On the Appropriate Labelling of Emotions

Emotions suffer from what I like to think of as “the colour problem”. It probably has a proper name in philosophy circles (related to, but distinct from Wittgenstein’s “private language”) but I think of it as the colour problem because the easiest example is to do with colours. A fancier name would probably be the experience-description problem or something.

Anyway, the easy example goes roughly as follows: presumably we both agree on what is meant by the colour blue. I can point to a blue sky and you will agree that the sky is, in fact, blue. You can point to a green plant and I will agree that it is not blue. We use this word the same way, to refer to the same property of the same things in the real world. But that says nothing about how we actually experience the property of blueness. Perhaps for me, the visible colour spectrum is reversed; I see violet as red and red as violet. I see blue as orange, and orange as blue. To the outside observer (and in fact to me myself) there is no way to tell. How I perceive a particular wavelength of light doesn’t change the categorization of real objects, or the words that we use.

When I see a blue sky, I might experience what you consider the sensation of orangeness But to me, that’s what blue is. All the things that generate that sensation have always just been called blue, and all the things that generate a sensation of blueness have just been called orange. I know no differently, and short of some miraculous yet-to-be-invented mind-reading technology, there is no way for anybody to detect this issue, because practically it’s not an issue. The only thing it could possibly have implications for is aesthetics, and that’s incredibly subjective anyway.

But enough with colours. They’re the easy example. The thing I want to actually talk about today is emotions, because they suffer the same problem but with much more serious implications. Like colours, emotions are internal experiences which we can describe only indirectly. We learn to associate smiling and other physical cues with happiness, and so as children the feelings that produce those physical reactions in us we start to call happiness. But of course, we can also lie about our emotions: we call it acting.

Consider as a thought experiment, two children raised separately by two very bizarre parents. Parent A raises child A almost perfectly normally, except for one thing: parent A lies about the name of emotions. When they are feeling happy, or talking about being happy, they use the word “sad”. When they are feeling angry, or talking about being angry, they use the word “calm”. Etc. Etc.

Parent A is a little weird, but parent B is even weirder. Parent B doesn’t lie with words: they lie with body language and facial expression. When parent B is feeling happy, they use the word “happy”, but they *act* like they’re sad. When they’re feeling angry, they use the word “angry”, but they *act* like they’re calm. Etc. Etc.

In theory, the end result is exactly the same. For both children, their internal mapping of words to external cues is reversed from what we consider normal. They could probably even talk to each other about their emotions, and understand each other perfectly, though everybody else would end up quite confused. All of this simply to show that we have no certainty that, when we use a given word to describe an emotion we’re feeling, it lines up with how other people use that word at all. All we have to go on are easily faked or confused external cues.

For colours this wasn’t a problem; aesthetics are subjective anyway. But for emotions, it’s rather more serious, because we frequently attach ethical weight to our emotional states and the communication thereof. These range from the mundane (feigning enjoyment of an awkward social situation) to the serious (telling someone you love them when, in fact, you don’t feel any such thing).

Now, hopefully nobody does the latter on purpose; that would be an incredibly nasty thing to do. But we just got finished talking about the fact that we can’t really be sure about our emotional labels anyway. Maybe through some confusion of cues and feelings, the emotion you describe as love is just different than that of your partner. You say you love each other, but you mean different things by that statement. This is not only practically dangerous, but ethically complicated as well. In a certain sense, your relationship is built on a lie; not an intentional one, but a lie nonetheless.

I completely lack a conclusion, but I’ve run out of things to say. Hope everyone’s had a merry christmas.

2 thoughts on “On the Appropriate Labelling of Emotions

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