Constructionist thinking in philosophy
Chapter 2 endnote 14, from Lisa Feldman Barrett.
Some context is:
Some nineteenth-century philosophers viewed the mind like a big chemistry set, combining simpler sensations into thoughts and emotions the way that atoms combine to make molecules. Others saw the mind as a set of all-purpose parts, like Lego blocks, that contribute to various mental states like cognitions and emotions.
In recent years, a new generation of scientists has been crafting psychological construction-based theories for understanding emotions and how they work. Not every theory agrees on every assumption, but together they assert that emotions are made, not triggered; emotions are highly variable, without fingerprints; and emotions are not, in principle, distinct from cognitions and perceptions.
The roots of constructionist theories of the mind stretch back into the history of philosophy. Unifying these various views into a single theoretical tradition is a recent scholarly development, and there is still considerable work to be done in tracing the exact history of these ideas in the history of philosophy and neuroscience.
Still, there are some easily recognizable clues. Certain mental philosophers were skeptical of classical views of the mind, including John Locke in the 17th, George Berkeley and Immanuel Kant in the 18th centuries, and John Stuart Mill and Johann Herbart in the 19th century. Many were considered empiricists, believing that perceptions were constructed out of simpler, more general elements, becoming more than the sum of their parts. For example, Locke wrote that memory and fear were functions of the entire mind, and were not faculties. Kant wrote that experience is constructed as a combination of what we know (our concepts) and what we sense from the world. Kant was trying to resolve a centuries-old debate over the origin of knowledge, whether it comes from experience or is present from birth, by arguing that some concepts are inborn but many others are not. Kant drew his inspiration partly from the 18th-century philosopher David Hume, who famously explained that our experiences of the world are effects, and we should be skeptical when inferring causes from them, because there is more than one way to skin a cat (this is the concept of degeneracy). Mill saw the mind like a big chemistry set, combining simpler sensations into thoughts and emotions the way that atoms combine to make molecules. Herbart believed the mind worked more like a machine, with all-purpose mechanisms that combined in various ways to create mental states like cognitions and emotions. A feeling of anger or elation would therefore not reveal its causal mechanisms, as opposed to faculty psychology’s view that memory faculties produce memories, emotional faculties produce emotions, and so on.