Things We Can Get Excited About: Shared Emotions and Other Minds


We’re all familiar with the idea that there is (or can seem to be) an epistemological problem about our knowledge of other people’s mental states. One common kind of response is to suggest that sometimes we can simply see that someone is in a certain kind of mental state. Emotional states seem to provide us with particular clear cases of situations where we can see this.But to see that someone is in a particular kind of mental state, we need to be able to see that they are in an intentional state: a state of a sort which could, in principle, be directed at a wide variety of different kinds of objects (including non-existent ones). However it’s unclear whether someone’s being in a state like that could be something that we can see. For it’s unclear whether we could see that they are in a state which is directed at such objects.Fortunately perception isn’t the only way in which we could have direct access to emotional states. Knowledge of our own mental states is also direct, and there seems no room to doubt that our own emotions are intentional states. But how could knowledge of our own mental states provide us with a response to skeptical worries about other people’s mental states? On e answer, which I shall explore here is that it can do so if the kinds of mental states to which it gives us access include shared mental states (at least, on certain conceptions of what a shared mental state is.)


4 thoughts on “Things We Can Get Excited About: Shared Emotions and Other Minds

  1. Gunnemyr, Mattias says:

    Hi Bill,
    Thanks for the talk, it was really engaging. I had a question about whether, on your account, having a shared emotion (or some other similarly collective intentional state) is necessary for having knowledge about others intentional states. Or, is having a shared emotion just one out of several possible routes to having such knowledge? It seems to me that we could know what others are afraid of, for instance, even if we do not share a mental state. Say that my parter read the Gruffalo for our young boy. I am watching them from a distance, and I can tell from his bodily expressions that he gets afraid for something. Since I see what they are reading, and since I know that he usually gets afraid for the Gruffalo when we read this book for him, I can infer that he is afraid for the Gruffalo. Still, we do not have a shared emotional state at this time.
    Thanks again/

  2. Salice, Alessandro says:

    Hi Bill
    Thanks for your talk. I really enjoyed it. I hope I will have an opportunity to raise these points in the Q&A, but here you go anyway: 1) I am not convinced that the worry you see for DP approaches to social cognition is so pressing: why is it that, for me to perceive that you feel fear, I must be able to perceive what your fear is about? Those who endorse DP could argue: well, understanding the other is a layered affair where the most fundamental layer is perception. After I have perceived your emotion of, say, fear, I can then activate other cognitive abilities to better understand your fear (what motivates it? what is it about? what does it tell about its subject, etc.) 2) but even if I am correct here and the worry is unjustified, the claim you put forward is interesting and worth exploring in its own right. In fact, I am very sympathetic with it, but a lot hinges on how we understand shared emotions (which is a point Abe, too, makes in his comment above). It seems to me that, for your claim to be sustainable, a shared emotion can’t be the emotion of a group as a single agent over and above the individual emoters–’cause this might enable my non-observational knowledge of the group’s emotion, but not (at least not directly) of my fellow emoters. Neither can the shared emotion simply be a matter of affective resonance, emotional contagion, emotional regulation, etc. because these mechanisms are too minimal to open up a cognitive route to the other’s emotion. Therefore, I am curious to hear your proposal on this matter. And finally a suggestion: 3) what if the argument from illusion (as applied to sharedness) could be blocked by a disjunctivist approach to shared experiences: either you share an emotion with somebody else (which enables non-inferential knowledge of her emotion) or you are in a psychological state of an altogether different kind (which blocks that non-inferential knowledge, although it gives the subject the impression of possessing that knowledge). This is an idea I am currently toying with and, again, I wonder what you think about that. Thanks.

  3. Roth, Abe says:

    Hi Bill,

    I enjoyed the talk. I was wondering whether you could say more about the sort of view of shared emotion that would be non-aggregative. I’m not familiar with the literature here, but it seems that some sort of commitment between individuals is needed to capture the sharpness of the emotion. Your remark about Gilbert suggests that mutual commitment is not sufficient. But do you think it is it necessary?

    I agree that it would be unfair to insist that you be able to answer the argument from illusion. But I am not quite getting how you answer the charge of double standards. Is your thought something like this: that you avoid the double standard charge because the perceptual view is attempting something like a reductive account of the knowledge of another’s emotional mental state, whereas you are taking as a primitive one’s knowledge of the emotional state shared with another ?

  4. Williams, Robert says:

    Hi Bill, I really enjoyed this talk, and think I might even have been convinced! I wanted to throw another problem of other minds at you, to see what you think (it’s no objection to what you said in the talk, but it’s about how far it takes us). Suppose as you suggest we have access to another person’s intentional emotional state via our both participating in a shared emotion, plus my direct access to that shared emotion. Still, the states I share with others in this way will be a tiny fragment of the total mental states that I attribute to others. We might get states of shared emotion, shared attention, perhaps the occasion shared goal or belief out of this (but the phenomenological condition will severely restrict it). But what about all the rest of the stuff that I attribute to them, e.g. that there are feeling sad about the pandemic, when I’m not sharing that emotion? And what about people with whom I do have never shared emotions? I’m wondering, basically, about what broader epistemology about the mental states of others we plug your direct-access story into.

    Some options that spring to mind is one where I induct or abduct from the handful of instances where I do have access to another’s mental state, and form generalizations like: situations of type X make this person feel sad (or situations of type X make people of type Y sad). But part of the standard dialectic of the problem of other minds, I take it, is that there is a problem with inducting and abducting from world-mind patterns involving my own mental states to global world-mind patterns involving anyone’s mental states. So why is it better to induct or abduct on a slightly broader basis from world-mind patterns involving mental states to which I have direct access, to those same global world-mind patterns?

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