I have an article that basically needs an analysis done. I do have a template that should be used for it. I will attach template after bids are done. Added the article down belowPhilosophical Psychology
Vol. 20, No. 1, February 2007, pp. 81–104
Do Unconscious Emotions Involve
Unconscious Feelings?
Michael Lacewing
The very idea of unconscious emotion has been thought puzzling. But in recent debate
about emotions, comparatively little attention has been given explicitly to the question.
I survey a number of recent attempts by philosophers to resolve the puzzle and provide
some preliminary remarks about their viability. I identify and discuss three families of
responses: unconscious emotions involve conscious feelings, unconscious emotions involve
no feelings at all, and unconscious emotions involve unconscious feelings. The discussion
is exploratory rather than decisive for three reasons. First, the aim is to provide a
framework for the debate, and identify a number of key issues for further research.
Second, a number of the positions depend for their plausibility upon theoretical
commitments that can be made clear, but cannot be evaluated in detail, in a survey
article. Third, I believe no fully satisfactory, comprehensive solution has yet been
Keywords: Consciousness; Emotion; Feelings; Unconscious Emotions; Unconscious
1. Introduction
In the flurry of recent debate about the nature of emotions, comparatively little
attention has been given to the question of unconscious emotions. But it is clear that
we need the concept in order to make sense of human behavior. It is commonplace
for people to later realize what they felt, but were not consciously aware of feeling, at
an earlier time; everyday explanations of people’s behavior, perhaps particularly in
personal relationships, require us to attribute to them emotions of which they are not
aware; literature is full of examples and illustrations of characters’ ignorance and selfdeception regarding what they feel. Yet the philosophers and psychologists who do at
least explicitly mention unconscious emotions spend relatively little time developing
their position and defending it against objections.
Correspondence to: Michael Lacewing, Heythrop College, University of London, Kensington Square, London
W8 5HQ, UK. Email: m.lacewing@heythrop.ac.uk
ISSN 0951-5089 (print)/ISSN 1465-394X (online)/07/010081–24 ß 2007 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/09515080601023402
82 M. Lacewing
Perhaps part of the general reticence on this issue has stemmed from the thought
that there is very little to discuss, that the concept of an unconscious emotion is
impossibly paradoxical; and so however we are to make sense of people’s emotional
lives, this concept will have no role. Predominant in this line of thought is the notion
that ‘‘unconscious emotion’’ involves a commitment to unfelt feeling; and this is
taken to be so obviously nonsensical, few philosophers have felt the need to provide
an argument against it (Clore, 1994). The very idea of unconscious emotions has
been thought puzzling even within what is perhaps its most natural home,
psychoanalysis. Freud (1915/1984) remarked, ‘‘It is surely the essence of an emotion
that we should be aware of it, i.e. that it should become known to consciousness’’
(p. 179).
This article surveys a number of recent attempts by philosophers to resolve the
puzzle and provides some preliminary remarks about their viability. The discussion
is exploratory rather than decisive for three reasons. First, the aim is to provide a
framework for the debate, and identify a number of key issues for further research.
Second, a number of the positions depend for their plausibility upon theoretical
commitments that cannot be evaluated in detail in a survey article. In these cases, my
aim is the more limited one of situating the accounts within such commitments.
The third reason the discussion is not an attempt to reach a decisive conclusion is
that I believe no fully satisfactory, comprehensive solution has yet been developed.
We can divide up answers to the title question into three families. The first two
reject the idea of unconscious feelings. The first family claims that unconscious
emotions involve conscious feelings. This family has two branches. The first branch,
of which the views of Aaron Ben-Ze’ev (2000) and Patricia Greenspan (1988) are
examples, claims that the conscious feelings are misunderstood (x5). The second
branch, exemplified by Peter Goldie (2000), defends a distinction in consciousness,
arguing that unconscious emotions are consciously felt, but that the subject remains
unaware of the feeling (x6).
The second family of theories denies that unconscious emotions involve feelings at
all. It also has two branches, represented by Martha Nussbaum (2001) and Robert
Roberts (2003), each of whom provides a different kind of argument for separating
emotions from feelings (xx8–9).
The third family defends the idea of unconscious feelings, and argues that
they are involved in unconscious emotions, usually on psychoanalytic grounds
(x10). This family includes the theories of Sebastian Gardner (1993) and
Richard Wollheim (1984).
This division into three families is further complicated by those theories that seek
to use physiological or neurophysiological criteria for emotion and feeling rather
than purely psychological criteria. Interpretations of the theories of Antonio Damasio
(1994, 2000) are possible within each of the families distinguished, depending on
how the relation between bodily or neurophysiological change and consciousness is
conceived (xx11–12).
There are, of course, other important theorists presenting arguments within each
of these families. This survey is not comprehensive in that sense. My main concern is
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with the families and their branches as potential solutions to the puzzle of
unconscious emotions, rather than with individual differences between theories
within each branch. So I shall use just those theories mentioned to exemplify the type
of solution offered in each case and the objections it faces.
2. What is an Unconscious Emotion?
2.1. A Definition
It would be helpful to have a definition of ‘unconscious emotion’. Unfortunately, any
informative definition will already be committed to a certain position, or at least
family, in the spectrum of possibilities. The only point on which all theories agree is
that an unconscious emotion is an emotion that the subject is not aware of in such a
way as to be able to avow it directly and noninferentially (the last three words are
intended to rule out a case of inference from one’s behavior). Whether and how the
subject is aware of it in any way at all is contentious, and an important aspect of the
question we face.
Like all definitions relating to consciousness, there is a puzzle about how the
epistemological and phenomenological aspects of the definition relate. The concept of
‘‘feeling’’ reflects this. Commonsense suggests that the type of awareness involved
in feeling an emotion essentially involves phenomenology, i.e., the epistemological
access that enables direct and noninferential avowal of an emotion necessarily
involves, even if it cannot be reduced to, ‘‘feelings.’’ I shall assume that this account
of feeling an emotion is correct and will therefore talk of feeling (verb) an emotion
as involving feelings (noun). However, I leave it open, as a matter of dispute, as to
whether ‘‘feelings’’ are or involve qualia, or are entirely reducible to intentional
It will emerge in the course of the argument that I believe that different accounts
of why or how an emotion is unconscious are appropriate in different cases. In other
words, there are different ways in which an emotion may be unconscious; there is not
just one description of the subject that is applicable in all cases. A theory of
unconscious emotion therefore needs to be able to encompass these different ways in
which emotions may be unconscious. This will form an important criticism of the
first family of theories, which claim unconscious emotions involve conscious feelings.
These theories rule out the possibility that unconscious feelings can occur. By contrast,
the theories that allow for unconscious feelings do not reject the claim that
unconscious emotions may also involve conscious feelings. The latter theories are
therefore more ecumenical, which may prove a strength.
2.2. An Example
In the absence of a fuller definition of unconscious emotion, we can at least begin
with a case to think about, to sharpen our intuitions against. Freud’s famous case
study Notes on an Obsessional Neurosis (1909/1979), better known as ‘‘the Rat Man,’’
84 M. Lacewing
provides helpful instances. I choose a psychoanalytic case study at least in part
because emotions that are unconscious in the manner exemplified by psychoanalytic
case studies are the most difficult to account for. Some theorists may feel that if their
views can’t account for this type of ‘‘psychoanalytically unconscious’’ emotion, so
much the worse for the claim that such emotions exist. However, I find the concept
as used in the case study below independently plausible, on the grounds that I cannot
see how to make sense of human behavior without it.
