A Room of One’s Own: The Where of Emotions

1. Introduction. Emotions are everywhere, or so it seems. Antonio Damasio talks about the importance of emotion for reason. Martha Nussbaum talks about the importance of reason for emotion. Yet, there are reasons to think that emotions are the most private, the most inner of our experiences. A pain or a colour can be pointed to; if we are asked where is it hurting, we can say ‘there.’ However, it is much harder to answer the question ‘where are you angry?’ The location of the anger might vary from moment to moment and person to person. Emotions are far more dynamic: roses might always be red, but I am not always blue. Indeed, one can define outer space as the space of all locations that can be pointed to — itself a privileging of the sensorial, especially the senses of vision and touch. Yet, space might not only be sensory space, the space of objects. Emotions, like thoughts and our eyes and fingers, are pointers; and they cannot point to themselves. We can define the distinction between inner and outer space as the distinction between the pointer and the pointed. While the geometry of the pointed is directly available to us, the geometry of the pointers is also a genuine spatial geometry, which is why I think that emotions are always somewhere and that the spatiality of emotions is a useful window into the relation between inner and outer space.

Let me start this piece with an invocation of a seemingly unrelated problem, i.e., the intractability of subjective consciousness. The argument goes as follows:

  1. We are fully, certainly aware of our own consciousness.
  2. We are infinitely far away from knowing the subjectivity of others.


  1. Inner space and outer space are permanently divided from each other.
  2. The inner is really not a space at all, it is in fact, a disembodied non-spatiotemporal soul. Or, in the modern David Chalmers’ style argument, consciousness is an independent dimension of existence, like space and time.

I am aware that I am condensing a whole range of arguments and subtle differences into one, but I do believe that the core argument schema in all of these arguments is similar enough to the above one that we can be happy with the caricature. Think of this if you will as an argument prototype where different particular arguments can be derived by metaphorical extension. Let me now recast this argument in a geometric form:

  1. The Geometry of Outer Space: continuous, indivisible and unlimited
  2. The Geometry of Inner Space: discrete, monadic, severely limited

→ G O ≠ G I and therefore the two have nothing to do with each other.

2. Counter Arguments: The role of motion and emotion in the constitution of space.

If we were really to think of emotions as like bodily tugs or stabs or flashes, then we would precisely leave out what is most disturbing about them. How simple life would be if grief were only a pain in the leg, or jealousy but a very bad headache. Martha Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought, Page 16.

I am now going to present two counter arguments against the division of inner space and outer space, with the intent of dissolving the distinction. An analysis of emotion will play a crucial role in dissolving the distinction.

Case 1: Is the stinging bee angry? Counter argument 1. Emotion is a bridge between inner and outer space. In fact, both motion and emotion serve the same purpose, i.e., as a bridge between inner and outer. Main points:

  1. Space is constituted through motion and emotion.
  2. Consider the following diagram:

Consider a man standing in front of a scene, surveying it with a cool eye — perhaps Descartes contemplating the world in those moments 1 when the furnace becomes claustrophobic, or Cortez surveying the empire of the Inca. The world appears in a uniform, outer geometric light — distantly arrayed, frozen in time (before the invading hordes destroy it forever!). Let us call this the “light map”. Now consider a different man: older, his eyes are fading and he has to walk with a stick. He hobbles from frame to frame, holding on to the walls and the furniture, stopping to rest every once in a while. The floor is too warm, but the walls feel cool to the touch, perhaps the cane furniture is too rough for him to drag his hands. Which one of these is the ‘real’ space? The correct answer, as I ‘see’ it is — both!

What if inner and outer space were replaced by a cluster of topographies? We still accept that there is a distinction worth making between inner and outer, but we replace the absolute distinction by a family of interrelated spaces, each mediated by a dominant sense — vision, touch, proprioception etc. Let us call these interrelated spaces a topographic cluster and each map within that cluster is a spatial map: a light map (for vision), a heat map (for touch) etc. Note that these maps are not in the brain (as topographic maps are typically assumed to be) but out there in the world. Both emotions and motions are acts that bind these topographic clusters together. Some spaces are inviting, others are creepy. Each emotion binds the different topographies into a single readiness to act. Each motion binds the different topographies into a single performance. This interplay of action potentials and acts is key to understanding motion, emotion and space.

So what does the picture look like?

Before: Inner space and Outer space.

