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feeling as minding
november 21, 2010



Feeling is commonly a passive notion (even in the primary, transitive sense of the word), but is in all events part of attending to something (or something coming-to-attention), whether perceptually or, more generally and simply, part of something coming to mind. But attention is primarily an action, not a passive happening, and feeling is actional (or part of enactivity, which attends). We are primarily enactors, doing things, intending things, and happenings (passively experienced) occur in the flow of doing things, such that a passive notion of feeling is an abstraction from feeling’s primary presence for engaged lives.

Though momentary importance is usually about more than one’s “feeling” about something (or “for” something), feeling is always at least about/for a momentary importance that we attend to actively (by intention, deliberately), be it showing emotional response in the attending or be it self invested valuing in the moment (or for one’s life).

An analysis of an unabridged definition of ‘feeling’ would be about a lot of senses of the word because ‘feeling’ is so primary (and primal) for our broad sense of living, which is primarily enactive, rather than passive experiencing.

As aspect of enactivity, “feeling” is entwined with “intuition.” However one thinks of ‘intuition,’ one relies commonly on a living, effective sense of that entwined with one’s feeling for one’s attentions (re: one’s intentional attending, as well as what’s attended to).

And all of this is valuative, showing preferences or/and desires. “My perception is that...” might be instead said as “my feeling is that....,” implying one’s interpretation or valuation (or evaluation) as one’s “feeling” about the matter. “Feeling” is a term of interpretation. (A theory of interpretation might be the best basis for a theory of feeling, which deserves to be so much richer than a theory of emotion.) To represent feeling (distinct from what evinces the feeling) is to acknowledge a frame that attention has—a focus, a stance on the matter, a perspective which is embodied, enowned. Feeling is embodied mattering of what’s in mind for (at least implicitly) purposive, intending action.

So, we’re valuing creatures, even in our simple attentions—intended attending, showing preferences, discerning what matters (for the moment at least). We choose our attentions, and they gain value in the attending as what’s in mind is brought into our preceding and suceeding interest, expressed in our ongoing, purposive activity.

I would argue that prevailing values are those that shape one’s sense of selfidentity, having been individuational: selfidentical standards, i.e., interest/intentionality generally aiming to actualize aspirational ideals, purposes, and projects (having goals), which earlier potential and promise served (and serves). Ultimately, feeling is entwined with who one is, of course. But a non-trivial implication is that selfidentical background may resonate, be it faintly or strongly, in the moment. Feeling expresses our tacit investment, whether minutely or largely, in the life we are. This may seem obvious, but articulating the obvious is often not easy. (So, how effectively obvious is unarticulated intuition?)


Feeling an intimacy of valuing and action is lacking in common considerations of “feeling,” especially inasmuch as feeling is understood as emotion, and emotions express the passive experience of a character to which there are happenings, apart from prevailing engagements. But considering emotion apart from one’s enactivity is an abstraction from how we live. Experience which may be especially “emotional” is not experience that gets a separable emotional component; the emotionality is integral to the experience as such. But emotionality of the experience is more than the emotionality, usually (i.e., experience is not primarily about the emotion). Since experience is especially a matter of feeling or embodied valuing, significance apart from the emotion evinced in feeling is likely to be the prevailing importance.

A leading researcher on feeling and emotion, Antonio Damasio, finds that the integral aspect of intention, interest, or enactivity even belongs to emotion, which he emphatically distinguishes from a richer notion of feeling (which includes emotion).

In his just-published (at this writing) book, Self Comes to Mind: constructing the conscious brain [ref.28], Damasio ties basic emotional response to enactivity (i.e., intentional behavior, which only minds have) and understands feeling as interpretive (“perceptual”) of bodily emotion (itself “biologically valuative”) through the valuativeness of action. “Emotions are complex, largely automated programs of actions [his emph.] concocted by evolution” (109), e.g., “the so-called universal emotions [of] fear, anger, sadness, [bodily] happiness, disgust, and surprise” (123). [I insert “bodily” because that’s what Damasio has in mind; but ‘happiness’ deserves to be understood in richer terms of fulfilling lives. This distinction—bodily/fulfilling—is integral to recent psychological research on “happiness.”]

“Feelings of emotion,” he writes, “are composite perceptions of (1) a particular state of the body, during actual or simulated emotion, and (2) a state of altered cognitive resources and a deployment of certain mental scripts”(116). Damasio’s “working definition” of the difference between emotion and feeling here is emblematic of his very extended discussion of the difference, which I’ll dwell with, up the road.

Our sense of emotion becomes very entwined with our sense of being alive (“feeling of what happens,” which is the title of an earlier book by Damasio), such that our range of feeling colors our reflected sense of “emotion” (i.e., feeling interprets or values evident emotion, abstracted from its actional context, like feeling values any other contexted attention).

