What is it about?

Forming a semiotic system based on embodied experiences and their contexts, emotions, as semantic categories, are the first stage in processes of expression and communication. I lay the groundwork for an interdisciplinary semiotics of emotion in accordance with findings and stances taken in the fields of literary and cultural studies, neuroscience, and cognitive and comparative psychology. Narrative empathy (sometimes called narrative emotion), like emotion per se, stands upon processes of communication involving the interpretive capacities of feeling, cognitive processes of identification, and perspective-taking. Feeling, beginning as an interpretation of sensorial and neurologically driven values, intensifies through the cognitive-affectual interpretative processes of perspective-taking. With recursive (multi-perspectival) feeling resulting in intensifications of feeling we recognise as emotion, I define emotion as a complex recursive pattern of feeling and affect that calls attention to itself in terms that are readily identifiable with semantic categories such as love, hate, shame, sadness, and anger.

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Why is it important?

This articles provides a useful overview of contemporary emotion theory and in making its argument that perspectives intensify feelings into recognisable emotions, unites the work of three leading scholars in emotion theory, Lisa Feldman Barrett, Antonio Damasio, and Michael Tomesello.


I was first of all surprised that no one before me had observed that thought is affect. The content of course is semantic, and the thing that draws our attention, which is why we tend to forget that the act of thinking—the fact that we’ve been prompted to think—is affectual. From that realisation I began to wonder how thought might relate to feeling. As a literary theorist, I see affect, thought, and feeling as overlapping aspects of the those neurobiological processes Damasio and Feldman Barrett describe when they discuss the role of feeling in moving our organism. But it was upon reading Tomasello on the role of perspective-taking in human ontogeny that everything fell into place for me. When I become angry, afraid, happy, or sad, I am experiencing the outcome of recursive feeling—with that recursivity itself an outcome of perspective-taking. What brought me clarity on that point was an instance of road rage, when a woman drove at me and then yelled because I was blocking her path by walking on a narrow dirt road with steep sidings (which meant I couldn’t step aside). I read the scene as it unfolded (yes, she had seemed to charge at me) and experienced an array of feelings that moved through recognisable emotions—surprise, indignation, fear, contempt and finally anger (the latter only surfacing when I was safe and the road rager gone). It was perspective-taking that enabled me to interpret the event feelingly, as it unfolded. My perspective-taking moved from me to the woman, and back to me as I saw myself in different guises: vulnerable; responsible, because I had charge of my two dogs and they were being threatened; then distant, as though I had stepped back and was watching the scene from a safe distance. At one point I was so close to the woman, who was ranting in a red fury, that it crossed my mind that I might easily reach out and give her a quick punch on the nose! I was so surprised (and ashamed) by that passing thought, I made a hasty exit. Anger finally called attention to itself, after I reflected (via perspective-taking) that the driver, by her behaviour, was suggesting that my life had little value to her—she might run me over in her outrage because I had dared to cross her path. Those angry feelings, I believe, we’re further fuelled by other older slights that got drawn into the perspectives I took on myself and my situation. Thankfully, the gift of insight quelled my own rage and I rushed home to write down my ideas.

Dr Victoria Reeve

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This page is a summary of: Reading perspectives on feeling and the semiotics of emotion, Cognitive Semiotics, November 2022, De Gruyter, DOI: 10.1515/cogsem-2022-2016.
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