The ‘‘Rat Man’’ was a man in his late 20s, training as a lawyer at university, who
suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder. His case name derives from a powerful
and recurrent fantasy or fear that precipitated his seeking treatment with Freud. His
captain in the army had told him of a punishment used in the East—a pot containing
rats is placed on the buttocks of the prisoner, and they bore their way into his anus.
When the Rat Man heard this, it flashed through his mind that this was happening
(inflicted impersonally) to the two people he loved most, to the woman he was
romantically involved with and to his father.
On a day when the Rat Man’s lady was leaving after visiting him, his foot knocked
a stone, and he felt obliged to move it to the side of the road in case her carriage,
which would pass that way, would strike the stone and be overturned. He walked on
a bit, but then thought his action was ridiculous, and he felt obliged to go back and
put the stone back in the middle of the road.
Now most of us, when we feel we’ve done something ridiculous, don’t feel a
compulsion to go back to the scene of action and ‘‘undo’’ it! So, as Freud (1909/
1979) says:
We shall not be forming a correct judgement of this second part of the compulsive
act if we take it at its face value as having merely been a critical repudiation of a
pathological action. The fact that it was accompanied by a sense of compulsion
betrays it as having itself been a part of the pathological action, though a part which
was determined by a motive contrary to that which produced the first part. (p. 72)
On the basis of a great deal more information than we have time to rehearse,
it became clear that the first gesture expressed the Rat Man’s conscious love; the
‘‘undoing’’ action expressed his unconscious hatred. Freud goes further: his obsession
for protecting his lady was actually a reaction to his unconscious hatred, which
threatened his love. His hatred, therefore, was in fact active in his removing the stone
as well as in his replacing it (see Wollheim, 1984, ch. 5).
3. Emotions: Episodes and Dispositions
To think about what unconscious emotions might be and whether they involve
unconscious feelings, we need first to make an important distinction which is not
always noted in the literature. Goldie (2000, pp. 12–16) argues for a distinction
between episodes of emotional experience and emotions themselves. Many contemporary analyses of emotion are in fact analyses of episodes of emotional
experience. Goldie, however, argues that we attribute emotions on the basis of their
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place in a narrative. For example, if a man is jealous of a rival—an emotion that may
last for years—this does not consist simply in an episode, or even several episodes,
of his consciously feeling jealousy, but also in thoughts, other feelings, and bodily
states, and dispositions to all these. What makes the emotion jealousy is given by the
terms in which we understand him, his life, and his relations to the object of his
desire and his rival. Emotions, and the ascription of emotions, find their home in the
narrative structure of people’s lives.
On this account, emotions are dispositions: ‘‘He is proud of his children,’’ ‘‘she is
afraid of snakes,’’ even ‘‘he is angry with his boss today.’’ None of these attributions
are reducible to the attribution of a constant, continuing episodic mental state—
whether this is thought to be of feeling (Goldie, 2000), thinking (Nussbaum, 2001),
or construing (Roberts, 2003). The dispositions attributed are manifest most directly
in episodes of felt emotion, and such episodes have a special place in our
understanding of what emotion is. But we should not think that such episodes of
feeling (thinking, construing, etc.) are all there is to an emotion. This is obvious in
being proud of one’s children or afraid of snakes, which last a long time. But even
in the case of being angry at one’s boss for a day, there is an intuitive way of
understanding this that is not simply equivalent to a persistent episodic state.
The feeling (or episodic thought) may come and go, for instance with natural
redirections of attention. Whether I am still angry the next day, for example, is
decided (in part) by whether I am disposed to feel angry once again. Whether the
disposition begins and ends with the episode of feeling is a discovery we need to make;
and so even if it does, the two are logically distinct and we can understand the feeling
as the manifestation of the disposition.
Emotions also have histories and can undergo change. The emotions we have now,
what and how we love, hate, fear, etc. involve accretions, past objects of emotion that
color and shape our responses to present objects. Philosophers (e.g., Rorty, 1980)
who have built this idea of history into their theory of emotion tend to analyze
emotions in terms of the subject’s evaluative understanding of the world. Wollheim
(1999, 2003) argues that emotions are evaluative attitudes, or orientations, towards
the world or objects within it. This is easily combined with Goldie’s account: how
someone understands the world and what is of importance in it has a history and can
be given a narrative form.2
This is the understanding of emotion I shall assume in this paper, and not seek to
defend further. The Rat Man’s unconscious hatred is a disposition; the episode of his
removing and replacing the stone was an episode of unconscious hatred—whether or
how it was ‘‘felt’’ is our question. Assuming this analysis does not disadvantage
accounts that have analyzed emotions as episodes of emotional experience. These
accounts allow that we have dispositions to emotional experience, that these
dispositions are closely related to and interact with dispositions to certain types of
thought and behavior. Adherents to these accounts can, therefore, take what is said
below about emotions as applying to such dispositions. I will make clear when a
theorist’s analysis of emotion is, in Goldie’s terms, an analysis of an episode of
emotional experience.
86 M. Lacewing
4. Defining the Puzzle
With the distinction between emotion and episodes of emotional experience in place,
and understanding emotion as an evaluative orientation, it may seem there is no
puzzle as to how emotions could be unconscious. For there is no reason to think that
we are aware of our evaluative orientations to the world; and plenty of reasons to
believe that not only are we often unaware of such orientations, but we are motivated
to be so. Our evaluations of others, ourselves and the situations we face can be
painful, either for what they reveal about the situation or about ourselves. As a result,
we avoid recognizing them.
But although this is correct, it overlooks the rest of Goldie’s analysis, viz., that
these orientations are dispositions to, among other things, episodes of emotional
experience, which, until we have an argument to believe otherwise, we should take to
mean episodes of feeling that emotion. If the emotion—the evaluative orientation—is
to remain unconscious, then any episodes of feeling that emotion cannot become
(fully) conscious; the subject cannot be fully cognizant of the feeling and what it is
a feeling of, or she would thereby become fully cognizant of the emotion itself, and be
able to avow it.
This leads to the three solutions presented in the introduction: unconscious
emotions are felt consciously, but the subject is not fully cognizant of them in some
way (family 1); or unconscious emotions involve unconscious feelings (family 3); or
they do not involve feelings at all (family 2).