Appeal (attraction) toward action and aversion are the poles of all emotion, to which any given emotion pertains because we’re primarily interested in what to do, which emotion serves: Go on or go away (or some mix of each, as adding vectors results in a new direction, like a shift in one’s level of consideration).

But distinguishing physiological emotion from mindal valuing is seldom important for ongoing activity; so, we easily talk of feeling as if it’s mere bodily response; or emotion as feeling, as if perhaps the difference matters only to the likes of artists or psychiatrists. What’s important is what to do—what we desire, what purposes we’re involved with, etc. How we feel about the day belongs to that: the day of our in-worldness, I like to say. The scale of feeling brings emotion in valuing, we should prefer (for the sake of constructive self interest)—not valuing led by emotion (i.e., basic bodily response, which is easily symptomatic of something displaced). We want lives abundant with value, belonging fruitfully, rather than being governed by emotion (as if by a possession outside oneself). We want emotion to belong in feeling (valuing to give meaning to emotion), rather than valuing to be prevailed upon by emotion.

The complex context of emotion is easily shown with a taxonomy of “feeling words,” which a colleague derived over some years. I won’t itemize the list, but putting the set on a continuum (treating feeling like basic emotion) is a very crude way to understand relations between “feelings” (i.e., in effect, complex valuations of one’s action). Of course, distinguishing what’s attractive from what’s aversive is initially useful, which the appellant/aversive emotion in feeling makes easy. Valuing some attractions as especially appealing (let’s call those purely “positive”) or especially unappealing (“negative”) is useful, especially for beginning to comparatively understand one’s values. My colleague’s intent was to have a resource for workshops where couples improve their communication of what’s going on in their lives, enriching their self understanding (and learning to fairly convey that) by using ordinary terms about feelings that they might not ordinarily use, for better articulating desires and perceptions in daily life.

For example, a very attractive “feeling” is humble—“feeling” humble. Yet, this simple stance is complex (an ethical stance). What’s salient about a taxonomy of feeling is that it’s likely a taxonomy of embodied values shown in action. A highly positive item on the list is confident. That’s a highly admirable, selfidentical value; yet, we say “I feel confident” or not. I feel joyful (a holistic, self implicative meaningfulness, not a simple emotion). I feel relaxed (a whole-bodied, possibly whole-minded evaluation of mood). I feel virile (which is one of the list items: a whole-bodied disposition to act, having confidence about satisfaction).

Clearly, “feeling” (embodied valuing) is a luscious dimension of always-embodied mental life (which I happily, sometimes elatedly, but nowadays comfortably call mindality). “Feeling” is a catch-all for embodied appraisals. Relative to supplemental emotion, feeling is the experiential, embodying mode of valuing.

A representable difference between valuative/cognitive and emotive aspects of feeling is retrospectively derivable for a focus of attention, but feeling initially seems to belong to the thing itself as singular aspect of attention: a felt present (situation or matter) having significance integral to it. A moment has an aura or implicit implicature that one can step back from and divide into background valuing and emotional response (allowing a question of which shapes which), but emotion and valuing are usually experienced as undifferentiated feeling. Reflectively differentiating valuation and emotion, one might find that valuing biased emotional response in the moment, because valuing and emotion are differentiable aspects of feeling. But the feeling of experience is just that. Being affected by a situation is more than a matter of so-called “affect.” It’s a matter of our ongoing enactivity (valuing), being drawn into the mattering; or feeling withdrawal from the matter—finding appeal for action or finding aversion.

The next two sections (relatively short ones), “acting for fulfillment...” and “‘emotional intelligence’,” are secondary to me, relative to a humanistic interest in feeling that the last two sections express, “feeling ultimately...” onward. In the long run, I have an interest in bridging psychology and literary studies, which the last two sections (also short) emblemize.


Unfortunately, empirical psychology tends to regard emotions behaviorially (because this is readily quantifiable), apart from enactivity. Even “positive” psychology does this (though positive psychology is supposed to be guided by interest in living well or fruitfully). For a leading positive psychologist specializing in research on emotion, it’s a matter of “processing sensory input from our environment” (ref.3:14), which is a standard sense of ‘emotion’: disconnected from one’s primary investment in action. “Theorists differ as to how the differences between emotions are best modeled. However, there is general agreement that valence on a bipolar continuum from highly unpleasant to highly pleasant is a primary characteristic of every emotion.” But the primary importance of every emotion is that pleasure and unpleasure serve actional prospects for satisfaction (or fulfillment) and frustration (i.e., useful aversions for interests of action). In a life, pleasure and unpleasure are located in results of action, not abstractions of sense perception or “stimulus” antecedents of action. Of course, sensual pleasure is sensual pleasure. But researching it apart from its entwinement with enactivity may lead (I will show later) to misunderstanding motivation in constructive learning.

