Philosophy, Psychology and Neuroscience

The New LeDoux: Survival Circuits, and the Surplus Meaning of ‘Fear’

The work of neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, in particular The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life (1996), has had a major impact on empirically-informed philosophical approaches to emotion. In recent work, LeDoux (2012, 2016, 2017), however, has pointed out that his work has often been misread owing to a “surplus meaning”: very roughly, the use of the term ‘fear’ attributes psychological properties to defensive survival circuits which they don’t possess, viz. the conscious feelings of fear. In this paper, I aim to provide an exposition of this idea, disentangling the neuro-cognitive data that justifies it from LeDoux’s broader revisionist project, and explore its implications for philosophy. I focus on two areas where LeDoux’s work has proved significant, i.e. the debate on whether emotions form a natural kind, and pro-emotion views which state that emotions aid reasoning by modulating attention. I end by addressing the worry that these lessons are hostage to LeDoux’s own higher-order theory of emotional consciousness.