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Hume on why we enjoy tragedy


To: Scott B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Hume on why we enjoy tragedy
Date: 8 November 12:33

Dear Scott,

Thank you for your email of 30 October, with your University of London Introduction to Philosophy essay in response to the question, 'Seeing people suffer is painful, and we don’t ordinarily undergo pain willingly. So you would expect that we would be reluctant to attend theatrical performances in which people are portrayed as suffering. Explain why Hume thinks that this expectation is not borne out.'

I am glad that you enjoyed working on this topic. This is for the most part a thorough and careful account of Hume's argument which stays close to the text.

The only point where I think you need to say more is in Hume's explanation, illustrated by examples, of how a agreeable emotion can in general be heightened by contrast with a disagreeable one. One example he gives is the familiar saying that absence makes the heart go fonder. Another is the parent whose love for a child is increased because the child's 'sickly infirm frame of body has occasioned them the greatest pains, trouble and anxiety in rearing him.'

You say that 'the feelings of pleasure which have been created by the performers or developed by the narrator of a tragic scene, have overpowered the negative emotions and indeed have exploited these negative feelings to generate and stimulate the feelings of passion and arousal.' This is too general, however; the point needs to be forced home that what occurs in the enjoyment of the portrayal of tragic events is, in Hume's view, an instance of a *general* psychological principle which is also illustrated by the examples I have just cited.

It is in the subsuming of a particular case (the problem of tragedy) under a general principle (the workings of human emotions) that the account offered gains explanatory power.

As an answer to the question, however, my main criticism would be that you have taken the wording too literally and merely given a precis of Hume's argument. Whenever in an exam question you are asked to 'explain why so-and-so thinks that...', in order to give a full and satisfactory answer you need to do one of two things: either criticize the explanation and show where it falls short, or, if you fully agree with the explanation then you need to think of plausible objections that might be raised against it and defend it against those objections.

After reading your essay, I am not entirely sure whether you fully agree with Hume or not. The question of how tragedy moves us, is very difficult. I wouldn't be able to give an adequate answer if asked. You need to prove to the examiner that you have made some attempt to grapple with this question for yourself, so that when you turn to the answer provided by Hume, or Feagin, you have a vantage point from which to offer your own criticisms.

Obviously, I can't write the essay for you, but I am going to suggest some questions that you might ask yourself -- or ask Hume:

What is the problem, exactly? Shouldn't we be asking why human beings are moved by fiction at all? We don't just admire the skill of the writer or painter, we feel for the characters involved, as Hume says. We weep in sympathy for their terrible situation, laugh with joy when they overcome their difficulties. We are thrilled by their adventures. How is that possible? It seems totally illogical that we should care at all about someone who is merely a figment of the artist's imagination. The suspicion here, in other words, is that Hume is asking the wrong question, or else, that there is more than one question that needs to be raised.

Following on from the last question, how convincing is Hume's argument against Fontanelle that it makes no difference, in principle, whether the described events really occurred or not?

What about Hume's claim that what moves us is our recognition of and admiration for the skill of the artist? Can't we also be moved by a pulp novel or soap opera, whose literary quality we recognize as being very dubious?

I think you can also mention Feagin, even though the question does not ask you to compare Hume's and Feagin's accounts, because she does give a different explanation from Hume and therefore raises the question which explanation is the more plausible.

There is no single 'correct' way to answer this question. A lot depends on the views that you have formed in thinking about the problem that Hume addresses. But this is what the examiners are looking for: evidence that you have not only read and understood the text but have also grappled with the philosophical problem or problems raised.

All the best,