Are emotions conscious?


In philosophy of mind (and many psychologists and neuroscientists might agree) there is the idea that one of the hardest problems is to handle the phenomenon of consciousness and of first-person experience. That is a legacy of Descartes: First-person experience is often presented as the most authentic and safe form of knowledge, while at the same time being inaccessible to others, in a principled way. Formulated this way, the paradox inhering consciousness is obvious, because one of the common criteria of knowledge seems to be that it can be shared and is open to scrutiny by others.

Standing on the shoulders of Hegel, Dilthey and Mead (see my previous blogs), this is a non-starter. In this older tradition, consciousness (‘Bewusstsein’) was conceived as being social in a fundamental sense. There is the idea that consciousness is a social achievement, and that without social mediation the ‘first-person experience’ would be messy, distorted and a highly deficient form of knowledge, if at all.

Recently I read a review article by Berridge about the state of emotions research that illustrates the relevance of these philosophical debates for modern psychology and neuroscience. His starting point is the observation that one of the leading researchers on emotions, LeDoux, has radically changed his view. LeDoux has been very influential in brain sciences research on emotions, especially in showing that the amygdala is a fear system. But today LeDoux rejects his own research in the sense that he now argues that emotions are always and necessarily ‘subjective feelings’: That means, emotions are always conscious, and there cannot be ‘unconscious emotions’. One important implication of this is that today LeDoux believes that animals do not have emotions. There is a strong methodological implication of this: Neuroscientific research would become largely irrelevant for the study of emotions, and instead verbal reports of subjective feelings would be the empirical data for emotion research. This is a very radical move by a leading neuroscientist of our times!

Berridge does not agree with LeDoux. His review article is about the experimental evidence that people have emotions that are not conscious in the sense of being feelings that they would accurately report. In other words, the scientist claims to be able to identify ‘true emotions’ independent from what people report. Yet, Berridge also acknowledges that it is necessary to distinguish between subjective feelings and ‘objective emotions’. His workhorse is the distinction between ‘wanting’ and ‘liking’, which he himself introduced in modern research on behaviour, further dividing into non-cognitive and cognitive forms. This allows for many ways how conscious reporting of feelings, such as hedonic satisfaction, can diverge from actual valuations that can be identified by objective means. People may want what they don’t like, and even if they say they like, other bodily signs may show that they don’t like, and so forth, and this even includes the possibility that they themselves do not know that they don’t like.

I think that the philosophical perspective on consciousness can help to advance these discussions. There are two important aspects that seem neglected (in this particular debate, to be sure), which come into play if we ask the question why such a complex structure of emotions, feelings and affective states has been favoured by biological evolution, after all. In simplest terms: Why consciousness? Or, why feelings? If we ask this question, we are forced to adopt a deflationary view on consciousness, which comes close to LeDoux’s view in the sense that in the end of the day, consciousness is all about the speech acts that express consciousness to ourselves and others. Just think: Often, we do not really know how we feel, for example, during a heated academic debate that somehow gets out of control: angry? Confused? Ashamed? Or what? I think that expressing emotional states as feelings supports a process of social cognition about complex affective states which are open to interpretation. This is supported by a system of signalling in which other individuals can directly interpret affectual states independent from what the person thinks what s/he feels, and this signalling further supports the progress of social cognition. I might realize some of your body language that I interpret as expressing anger, I might directly ask you, you explain that you are not angry, and so we work together in fixing our emotional states. Well, in fact most emotional states are social, and often isolated states may end up in dysfunctional forms, such as depressions. I think that this social dimension is overlooked in Berridge’s analysis, and if it is recognized, it is possible to construct a common basis for both LeDoux’s and his view.

In other words, I think that there is an evolutionary rationale for the complex relationship between emotions and consciousness. This also helps to solve the ‘hard problem’ in the philosophy of mind: In a nutshell, consciousness is not an inner state, but a social state, and in this sense, emotions are social states, too.


Berridge, Kent C. „Evolving Concepts of Emotion and Motivation“. Frontiers in Psychology 9 (7. September 2018).

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