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Book Review - The Caldron of Consciousness
The Caldron of Consciousness
by Ralph D. Ellis and Natika Newton (editors)
John Benjamins Publishing, 2000
Review by Aldo Mosca, Ph.D.
Jul 1st 2001

Metaphors are indicative of what the thinking process is after. The classic image of the mind, at least in the empiricist tradition, was that of a slate or a mirror, which passively records or reflects nature. The Cartesian idea of the theater is still in vogue, and jibes with the more general commonsense image of the mind as a container of thoughts, constantly scrutinized by the mind's eye. But when consciousness comes to be described as a caldron (kettle, boiler; from the Latin caldarium), well, something hot must be at the center (notice the metaphor) of attention. The target, of course, is emotion, with its cousin, motivation. The trouble is that emotion, motivation, and consciousness are a bit like rock, paper, and scissors: you can get emotion and motivation without consciousness, and motivation without emotion or consciousness. For cold cognitivists, there can be consciousness without emotion or motivation, and conscious states of mind are just caused by states of the world without further ado. Not so, according to several contributors to this rich and stimulating collection: there is no such thing, we are told, as consciousness without emotion or motivation. The idea is certainly worth considering although it is not new: it has in fact been spreading like a fire in the last decade or so.

There is another theme which is presented by the editors and contributors, R. Ellis and N. Newton, as a leading one in this collective work: that of self-organizing systems. Self-organizing systems resist both entropy and crystallization by constantly adjusting to variations in the properties of the environment, and by bringing their components back to optimal homeodynamic values, or at least to ranges of values described as basins of attraction in dynamic systems theory and chaos theory (see N. Newton's and N. Georgalis' contributions). These systems have vital aims or purposes, or interests as Dennett would call them, of which their constant adjusting is a function. Therefore, they must constantly evaluate the salience of environmental features (emotion) and decide what to do next (motivation). This brings one to a sound critique of standard models of passive cognition. When M. Bickhard, in his excellent chapter based on the notion of interaction with the environment, states that "representation […] should be understood as a dynamic phenomenon of pragmatic action and interaction, not just a spectator phenomenon of input processing," he brings James and Dewey back to life almost in their own words.

The question is when and why consciousness and intentionality (aboutness) come in. R. Ellis makes a similar point where he draws a distinction between reactive and enactive models of emotion and motivation, the latter being centered on holistic biological goals rather than on the effects of an object on the physical components of a system. But why oppose the biological to the physical? Whatever trait is naturally selected must be physically or chemically implemented. And why should it take consciousness to pursue biological goals? Ellis admits of non-conscious emotions but inexplicably denies them intentionality (aboutness). Even conscious intentionality calls for naturalization (causality), anyway, but once you naturalize it the phenomenology of aboutness is lost. N. Newton tells us that consciousness emerged as a catalyst of different non-conscious motivations, and organizes them in a coherent goal associated with an emotion, the hope for reward. Hence voluntary and conscious action would be associated with a conscious emotion, and feelings would be just desires, or action images. Yes, Aristotle too said that anger is the desire for revenge, but unfortunately depressed people want to do nothing. Some refinement of the theory is called for.

One cannot go very far in this field without considering neuroscientific findings, as the editors explicitly state. J. Panksepp, a veteran of affective neuroscience, identifies the epicenter of the emotions in the periaqueductal gray area of the brain stem, and claims that cognitive abilities are distinct from, and built upon, affective foundations. Other top-notch researchers such as Damasio, Rolls, and Ledoux, whom he quotes, see it differently. For Panksepp, consciousness is ultimately based on the nature of our biological values, but he sees it grounded in processes that governed emotional motor actions (motivations?) rather than sensations. There are a few fascinating pages on pleasurable opioids released by, and reinforcing, social bonds (= love), and on the chirping ("laughter") of young rats when they play or are tickled. B. Faw, a neuropsychologist, states the terms of the ongoing dispute very clearly where he takes sides with Panksepp, and regards emotion as a central organizing global component of consciousness, as against the view that emotional consciousness is only one "channel" of conscious content. He then offers a wonderfully lucid chapter, in which he identifies five levels of emotional processing, from pain reflexes and the hormonal system to the "executive committee" constituted by several areas in the pre-frontal cortex. Yet at the end of the chapter, interestingly, there is not an answer but still a question: Is motivation/emotion really integral to consciousness? Well, not if acetylcholine (a neurotransmitter) pathways to the thalamus are sufficient for conscious awareness, or if it is true that some lobectomies kill emotion but not consciousness. It takes some basic neuroanatomy to enjoy Faw's analysis, but with a little patience you can keep your finger on the attached map, and you'll do just fine.

E. Gendlin vehemently rejects any scientific reduction to constituent units, in the name of the holism of persons and the first-person approach, but does not seem to contribute anything new to that line of thought, much less to the questions at stake. V. Hardcastle tackles the issue of the relation between neurophysiological and social-constructivist models of emotion, and correctly concludes with a thesis that everybody should have embraced long ago: the two approaches are not only compatible but mutually supportive. These two chapters have come a long way from the issues presented as the leading themes in the book, and others are even more heterogeneous, but still commendable. There is work on neurocomputational models of emotion and motivation, on developmental psychology, notably by P. Zachar, and on a carefully operationalized neuropsychology of emotion, by M. Peper. All in all, it will not be unfair to say that the book turns out to be like a bundle of impressions, to paraphrase David Hume. But perhaps the metaphor of a string of pearls of uneven quality is more suitable, and appealing.

© Aldo Mosca, 2001

Aldo Mosca, Ph.D., teaches philosophy at the New School (New School University) in New York City. His current research interests are in the history of theories of the emotions, and in contemporary philosophy of mind.