The Psychological Because

Joseph LeDouxIn reading Joseph LeDoux's The Emotional Brain, I find the following from William James:

One natural way of thinking about ... emotions is that the mental perception of some fact excites the mental affection called emotion, and that this latter state of mind gives rise to the bodily expression. My thesis on the contrary is that the bodily changes follow directly the PERCEPTION of the exciting fact, and that our feeling of the same changes as they occur IS the emotion.

(This is the famous James-Lange theory of emotion in a nutshell.) LeDoux parses this as follows: it is not that 'we run because we are afraid'; rather 'we are afraid because we run.' It is said that James held it to be 'incorrect' to say that 'we run away when we notice we are in danger [b]ecause we are afraid of what will happen if we don't'. We 'do not tremble because we are afraid of cry because we feel sad; we are afraid because we tremble and sad because we cry.'

Now LeDoux goes on to develop his own theory of emotion, but what I want to point out in the meantime is that his construal of James' theory is nonsense. I don't mean that it is interpretative nonsense - although it is clear that the quotation from James does not itself need to be read in quite the paradoxical way suggested by LeDoux. (Perhaps non-quoted portions of his text are, however, as nonsensical as LeDoux's presentation.) My point is that - appealing as it may be to present a daring theory of emotion by denying an apparent everyday truism - what is denied is not an empirical, but rather a conceptual, truth.

William JamesThe James-Lange theory, on this presentation, appears to conflate reasons and causes. Or more perspicuously, it conflates questions about what makes something intelligible with questions about what caused something to originate. Consider how we normally use the expression 'Why are you sad?' This is clearly an appeal not for a cause but for a reason. 'I'm sad because I had a row with my partner.' This 'because' makes sense of the emotional reaction; it makes it intelligible. This is the 'psychological because' referred to in the post title.

Such a use contrasts nicely with cases in which we are after a causal explanation. For example: 'What is the cause of your shaking?' might sometimes be asked in the spirit of, and answered by citing, a cause: 'Parkinsons' or 'alcohol withdrawal'. Here we have a 'physiological because'.

Consider now LeDoux's idea that it is not that 'we run because we are afraid'; rather 'we are afraid because we run.' The second answer is an answer to a question about the efficient cause of our feeling the emotion of fear. The first is an answer to a question about what makes intelligible someone's running as they do.

Both answers are in fact fairly hopeless - and it ought to be noted that LeDoux is probably merely trying to come up with a snappy way of putting the theory, not to do it justice. We are not likely to ever be 'afraid because we run'. Let us accept with James the idea (from the quoted passage) that our feeling fear is our awareness of our bodily reactions when afraid. It is still clearly not good enough to say that my feeling of fear is my awareness of the sensations I just have when running. For when I occasionally run round the park I'm not afraid but rather, well, usually rather bored.

It is sometimes apt to say that we 'run because we are afraid'. But notice first that this is very under-determined as an explanation. We might contrast 'He's running because he's trying to catch the bus' with 'he's running because he's afraid of that yeti', with 'he's running to try to set a new world record'. Just 'running because frightened' tells us too little. We need the intentional object of the fear (the yeti) and some sense of how someone could be afraid of that object (it's big, strong, carnivorous, and hungry).

And notice second that this just isn't a causal explanation. The 'because' is a psychological because - it renders the action intelligible, rather than causes it to come about. It is not as if anyone has ever seriously thought that a satisfactory efficient causal explanation of my legs moving , arms swinging, fast forward motion, etc., was my emotion.

Whether or not James indulges in the confusion to be found in LeDoux's paraphrase, it is clear that what he writes is apt for inducing a confusion. This is because what would naturally be treated as four psychological 'becauses' are treated instead as if they were four efficient 'becauses'. The discussion seems to be predicated on construing the psychological phenomena in causal terms. Instead of human action speak: Richard recognising a yeti, we have event speak: 'the mental perception of' a yeti. Instead of intentional objects we have 'exciting' causes. And so on.

James and LeDoux both write as if they were turning common sense on its head. What they really turn on its head is their own metaphysical reworking of common intelligibility-conferring idioms in a causalistic idiom. Instead of this supposed bit of common sense, we have an alternative causal explanation of fear which irrationally seems to privilege, as 'the cause of the feelings', introceptive factors above exteroceptive, biological, and environmental concerns.


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