On the type of evidence appealed to in the first paragraph, and cases such as the
Rat Man, we should not adopt a purely dispositional account of unconscious
emotion. The same considerations that lead us to posit unconscious emotions in
the first place also incline us to attribute episodes of emotion of which the subject is
unaware (this is inherent in Freud’s idea of the ‘‘dynamic unconscious’’). Since the
term ‘experience’ has connections to consciousness, let us say these are episodes
of unconscious emotional ‘‘activity.’’ Unconscious emotions are dispositions to such,
among other manifestations. How we should understand these episodes is the
It is obvious that the Rat Man was undergoing an episode of emotional feeling
while moving the stone—his love, his sense of compulsion, his sense of his
action being ridiculous were all felt. But what is missing from his report is his
feeling hatred; this he denied. Yet his hatred was ‘‘active’’ in his moving the
stone; it was not just a disposition, but a disposition being manifest at that
moment. His unconscious emotion of hatred was expressed in action and had
effects upon his conscious mental states. In his interpretation, Freud relates the
feelings of protective love, compulsion, and the sense of ridiculousness to the
unconscious hatred. Should we say that the episode of unconscious hatred
occurred without any feeling of hatred, e.g., as an episodic thought without
feeling? Or did the Rat Man feel his hatred? If so, did he feel it consciously or
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5. Unconscious Emotions Involve Conscious Feelings 1
5.1. Theory
I turn first to those theories that maintain that unconscious emotions are felt
consciously. (I interpret the idea of ‘‘feeling’’ psychologically, except in xx11–12,
where physiological and neurological theories of feeling will be discussed.) The first
theory of this kind I shall call conscious feelings 1 (CF1).
There is no inconsistency in maintaining that unconscious emotions manifest
themselves in conscious feelings. What makes it appear so is the additional
assumption that conscious feelings would reveal the unconscious emotion, rendering
it conscious. But although it is perhaps normal for feelings to reveal the existence
and nature of the emotions they manifest, it is obviously true that this is not
universally so.
Because episodes of emotional feeling are manifestations of emotion, in the normal
case the occurrence of feeling informs us about the emotion—e.g., which emotion we
feel, that an old emotion we thought had died is still extant, that a new one has
formed, or that a familiar one is present. However, feelings may be confused, unclear,
and in need of interpretation. Just to experience the feeling cannot by itself inform
us of the nature of the emotion. As Wollheim (1999, p. 10, 2003, p. 22) argues, to
understand feelings, we must relate them to the emotions they manifest. We cannot
understand that what we feel is anger unless we come to understand that we are
angry. It is only through associating the feeling to the disposition that we are able to
fully recognize the feeling for what it is. If we are unable to relate the feeling to the
emotion correctly, the feeling remains obscure and the emotion unknown.3
This, then, allows for the possibility that a subject does not understand what he
feels. The feeling may be identified as ‘‘a feeling’’ without being identified as the type
of feeling it is. It may simply be not understood, or it may be misidentified or
misunderstood as manifesting an emotion it does not, in fact, manifest.
(As misidentification is a type of misunderstanding, I shall speak just of the latter
from now on.) The subject thereby misunderstands the emotion he feels. We should
reject Descartes’ (1650/1989) claim that passions ‘‘are so close and internal to our
soul that it is impossible it should feel them without their truly being as it feels them’’
(Article 26). It is possible, therefore, for there to be an episode of conscious feeling
that manifests an unconscious emotion without the emotion ceasing to be
unconscious. It remains unconscious as a result of the subject’s not correctly
understanding his feeling; he is unable to associate the feeling to the evaluative
orientation on the world that he in fact has, but is unaware of.
We may add that this lack of self-understanding may be a result of psychological
defense, particularly in the sorts of cases in which psychoanalysis is most interested.
That is to say, the misunderstanding is motivated by the wish to avoid mental pain
(anxiety, distress, guilt, shame and so on). Because to recognize the emotion would
cause pain, it is kept unconscious (on this theory, by misunderstanding the feelings
that manifest it). On this account, the Rat Man is conscious of the feelings that
88 M. Lacewing
manifest his hatred during the episode described above, but does not understand his
feelings in relation to hatred. His hatred therefore remains unconscious.
5.2. Evaluation
As noted at the outset, the view that feelings must be conscious is very widespread
amongst philosophers and psychologists. As a result, CF1 is perhaps the default
position in the literature. It is therefore worth spending some time developing the
debate between its defenders and its detractors.4
This account is undoubtedly true in some, perhaps many, cases of what we may
call ‘‘unconscious emotion.’’ It is intuitively plausible that to think that while feeling
an emotion, we can mistake its object, its significance, or even confuse it with another
type of emotion that can feel similar. Self-deception often appears to work on
this basis.
But the theory is unsatisfactory as a general account, i.e., it is a correct description
of how and why some emotions are unconscious, but it cannot account for all
unconscious emotions.
5.2.1. The problem of feelings
A first objection is that its explanation of the case of the Rat Man is implausible,
because it requires the Rat Man to radically misunderstand his feelings. We are asked
to suppose that his feeling of hatred can still meaningfully be described as a feeling
of hatred, and all that changes is the understanding of it. But can the Rat Man—or
anyone—mistake the feeling of hatred for, say, a feeling of ridiculousness and
compulsion, or even solicitous love? Is it not more plausible that something apart
from straightforward misunderstanding, or lack of understanding, is occurring?
A possible reply is based on the claim, which both Greenspan (1988, pp. 4–5) and
Ben-Ze’ev (2000, pp. 49–50, 63–66) defend, that emotional feelings on their own
carry very little information. They are not ‘‘rich’’ in the intentional content of the
emotion, but separate from it, occurring along simple dimensions of pleasure and
pain. It is wrong, then, to say that the Rat Man ‘‘feels his hatred.’’ Rather, he is
conscious of the feeling ‘‘component’’ associated with his hatred. But his feeling,
taken in isolation, is not a feeling ‘‘of hatred,’’ as though hatred could be read off
from the feeling. It is perfectly possible, therefore, that feelings associated with hatred,
taken in isolation from the emotion, could be misunderstood for the sorts of feelings
the Rat Man describes and avows. Feelings only seem laden with greater intentional
content, if they do at all, once we have linked the feeling to its associated emotion.
However, we may object that making feelings so lacking in content empties
the claim that the unconscious emotion is felt of meaning. It would be better to say
that some generic feeling of discomfort occurs: If feeling is so lacking in content,
what distinguishes the claim that the Rat Man feels hatred from the Rat Man feels
(Perhaps we should say the Rat Man feels anxious instead of feeling hatred, i.e.,
given that we can attribute hatred to him on the basis of the narrative of his life,
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we would expect him to feel hatred. But at the moments when we expect that feeling,
he reports anxiety instead. This is an interesting response, but to say this is distinct
from saying that he feels, but misunderstands, his feeling of hatred. The hatred does
not remain unconscious as a result of misunderstood feelings, but because the
feelings associated with its episodes of activity are not feelings of hatred, but of
anxiety. If this suggestion is right, there is clearly a complex story to be told about
the relation between the unconscious hatred, the ‘‘missing’’ feelings of hatred, and
the conscious feelings that appear in their stead.)
Second, leaving aside the issue of how to interpret the Rat Man, the defense
crucially depends on the contentious claim that feelings have virtually no intentional
content. The suggested separation of feeling from content applies not just to
unconscious emotion, but is a general account of the nature of all emotion. Several
theorists have provided different and independent arguments that feelings are more
richly intentional than this theory allows (Goldie, 2000, ch. 3; Nussbaum, 2001, ch. 1,
xx4, 6; Wollheim, 1999, ch. 2, x11, 2003). It is correct, they argue, to talk of ‘‘feelings
of hatred’’ rather than ‘‘the feeling component associated with hatred.’’ What makes
hatred hatred is at least partially manifest in the feeling itself. If this were not so, we
might wonder how, in the normal run of things, we are able to identify our emotions
from our feelings with such ease. If feelings were so ‘‘thin,’’ much more explicit
thought would be necessary to ‘‘work out’’ what emotions we feel. This point does
not entail the implausible claim that we can simply ‘‘read off’’ our emotions from our
feelings. There is more to go on than ‘‘component’’ theorists think, but feelings still
require interpretation. We don’t have space to review this debate here (though see
xx8.1 and 10.1 below for points from Nussbaum and Wollheim).
