Institut für Kognitionswissenschaft

Institute of Cognitive Science

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Research Projects

Emotions Animal Emotionale I

(funded by the VolkswagenStiftung, project website)

Achim Stephan
Emotions Animal Emotionale II – Existential Feelings, Psychopathology and the Range of Evolutionary Explanations

(funded by the VolkswagenStiftung, project website)

Achim Stephan, Sven Walter
Emotions Emotional Experience in Depression: A Philosophical Study

(funded by the DFG/AHRC, project website)

Achim Stephan


Prof. Dr. Achim Stephan, Prof. Dr. Sven Walter

Animal Emotionale II

The central tenet of our research is that man is essentially an emotional being – an animal emotionale. It is not only that our conscious, or experiential, mental life is essentially emotional; by establishing a primary way of world-directness, processes such as thinking, deciding, and acting are also profoundly emotional. This kind of worlddirectness of emotions – we call it “affective intentionality” – formed the topic of our philosophical and neuroscientific research in animal emotionale I. The project animal emotionale II extends the work done previously in two ways. First, it brings into focus a new kind of affective state – so called “existential feelings”. Second, it broadens our perspective by incorporating research from two disciplines not heavily involved in animal emotionale I – evolutionary anthropology and psychopathology.

Emotions are not only a way of being evaluatively directed towards certain objects or situations, as, for instance, in the case of basic emotions such as fear or disgust. Rather, as existential feelings they establish an essentially qualitative way of being directed to the world as a whole. Normally, this ever present affective kind of worlddirectedness remains in the background and unnoticed by the subject. It comes into the focus of attention typically when it is in some sense disturbed, for instance in cases of derealisation, when the world is experienced by the subject to be unreal. So far, existential feelings have primarily been the subject matter of philosophical research done in a phenomenological tradition. In the first two subprojects of animal emotionale II we will build on, but go beyond, this phenomenological tradition by developing a systematization of existential feelings in a way that is based instead on the analytic tradition in philosophy and incorporates knowledge from psychopathology, discussing the neurophilosophical question of whether existential feelings are, at least in principle, accessible empirically, and if so, how, and doing one exemplary empirical imaging study with atients suffering from Depersonalisation- and Derealisationsyndrome.

Historically, psychological theories of emotions have been heavily influenced by Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. Therefore, the third subproject addresses the topic “emotions” from the point of view of the philosophy of science, by critically evaluating the explanatory force of evolutionary explanations of emotions in general and of fear and disgust in particular (thereby connecting animal emotionale II to the empirical studies done in animal emotionale I). Topic of the fourth subproject is an empirical study in which we are investigating the neural correlates of the experience of fear and disgust both in healthy subjects and in patients with spider- and blood-phobia. These phobias also form the basis for a philosophical evaluation of the relevance of neurobiological research for evolutionary explanations of emotions. The fifth subproject finally addresses the questions whether functional equivalents of existential feelings, which, after all, are usually taken to be characteristically human in the phenomenological
tradition, can also be found in animals and how existential feelings can be subjected to evolutionary explanations.