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Emotionally Charged: The Puzzle of Affective Valence

Type of publication Peer-reviewed
Publikationsform Contribution to book (peer-reviewed)
Author TeroniFabrice,
Project Modes and Contents
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Contribution to book (peer-reviewed)

Book Shadows of the Soul: Philosophical Perspectives on Negative Emotions
Editor , Konzelmann Ziv Anita; , Tappolet Christine; , Teroni Fabrice
Publisher Routledge, New York
Page(s) 10 - 19
ISBN 9781138689695
Title of proceedings Shadows of the Soul: Philosophical Perspectives on Negative Emotions


We intuitively distinguish between positive emotions (pride, joy, admiration) and negative emotions (shame, sadness, fear). It is true that we also speak of positive or negative perceptual experiences and memories, but these properties accrue to these states only because of the emotions that we feel when we perceive or remember. This suggests that the positivity or negativity of emotions has priority over that of other mental states. Contemporary researchers interested in this feature of emotions speak in terms of “polarity” or “valence”. Elucidating these notions, and understanding what it is that makes emotions positive or negative, is a major theoretical task in the field. As a point of departure, I will presuppose, as do contemporary accounts of valence, that the kind of features we are trying to get at when talking about the valence of an emotion is distinct from moral or prudential evaluations concerning it. So we are concerned with the sense in which we all classify shame as a negative emotion, quite independently of any argument about its moral or prudential value. Although it is difficult to be informative at this stage of our discussion, we may say that this presupposition is justified because the sorts of positive things that may be said about shame (viz. that it manifests a virtue or that it motivates self-reform) are actually explained by its negative valence: the potential of shame to manifest a virtue in specific circumstances or to motivate self-reform is grounded in its negative valence. Reacting with shame to a wrong one has done can manifest one’s decency because shame is a negative emotional reaction to this wrong, and the fact that shame may motivate one to avoid committing such wrongs in the future is also rooted in its negative valence. To put it differently, positive or negative valence is supposed to be a feature intrinsic to types of emotions and so independent of the specific objects that elicit them or the potential effects they may have. Pride has positive valence despite the facts that it sometimes manifests the vice of pridefulness and leads to vile courses of action. On the basis of this assumption, my aim is to understand what makes certain emotions positive and others negative. I will focus on the following explanatory constraint: an account of valence must appeal to a fundamental contrastive property of emotions that does not itself in turn require explanation by another of their properties. It is fair to say that most participants in contemporary debates would accept this constraint, since valence is supposed to be a basic aspect of emotions. In what follows, I will use this constraint to criticize representative accounts of valence that appeal to desires and hedonic states. I will argue that their explanatory power is largely illusory: the relevant desires need to be explained by hedonic states, and hedonic states are themselves in part composed of emotions. On this basis, I will explore an alternative explanation of valence by means of evaluation and give some reasons to favour one specific evaluative account.