The Concept of Expression: A Study in Philosophical Psychology and Aesthetics

The Concept of Expression: A Study in Philosophical Psychology and Aesthetics

by Alan Tormey


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Defining expression as the expression of intentional states, Alan Tormey describes the general conditions under which human conduct may be considered expressive, and then analyzes this conduct as it is manifested in behavior, language, and art.

Originally published in 1971.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691620473
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 03/08/2015
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #1558
Pages: 184
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.50(d)

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The Concept of Expression

A Study in Philosophical Psychology and Aesthetics

By Alan Tormey


Copyright © 1971 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-07151-0



We express, both in our speech and our nonlinguistic behavior, a prodigious variety of things, from beliefs and attitudes to moods, intentions, and emotions, from hope, hostility, and anger to pity, doubt, and elation. It is clear, however, that neither behavior nor language is expressive of everything that could be said to be a state of a person. We do not, for example, express our blood count, our temperature, our weight, or our age. Our first task then will be to distinguish those states of a person that are expressed, or expressible in language and behavior from those that are not, and to isolate if possible some condition or criterion for marking that distinction.

It is tempting to think that a criterion may already be available; and a glance at the random list above might suggest that whatever — and only whatever — shall count as a "psychological" or "mental" state of a person may be expressed in his behavior. But it may be plausibly objected that sensations and perceptions are more properly regarded as psychological or mental than as merely physical states of a person, and that it is not clear that we express, in any way, either our sensations or our perceptions. If this is the case then, the rough-hewn distinction between the mental and the physical will fail to provide an adequate criterion for marking the difference between expressible and nonexpressible states of a person. But this also suggests that a study of the differences between sensation (or perception) and such expressible states of a person as his attitudes and emotions may reveal the criterion we are seeking.

It does in fact appear that, whatever purpose we may have in speaking of the expression of other states of a person, we have no use for the concept of an expression of sensation. If our language is a reflection of our limitations then, we do not, and perhaps cannot, express our sensations. (I shall assume that we can agree for the present to call such things as itches, throbs, warmth, pressure, bitter tastes, and acrid smells sensations. As I shall indicate later, an argument could be constructed similar to the one which follows, substituting 'perception' for 'sensation'; and it should be clear subsequently why the drawing of precise boundaries between sensation and perception is not critical for my argument.)

Let us explore then the possibility of locating some condition common to the occurrences of expression that will explain the exclusion of sensation from the list of states which are normally expressed in our behavior.

It will be expedient to call attention first to the absence of any clear or paradigmatic use for a linguistic reference to an expression of sensation. It would be something more than linguistic oddity to speak, for instance, of an expression of the sensation of heat. It is difficult in fact to imagine how such a sensation could be expressed. Should someone experiencing a sensation of heat cry out, open the window, or complain about the weather, these would be perfectly appropriate expressions of discomfort, but I do not think we would be constrained to say he was also expressing his sensation. It might be argued that sensations, like beliefs and emotions, can be expressed linguistically, and that the correct expression would be an utterance: 'I am hot,' or 'I have a sensation of heat' But this fails to distinguish between reporting (or describing) and expressing a condition. If someone were to exclaim T have a peculiar throbbing in my leg,' he might be describing his sensation, expressing surprise, concern, or discomfort, asking for help, or pleading for sympathy; but we would not say he was also expressing his throbbing sensation.

This peculiarity at least should be noted: there do not appear to be any natural or appropriate behavioral expressions of sensation as there are of beliefs, attitudes, and emotions. There are of course responses to sensations that are wholly natural and appropriate, and there are causal consequences; but it would be merely perverse to call scratching the expression of an itch, or laughter the expression of a tickle. This should not prevent us from realizing that there are expressions which are associated in intimate ways with particular sensations. The odor of perfume may evoke an expression of desire, or the taste of the wine an expression of nostalgia. But these are not expressions of the sensations. They are expressions of attitudes, beliefs, feelings, or emotions which are occasioned by the sensations. Laughter occasioned by the hearing of a joke is an expression of amusement. But laughter occasioned by a tickle is neither the expression of amusement nor the expression of the tickle; it is not an expression at all.

It would be convenient if this were merely a question of causal relations such that we could say, for instance, that if Y is a cause of X (in some specified sense of 'cause'), then X cannot be an expression of Y. But we would need to show that the expressions of beliefs, attitudes, etc. are never caused by those beliefs and attitudes, and it is difficult to see how this could be done.

The introduction of causal relations at this point will contribute little toward the discovery of a relevant difference between sensations, and beliefs, attitudes, and feelings; and we are still faced with the problem of explaining the omission of sensations from the catalogue of mental or psychological states that are commonly expressed.