This first objection, then, takes the form of a dilemma: the ‘‘thinner’’ feelings are,
the more plausible the claim that we can be conscious of the feeling ‘‘component’’ of
an unconscious emotion, but the less plausible the theory of feelings. However,
making feelings ‘‘thicker’’ makes it more and more necessary to say that conscious
feelings must be radically misunderstood for the associated emotion to remain
5.2.2. Defense and the problem of motivation
A second objection, this time from the defenders of unconscious feelings, turns our
attention to those cases in which misunderstanding the feeling is motivated in a way
psychoanalysis describes, viz., the misunderstanding is the result of a defense
mechanism.5 Psychoanalysis notes that one reason why emotions are kept
unconscious, e.g., as in the case of the Rat Man, is that they are painful. In response
to the painful emotion, a psychological defense operates which attempts to reduce or
eliminate the pain. Since to feel and understand the emotion consciously would be
painful, the defense keeps the emotion unconscious.
According to CF1, feelings are conscious, and so any pain that an unconscious
emotion causes would be conscious. Hence, defense can only work if it prevents pain
through a lack of understanding of the conscious feelings that manifest the emotion.
90 M. Lacewing
In other words, this lack of understanding is caused by an anticipation of the pain
that true understanding would bring.
The objection that defenders of unconscious feelings bring is that this cannot be an
adequate account of defense. Instead, they claim, we must suppose that the emotion
is painful, and psychological defense operates to prevent this pain from becoming
conscious. If they are right, there is unconscious pain, and since pain is a type of
feeling, there can be unconscious feelings. Unconscious pain cannot be understood as
pain that is felt consciously but misunderstood. Simply misunderstanding such pain is
insufficient to keep it unconscious—misunderstood pain is still painful, and so CF1
can’t account for the pain that motivates our misunderstanding.
I shall return to this argument when looking at unconscious feelings in x9.
5.2.3. The problem of the absent feeling
A third and final objection is this: what can this theory say about cases in which the
subject reports no particular feeling at a time when we would expect and want to
attribute an episode of emotional experience? As this forms an objection to the next
theory, conscious feelings 2 (CF2), as well, I shall discuss this in x6.2.2.
6. Unconscious Emotions Involve Conscious Feelings 2
6.1. Theory
To develop the idea that being mistaken about one’s feelings is not all that there is
at issue, we may appeal to a more sophisticated understanding of consciousness.
Philosophers and psychologists commonly draw a distinction between two levels
of consciousness, usually understood in terms of points on a continuum without
a sharp boundary between them. There are different versions of and names for
the distinction, but the central idea is relatively clear. I shall adopt Goldie’s (2000,
pp. 63–70) terms. Goldie distinguishes between ‘‘reflective’’ and ‘‘unreflective’’
consciousness, the former being consciousness of our thoughts and feelings about the
world, the latter being consciousness of the world. Not only is having an emotion
fundamentally a matter of being engaged with the world, he argues, so is feeling an
emotion. Feeling focuses on its object, not on itself. We may therefore not identify
ourselves as having the feelings towards the world we do until or unless we become
reflectively conscious of them.
We may doubt that we really have feelings when unreflectively engaged with the
world. We may grant that we can have thoughts—intentional content—directed onto
the world without reflective consciousness; but could such unreflective states also
have phenomenology? Goldie argues that they do by noting that, when asked to reflect
on how we feel, we may be able to say what it is we feel, even though prior to that
point, we had been ‘‘unaware’’ of our feelings. This may apply in the moment or it
may apply across long stretches of time, as we reflect back on previous episodes of
our lives. As I recall the episode, the feeling arises, and I come to realize that the
feeling is one I had at the time.
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The idea of feelings that are conscious but of which we are unaware can be
defended by analogy with perceptual states. Two famous cases in the philosophical
literature are that of suddenly realizing that there has been a pneumatic drill
operating in the distance for some time, and that we heard it, but had not noticed it
(Block, 1997); and that of a long-distance lorry driver who ‘‘comes to’’ after a period
of absent-minded distraction and realizes that though he must have seen the road
in order to drive safely, he has no recollection at all of doing so (Armstrong, 1968).
It can be argued that the sound and the sights were conscious, but the subject was
not conscious of the perceptions. The perceptions were conscious not just in the
sense of being directed onto the world, but also—being perceptions—in having a
phenomenology (e.g., Dretske, 1993).
Goldie’s analysis argues that there are episodes of emotional feeling we undergo
without being ‘‘reflectively conscious’’ of them, i.e., we are not aware that we are
undergoing such feeling even though there is a legitimate sense in which the feelings
are conscious.
This provides an explanation for how it is that unconscious emotions may
manifest themselves in episodes of emotional feeling without themselves becoming
conscious (while not needing to insist that feelings have little or no intentional
content). If the feelings that manifest the emotion are only unreflectively conscious,
the subject will not become reflectively conscious of the emotion, and so remain
unaware that she has the emotion. Furthermore, the unreflective feelings may be
masked by other feelings of which she is reflectively conscious, and this masking may
be motivated. Psychological defense, then, may involve the exaggeration of or focused
attention on some feelings at the expense of others, or even the creation of factitious
feelings—feelings that are not manifestations of the real evaluative orientations the
subject takes to the world; all of which serves to obscure from reflective consciousness
the feelings that manifest the unconscious emotion. The Rat Man, then, does feel his
hatred, but not in reflective consciousness, i.e., he is not conscious of feeling hatred.
Furthermore, his feeling of hatred is masked by the feelings he is aware of, including
his anxiety and his rather solicitous loving concern. (And if we wish, we may say this
explains how it makes sense to say the Rat Man feels these feelings ‘‘instead of’’
6.2. Evaluation
This model is an apt description of many instances of unconscious emotion, and
improves on the previous theory. But it, too, does not cover the whole field,
particularly in psychoanalytic cases.
6.2.1. The disanalogy with perception
In the examples from perception, if asked to direct her attention to what she heard or
saw, the subject could have become reflectively conscious of what was unreflectively
conscious. And Goldie uses this fact to argue for unreflectively conscious feelings. It is
this argument that establishes their close link with consciousness and protects their
92 M. Lacewing
integrity as feelings, i.e., having phenomenology. But this prevents the account from
providing a satisfactory analysis of unconscious emotion generally, for in the case
of the Rat Man, and many others in the psychoanalytic literature, the subject cannot
simply turn his attention to the feelings he has in unreflective consciousness. The Rat
Man, if asked, when moving the stone or afterwards, to direct his attention toward
his feelings, would deny that he felt hatred or anything like it.
