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No particular thoughts or questions just now, but wanted to express my appreciation for yet another excellent interview - thanks, Shelley and Jesse!

Shelley Tremain

Thanks for your continued love and support for the Dialogues on Disability series, Komarine!


Thank you, Shelley and Jesse, for another thought-provoking contribution to this interview series.

Jesse, you talk at length about the relationship between art and mental illness, and the relationship between emotion and oppression. Obviously philosophy provides one important context and set of tools for your engagement. I wonder: how would you describe the relationship between philosophy and mental illness, and the relationship between philosophy and oppression?

Has discussion of your own - and, perhaps, your family's - experiences of depression and mental illness been either viable or desirable as you've pursued a career in academic philosophy?

I also want pick up on your point about the surge in attention to issues of implicit bias demanding a corresponding increase in attending to structures of oppression. I think this is spot on, but again, I wonder: to what extent do you think the structures and biases of professional academic philosophy conducive to including and supporting philosophers with mental or other illness?

Just to clarify: I mention your family because, while family members of disabled people talking about disability are quite well-represented in some areas of philosophy, I know from personal experience that sometimes non-disclosure can sometimes not just be about our own experiences with chronic physical or mental ill health, but of what's going on in the familial backdrop in which we play a greater or less part in terms of support, care, and condition management, even though such facts might be just as impactful on our own ability to negotiate professional demands and, indeed, to manage our own disabilities. In one sense, it's probably right that we're not all airing our family's clinical laundry in professional circles, but in another sense, I wonder how far this undermines the ability of some to remain in the game, so to speak. Would love to hear (both!) your thoughts on this.

Shelley Tremain


thanks for your terrific comment and questions. Jesse is in Berlin this week giving a set of lectures and running a conference; so, there may be some delays in his responses. I may address your comments and questions, but will let Jesse address them first.

Despite Jesse's schedule, readers/listeners of this interview are encouraged to post their comments and impressions about the interview, ask Jesse questions that he will address, and so on.

Melinda Hall

Thank you so much for this interview, Jesse and Shelley. I added several books to my Amazon cart, including the Appiah, Jesse's most recent book, and Brain Storm!

There are a few things I particularly love about how Jesse described his background, work, and interests. One is: "Moral confidence is dangerous. It is important to see that one’s own values—like the values of one’s political opponents—are constructed." This thought so closely tracks one of Foucault's later interviews, in which he articulated refusal (of the received view), curiosity, and innovation as the three pillars of his moral thought. I always pull these ideas forward when I am challenged on Foucault's normative relevance. I think refusal allows us to engage questions of social construction in a really rich way.

Second, I love this point about our built environment: "Philosophers have started to think a great deal about implicit biases, that is, the forms of bigotry that persist in the beliefs of people who explicitly embrace equality; however, we must also think about structures." Jesse, how can we talk about structures in new ways to better understand the bigotry in our environment?

One other question...I noticed, Jesse, that you said: "There is no doubt that drugs can impact mental states—mind is matter..." When I find myself making parallel claims about disability, I see my interlocutors' eyes gleam, because they think that they've got me, and I've conceded that the social model is illegitimate! A broad question, but have you had similar experiences?


Excellent interview! As always, Jesse, I've learned a lot from this discussion. But one thing really stuck out to me. If I understand the view that you are advancing, you seem to be making two parallel claims about the nature and expression of emotion:

1) emotions are psychologically and socially constructed, deeply embodied, and situationally variable; and,

2) patterns of social uptake and feedback shape both the structure and content of our emotions in an ongoing way.

In different ways, these claims are pretty prevalent in emotion research; but they are not widely accepted together. And I think that you're right that it's the illicit focus on *functional* emotions (sic) that makes it easy to assume that robust psychological constructivism is implausible, and to assume that emotional expressions serve as honest signals of internal states. Both of these assumptions conflict radically with my own experience of the world as well.

Few people are likely to know that I spent many years (from about 2000-2013) experiencing ongoing and unmanageable forms of anxiety, depression, and strangely de-worlded experiences of fear and loneliness. I sometimes responded by internalizing those feelings; I sometimes responded by externalizing them reactively. I regret both of those things, and I tried to address those affective responses using a variety of different therapeutic interventions—all of them failed. The reason was simple, it was a matter of embodiment (though the precise mechanisms remain somewhat mysterious): my body was constantly in an agitated state because the food I was eating was tracked as a toxin; the resulting forms of heightened affect were then integrated into my ongoing thought and behavior, in ways that led me to construct emotional states that were out of step with the world that I inhabited. When I learned that I had celiac, and started to manage it, it was as though a fog was clearing, my mental life opened onto a world that afforded opportunity and not just threats, onto a space that allowed for joy and not just depression, anxiety, and animosity. (As I mentioned in my interview here last year, I still experience forms of emotional dysfunction when I ingest any gluten whatsoever, but now it yields blips and not pervasive problems; what I didn’t say then is that I still experience a persistent form of depression, but it’s relatively mild, and doesn’t compromise functioning too badly). I also learned to suppress the public expression of many affective responses, not out of some Machiavellian attempt at manipulation, but out of a drive for self-preservation. I still work to suppress the persisting experience of 'mild' depression that governs much of my experience of the world. And the reason for this is simple as well: I doubt that the people I interact with want to think about me as someone who experiences such things; and I worry about how such thoughts will affect their impressions of me. Again, I have no doubt that the drive to modulate my expression of emotion shifts the way I construe my affective states, shapes their content, and adjusts their role in my ongoing behavior.