Anyway, the apparently-leading researchers on positive emotion that I’m quoting confuse emotion and feeling when they write that “emotions involve not just subjective feelings, but also attention and cognition...” (ibid.). That should be: Feelings involve not just emotions.... (By the way, what would objective feelings be such that “subjective feelings” isn’t a redundant expression?)

Again, feeling is primarily about what one is doing, which involves emotional perception as well as emotional effect. Endeavoring involves anticipations in which motivated behaviors (i.e., actions) lead to satisfactions or frustrations—involving tensions welcomed by appealing promise of good release (anticipated enjoyment), unwelcomed by aversive promise of bad release (anticipated disjoyment, if you will). From laughter to crying, we feel a given moment that we are actors in, also having emotion about what happens. Emotion is part of acting, as being human is beyond animal responsiveness. So, an approach to positive emotion that is oriented by animal responsiveness may be fated to miss the point of feeling: Enactivity is what we are, and feeling is part of that, in which emotion is valued, as part of what we’re doing. Bare emotional reaction is ordinarily supplementary to purposive engagement (or, when apparently isolated, symptomatic).


I want to briefly place in context here the popular notion of “emotional intelligence.” I would argue that so-called “emotional intelligence” is an empiricist approach to feeling. To understand emotional intelligence is to understand embodied valuing, which is about emotional aspects of valuational activity. Persons with high emotional intelligence are persons who constructively employ their feelings, as a generative balance of cognitive valuing with emotional sensitivity. Emotional intelligence is the embodying complex of valuation (often in terms of various kinds of emotion or valid labelings of emotion, i.e., “perception of emotion,” as Damasio puts it) that results in an overall attraction/preference or aversion to a phenomenon reliably (relative to other aspects, factors, or options), often as a mix of attraction and aversion (ambivalence or conflict) that’s managed well (“intelligently”); ergo, complex feelings in light of years of living well with emotion. Those who are “good” with feeling (e.g., having a high sense of empathy) are emotionally astute (and admirable), exemplifying high “emotional intelligence.” Classically, this is exemplified through Literature and fine arts.


The separate words we have for emotional feelings may each imply a richly mindal (and cultural) sensibility, being no simple emblems of natural traits. We associate moods with spectrums of color or tapestry, where “feeling” may be simple pleasure (not itself an emotion); or be associated with any emotion; or feeling may be about attending to highly appealing value, like admiration or compassion (two complex feelings that Damasio highlights). Feeling (embodied valuing) belongs to the entirety of our growth, our individuation, such that learning to feel imaginatively and constructively is integral, I would argue, to a promising life’s later capability for repeated fulfillment. In a given present (situation), feelings are ontogenically auratic, potentially implying an ineffable genealogy.

It’s easy to dramatize how feeling for what matters carries an aura of one’s imaginability. One may live a background holism of aspiring mind and world potentially implied in momentary feeling, the Moment of feeling. Damasio is very aware of the human primacy of feeling, turning very metaphorical about high feeling (e.g., proffering a “symphonic” sense of self). But he’s primarily a neuroscientist (a leading one); yet also (I read) “director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California.” His new book is quite creatively (it seems to me) ambitious: about the emergence of selfness from mind emergent from the brain (mind emergent from an ontogeny of the evolved brain, self emergent from an ontogeny of mind), yet (to his mind, too) for the sake of high cultural aspiration. He would bond the evolving “homeostasis” of self to an evolving homeostasis of our humanity: “Placing the [emergent] construction of conscious minds[, i.e., selves,] in the history of biology and culture opens the way to reconciling traditional humanism and modern science...” (30), that matter of a new consilience again.


Feeling opens; emotion merely responds. I love to understand feeling (as such) as an enactive openness to the potential of the moment or subject/object, openly informed in part by the emotional aspects of the moment/matter. Emotive reaction is a chance to feel possibility, to give new meaning to the moment/matter (though normal dailiness may be seldom receptive to my little inspirations, especially in functionalistic environs—and I have impatient days).

Learning to better understand feeling is, I think, learning to better understand one’s sense of futurity: what one implicitly wants (or wanted) from a given situation; what scale of potential something has; what was or can be really implied by a mood (those nebulous mixes of desire, emotion, preference, etc.). The emotion evinced by highly appealing music is a chance for expansive imaginability of feeling (as well as getting more done of what one doesn’t want to do—an awful employment of good music, in my view). What is anewed happens as belonging to the focus of feeling, as if potential is born from the moving thing/situation. This is especially good for loved ones: having their potential regarded as belonging to them, rather than to one’s own imaginability. Though a beauty may only arise from one’s reflection, it does so, at best, as belonging to what reflects. “It is you I truly see,” because you caused my sense of your beautiful mind. In feeling for what one wants of the other, a great pleasure (satisfaction, fulfillment) in the potential for another’s satisfaction or fulfillment may be educed because one can highly enjoy caring. Authentic feeling for the world is for the world, like finding fulfillment in another’s growth, as if life at best is truly gardening.







  Be fair. © 2017, gary e. davis