To save the theory, we may appeal to the fact that the subject is motivated not to
bring such feelings into reflective consciousness and so may not be able to do so; and
that other, reflectively conscious feelings mask the unreflectively conscious ones.
The Rat Man, for instance, does report other feelings that we could plausibly argue
stand in the way of his bringing his feelings of hatred to reflective awareness. In the
examples from perception, neither of these two facts holds. But now we lack the very
source of evidence for unreflectively conscious feelings that Goldie uses to introduce
them, and the analogy with perception falters. Without the kind of retrospective
confirmation described above, with the subject calling into reflective consciousness
their earlier experience of feeling those emotions, why should we think that the
unconscious emotion manifests itself in conscious feelings at all?
6.2.2. The problem of absent feeling
The objection is sharpened if we consider psychoanalytic cases in which the subject
reports no particular feelings at the time of the emotional episode, rather than
retrospectively. This eliminates the possibility that the lack of confirmation is due to
an error of memory. The psychoanalyst Joyce McDougall (1986, ch. 7) describes
patients she calls ‘‘normopathic.’’ These patients appear to have very little inner,
emotional life. They have a tendency to recount external events in a way which
suggests little emotional or personal significance; the way they think and the way they
relate to other people is very predominantly pragmatic. They generally disavow
feeling emotions, and so they are also known as ‘‘alexithymics’’ (from the Greek for
‘having no words for emotion’).6 However, on the basis of how they interact with
other people and the emotions they arouse in others, psychoanalysts argue that they
do in fact have emotions, but that they are very out of touch with them. Their form
of psychological defense is to ‘‘project’’ their emotions into others. Put simply, they
unconsciously imagine that other people have the emotions that they themselves have
(while imagining that they themselves do not have these emotions), and interact with
them in such a way as to arouse such emotions in others—thus confirming the piece
of imagination (see Gardner, 1993, ch. 6; Segal, 1986, ch. 4). In such cases, even at the
very time at which such patients undergo an episode of emotional experience, they
report having no emotional feelings. It could be that such feelings occur in
unreflective consciousness and they are simply completely unable to access such
feelings. But evidence for this claim is lacking. And we may also argue that in such
cases it would be more accurate to say the feelings are unconscious or to argue that
no feelings occur at all.
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7. The Argument So Far
Let us take stock. We first noted that there is no inconsistency in thinking that
unconscious emotions manifest themselves in conscious feelings if we assume that
feelings do not reveal the emotions they manifest. However, it is not plausible to
think that all cases of unconscious emotion involve simple misunderstanding of
conscious feelings, as we are then subject to some very radical misunderstandings
indeed. To avoid this objection and explain the lack of understanding, CF1 claimed,
contentiously, that the conscious feelings have very little intentional content.
To avoid the dilemma, we may adopt Goldie’s suggestion that feelings may occur
unreflectively: the feeling is a state of consciousness of its object, but the subject is not
conscious of the feeling. That such mental states can and do occur is seen in cases of
perception in which attention is elsewhere.
CF2 presents a sophisticated interpretation of ‘conscious feeling’. Furthermore, it
is consistent with the view that psychological defense is driven by mental pain, for
it is the felt painful awareness of its object that motivates the subject to prevent
the feeling from entering reflective awareness and to mask the feeling by others.
However, there remain cases, particularly in the psychoanalytic literature, in which
the analogy with perception does not apply, and the subject is completely unable,
even with effort, to bring her feelings into reflective consciousness. In such cases, it
seems reasonable to ask why we should accept that the subject has feelings that are
conscious in any sense.
Two paths lie ahead. The first, preserving the claim that feelings are necessarily
conscious, argues that emotions—or unconscious emotions at least—need not
manifest themselves in feelings at all. The second defends the concept of unconscious
8. Unconscious Emotions Do Not Involve Feelings 1
8.1. Theory
A number of accounts of emotion in the ‘‘cognitive’’ school defend the view that
emotions do not essentially involve ‘‘feelings.’’ However, few philosophers have
denied outright that there is any relation between emotion and feeling. As observed
in x2.1, the epistemological access that enables direct and noninferential avowal of
emotions is usually thought to involve a type of phenomenology distinctive of
emotions. However, cognitivist theories, such as Nussbaum’s (2001), usually object
to the idea that this is to be understood in terms of ‘‘feelings.’’
Nussbaum argues that emotions are essentially thoughts with a particular type of
content (relating to the subject’s well-being). She argues, additionally, that there are
no extra ‘‘noncognitive’’ elements to emotion, such as feeling, as a correct analysis
and understanding of the thoughts involved is sufficient to account for emotion. The
distinctive phenomenology, such as it is, can be accounted for by the fact that we
94 M. Lacewing
cannot think (episodically) those very thoughts—that the object of the emotion
matters to me in a particular way—and retain our equanimity: ‘‘The recognizing and
the upheaval, we want to say, belong to one and the same part of me, the part with
which I make sense of the world’’ (p. 45).
She then observes that this creates a problem when accounting for (episodic)
unconscious emotions, since ‘‘if we are prepared to recognize nonconscious
emotional states . . . then we cannot possibly hold to any necessary phenomenological
condition for that emotion-type’’ (p. 61). There can’t be any unconscious feelings,
since then ‘‘we seem to have lost our grip on the notion [of feeling] itself. Is it a kind
of psychic energy? But what kind?’’ (p. 62, footnote). However, this means that to
allow for unconscious emotions at all, as she wishes to do, Nussbaum must weaken
her claim: ‘‘The upheaval is a part of the experience of what it is like to have those
thoughts—at least much of the time’’ (p. 62).
8.2. Evaluation
But it is difficult to see how she can, in consistency, add this qualification. Is the
‘‘upheaval’’ constituted by having certain thoughts? Or is it a normal result? The most
charitable reading is that, when it occurs, the upheaval is constituted by the
occurrence of the thoughts; but that under special circumstances, the thoughts can
occur without the upheaval. In this way, it is the absence of upheaval that requires
something additional, not its presence. In these circumstances, the thoughts, and so
the episode of emotion, can be unconscious. But we are left in need of some account
that explains the separation of the thoughts from the upheaval.
To return to Goldie’s original analysis, we allowed that emotions are dispositions
to a variety of episodic mental states and processes, among which are episodes of
emotional feeling. This is consistent with claiming that, under certain circumstances,
the particular disposition to feeling (or upheaval) is never actualized. Let us say that
repression, or other forms of psychological defense, undermine or overpower this
dispositional property of emotions when rendering them unconscious. The emotions
still retain their other dispositional powers, interacting with other mental states
in particular ways, motivating us to act, and so on. This solves the puzzle, and we
thereby also formulate an informative definition of unconscious emotion—viz., an
emotion whose dispositional force to manifest itself in consciousness (i.e., to be felt
or cause upheaval) is prevented from achieving fulfillment. A version of this
suggestion lay at the heart of Freud’s (1915/1984, x3) theory of unconscious emotion,
maintaining that the main aim and achievement of repression is to suppress the
development of feeling.
