Evolutionary, developmental, and functional continuities between basic and higher-cognitive emotions: Implications for philosophical theories of emotion

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Bence Nanay


Higher cognition, Evolution, Emotion, Homology, Natural kinds, Function, Development

Subject Categories



I examine recent arguments by authors such as Griffiths and Matthen that we should treat psychological categories as a special case of biological categories, and that we should classify them in terms of their history of descent (homology) rather than in terms of their functional roles, resulting in less general categories. Using their example of emotions, I argue that (1) in some cases we can attain a greater degree of generality through classification by homology than these authors allow, and that (2) functional classification is both more powerful than they allege, and is required to capture some important generalizations that cross-cut the biological lineages necessary for establishing homology.

More specifically, I argue that it is possible to give a unified account of most human emotions, including what are typically called 'basic' and 'higher cognitive' emotions. Whereas basic emotions (such as fear) are taken to be primitive responses which emerge early in development, and which we share with other animals, higher cognitive emotions (such as shame) are thought to depend on sophisticated cognitive capacities exclusive to humans. I argue that, while both basic and higher cognitive emotions are transformed by their integration with advanced cognition, we can nevertheless find simpler 'precursors' of so-called higher cognitive emotions in other animals, and in the early stages of human development. I show that we can trace continuous ontogenetic and phylogenetic lines of transformation between the simpler and more complex forms of both types of emotions, which justifies treating them together within a unified theory of emotion.

Finally, I argue that there are important generalizations that cross-cut the species boundaries necessary for establishing homology, and that can hence only be captured in functional terms. While it may be possible to give a unified account of the emotions of humans other related species in terms of homology, it is not possible to offer a homology-based account that captures the similarities between the emotions of widely divergent biological taxa, e.g., humans and octopuses. I argue that these similarities are robust and worth capturing, and that they can only be captured within a functionalist theory.


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