So I think that you're right that thinking about dysfunctional emotions can open up more plausible views of the nature and content of our mental states. But I also think that social and institutional factors make it difficult to speak publicly about such things, and that means that it's going to be harder to get to the point where philosophers and cognitive scientists see their illicit assumptions. That's why I think that Shelley's series here is so important!

Shelley Tremain

I want to give an update on this discussion to everyone who is following it in some fashion. Jesse is still overseas and has had an overwhelming, morning-until-night, schedule in the past week: 11 presentations and more to give before the end of this week. He will likely catch up with us next week.

In the meantime, I encourage readers/listeners of Jesse's interview to continue the conversation about it!

Jesse Prinz

Forgive my slow response, everyone. I had a relentless schedule the last two weeks which prevented me from responding sooner. The first thing I really have to do is express my gratitude to everyone: to Shelley for this outstanding and important series, and everyone who wrote in. In addition to all these thoughtful comments, I had a full inbox, and I want to publicly express gratitude to those who wrote privately as well. The responses have raised issues that deserve lengthy discussion. My replies will inevitably be inadequate, but, in the spirit of the series, I think this is an ongoing conversation, and I know I will be reflecting on things that people have brought up for a long time.

Let me begin with Zara. I do think professional philosophy, like most fields, does far too little to address the reality of realities of mental illness. In addition to the stigmatization, there are few safeguards in place for people who, for some period of time, find it hard to manage their usual responsibilities. Easy affordable access to counseling, assistance with academic duties, extensions for deadlines, and other basic needs are not readily available. Those who need help depend on the generosity of others. Senior faculty are in a position of privilege but students and junior faculty, who are already short on resources, have to worry that a bout of depression, or some other ailment, could have serious implications for a careers. When you are trying to just get through a day, it's not exactly convenient to have to think about the possibility that a late submission or absentee could impact you professionally. There are also challenges having to do with privacy and stigma. Disclosing a reason for coming up short can often change people's impressions of you. All of us know people in the profession who wrestle with this constantly, but little is done to address it institutionally. I don't think this is just implicit bias. There is explicit bias as well, which is one reason why structural remedies are important. But structure isn't enough. Open discussion like this can also help. Zara, you also raise the important point that the costs of coping are not limited to the one who has the diagnosis. I know for myself that dealing with my own issues can place burdens on others, and I know that caring for others can be a consuming activity. Few allowances are made for those who experience mental illnesses and fewer still for those who play caregiving roles. Consciousness raising about this is important, so, Zara, your remarks really deserve to be repeated widely. I don't have much wisdom on what can be done, unfortunately, but talking about the issue is a positive step. Maybe we can all think about how to raise the issues that Zara brings up among our co-workers and conversation partners. And Shelley's tireless work with this series and other efforts are also really helping to raise awareness.

Melinda, so much there to think about. I love the tie in to Foucault and the issue of normative relevance. There was so much pressure in the French intellectual left to pick a party affiliation or political ideology. Thus, we find Sartre associated with Stalin, Foucault with Mao, and so on. Foucault certainly realized that his philosophical work problematized that adoption of any fixed party platform, and he also rejected progress narrative, and saw no possibility of a world without regimes of power. This gives the impression of a normative deadend, but, with you Melinda, I think it actually is a normative position. I have spent a lot of time thinking about what normativity would look like in a constructivist framework, and I hope I can dedicate meaningful time to that question in the future. One thing that I've really come to appreciate in the value of locality. Foucault expresses concerns about hegemonic power, and I think he's right. If we foster moral plurality, it gives people the opportunity to negotiate power relations and move more fluidly between moral world. Figuring out how to articulate a kind of radically decentralized normatively is a challenge: there are issues about implementation, about concern for members of other moral communities, and about the ontological and ideological presupposition of the claim that we should work to expand the available range of moral choices. Is this a capitalist consumer model of morality in disguise? I don't think so, but there is need for caution.

