists “carve nature at its joints”.
What is a ‘natural kind’, you ask? Philosophers aren’t in complete agreement about that, which should be no surprise. Barrett explains it this way:
In the most straightforward philosophical sense, a natural kind is a nonarbitrary grouping of instances that occur in the world. This grouping, or category, is given by nature and is discovered, not created, by the human mind. In a natural-kind category, instances cluster together in a meaningful way because they have something real in common.
There’s another reason I like this paper. Its has a provocative conclusion:
…if emotions are not natural kinds, then they do not have ontological status as causal entities. As a consequence, emotions may not be the answer for why people do things. Rather, they may be the question—the things whose perception needs to be explained. In this view, emotions do not refer to the things being classified, but rather are classification schemes that people impose on their world during perception. [emphasis added]
I’m still trying to digest this, and find interesting how my feelings of curiosity about this article might not be the real reason I’m reading it.