However, we need to consider more closely the episodes of unconscious emotional
activity. What is it for an episode of hatred to occur but not be felt? Nussbaum may
claim that it is for the relevant evaluative thoughts to occur unconsciously, without
upheaval. This may sometimes be true, but the Rat Man does appear to be
undergoing some kind of ‘‘upheaval,’’ one that Freud traces to the activity of his
unconscious hatred. If upheaval is equivalent to ‘‘feeling,’’ for such cases in which the
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unconscious emotional activity does involve upheaval, Nussbaum’s theory collapses
into either the claim that the Rat Man feels his hatred consciously (on the grounds
that he undergoes upheaval) or that he feels his hatred unconsciously (on the
grounds that the upheaval undergone is not consciously experienced in relation to
thoughts of hatred). This is no longer the claim that unconscious emotions occur
without feeling.
9. Unconscious Emotions Do Not Involve Feelings 2
9.1. Theory
Roberts (2003) presents a different account of how we may separate emotion, by
which he means (in our terms) an episode of emotional activity, from feeling. He
accepts an evaluative account of emotional content (emotions are ‘‘concern-based
construals’’; ch. 2), but provides a different account of feelings. To feel an emotion is
an ‘‘immediate and quasi-perceptual grasp of oneself as in a certain emotional state’’
(p. 318). Now, ‘‘because emotions are self-involving in being based on some concern
of the subject, consciousness of the object of the emotion powerfully predisposes the
subject to be conscious of himself as in the emotional state’’ (p. 320). Furthermore,
like Nussbaum, Roberts emphasizes this must be taken as the norm in the analysis of
emotion: ‘‘when one does feel an emotion, the feeling and the emotion are two
aspects of one mental state, rather than two separate ones’’ (p. 322).
However, this consciousness of oneself is not necessary, and in cases of
psychological defense, it doesn’t occur: ‘‘Emotions are paradigmatically felt, but
emotions may occur independently of the corresponding feeling’’ (p. 60). As noted
in x6, we can add that psychological defense may bring about feelings that mask the
emotion defended against; e.g., unconscious fear of failure may cause conscious
feelings of superiority and even conscious fears of other kinds, but not of failure.
Feeling one’s emotions, being a ‘‘quasi-perceptual’’ state, like other forms of
perception, comes in degrees not only of accuracy, but also of awareness.
Psychological defense may work on both accuracy and awareness.
9.2. Evaluation
This line of thought provides a synoptic account of the many forms of ‘‘being
unconscious’’ an emotion may take. It allows not only that we may misunderstand
what we feel (x5.1), and that we may not be fully aware of what we feel (x6.1), but also
that episodes of emotional activity (construals) can occur outside awareness
altogether. In such a case, they occur without any feeling at all. The Rat Man
simply does not have any ‘‘quasi-perceptual grasp’’ of himself in a state of hatred.
Nevertheless, he is, and this fact has consequences for his actions and his other
mental states.
This model is suggested by a different motif in psychoanalytic phenomena, viz., that
psychoanalytic therapy can acquaint subjects with their emotions for the first time.
96 M. Lacewing
As they come to understand the emotions they had during earlier episodes of their
lives, they come to feel the emotion now—but this is the first time they actually feel the
emotion, pace Goldie; they have no recollection of feeling during those earlier episodes.
This accounts well for the case of alexithymic patients: it is right to say that they simply
do not feel their emotions. If psychoanalysis improves their condition, they begin to
feel their emotions.
It is not clear, however, that Roberts’ (2003) account of feeling can completely
resolve our puzzle. Roberts means to connect the verb ‘to feel’, of which he gives the
epistemological analysis above (consciousness of oneself in a particular emotional
state), and the phenomenological noun ‘feeling’. But I do not think he intends this
to be reductive; e.g., he describes the ‘‘affect’’ of an emotion as its ‘‘mood,’’ and says
that ‘‘an important part of the ‘feel’ of an emotion is its mood’’ (p. 114). And it is on
this phenomenological aspect of feeling that we may press Roberts: when one
undergoes an emotion that one does not feel in Roberts’ terms (as a construal of
oneself), is there nevertheless ‘‘something it is like,’’ some ‘‘feeling,’’ attached to the
episode? Roberts’ solution only works if we accept that emotional thoughts can occur
without phenomenology. Of any theory which maintains that feeling is distinct from
episodes of emotional activity, we may press the question of how the conscious
upheavals the Rat Man undergoes are to be explained by a phenomenologically
quiescent unconscious emotional state. This is a version of the objection made in
x5.2.2—whether psychological defense can be properly understood without invoking
unconscious feelings.
In what follows, both the psychoanalytically inspired defense of unconscious
feelings and the physiological and neurological accounts of feeling seek to provide an
analysis of feeling that is not dependent on consciousness, on the basis of more
general theories of mental functioning. There is insufficient space to evaluate the
theories on which they rely, so I shall not do more than raise general issues regarding
the assumed theoretical approach.
10. Unconscious Emotions Involve Unconscious Feelings
10.1. Theory
Gardner (1993) presses the objection repeated above, that we have good reason to
believe in unconscious feelings, because only if unconscious mental states are felt can
we explain what we do with them. Only the painfulness of thoughts or emotions
explains why and how we reject them. The alternative theory, that the thought or
emotion would become painful if it were conscious, supposes that consciousness in
some sense creates the pain (which cannot exist without consciousness), rather than
consciousness being of something that is, already, painful (p. 216).
To support the argument, we must turn to a general theory of the mind. In talking
of emotional feeling, we are talking of the phenomenology of an emotional episode,
what it is like, its experiential quality. Wollheim (1984, ch. 2) argues, and many
philosophers of mind now agree, that the experiential quality of a mental state and its
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representational content are inextricably intertwined (e.g., Crane, 1998; Dretske,
1995; Harman, 1990; Tye, 1995).7 In this, Nussbaum is right. According to Wollheim,
it is in virtue of the product of the two together that a mental state has the causal
powers it does, and so engages in the mental processes it does. It could not have the
causal powers it does without the phenomenology it has. Its phenomenal properties,
however, are not dependent for their existence on being apprehended in
consciousness, and may exist outside consciousness.
This commitment to unconscious phenomenology, unconscious feelings, is not
a commitment, Gardner argues, to unfelt feelings. Gardner’s (and Wollheim’s)
argument at this point is dense, but my understanding is that feeling is interpreted
not as a form of conscious awareness, but in terms of a type of ‘‘impact’’ feelings have
(perhaps in contrast with quiescent types of thought). The feelings still impinge upon
the subject. The episode of emotional activity has phenomenology, and it has its
effects as a result of this phenomenology, i.e., how it feels. But the subject may not be
conscious of this feeling: ‘‘What it is that extends beyond consciousness in the case of
unconscious pain is just what it is that is apprehended when pain is consciously
given. Thus it would be a mistake to think that the supposition of unconscious pain
involves unfelt or unfeelable pain’’ (Gardner, 1993, p. 217). We may extend the point
to emotional feelings generally. Gardner’s analysis of the Rat Man is, then, that he
feels his hatred unconsciously, and this episode of feeling interacts with other mental
states and events, such as his motivation to replace the stone, in ways similar to how
it would were it conscious (allowing for the different nature and modes of expression
of unconscious states noted by psychoanalytic theory).
