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Hume and Feagin on the puzzle of tragedy


To: William C.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Hume and Feagin on the puzzle of tragedy
Date: 1st June 2011 12:32

Dear Bill,

Thank you for your email of 24 May, with your essay for University of London Diploma Introduction to Philosophy module, in response to the question, 'What puzzle about tragedy does Hume seek to solve? Does Feagin provide a better solution to the puzzle than Hume?'

This is an excellent piece of work, which delves eloquently into the issues around the question which Hume and Feagin grapple with, both, as you argue, somewhat unsatisfactorily. In relatively few words, you succeed in giving a fairly trenchant statement of both Hume's and Feagin's views -- which, as you argue, seem to be correct so far as they go but neither of which fully accounts for the facts.

I think a question that we need to ask is exactly what is the 'puzzle'? Why are we raising a question about tragedy? Couldn't you also ask why we enjoy adventure stories, thrillers, horror tales, love stories?

Consider love stories, say, a slushy Barbara Cartland romance. There are the familiar elements which you refer to: to make the love story gripping, the writer must carefully tease or trick our expectations. Just when you thought the hero and heroine would get together there is a foolish misunderstanding, or the hero does something stupid, or a third character succeeds in throwing a spanner in the works. But then, finally, love triumphs over adversity and the two live happily ever after. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy finds girl again.

This should lead us to recognize a more general question, which is why we are gripped by stories *at all*. There is a wonderfully funny sci-fi film Galaxy Quest (1999), a parody of Star Trek where the central characters are actors, mistaken by aliens for the real thing. The joke is that the aliens have no concept of storytelling, in fact the very idea of deliberately saying something false seems absurd to them. Placed in a real star ship, reconstructed from TV programs which the aliens believed to be 'historical documents' (belly laugh), the actors in desperate battle with another alien race finally discover their capacity for heroism.

It is true that tragedy has this additional feature, that someone suffers, and things are not all right in the end. In the traditional view of tragedy, there is a moral aspect, the 'fatal flaw' in the main character which leads to their downfall. But not always. (One can argue about the precise application of the technical term 'tragedy'.). Sometimes, things are just bad, all the way, there is no redemption, no moral lesson. Yet we still enjoy it. We are moved.

You are onto something when you talk about the rules of fiction (the lecture from the 'great modern writer' you refer to). For a narrative to work as a piece of fiction it must have a structure, one which is designed to involve us, to grip us. In a similar way, one might argue, a piece of music differs from a random collection of notes because it has the appropriate structure. The question that remains is why human beings (and not the aliens in Galaxy Quest) care about fiction. Maybe the aliens don't understand music either.

Neither Hume nor Feagin begin to address this question. As you note, Hume focuses on the question of the 'art' of the playwright, but clearly we can be moved by soap operas, where any claim to art is minimal. Yet, of course, there is 'art' in writing a good soap opera, but in a different sense, the art described by your writer lecturer.

There is a piece by Colin Radford reprinted in his unconventional introduction to philosophy, 'Driving to California', entitled 'How can we be moved by the fate of Anna Karenina?' (JSTOR, which comes closer to grappling with this issue. As it happens, I hosted a meeting of the Birkbeck College Philosophy Society many, many years ago when Colin Radford came to read his paper (I think it was around 1974 or 1975).

Getting back to the aliens, it is a common practice amongst philosophers to 'imagine aliens' who possess, or lack various capacities. It seems implausible that there could be aliens who simply cannot conceive of the point of lying. It seems less implausible that there could be aliens who don't enjoy a good story, ever. What's the difference?

It is a feature of the 'natural history' of human beings that we enjoy using our imagination. Perhaps this is the key. Could the aliens lack imagination, completely? Or do they have a capacity for imagination, which they never employ for its own sake (self-entertainment) but only in planning, designing, perhaps devising thought experiments in philosophy? I am tempted to think that if this question could be answered satisfactorily, then there would be nothing left for Hume or Feagin to get their teeth into.

All the best,