Melinda, your second question about structures is also really hard. Structure means so many things and is so pervasive. Structure is also almost inherently biased. A chair is made for some kinds of bodies, and not others, an institution is located in its neighborhood and not others, a diagnostic manual makes one division of human types and not others. But, given this, I guess we need to be looking for ways to alter structures so that prevailing systems of exclusion shift and allow other voices in. Accessibility is a big part of that, and it has be taken on in a variety of different ways. Suppose we ask, why are the people who visit art museums so demographically similar, and would could be done to change that? Or why are philosophy students so similar? As soon as these questions are raised, solutions start to suggest themselves (who shows in museums and how did they get anointed? who gets included on syllabi? how are philosophy events advertised and to whom? how do standards for career advancement, like publishing in elite academic journals, exacerbate uniformity in the profession?). We have the power to change what we teach, what we think about, whom we talk to, and how we share ideas.

Melinda, your final observation about the anti-materialist leanings of some constructionists certainly rings familiar. I think the anxiety usually isn't metaphysical. Rather, it's a worry that material modes of inquiry invite reductive explanations that privileges certain kinds of mechanisms and certain modes of inquiry. Mind and matter sounds like an invitation to make brain science and genetics the primary tools for understanding human life. This is an inference we need to guard against. Materiality does not entail fixity, the priority of local causes, or the sanctity of biological sciences. I think history has far more to teach about human behavior than genetics ever will. Of course, Hobbes and Lenin would agree, and they were materialists. So when we complain about biophilia, we should also deny that fans of such reductionist approaches have a right to the body. Bodies are the moving forces in history: they are broken and scarred, they labor and revolt, the are made into docile cogs in production engines, they love and hate and hunger and mate. So when eyes gleam, one remedy is to remember that "eyes gleaming" is a physical force in the world, that reflects institutionally shaped attitudes and serves to sting (or starve by threat of unemployment) those of us who don't conform. To detach social forces from matter is as bad as detached matter from social forces.

Bryce, I have learned so much from you over the years, and I learn from everything you write. This is no exception. It is also another courageous contribution to the series. In sharing your experiences, you help others see that they are not alone. There is certainly much I relate to here. If it weren't for social pressure, I'd probably be screaming or shrieking or weeping every time I left the house. I let out a (quiet) primal scream while lecturing yesterday. It takes a lot of energy to contain these things. And you're right, Bryce, that the lived experience of such emotions has a lot to teach emotion researchers, and emotion research can increase its relevance and value by paying close attention. I hadn't noticed the subtle divisions between various "social" approaches to emotions. The friends of signaling theory don't tend to view themselves as constructionists. I just had the pleasure of writing a paper with the philosopher, Dan Shargel, defending an enactive approach to emotions, according to which emotions create meanings by embodying actions that temporarily change social relationships. Meditating on your comments here would have added to that paper. It brings to mind the work of a contemporary Finnish artist who does things like standing in an elevator for hours without getting off. When we don't do what people expect us to do with our bodies it makes them very unforgettable. This artists violates norms by doing nothing. One also violates norms by having unwanted emotional reactions, and then people get uncomfortable: they worry, they pity, they lose trust, they blame you, they blame themselves, the avoid you, they suffocate you with concern, they react with their own emotions, and so on. Emotional misalignment is incredibly disruptive. Such cases underscore the embodied nature of our emotions, but also the social nature. The phenomenology of suppressing a socially unwelcome expression of feeling is a confirmation that construction is taking place. Sometimes it is tiresome to be so choreographed. I'm glad those years are behind you, Bryce, and inspired by your strength in pulling through and helping others.

Much more to say, but these are the first words, not the last. Thanks again to all, and one more word of thanks to those who read but did not comment. I think I can speak for everyone on this board in saying we are grateful for your time and attention.

Jesse Prinz

One small postscript: the Finnish artist whom I mentioned in response to Bryce is named Pilvi Takala.

Shelley Tremain

Jesse, thank you very much for your wonderful responses to Zara, Melinda, and Bryce, as well as your kind words of appreciation for the Dialogues on Disability series.

In both your interview and your responses above, you emphasize the historicity and plasticity ("social construction") of emotions. I'd like to know if this constructivism also applies to emotion per se. Do you think (the idea of) emotion itself and its embodiment are historical artifacts? Does emotion have a history? That is, can we do a genealogy of emotion, as well as genealogies of discrete emotions?

Another question: Do you think that emotions can be intergenerational? I'm thinking in particular of (1) the descendants of victims and survivors of the Holocaust, many of whom have reported the experience of the effects of trauma due to what their parents, or grandparents witnessed and endured; and (2) the descendants of First Nations survivors and victims of residential schools in North America, many of whose lives (setting aside the other social factors that negatively impact upon them) have been shattered because of the treatment to which their parents and grandparents were subjected and its effects upon them; and (3) the descendants of the "stolen generations" in Australia, many of whose lives have also been seriously affected by what their ancestors endured, again, setting aside the other detrimental social factors that they confront.

