Descriptions of emotion

We find it natural to distinguish between the physical world containing tangible objects, including human bodies, which is public, and the human mind, a private world hidden behind our behavior. And we think that each person has a privileged access to his own mind, while our access to the minds of others is indirect, based on observations of their behavior, and at best uncertain.

This dualism characterizing the mental and the physical is represented in the paradigm of facial expressions as involuntary readouts of ‘basic emotions’ (Ekman, 1992, 1994, 1997; Izard 1991). On this view, the face ‘mirrors’ the emotions of the soul. Any emotional state lacking its own distinct facial expression is not a ‘basic emotion’, but is a subcategory or blend of the basic emotions. Since the criteria for a basic emotion are to be found in human facial expression, verbal reports of emotion can be ignored: what matters most is the specific emotion reflected in the face. This means that we find out the emotional state of someone by perceiving his facial expression; that is, we perceive the facts, as it were, read off their description from the expression we thus perceive on the face, and then portray what we perceive in words. It is natural to think that the inner, emotional world is likewise perceived; it appears that we read off a description, e.g. ‘I am angry’, ‘I feel anxious’, from the facts accessible to us alone. After all, we do talk of being aware of feelings of joy, of finding out our anger from our facial reactions, and so on. We call this faculty ‘introspection’ and think of ourselves as reporting ‘discrete’ emotions by introspective scrutiny of the facts, which we then describe in words for the benefit of others.


The paradigm of description assumed in view of ‘basic emotions’ is the simple one of giving a picture in words of perceptible facial behavior. Here we characteristically observe the facial expression that is within our field of vision and picture it in words, as it were reading the description off the facts. The activities that belong to describing a facial expression are (primarily): observing, examining, and investigating (Wittgenstein, 1982 §51). There is room here for perceptual competence and observational conditions: if a person has poor eyesight, she may put on glasses to see more clearly, and so on. The result is identifying (or misidentifying) and recognizing. In giving a description of a face, one strives for accuracy (is he angry or in pain?), and one may refine one’s description on closer observation. We may make mistakes and correct them after further investigation (actually, he is angry). It makes sense in many cases to consult other people and to modify one’s description accordingly. In these circumstances, one can ask ‘How do you know?’ or ‘Why do you believe that?’ because one has grounds or evidence for one’s identification and characterizations. In respect of ascriptions of subtle emotions or states of mind, there is such a thing as expertise, and may require close personal acquaintance or specialist knowledge (e.g. knowledge of micro-expressions).


1. Ekman, P. 1994: ‘All emotions are basic’. In Ekman and Davidson (eds), 15-19.

2. Ekman, P. 1997. ‘Conclusion: What we have learned by measuring facial behavior’. In Ekman and Rosenberg (eds), 469-480.

3. Ekman, P. and Davidson, R.J. 1994. The Nature of Evolution: Fundamental Questions. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

4. Ekman, P. and Rosenberg, E. (eds). 1997. What the Face Reveals. New York; Oxford University Press.

5. Izard, C.E. 1991. The Psychology of Emotions. New York: Plenum Press.

6. Wierzbicka, A. 1999. Emotions Across Languages and Cultures: Diversity and Universals. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

7. Wierzbicka, A. 2000. ‘The semantics of human facial expressions’. Pragmatics and Cognition 8(1): 147-183.

8. Wittgenstein, L. 1982. Last Writings on the Philosophy of Psychology, Volume I, ed. G.H. von Wright and H. Nyman, tr. C.G. Luckhart and M.A.E. Aue. Oxford: Blackwell.

9. Wittgenstein, L. 1953. Philosophical Investigations, 2nd edn. Oxford: Blackwell.

10. Wittgenstein, L. 1980. Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology, Volume II, ed. G.H. vonWright and H. Nyman, tr. C.G. Luckhart and M.A.E. Aue. Oxford: Blackwell.