Interdisciplinary Research on Emotions in Neuroscience and Philosophy

Jason Clark, PhD

The central focus of research in recent years has been the theory of emotion and the role of emotions in various biological, cognitive, social, moral and clinical contexts.  I am particularly interested in the evolutionary relationships between ‘basic emotions’ and ‘higher-cognitive emotions’.  Contrary to the widespread view that emotions like shame and pride depend on exclusively human higher-cognitive capacities, and lack any biological parallels with the emotions of other species, I have argued in previous work that these emotions have simpler, basic forms that can be found in other animals and early stages of human development, and that the more complex forms that we see in adult humans are homologous to these more basic forms.  This provides the basis for a more unified theory of emotion.


In animal emotionale II, I continue this work, turning now primarily to the emotion of disgust.  Disgust provides an interesting test case for theories of emotion based on evolutionary homology.  While disgust is generally believed to be one of the core basic emotions (along with other such as fear and joy), this consensus has been challenged in recent years from several directions, with some authors arguing that disgust is too simple and reflex-like to be considered a proper emotion, and others arguing that disgust is a uniquely human higher-cognitive emotion, directed onto social, moral and existential issues.  In animal emotionale II, I am trying to reconcile such divergent views, taking as a working hypothesis the suggestion that more basic forms of disgust are homologous to its more complex, higher-cognitive forms.


Implicit in my previous work on shame and pride, and in my framework for studying disgust, is the assumption that it is possible to provide evolutionary explanations of human psychological traits.  In animal emotionale II, I consider such assumptions more explicitly by examing the structure of of such explanations and their criteria of adequacy.  Evolutionary homologies are difficult to establish even for structural traits which fossilize, and even when all the species involved in a given evolutionary series of transformations are extant.  In the case of human psychological traits, the case is much more difficult.  Brains and behavior do not truly fossilize, and some of the most important ancestral species for the explanation of human psychological traits (the non-human hominids) are extinct.  Given difficulties such as these, we have to rely on a plurality of methods and disciplines in order to triangulate evolutionary explanations of such traits.  I aim to offer a systematic account of what those methods are, how they interrelate, and how they have been applied to emotions.  I hope the result will be a clearer picture of the possibilities and limitations of evolutionary explanations of emotions, one which both addresses  skepticism about such explanations, and critiques over-enthusiastic applications of evolution to human cognition.


I received my BA from Macalester College, and then studied logic and the philosophy of science at the University Minnesota, before going on to study neuroscience and philosophy at Syracuse University, where I received a PhD in philosophy in 2009.  While my primary background is in philosophy and neuroscience, I tend to pursue subjects across disciplinary lines, and my work has been additionally influenced by such disciplines as anthropology, developmental psychology, ethology and primatology.  In addition to topics in the philosophy and sciences of biology and mind, some of my other interests include general philosophy of science, philosophical logic and philosophy of mathematics.



jasonanthonyclarkatgmail [dot] com (Email)

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