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Review of "Action, Emotion and Will"

By Anthony Kenny
Routledge, 2003
Review by Alex Sager on Aug 12th 2003
Action, Emotion and Will

Anthony Kenny's classic work of analytic philosophy, Action, Emotion and Will has recently been republished with a new preface by the author. An ex-Catholic priest turned philosopher, Kenny invokes an impressive range of sources on questions of emotion, volition and linguistic analysis, from Descartes, Hume and William James to Aristotle and Aquinas.

Kenny is best known to the general public as the author of the Oxford History of Philosophy. Action, Emotion and Will is a far more technical work of philosophy and may not appeal to non-specialists. It is divided into three parts, the first an investigation of the emotions which proposes a path between introspection and behaviorism. The second part analyzes the language of action and mental states and their relation to predicate logic. Finally, Kenny extends Peter Geach's analysis of judgments to his own theory of will. The last two parts will be of interest mainly to professional philosophers, so, except for some cursory remarks about linguistic philosophy, I will concentrate on his account of the emotions.

Kenny's targets in the first chapter are the Cartesian and empirical philosophers who based their philosophy, at least in part, on introspection. If only individuals have access to their sensations, this gives rise to a host of skeptical problems. For example, if I only have access to my own experiences, how do I know that other people have the same experiences, that they do not experience my sensation of  "red" as blue? On a less philosophical note, if we can only learn what is in the mind through introspection, psychology is in trouble. Not only is much of the important work unconscious, but self-reports are notoriously misleading, posing potentially fatal problems for experimental replication and statistical analysis.

Behaviorism was largely a response to these types of problems, but it brought along some of its own. For one, we can have an emotion, but not act upon it, something behaviorism doesn't permit. Though Dante loves Beatrice, he may just wallow in self-pity. Similarly, if he decides to act upon his emotions, perhaps composing sonnets, do we attribute his poems to his love of Beatrice or his lust for literary fame? If he weeps, is it in longing, despair or rage? Behaviorism eliminates more than sensations and is unable to distinguish between different motives, since motives are cut out of the equation.

Kenny's own account of the emotions links circumstance, sensation, motive and action. He points out that we can only have emotions if we know how to manifest them. If a lottery winner tells us that her windfall makes her sad, we want to know why. There has to be some explanation: perhaps she has recently joined a cult which considers material wealth hateful. Of course, this doesn't require that we always act upon our emotions, only that we are able to do so. Kenny also draws attention to the relation between an emotion and its object, showing how objects are bound up in an emotion's definition: we feel ashamed of our acts, afraid of dangerous situations, resentful towards cheaters.  (Objectless "emotions" like depression and mania are generally called moods, though their precise relation to "genuine" emotions is controversial.) Kenny also emphasizes the useful distinction between an object and the cause of an emotion. For example, the object of a little girl's terror may be the clown a well-meaning uncle hired for her birthday party, but its cause may be the horror movie she saw on late night TV.

Though many of the book's points can be contested, Kenny adds a welcome complexity to the study of emotions. To single out one claim I find implausible, Kenny suggests that emotions, unlike perceptions, do not give us information about the external world. Imagine you are walking down the street after a rainstorm and a car speeds by, dangerously close the curb, slamming into a pothole and drenching you with muddy rainwater. Naturally, you are angry and if your anger is appropriate, this suggests that you are correctly responding to features in the world, probably the driver's lack of consideration and the fact your clothes are soaked. There is currently a philosophical debate over what this information amounts to, but the consensus seems to be that emotions are finely tuned our physical and social worlds. If we take seriously the idea that emotions are a product of natural selection, "designed" to further our reproductive opportunities, this could hardly be otherwise.

This is a fairly minor problem with the book. Unfortunately, in many other ways the book seems dated, most obviously in the second chapter on empirical research. This is a major drawback for a book published in 1963, since it is really in the last 20 years that empirical research into the emotions has really taken off, aided by advances in neuroscience and cognitive psychology. In the last 40 years, we have undergone a paradigm shift, where behaviorism and introspection -- Kenny's hobgoblins -- are no longer serious contenders, while neuroscience, cognitive science and evolutionary psychology have taken center stage. For example, Kenny quickly dismisses William James' theory that emotions do not cause bodily states (my fear causes my body to get ready to fight or flee), but are rather perceptions of bodily states (I feel afraid because my body is preparing to fight or flee). But this hardly seems fair, since the neurologist Antonio Damasio has written several influential books, including Descartes' Error, which effectively update James.

I believe that the question of a paradigm shift goes beyond a few empirical details. Kenny is an analytic philosopher from a generation where philosophy and science could be clearly distinguished, and linguistic analysis was the main method of investigation (this is especially evident in the middle and later chapters). But this disciplinary division has largely collapsed and philosophers today who fail to engage with current empirical research do so at the risk of being irrelevant. If linguistic philosophy is to be more than a subdiscipline of semantics, the analysis of language must tell us something important about ourselves and about the world. Kenny assumes that this analysis will reveal something about emotions, action, and will, but this is only true if there is a direct link between action verbs, the logic used to dissect them, and whatever cognitive systems are responsible for action. If, like many scientists, we believe that investigating action means studying the cognitive or neural systems that make action possible, linguistic analysis may be beside the point.

            That said, Kenny's analysis is often incisive. Armchair philosophers, despite the temptation to disparage them, may reveal shortcomings in scientific theories and open the way to further research. The virtue of Action, Will and Emotion is not so much its actual positions (though these are by no means negligible), but its ability to stimulate debate. The book is nothing if not ambitious, tackling emotion, action and will -- three of the most technically challenging philosophical topics -- in a mere 150 pages. Kenny moves with ease over 2,300 years of philosophy, and there is rarely a page without a stimulating remark. With 40 years of hindsight, it is easy to quibble with many of the details, but this would a bit pedantic. The value of philosophy is not so much in its permanent contributions, but in its ability to change how we see the world. For those interested in the history of the philosophy of emotion, action and mind, Kenny's book is an important landmark.


© 2003 Alex Sager


Alex Sager writes about himself:

I'm a philosopher and writer, married to a Mexican lawyer.I am currently doing a Ph.D. in philosophy at L'Université de Montréal. In my thesis I am proposing a model of our moral psychology combining the insights of cognitive science, developmental psychology, evolutionary psychology and other disciplines. I believe that most philosophers are still using psychology from the 18th century, ignoring many of the recent scientific advances, and suggest that there is evidence our minds contain a number of innate, distinct faculties that allow us to make moral judgments in different domains.

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