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Hume on tragedy


To: Francis M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Hume on Tragedy
Date: 23 January 2004 12:44

Dear Frank,

Thank you for your e-mail of 13 January, with your third University of London Diploma essay, in response to the question, 'How, according to Hume, do audiences react to tragedy? Is his solution to the puzzle plausible?'

My problem, in dealing with this topic is that I disagree both with Hume's account, and with the alternative account given by Susan Feagin, which you do not discuss.

But I like less the 'It wakes me up' or 'It's not happening to me' theories.

In her article, Susan Feagin makes the point that our response to tragedy has something important to do with morality. Hume, on the other hand, takes the view that it is a matter of aesthetics - the artistry with which the piece is constructed. - I think both morality and aesthetics have a part to play, but neither of the two psychological theories offered - Hume's 'conversion' or Feagin's 'meta-responses' - convince me.

The 'ground rules' for this kind of investigation require that we look for cases which don't fit an initially plausible theory, and use these as a clue to fashioning a better theory.

Your polls of your friends and family would be acceptable as providing *raw material* for such investigation. A word of warning though: an examiner might react very negatively to suggestion that you might be using your poll as *evidence* to support a theory. This is not how the truth or falsity of a philosophical theory is decided. It is true that, without knowing it, everyone philosophizes in some way or other; but a lot of unreflective 'philosophy' is bad philosophy.

Here are my thoughts:

It is true that we can settle down to the ten o'clock news and feed our curiosity or desire for information with reports of death and destruction. Even when the reported events are close to home, 'they are not happening to me'. There is little paradox here. Of course, we are interested in finding out what happened. We want to know.

By contrast, a portrayal of death and destruction that *didn't happen* should sicken us. But when the context is a drama it doesn't - and that is the problem Hume is grappling with.

Suppose that in order to entertain his party guests a host gets two actors to enact a scene where one tortures the other. Only someone who was very sick would consider this entertainment, irrespective of whether the guests know beforehand or not. Yet when the same scene occurs in Braveheart we are moved in a positive way (apologies for the example). We are moved by the spectacle of a fictional 'courage in the face of suffering'. But to make this 'courage' and 'suffering' real the author or screenwriter's art is required to tell a story which grips us.

The fact that the events are 'enacted' and not 'real' is part of the problem, not the solution.

One thing you don't mention is that Hume thinks that his account applies to a painting as well as a drama. In both case, the pleasure is aroused by the artistry with which a scene is portrayed. I think this is very significant because the comparison supports Hume's aesthetic approach. But is this correct? In what does the 'aesthetic value' of a drama consist?

Unlike a painting, a drama or novel is not judged simply by the quality of its depiction of a scene or series of scenes. It is the story, the narrative that is crucially important. It is because the torture scene occurs when it does that it moves us in the way that it does. But why?

I think this does have a great deal to do with our sense of what is morally praiseworthy or despicable. Not in the way Feagin thinks - that we somehow morally approve of ourselves for feeling the way we do - but rather because in witnessing the drama we gain a vision of the good. We are reinforced in our belief that good and bad are something real.

Why do comedies, tragedies, thrillers grip us? The answer seems to be different in each of the three cases. Comedies and thrillers are easier to explain - provided that one gets over the hurdle of explaining how we are able to be moved by fiction at all (which deserves an essay to itself). What is special about tragedy, I am arguing, is the moral aspect. - But that is after all just a theory. You might consider how that theory might be put to the test.

Getting back to your essay, you do a competent job of explaining Hume's theory, but I didn't get the sense that you had really got to the root of it. (Perhaps you might have done, if you had considered what Hume says about painting.) You were too swift to react by citing your poll.

In responding to the question whether a philosopher's theory is plausible, it is tempting to reply, 'mm, yes, quite plausible...', 'I liked it when he says...', 'I didn't like it when he says...'. But that is emphatically NOT what the question is asking. You are not being asked for your opinion (or the opinion of your friends) but rather whether the theory is a good theory or not. Either way, this is a matter of arguing your case.

In your essay you do offer some arguments. But the opinions seem to predominate.

It would have been within the bounds of the question - though not obligatory - to contrast Hume's theory with Feagin's. Then there would have been the opportunity to ask, e.g. whether Hume's theory is more or less 'plausible' than Feagin's.

Of course, it is harder to say why you agree with something than to say why you disagree with something. One way to do this is to consider possible objections which the theory you like is able to refute. Another is to compare the theory with a rival theory and show why the theory you like is better.

All the best,