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Hume and Feagin on why we enjoy tragedy


To: Aalia S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Hume and Feagin on why we enjoy tragedy
Date: 21st July 2008 13:00

Dear Aalia,

Thank you for your email of 12 July, with your University of London essay in response to the question, 'Does either Hume or Feagin provide a satisfactory account of how it is possible for the audience of a tragedy both to experience painful feelings and to feel pleasure? (You may discuss Hume or Feagin or both authors in your answer.)'

There are two different ways to approach this question. Apart from the choice presented in the question -- whether to discuss Hume, or Feagin, or both -- you have to decide which of the following strategies you are going to take:

(a) Explain the significance of the question of 'how we are able to enjoy a tragedy'; then present the theory offered by the philosopher in question (Hume or Feagin or both); and then discuss whether the theory is adequate, and if not, suggesting how you would answer the question. (This last part is optional -- you don't have to give your theory if you don't have one.)

(b) Simply present your reading of Hume's (or Feagin's) argument and offer your own running commentary as you go.

Although (b) is an acceptable approach, it is harder to bring off successfully because it makes the essay rather unstructured. It can be hard for an examiner to work out exactly what you agree or disagree with, or what your final conclusions are.

Given that you struggled a lot with this topic, you haven't done too badly. I can see that you have thought about Hume's and Feagin's arguments, and tried to come up with your own answers to the questions that they raise. However, by the end of the essay it is not clear to me what exactly is your view of tragedy, or how much you agree or disagree with Hume or Feagin.

You make points against both philosophers, but I wasn't sure whether or not these points were intended as fatal objections. My impression is that you agree with some of what Hume says, and also agree with some of what Feagin says. In that case, you should say so. It is perfectly OK, when asked whether A gives a satisfactory account of XYZ, to say that the account given is partially satisfactory and partially unsatisfactory (and explain why).

I did like the way you used your own examples to illustrate your comments and objections. This is good because it shows that you have done some thinking about the problem and are not just 'reacting' to the text.

In thinking about this topic for the Introduction to Philosophy exam, you need to separate two issues. The first issue revolves around the question of the quality of a work of tragedy, our assessment of its value as a work of art. The second issue has very little to do with art, and is concerned more with the remarkable human capacity to be gripped by fiction. We can be gripped by the simplest story, even though we know that it is just a story and not intended to be true. Why is that? It is not necessary that any strong emotions are aroused, as Hume describes, nor is it necessary that we have any 'meta-responses' to our responses as Feagin says. We are just gripped by the description of a sequence of events. We want to know what happens next.

If we could answer that question, then we might be able to make headway with the problem of tragedy. It is not just what happens in tragedy that moves us, but the *way* it happens, the 'what-happens-next' aspect where we allow ourselves to be engaged, imaginatively, in the thought processes of the main characters, asking ourselves what we would do in that situation.

The next question is the one that Hume considers, which is why we consider some works of fiction which recount tragic events to be 'better' than others. Better at what, exactly? You can be totally gripped by a novel which you picked up in the airport bookstore but not have the slightest tendency to believe that it is a great piece of literature. So, there must be something else apart from the grippingness, or effectiveness, of a piece of fictional writing which justifies judgements of aesthetic quality or greatness.

I'm not offering this as another theory, a rival to Hume or Feagin, but simply suggesting that it could be a fruitful approach. It is not necessary to have a definitive 'answer' to a question. In fact, it is extremely unlikely that you will have. I don't have a watertight theory of tragedy or fiction that I could defend against criticism. However, what is necessary is that you show that you understand the question, that you see the point of the arguments, and that you have something to say that is worth saying.

All the best,