After: A topographical cluster of maps bound by emotion and action.

Which leads to a question: how does emotion act as a binding agent?

Case 2: The Haunted House. Imagine walking on a dark, rainy night in a secluded part of town. You see an abandoned nineteenth century house shrouded by tall trees. The yard of the house is littered with grotesque sculptures. As you approach the house, the wind starts picking up; at the edge of the plot, a gargoyle greets you with open jaws. A flash of lightning strike the turrets and the accompanying thunder is louder than anything you have ever heard before. Your heart races, your hair stands on end, and even without realizing, you are running as fast as you can away from the house. A few hundred metres down the street you start slowing down. In the distance, the house appears run-down but benign. You shake your head, grin to yourself and keep walking.

What is the moral of the story?

  1. A potential action is an actual emotion.
  2. A potential emotion is an actual action.
  3. Space is constituted by situations: complexes of potential and actual (e)motions and motives.
  4. None of this is in your head.

The actual/potential axis explains how emotions and actions bind topographic maps. The key theoretical construct is that of a situation. A situation is exactly what you might expect: a combination of objects and events in the world in which an organism is embedded. For example, if you are walking in a forest and a cobra rears its head in front of you, you are in a situation. Every situation calls forth a unique topographic cluster. The fear you feel in front of that cobra is constitutive of that situation. That fear leads to action — stepping back slowly (good!), running away (bad!). It is the fear (actual) to running (potential) axis that binds the various maps into a topographic complex that defines the organisms’ response to the situation.

Summary: Situation 1→ (emotion)→ Topographic Cluster → (action)→ Situation 2

3. The role of space in the constitution of emotion. So far, I have only talked about the role of (e)motion in the constitution of space. However, the opposite is equally true.

Aristotle once asked the following question: how do you whether you are seeing or hearing or touching? Similarly, we can ask: how do you know whether you are afraid or happy or sad? The above clips from Asterix give us a few clues: each emotion is associated with a class of situations (where that emotion is reliably evoked) and in each such situation, there is a topographic cluster in which the emotion has a spatial footprint (metaphorically speaking). For fear, there’s the combination of the threatening object, hair standing on end, stomach churning etc. These visual/gustatory/proprioceptive maps are constitutive of fear. The emotion then is constituted by elements of the current, actual situation and elements of future, i.e., potential situations. Here, it is the shift The bodyscape embedded in the landscape is as much a part of emotion as the emotions are part of the body/landscape. To summarise, there are two pictures:

  1. The topographic cluster picture — in which emotions and actions play a binding role via the potential/actual axis running from emotion (actual) to action (potential).
  2. The affective cluster picture — in which space plays a binding role through via the potential/actual axis running from situation (current, actual) to situation (potential).

Another way to put it is as follows. Think of Self, (E)motion and World as a triad (see figure below).

Then, we can cluster this triad in two distinct ways: from the World to the self and from the self to the object. In the former, we start with situations that trigger topographic maps that in turn are bound by motions and emotions. In the latter, we start with motives that trigger affective clusters that in turn are bound by situations. Perceptions and emotions have complementary roles (Martha Nussbaum points out a version of the latter) in that perceptions arise from (constituted by?) the self going out to meet the world, while emotions arise from (constituted by?) the world coming to meet the self. In the former, the world is the foreground and the self is the background, which is why we see objects and not the self, and in the latter, the self is in the foreground and the world the background, which is why we feel the self and not the object. There is no point asking which clustering (i.e., world to self or self to world) is more fundamental; they are just two poles of the self-world axis.

Two more arguments:

The Colour Analogy: What if emotions are to the body as colours are to objects? Are colours spatial? One the one hand, it seems as if the redness of a rose has nothing to with its shape or spatial distribution — a rose chopped up into a million pieces will still be as red — but on closer consideration colour is always co-present in space. In fact, we can argue that colour inheres in a spatial locus. Similarly, we can argue that the anger of the anger is not located anywhere in the body or in response to any single situation, but we can also argue that emotions always inhere in a spatial locus. There is a major difference though: emotions are fleeting while colours are somewhat more permanent. Nevertheless, note that the analogy seems to have some traction; after all we do label emotions using colours (Red-hot angry) and colours with emotion — a calm blue.

