Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





David Rosenthal

Committee Members

Eric Mandelbaum

Michelle Montague

Elliot Jurist

Subject Categories

Philosophy of Mind


emotion, perceptualism, cognitivism, constructionism


Emotions consume our thoughts and drive our actions. If you had different emotions, or no emotions at all, the way you move in the world and understand your place in it would be completely different. We need a satisfactory theory of emotion for a complete science of the mind. In this dissertation, I consider two of the most compelling theories of emotion: broad perceptualism – the view that emotions either are themselves perceptual or include a perceptual aspect as at least a part – and constructionism – the theory that emotions are self-interpretive thoughts. I find that perceptualist thinking fails to yield deep insights into the nature of emotion, while constructionist views are crucially, but not fatally, flawed in their refusal to accept unconscious emotion.

In Chapters 2 through 4, I argue against the most compelling considerations for broad perceptualism, and I point to several respects in which emotions have more in common with paradigmatically cognitive states such as thought and belief. While I do not specifically target every broadly perceptual theory of emotion, the arguments laid out in chapters 2 through 4 severely limit the space for theories that consider emotions to be (even partially) perceptual. The arguments in these chapters strongly indicate that if we want to understand emotion, we should not look to models of perception.

First, I show that both emotions and beliefs are sometimes stubborn and that emotions are sensitive to our changing beliefs in a way that is more akin to cognitive states than to sensations. Second, emotions are representationally flexible, able to represent objects and events that are distant in both time and place. Third, we do not become aware of our emotions as we become aware of our sensory state emotions, because emotions, like thoughts, are not individuated by feelings.

In the fifth chapter, I address constructionism, a view that has recently gained ground in the empirical literature and which is sensitive to many of the concerns I marshal against perceptualist views. I argue that while constructionism has some appeal, in its current state it remains tethered to perceptualist thinking. It goes wrong in its claim that emotions are only ever conscious: By this claim, constructionism deflates emotions’ status in a way that cannot make sense of our ability to coordinate our behavior by attributing emotions to one another.

In the conclusion, I lay out three desiderata that a good theory of emotion should meet and I show that we can rescue the central claims of constructionism to satisfy them. This points toward a theory of emotion that is sensitive to a range of theoretical and empirical concerns, but which preserves what is predictive in the core of our everyday thinking about our emotions.

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