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Book Review - Passionate Engines
Passionate Engines
by Craig Delancey
Oxford University Press, 2002
Review by James Hitt
Apr 1st 2002

Passionate Engines: What Emotions Reveal About Mind and Artificial Intelligence puts forth a position on the basic emotions.  Basic emotions constitute a small section of the emotions; they include anger, fear, joy, and disgust, while excluding jealousy, guilt, wonder, and hope.   Basic emotions are panculturally recognized in facial expressions of Homo sapiens and the object of study for scores of neuroscientists experimenting with mammalia.  Basic emotions are primordial; they are realized in neural systems old in evolutionary terms and contribute to the realization of evolutionarily younger cognitive systems.

The last highlights DeLancey’s Hierarchical Model of Mind:  subcognitive affective systems underwrite the basic emotions, which are independent of “cognitive” systems and components that are sometimes necessary for “cognitive” systems.  The contrast between subcognitive and cognitive is a theme for many emotion theorists who adopt, including DeLancey, the affect-program theory.  DeLancey explains what that is and quotes approvingly from Paul Ekman, a leading researcher on affect-theory: “The term affect program refers to a mechanism that stores the patterns for these complex organized responses, and which when set off directs their occurrence….” Affect programs coordinate complex bodily changes: such as facial expressions and changes in the endocrine, respiratory, circulatory, or musculoskeletal system.  Besides physiological responses, affect programs coordinate complex, although typical, behavioral responses.  The affect-program theory, relying on the physiological and behavioral correlates, is sufficient for identifying a basic emotion and distinguishing between basic emotions.  

The affect-program theory challenges a cognitive theory of the emotions.  On a cognitive theory, the emotions are essentially cognitive.  The debate about whether the essential features of (basic) emotions are cognitive is well represented in several books for the lay reader.  Joseph LeDoux’s book, The Emotional Brain, is an excellent example. 

In chapters 3-12, DeLancey explores what the basic emotions reveal about philosophy of mind and artificial intelligence.  These chapters rely on earlier arguments that purport to show basic emotions are subcognitive.  In chapters 3-10, he surveys various issues that are not always closely connected: interpretationalism, intentionality, social constructivism, rationality, emoting for fiction, and phenomenal consciousness.  In chapter 11-12, he addresses the theoretical underpinnings of artificial intelligence (AI).  What is revealed about philosophy of mind and AI is that they are both too cognitive.  Unable to account for subcognitive basic emotions, they fall short. 

But it is arguable that DeLancey’s fundamental claim that every basic emotion is noncognitive is problematic.  The claim seems to rely on an equivocation.  I will illustrate with a simplified version of the argument against a cognitive account of the emotions.  First, a cognitivist claims that (most) emotions are essentially cognitive* in that they require beliefs or other propositional attitudes.  But basic emotions are not cognitive** in that they are non-linguistic, unavailable for reporting, and processed quickly within the brain.  So, basic emotions are not cognitive*.   This naïve argument wears its fallacy on its sleeve.  The term ‘cognitive’ is used equivocally.  DeLancey’s position is subtler, but the naïve argument nonetheless exhibits a persistent and underlying problem.

This is unfortunate.  DeLancey has original and provocative ideas, yet they emerge backstage when the main focus is on the inadequacies of cognitivism for philosophy of mind and AI.  Three of his ideas immediately come to mind.  First, DeLancey argues that basic emotions are motivational states and not mere dispositions to behavior.  Second, DeLancey thinks that autonomy, rather than cognition, is the central notion to be explicated in philosophy of mind and AI.  Third, given DeLancey’s understanding of basic emotions, a passionate autonomous machine might be engineered.  These three notions, if explored more fully, promise to provide an alternative theory of emotion, rather than a theory of basic emotions, and redirect some areas of the philosophy of mind and AI.  In addition, these notions are seeds for developing and articulating an entrancing discourse on the very feasibility for constructing a passionate autonomous machine.

All the same, DeLancey’s position on the basic emotions faces an independent weakness, namely, that an insufficient account of action is provided.  Human action requires agency.  When I run away from a dangerous brown bear, my behavior, the running, is something that happens and something undertaken.  Agency accounts for the latter; physiological states may well account for the former.  DeLancey takes emotional behaviors to be actions.  In rejecting cognitivism as an account of the basic emotions, he foregoes a standard account of action.  For Donald Davidson, a behavior is an action if it is caused by the reason for performing the action.  If an appropriate causal connection between a reason and a behavior is absent, the behavior is not an action.  DeLancey, in presenting counter-examples to Davidson, relies on the stipulation that all his examples involving behavior are examples of actions.  If so, the person engaging in the behavior would, on a Davidsonian view, have an appropriate belief-desire pair that constitutes her reason for performing the said action.  DeLancey finds the belief-desire pair in each counter-example to be insufficient in accounting for the agent’s behavior.  However, since the agent is performing an action, there is a belief-desire pair that constitutes the reason for that action.  On a Davidsonian view, showing that a reason, that is, a particular belief-desire pair, is insufficient to account for an action is perforce to show that that particular belief-desire pair is not the reason. 

I suspect DeLancey must in effect be relying on an alternative account of action, perhaps one fashioned after his notion of autonomy or motor program.  At most, DeLancey says that a motor program underwrites an emotional action.  However, he provides no principled distinction between programs that cause mere behaviors and programs that cause actions (see p. 26), even though both are motor programs in the brain.  What one demands before evaluating his position on basic emotions is a principled way to distinguish between behaviors that are actions and those that fail to be actions.  A cognitive account, for all its difficulties, has the tools to make available such a principled distinction, and it is not clear how the affect-program theory can do that.

I applaud DeLancey for an ambitious book.  By joining together diverse issues in philosophy of mind, our understanding of the emotions and philosophy of mind is challenged and extended.


© 2002 James Hitt


James Hitt is a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at the Graduate School and University Center, City University of New York.  His is currently at work on a dissertation on the emotions.