Although Gardner’s analysis sounds similar to Goldie’s argument for unreflective
feeling, it is worth noting the difference between the two accounts. The model of
unreflective awareness discussed in x6, and the arguments by which it was set
up, suggested that emotional feelings are available to the subject’s reflective
consciousness, by means of redirecting attention, even if this requires effort to
overcome the motivation not to recognize the existence or nature of the feelings.
In Gardner’s hands, unconscious feeling can be completely inaccessible to
consciousness. There is no suggestion here that we may be able to access to it by
directing our attention in a certain way. Goldie ties feeling to consciousness far more
closely that Gardner, arguing for a separation only as a result of inattention.
We therefore have a three-fold division: what is reflectively conscious, what is
unreflectively conscious, and what is unconscious. However, it is worth noting that
what is unconscious in Gardner’s sense is still dependent on consciousness in general.
No organism that cannot feel consciously can feel unconsciously—the psychoanalytic
unconscious occurs only in beings with relatively sophisticated consciousness.
10.2. Evaluation
Unsurprisingly, this theory is the most potent of those we have surveyed in its
explanatory force: there are no cases that make it fail as a general account of
unconscious emotion. It does not need to insist that every case of what we may rightly
98 M. Lacewing
term unconscious emotion must be interpreted in terms of unconscious feeling, for
there is no threat to it in allowing that the explanations offered in xx5.1 and 6.1 may
hold true in certain cases. Its philosophical weakness, many will say, lies in its
commitment to unconscious phenomenology.
Unconscious feelings are not to be understood by analogy with cases of hearing a
drill in the background or coming to after a period of absent-minded driving. But for
precisely this reason, independent of the theoretical considerations, it can be difficult
to accept that unconscious states, in contrast to reflectively and unreflectively
conscious states, have phenomenology. That there can be no unconscious feelings
is still the position of ‘‘commonsense.’’ But this is not a conclusive objection:
commonsense is what produces the puzzle of unconscious emotion in the first place,
and Gardner and Wollheim’s general theory of mental functioning, which supports
Gardner’s theory of unconscious emotion, is, they argue, an extension of
commonsense psychology (Gardner, 1993, ch. 1, 4; Wollheim, 1993, ch. 6; see also
Hopkins, 1982). If we can find sufficient explanatory drive to posit them, then we
have reason to accept their existence. The need to appeal, in cases like the Rat Man
and alexithymic patients, to phenomenological states to which subjects cannot turn
their attention provides the requisite explanatory demand.
Given the general difficulty here of accepting the idea of unconscious
phenomenology, despite the disanalogy we have remarked between unconscious
feelings and perceptual cases, defenders of unconscious feeling may take strength
from the fact that a number of theorists have independently defended the claim that
phenomenal properties can occur independently of the subject’s being conscious of
them (e.g., Burge, 1997; Rosenthal, 1991). For example, Burge’s defense is not
dissimilar to Gardner’s, arguing that while what it is like to experience a phenomenal
property in consciousness is essential to typing that property, the property may occur
without consciousness (pp. 432ff.). He also allows that not all such cases of
unconscious phenomenology are simply a matter of inattention. Of course, this is not
uncontroversial, but if we need to accept nonconscious phenomenology quite
independently of psychoanalytic considerations, this supports Gardner’s hand.
However, critics will reply that the implications of the debate in perception are only
that unreflectively conscious states have phenomenology, so that it is Goldie’s theory,
not Gardner’s that gains support.
11. Feelings and Physiology
11.1. Theory
As a final attempt to remove some of the ‘‘mystery’’ of what unconscious feelings
(or phenomenal properties generally) could be, it can be tempting to provide an
account of them in nonpsychological terms. If feelings could be identified with some
physiological or neurological state, then we could have criteria independent of the
subject’s consciousness for asserting that such feelings do or do not exist. The first
path, that of identifying feelings with physiology, has a long history in the theory of
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emotion; the second is a more recent development. Damasio (1994) provides a way
into the first, his (2000) into the second.
Damasio (1994, especially ch. 7) argues that the essence of an emotion, by which
he means an episode of emotion, is changes in one’s body, such as pulse, breathing,
skin conductance but also visceral and hormonal alterations, in response to an
evaluative image of the emotion’s object. The profile of these changes is then
represented in the brain. However, Damasio then argues that a subject does not feel
an emotion unless she experiences the bodily changes and relates them to the images
which caused them. An episode of emotional activity and feeling an emotion
are distinct.
Each family of theories of unconscious feelings could attempt to use Damasio’s
ideas to understand unconscious emotions. The conscious feelings family could argue
that a subject will be (unreflectively) aware of, but misunderstand, the physiological
changes that occur. Without relating the experienced bodily changes back to the
object of the emotion, to the extent that she is aware of them, the subject doesn’t
understand the feelings as emotional (they are experienced as bodily feelings instead,
e.g., heart palpitations, not fear). The no feelings family could emphasize Damasio’s
claim that feeling an emotion is distinct from undergoing an emotional episode,
arguing that bodily changes provide us with a criterion for an episode of emotional
activity without feeling. The unconscious feelings family could adapt the theory to
claim that the bodily changes comprising the emotional episode provide us with an
account of the ontology of unconscious feelings: these bodily changes have the
requisite sort of ‘‘impact’’ on the subject to count as feelings, all that is missing is
consciousness of them as such (a significant emphasis on the involvement and role of
the body in unconscious emotion is uncontroversial in most psychoanalytic
11.2. Evaluation
Although many theories are happy to accept that feelings are, in some sense,
grounded in or related to (if not reducible to) physiological alterations, there are two
important objections to using the theory to resolve the puzzle of unconscious
emotions. First, it is unclear whether such bodily changes could tell us which emotion
the subject is undergoing. Given that the Rat Man experiences a number of conscious
feelings, could his physiological state alone also determine whether he was also
undergoing hatred? Cases of episodes of unconscious emotional activity often involve
multiple emotions, and there is currently little evidence to suggest that evidence from
physiological responses could make the requisite distinctions even in far less
complicated cases (see Prinz, 2004, pp. 72–74, for discussion). Second, Damasio goes
on to allow that changes in the body needn’t actually occur for feeling to take place.
It is possible for the mental images that would trigger the physiological changes in the
body to instead trigger an ‘‘as if ’’ representation of the body state in the brain, and
this can be sufficient for feeling. It is possible, therefore, for a subject to undergo a felt
episode of emotion without changes to the body. If such an ‘‘as if ’’ representation of
100 M. Lacewing
body state could occur without consciousness, there could there be unconscious
episodes of emotion—indeed, unconscious feelings—that do not involve bodily
changes. So physiology will not provide a reliable criterion for the occurrence of
unconscious emotional episodes.
12. Feelings, Physiology, and Phenomenal Properties
12.1. Theory
When, in his later work, Damasio (2000) discusses the question of feelings and
consciousness (pp. 279–285), he distinguishes between ‘‘having a feeling’’—
essentially the representation of the bodily changes that constitute the emotion
(whether those changes in fact occur or are represented ‘‘as if ’’)—and ‘‘feeling a
feeling,’’ a matter of knowing that one has that feeling, which involves relating the
feeling to the sense of self. This entails that feelings can occur without one’s
knowledge of them, i.e., without one’s consciousness of them. In this development
of the theory, however, the possible existence of unconscious feelings is not tied to
physiological changes, but to mental representations that ‘‘arise out of ’’ patterns of
neural firing.