Please respond to these queries in whatever fashion you wish and at your own convenience.

Jesse Prinz

Shelley, thanks for the extremely interesting questions. I haven't thought much about either topic, but both deserve serious attention. Let my offer my first passing thoughts, and I'd love to hear others weigh in as well.

I'm inclined to say that "emotion" itself is a construction. This point is woefully neglected in the literature on social construction of emotions. Some commentators note that there are languages with no word for emotion. Likewise, it has been noticed that the word 'emotion' has changed its meaning in English. It once referred to strong feelings, with 'passion' used as a genetic that includes mild feelings. These terms have switched roles. 'Passion' comes from the Latin 'passio,' which implies suffering, and both derive from the Greek, 'pathos.' When we read Greek authors on pathos, their observations look familiar at first, but there are also points at which confidence about an equation with our concepts of emotions can be called into question. We find Aristotle calling anger an example of pathos, but he also includes friendliness in this category, which most people now would not regard as an emotion. So caution is needed. All the more so when we leave the Western context. In addition, our concept of emotion inherits theoretical baggage, like the contrast between emotion and reason or the association between emotion and animality. Emotions are also associated with femininity, and this has been used as an instrument of oppression. It played a role in the anti-suffrage movement, but continues now in pernicious ways (PMS is one example). In moral philosophy, we get the view that emotionally based decisions are irrational, and, implicitly, animal, savage, feminine, and so on. So we need to be on guard about how "emotion" gets constructed.

The issue of intergenerational emotions is fascinating, and important. I certainly know members of Holocaust survivor families who are deeply affected by the experiences of older generations. Descendants of perpetrators too deal with this. And, of course, we have white guilt in the Americas, not to mention inculcated anxiety and hate. The First Nations case is a disturbing one when it comes to perpetrators, since there is very little inherited guilt in my experience. The American genocides killed tens of millions, numerous cultures were wiped out of existence, and two continents were stolen. But there are hardly any memorials, hardly any awareness, no hope of reparations, and so on. U.S. students don't learn about the Indian Wars in school, or the massacres. Canadians are told they were innocent. It's shocking to remember the Americas were densely populated before conquest and now few of us know or interact with (full blooded) indigenous people. But we don't cultivate intergenerational guilt about this, and the intergeneration anger experienced by descendants of those who were killed is hidden from view. In Australia, these issues are more openly discussed, but the degree of exclusion is more dramatic than I've seen anywhere. The colonial descendants seem to have inherited attitudes that preserve extreme division. Another example would be intergeneration hatred between religious groups. I think Islamophobia is the defining issue of our time, geopolitically. And it is really an inheritance of the bygone conflicts between, for example, Christians and Ottomans. We are raised knowing whom to fear and whom to hate. Understanding intergeneration emotions is essential for understanding enduring conflicts and divisions. We police boundaries between groups with emotions, and these are often passed down. When we learn social categories, we also learn how to feel about them.

Thanks again, Shelley, for the comments, the interview, and the series.


Shelley Tremain

Jesse, thanks for your terrific responses to my questions. As always, your responses were broad and thoughtful.

I want to recommend a fabulous book to you and to everyone following these comments. You may have read it already, Jesse, or at least know of it: _Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life_ by Margaret Price (University of Michigan Press, 2011).

You can read about it here:

Every academic who experiences depression, has experienced trauma, experiences emotional deviation, and so on, should read/listen to this book; so should everyone who wants to learn about the forms of ableism and discrimination with which academics disabled in these ways must contend.

Damion Kareem Scott

Dear Professor Prinz,

I would like to thank you for a stimulating, inspirational, and extremely edifying interview and answer session. I wish that I had more time to engage you with some questions but perhaps we can speak some time in person as we orbit in some similar ellipses.

Jesse Prinz

Dear Damion Scott,

Thanks for the kind words. I'd love to meet and talk. We have many interests and friends in common, and I have learned a lot from your words on this forum and elsewhere. Let's get together soon.

Best wishes,

Jesse Prinz

Dear Shelley,

Thanks for the book recommendation. I ordered a copy!


V. Alan White

Somehow I missed this interview on the first go-around. Thanks so much for this Shelley and Jesse (if I may). Philosophy is done by flesh-and-blood individuals from every part of the broad spectrum of humanity--this is a moving reminder reminder of that, keenly felt by this reader. My best wishes to you both.

Shelley Tremain

Hi Alan,

thanks so much for sharing your lovely thoughts. I'm very glad that you were moved by my interview with Jesse.

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