It might be thought that the salient difference between sensations and the expressible states of a person consists in the degree to which he "contributes" to them. Sensations happen to us (so the argument might go). We are only the passive neurological receiving mechanism for the stimuli that register particular atomic impressions, whereas we are able, frequently, to assume a more active role in forming or structuring our beliefs, our attitudes and even our emotions. We have less to say about the one than the others. But this proves too little, and the distinction itself rests on a questionable psychological theory. It is doubtful whether sensations are correctly described as impressions passively received by a neutral organism. And it is not evident that we play an "active" role in the structuring of every individual belief, attitude, or emotion. An attitude developed by strict behavioral conditioning would hardly merit this description. Nor is it clear how this difference, even if it were supportable, could explain why beliefs are expressed and sensations are not.

Other forms of asymmetry may seem more promising. It might be suggested that the difference can be accounted for by pointing out that beliefs, attitudes, and emotions are present dispositionally as well as being immediate constituents of consciousness, while sensations must exist as the immediate constituents of consciousness, or not at all. There are no variant forms for the existence of sensations; they are simply the primitive and atomic material of consciousness. As a corollary of this, beliefs and attitudes are sustained over long periods of time, compared with the passing and momentary existence of sensations.

Here again, however, the distinction itself is suspect It is not obvious that every emotion or belief is present dispositionally. There are ephemeral feelings and fugitive beliefs, and emotions that flourish only once and never recur. And there are enduring sensations. A passing fancy is no less real than an interminable flutter. And here too it is difficult to see how we should be helped if we could employ this contrast in good faith. Duration and disposition are neither the guarantee nor the death of expression. A passing belief or a sudden joy may find expression, but even a lasting or recurrent sensation cannot.

A more promising difference arises from the observation that beliefs, attitudes, and emotions have objects, while sensations do not. We can describe this difference by noting that sensations, unlike beliefs, attitudes and emotions have no intentional objects. I think we may use this terminology to explore the present issue without engaging in extended dispute over the much debated ontological status of intentional objects; and in order to avoid this, as well as similar difficulties generated by previous analyses of intentionality, I propose to define an intentional object as whatever is designated by the prepositional object of a particular mental act, state, or attitude. (More precisely, an intentional object is whatever is designated by a prepositional object occurring in a sentence used to ascribe some such state to a person. The ellipsis, once this is understood, should cause no confusion.)

If I am fascinated by centaurs, apprehensive over money, angry with the cook, or afraid of the dark, then centaurs, money, the cook, and the dark are the intentional objects of these states. Two points should be noted about the status of an intentional object as the concept will be employed here. First, there may or may not be anything in the world to which an intentional object corresponds. If I am greatly interested in the Hippogriff, it does not follow that there is or that there is not some creature that answers to the description of the Hippogriff, though it remains true to say that the Hippogriff is the (intentional) object of my interest. More generally, the truth of an intentional ascription such as 'A is interested in witches' does not entail the truth of another statement asserting the existence of witches, as the truth of the nonintentional statement 'A is walking in the garden' requires that there be a garden for A to walk in. And, secondly, the description of an intentional object is a function of what the person himself takes to be the attributes of whatever he admires, wishes, fears, or is angry with. If I am angered by your insolence and deceit, it does not follow that you have in fact been insolent and deceitful, but only that I believe that you have and that I have taken or mistaken your actions in that light.

Now it may appear that to specify intentionality by reference to prepositional objects is unduly restrictive since it is not the case that all ascriptions of psychological states or mental processes have the sort of prepositional form that I have used to illustrate the definition. Both 'A greatly admires surgeons' and 'B distrusts musicians' lack the requisite prepositional syntax. This is not a serious objection however, since in such cases an equivalent ascription could be employed which would exemplify the required prepositional structure. 'A has great admiration for surgeons' and 'B is distrustful of musicians' will replace the nonprepositional formulations without alteration of meaning. And wherever it is possible to restructure such ascriptions to conform to this syntax, the prepositional object, I shall say, designates the intentional object of the mental state or process denoted in the ascription.

The most apparent threat to the plausibility of a prepositional analysis of intentionality is posed by statements of the form 'A believes that p,' and it will be pertinent therefore to illustrate how such statements may be paraphrased or translated to conform to a prepositional structure. I shall offer an example of a typical belief attribution and three alternative translations into prepositional form. I am not for the moment concerned with deciding which of the translations is preferable on philosophical grounds, but only with the possibility of exhibiting the intentionality of such statements by effecting a translation that will permit the location of a prepositional object.

S Karl believes that ghosts exist.

T1 Karl believes in the existence of ghosts.

T2 Karl believes in the truth of the sentence 'Ghosts exist.'

T3 Karl assents (or is disposed to assent) to the proposition that ghosts exist.