12.2. Evaluation
I am unclear whether Damasio wishes to endorse unconscious feelings. He endorses
very extensive unconscious mental processes (pp. 226–228, 296–302), but in the
discussion above, he states: ‘‘When those images [that comprise feeling an emotion]
are accompanied, one instant later, by a sense of self in the act of knowing . . . they
become conscious’’ (p. 282, italics added). Whether, in organisms that have the ‘‘core
consciousness’’ (ch. 3, 6) that grounds the requisite sense of self, feelings could ever
remain unconscious, even if they begin that way, is unclear. It seems that Damasio
could equally endorse a position like Goldie’s; or again, given the importance of
relating the emotion to the self in the production of feeling, there are similarities to
Roberts’ ‘‘no feeling’’ theory. Damasio’s neurophysiological theory does not settle
which solution to our problem we should settle on.
A number of philosophers have sought to identify phenomenology with
neurophysiological properties (e.g., Kirk, 1994; Prinz, 2004; Tye, 1995). To defend
unconscious feeling against the commonsense objection to unconscious phenomenology of any kind, one could bring Damasio’s model together with these more
general philosophical accounts: an unconscious feeling does occur, because the
requisite neural pattern occurs.
This move faces two problems. First, as remarked at the end of x10.2, the
philosophical accounts are developed for perceptual phenomenal properties that are
readily accessible to consciousness, although not in fact conscious. Second, the
identification of phenomenal properties with properties of brain functioning is
hugely controversial. Damasio (2000) wants to hold a distance between them, saying
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the mental properties ‘‘arise out of ’’ the neural ones (Appendix), but that the latter
could, and do, occur without the former (e.g., p. 74). Unless we take issue with this
claim, we still have little reason for thinking that the occurrence of the neural
property in the absence of consciousness is tantamount to an occurrence of
unconscious phenomenology rather than the absence of phenomenology. So
although this line of argument may seem to offer support to Gardner’s defense of
unconscious feelings by providing a realist ontology, Gardner (1993) himself claims
it is at odds with his explicit attempt to preserve the painfulness of unconscious pain,
not merely its neurological underpinnings (p. 218).
13. Conclusion
This survey has not reached any firm conclusions. Within the conscious feelings
family, philosophers may insist that feelings must, in some sense, be conscious.
To the objection that without subjects’ recall, there is no evidence for their position,
they may now use the argument of the unconscious feelings theorist: episodes of
unconscious emotional activity are not phenomenologically quiescent, but have an
‘‘impact’’ on the subject. The no feelings family may reply that no feelings occur, and
the proper of understanding this ‘‘impact’’ is not through phenomenology but
through the thought content of the emotion (this response is open to Roberts, but
not Nussbaum, as she equates thinking the thought content to upheaval). As
remarked at the outset, emotions are manifest in various effects upon other mental
states; unless one accepts Wollheim’s theory of mental functioning, according to
which phenomenology is necessary for such effects, the no feelings theorist may argue
that they occur in the absence of feelings. Finally, the unconscious feelings theorist
may argue that this commitment to equating feelings to conscious feelings is
undermined by explanatory requirements emerging both from discussions of
perception and from psychoanalytic case studies. Following Freud’s (1915/1984)
distinction between the preconscious and the unconscious, they may further argue
that there is a distinction in kind between that which prevents unreflectively
conscious feelings from entering (reflective) consciousness and that which prevents
unconscious feelings from so doing, and so the theory of unreflective consciousness
cannot do the requisite work. All three theories may (but need not) appeal to
Damasio’s work on the bodily origins and/or nature of emotional feelings to help in
explaining the ‘‘impact’’ that unconscious emotions may have.
Some philosophers, drawing on considerations from Wittgenstein or MerleauPonty, may feel that the discussion took a wrong turn—‘‘inwards’’—in x10. Rather
than defend unconscious feelings via a realist theory of ‘‘phenomenal properties’’
(whether or not these are identified with neural properties), the question should be
even more firmly situated within the need to explain human behavior.
The development of a metaphysical mental realism will not solve the question of
what the Rat Man felt nor what alexithymics feel nor explain what role the notion
of ‘‘unconscious feeling’’ can play in our understanding of human life.
102 M. Lacewing
Many psychoanalysts will note that more needs to be said about the ways in which
psychological defense can transform emotions and emotional feelings (e.g., Lacewing,
2005), as in the case of alexithymics’ projection of emotion. I confess some sympathy
with both these responses, and suspect that future work in developing a solution to
our puzzle will need to take account of them.
This debate arises in x5, where I give some support to the claim that feelings are not just
qualia, i.e., entirely divorced from the intentional content of the emotion.
Psychoanalysts might well add to this an account of the history of an emotion in terms of
fantasy. Fantasy may be seen as the vehicle by which our present emotional experience is
coloured by our past emotional objects; the history of emotion is the history of fantasy and
its objects. For a philosophical exploration and defence, see Gardner (1992, 1993, ch. 6).
This claim needs to be distinguished from the different and separate claim that the feelings
may be indistinct because the emotion itself is indeterminate. Charles Taylor (1985) argues
that our emotions involve self-interpretation, and it may not be true of me that I have
a particular emotion until I have interpreted myself as having that emotion. This is not a
claim that is particularly about unconscious emotion, for once I have reached my selfinterpretation, supposing it is sufficiently accurate and true to myself to resolve my
uncertainty, the resulting determinate emotion is conscious. I am supposing that in cases
such as the Rat Man, that he feels hatred—even if the precise content of that hatred is
indeterminate—is sufficiently determinate independent of and prior to his self-interpretation. Freud’s explanation—and indeed, I believe, any plausible explanation—of the stonemoving episode requires this degree of mental realism. That Taylor (1985) would probably
accept this realism as consonant with his interpretive constructivism is indicated by his
acceptance of limits on self-interpretation: ‘‘in offering a characterization [of our feelings],
these feelings open the question whether this characterization is adequate . . . whether we
have properly explicated what the feeling gives us a sense of ’’ (p. 64). (See also Tanney
I thank an anonymous reviewer for clarifying the need to present and defend my objections
in detail, and for a number of the points that follow, defending the theory that unconscious
emotions involve conscious feelings.
The locus classicus on defense mechanisms is Anna Freud (1968). For a brief introduction,
see Lacewing (2005). For a lengthier philosophical discussion, see Gardner (1993, ch. 5–6).
If an analogy with perception is to be made, it might seem that blindsight would provide
a better counterpart, and Prinz (2004, ch. 9) explores this possibility in relation to
alexithymia. However, despite the analogy that the subject denies conscious perceptual/
emotional experience, there are many important disanalogies regarding forced guessing and
behaviour guidance.
Rather confusingly, Wollheim calls the experiential quality ‘subjectivity’ rather than
‘phenomenology’, and uses ‘phenomenology’ to refer to the joint product of subjectivity and
intentionality. I follow the use of ‘phenomenology’ that is more common in the philosophy
of mind literature.
Armstrong, D. (1968). A materialist theory of mind. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2000). The subtlety of emotion. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
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Block, N. (1997). On a confusion about a function of consciousness. In N. Block, O. Flanagan, &
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