The indexical argument. Whatever else one might say about an emotion, we can always be assured that it has an “I,” a self to which it is attached. There is anger, but it is always my anger or your anger — even if it is the same emotion in both of us. Further, there is no such thing as an “I” that doesn’t have a location. After all, the referent of the linguistic term “I” is either you or me depending on the fact that I am here and you are there. Spatiotemporality is central to the “I.” While we could argue that the spatio-temporal location isn’t essential to the self, it is nevertheless necessary. The relation between emotions and space-time can come under the category of relations that are necessary without being essential (note the logic of modality once again). In general we could argue that the relation between space, self and emotion is within this category of necessary but non-essential relations. So the argument goes as follows:

  1. Emotions have an index.
  2. Indexes always have spatio-temporal location.
  3. Therefore emotions have a spatio-temporal location.

4. Take-home messages:

  1. Three key concepts: cluster categories, situations and the potential/actual axis.
  2. Inner space and outer space are not distinct. In fact, we should replace them with topographic clusters that are bound together by (e)motion.
  3. Emotions and space are not distinct. In fact emotion is constituted by an affective cluster that is bound by situations.
  4. The logic of modality and the logic of (e)motives are closely interrelated.

5. Conclusion. I started this essay with an argument schema that creates an ontological divide between inner and outer space. Then, I presented arguments to show that this divide is not tenable. We are now ready to revisit the original question. If we accept the argument that inner and outer space are to be replaced by topographic clusters on the organismic side and situations on the world side, what happens to the problem of subjectivity? The answer is that we should replace the certainties of our own experience and the radical doubt about other minds to the actuality of our experience and the potentiality of others. Our minds are available to each other (potentially) even if they are actually not present to us now. However, note that even our own minds have a version of this problem. If we think of inner space as being ‘in touch with oneself’ then vision is a particularly bad way of self-knowing, for it has no access to the self. To the extent we can touch others, we know their inner space as well. The hard problem of consciousness is -like many other seemingly intractable metaphysical puzzles- an artefact of the theoretical primacy of vision as anything else.

In the twentieth century, philosophers thought that they would reduce metaphysical problems to problems of logic and language; this faith in logic and language is shared by otherwise radically different philosophers from Russell and the early Wittgenstein to the logical positivists to the late Wittgenstein, the Behaviourists and the ordinary language philosophers. All of them claimed that the misuse of logic and language are responsible for a host of false philosophical problems, from the problem of existence onwards. Their hope was that a suitable re-description of the problem in a logically precise language or a careful analysis of ordinary language will make these problems disappear. In the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century, language and logic have been replaced by the mind, i.e., many philosophers and neuroscientists now claim that classical metaphysical problems will either be eliminated or reduced to scientific questions in neuroscience and cognitive science. From the nature of religion to the origins of mathematics, neuroscientists and cognitive scientists believe that the foundations of human existence are to be found in these fields. While I think we always learn much from a deep engagement with nothing but-tery, we need a method to engage with metaphysical problems not by thinning them down, but by thickening them.

I would like to propose a different method to transform metaphysical problems. I believe that many of these problems arise not from a mistaken use of logic or language or a poor appreciation of brain science. Instead, I think that many of these problems arise from an oversimplification and underestimation of the complexity of the human world. What we need are not reductions but enrichments; of understanding the web of relations that connect body-mind and world and the ability to expand reductive concepts like soul, certainty etc to thicker, fully fleshed form. Aristotle starts his physics by saying that we should first understand the principles of any domain we want to investigate; by principle, he might have well meant the methods and the support of an investigation as much as its laws. Here, I am arguing that the human world is a good principle; it is the support of any investigation into metaphysical problems. Instead of reducing these metaphysical problems to language or brain science, we should enrich, expand and then release these problems into the human world. A version of this project that is an enriched language philosophy is to use metaphor to expand the range of linguistic supports of a metaphysical problem rather than to use formalisms and syntactic considerations to reduce metaphysics to logic or grammar. Once that is done, these classic problems in metaphysics will not disappear, for that would be tragic as well as boring. Instead, they will become fertile territories for a combination of philosophical, scientific and humanistic investigation. I hope that my thickening of the problem of consciousness has convinced you — or at least piqued your interest — to shift gears from reductive principles to expansive principles.

1 It is no surprise then that the division between soul and body is tied to Descartes’ experience of the tension between two spaces — the claustrophic furnace and the open but dangerous external world with the threat of persecution awaiting at the doorstep.

Leave a Reply