T1, T2, and T3, although of varying degrees of unnaturalness, preserve the normal truth conditions for S and at the same time clearly indicate the intentionality of the ascription. If such belief ascriptions — and 'that ...' constructions in general — can be given similar prepositional paraphrasis, then a major objection to the scope of the definition will be removed. I shall proceed on the assumption that similar translations can be provided for analogous constructions, and that the definition will be vindicated to the extent that this proves to be possible.

And at this point we may introduce an ancillary definition. To say of a person that he is in an intentional state is to say that some sentence radical of this logical type may be truly predicated of him. Thus, if 'is hoping for salvation' is true of Gemma, then Gemma is in a particular intentional state.

These definitions are intended to ensure a measure of epistemological neutrality among competing analyses of mental or psychological states; and it is just such difficulties that I want to obviate at the outset since they are not immediately relevant to the analysis of expression.

At the very least then, there appears to be some point in speaking of beliefs, attitudes, and emotions as having intentional objects and no point whatever in speaking of the objects of sensations. Admiration for Bartok, approval of socialism, affection for owls, and interest in archaeology are intentional states that are, truly or falsely, predicated of persons. But sensations are not about, for, or toward anything, and consequently, they are not intentional.

This may escape attention since sensations are of something and 'of' is a preposition. We speak of a sensation of dizziness just as we would speak of a feeling of anger or an attitude of hostility. But the 'of' is systematically ambiguous. Anger is not the object of my feeling, nor is hostility the object of my attitude, and dizziness is not the object of my sensation.

In each case we could omit the preposition and rephrase the expression. We could have spoken with equal propriety of a dizzy sensation, an angry feeling, and a hostile attitude. But while hostile attitudes and angry feelings are directed toward 'objects' from which they are logically distinguishable, a sensation cannot be directed at anything. In the case of dizziness the sensation is not logically separable from the dizziness; it is a sensation-of-dizziness. A sensation has its logical terminus in the mere awareness of its presence, in simply being had. Compare, e.g. (1) 'sensation of heat' with (2) 'fear of darkness.' The 'of is transitive in (2), but not in (1). Heat is not the object of the sensation as darkness is the object of the fear.

We are now in a position to explain why sensations are nonintentional in spite of the occurrence of the preposition in such expressions as 'sensation of cold' or 'sensation of dizziness.' 'Sensation' functions, logically, at the same level as 'emotion' or 'attitude' and not at the level of, say, 'fear' or 'hostility.' Thus, 'sensation of cold,' 'emotion (or feeling) of fear,' and 'attitude of hostility' are logically similar constructions. The 'of is intransitive in all three, and there are no intentional objects in these expressions. However, it would be possible to go on, in the latter two instances, to ask 'fear of what?' and 'hostility toward what?' Here the prepositions are transitive, and an answer to these questions will denote the intentional objects of the fear and the hostility. In contrast, we cannot go on to ask in the first case 'cold of what?' or 'dizziness of what?'

The locution 'sensation of ...' is used to specify the kind of sensation that is meant, just as to talk of a feeling of anger is to say what sort of feeling it is, and not to name an object of the feeling. It is the particular feeling or attitude that has an object, and it is just here, with respect to particular sensations, that we cannot pursue the parallel question. Here there is no possibility for the occurrence of a transitive preposition and thus no possibility that sensations have intentional objects.

It is true that we do not express our perceptions either, and an argument could be given, parallel to the one above, substituting 'perception' for 'sensation.' This is not to say that sensation and perception differ in no important way; indeed, the differences have been a constant source of anxiety in Anglo-American philosophy. My point is rather that they differ insufficiently to affect the present argument. There is of course a difference between feeling hot and feeling the radiator, or seeing spots and seeing the piano. Perceiving normally implies an object perceived and the perception verbs — 'see,' 'hear,' 'feel,' and so on — require direct objects. But this does not certify acts of perception as intentional in the sense appropriate to beliefs, attitudes, or feelings. The objects of my perceivings are not prepositional, and thus not intentional. My perceptions are not about, for, over, from, in, or toward anything in the sense in which I have beliefs about centaurs, hostility toward hypocrites, admiration for Bartok, and misgivings over politics. Perceptions cannot be granted or withheld like beliefs, nor fulfilled or frustrated like desires. They cannot be justified, renounced, adopted, cultivated, or misguided; and, like sensations, they cannot be expressed.


Excerpted from The Concept of Expression by Alan Tormey. Copyright © 1971 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • Frontmatter, pg. i
  • Foreword, pg. vii
  • Preface, pg. xv
  • Contents, pg. xvii
  • I. Behavior and Expression, pg. 1
  • II. Inference and Expression, pg. 37
  • III. Language and Expression, pg. 61
  • IV. Art and Expression: A Critique, pg. 95
  • V. Art and Expression: A Proposal, pg. 125
  • Appendix, pg. 143
  • Selected Bibliography, pg. 153
  • Index, pg. 161

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