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Feagin vs. Hume on why we are moved by tragedy


To: Paul B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Feagin vs. Hume on why we are moved by tragedy
Date: 15th October 2008

Dear Paul,

Thank you for your email of 7 October, with your University of London Introduction to Philosophy essay in response to the question, 'What puzzle does tragedy present? Does either Hume or Feagin provide a satisfactory solution to the puzzle?'

I believe (without checking) that you have added, 'Introduce my own suggestion' to the original question. In terms of that original question -- supposing this were to occur in an examination -- it would be perfectly OK to venture your own explanation. However, this has to be subsidiary to explaining what puzzle tragedy presents, and critiquing Hume's and Feagin's views. The examiner is looking to see how well you grasp the issues, and how competent you are in identifying weaknesses in a theory. You can use your own theory as a way of approaching this, provided that it is illuminating in this regard.

I like the example of a rollercoaster, because it raises a valid question about our enjoyment of strong stimulus generally. Would it be possible to raise a philosophical question, 'What puzzle do rollercoasters present?' -- Do they? If you were an alien from a planet where no-one ever conceived of amusement parks, would you have a philosophical question about our enjoyment of rollercoasters, or would you try and see for yourself? Then, when you had tried for yourself, would there be any question remaining or anything to puzzle over?

Basically, your strategy is to attempt to subsume tragedy to the rollercoaster case. I strongly suspect that there is no philosophical question about rollercoasters, although perhaps there is a question about human psychology and the pleasure given generally by 'thrilling' experiences.

But isn't there a question behind the question about tragedy, which we haven't yet asked? You say, 'the ability to derive positive emotions from tragedy can be experienced when no significant artistry or imagination is involved.' I think this is the key, although you spoil the point by the example you give of being told a 'rushed story' about actual tragic events. We don't enjoy this, in any sense. We may indeed feel sufficiently insulated by our distance, to take pleasure in satisfying our curiosity but that is about all.

A much better illustration of your point would be TV soap operas. Everyone agrees that they have little artistic merit. Yet one gets drawn in all the same. You feel for the characters, share their joys and sorrows. Surely there is something very problematic about this. We know that these are actors, that they are speaking lines written by a scriptwriter and that none of the events depicted actually happened. And yet we care, nonetheless.

What Hume and Feagin both miss is the prior question of why human beings are able to take *any* interest in fiction as such. I think this is a philosophical, and not merely a psychological question because it calls for an illuminating description, or re-description, of what is going on when we enter into a fictional world.

One philosopher who has investigated this question is Colin Radford, in his article, 'How can we be moved by the fate of Anna Karenina?', which has been incorporated in his book, 'Driving to California: an unconventional introduction to philosophy'.

In terms of the way you have criticized Hume's and Feagin's views, I don't have any substantial criticisms. You have gone about this the right way, i.e. by considering whether the explanation offered is realistic (accords with our experiences), covers all the cases etc. Your point against Feagin, 'in the case of tragedy, the whole response seems instantaneous and one' might be countered by the observation that feelings, generally, can be analysed. Even if the feeling as such 'feels as one', there is always the possibility of an illuminating description which identifies different elements which together create the feeling. That is, after all, what psychotherapists do. The patient or client learns to *see* the different elements for themself by responding to suitably targeted questions. However, in that case, Feagin still has work to do in establishing her view in the face of scepticism.

Of course, there *is* an additional question to ask about what makes great works of tragedy great, or what constitutes their aesthetic value, in contrast to the question I have asked about why human beings are capable of being moved by the fate of characters in fiction. What are the dimensions of aesthetic assessment here? Does it all boil down to artistry in creating a fictional world, or is there something more (for example, to do with reflecting universal issues about the human condition etc.).

Yes, why can't there be 'great' (or, 'as great') works of comedy? I'm not sure about this. You can be moved by a tragedy or by a painting or by a piece of music. If a picture or a tune makes you laugh, that is a response which in some way blocks off the possibility of deeper aesthetic engagement. Perhaps the possibility of 'breaking off' or disengagement shows something about the nature of humour and the comedic as such ('I tried to do X, but I couldn't help laughing') but that is a topic for another essay.

All the best,