Alex Neill, Fiction and the Emotions



2.      Problems with emotions directed at fiction

         a.      Rational? Are emotional responses to fiction rational/irrational?

         b.      Possible? How are they even possible?

         c.      Unreality of fictional events: Since what happens in fiction is not real, how can we have emotional responses to it? And if we can, can they be rational?

         d.      Are emotions aimed at fiction the same as emotions aimed at real life?

                   i.       Are they similar/different? Weaker/stronger?

                   ii.      Are they real emotions or only pretend emotions?

3.      Cognitive theory of emotions (CTE) suggests not rational/possible to direct emotions at fiction since we don’t have the beliefs (and desires) that are required for those emotions

         a.      According to CTE (a theory Neill accepts)

         b.      Emotions are

                   i.       (1) Directed at objects, and

                   ii.      (2) Based on beliefs about those objects

                   iii.     (Perhaps involving desires about those objects?)

         c.      Fear example

                   i.       If I’m afraid (emotion)

                            (1)    I must be afraid of something (some object)

                            (2)    I must believe it is dangerous to me

4.      The problem: Because fictional objects don’t exist, emotions about them are either

         a.      Irrational: Because we believe something exists that does not

         b.      Impossible: Because if we don’t believe they exist, we can’t have emotional responses about them

5.      Reasons for thinking pity can’t be directed at fictional characters

         a.      Because one does not believe they exist, one does not believe they are undergoing suffering

         b.      If pitying involves believing someone is suffering, one can’t rationally feel pity

         c.      Whatever we are feeling is not the emotion of pity

         d.      Note: This is not an argument that Neill accepts



7.      Neill’s view on which emotions are appropriate for fiction and which not

         a.      Impossible/irrational: Fear for oneself, jealousy

         b.      Possible/rational: Fear for others, envy, admiration, and pity

8.      Note! Neill thinks we need different accounts for different emotions

9.      Fear for oneself of a fictional character not possible/rational

         a.      To be afraid of X one must believe X exists and is a danger to you

         b.      But a person can’t rationally believe that fictional characters are a danger to them

         c.      Fictional characters do exist in a sense (fictionally), but they have a kind of being (existence) that is different from actual beings

                   i.       There is a Harry Potter, but there is no Harry Potter’s brother

         d.      "Ontological gap" between fictional characters and ourselves precludes being threatened by them or needing to escape from them

         e.      Examples:

                   i.       Only monsters who can threaten me are actual monsters (not fictional ones)

                   ii.      I can't be threatened by or fear Lord Voldemorte just as he can't be threatened by or fear me

                   iii.     The only people Nosferatu can threaten are fictional people

10.    Neill’s explanation of fear in response to fiction

         a.      It is a real feeling, but not fear of fictional character or event, but rather either

         b.      (1) Fear of what we believe is an actual counterpart of what is represented in fiction,

                   i.       Spielberg's movie Poltergeist may make us afraid of what we believe to be real ghosts (that may be lurking in our closets)

         c.      (2) Shock and alarm (which feel like fear but are not)

                   i.       When someone jumps out and scares you that is shock/alarm, but not fear in the sense that requires believing something is dangerous to you

         d.      (3) Fear for (fictional) others or with others (not fear for oneself)

                   i.       These come from imaginatively putting ourselves in another's position

11.    Jealousy (also) not possible/rational toward a fictional character (though envy is)

         a.      To be jealous of someone one must

                   i.       Believe they “have designs on something that is rightfully mine

                   ii.      One must see them as rivals

         b.      But fictional characters can’t be rivals in this way

         c.      In contrast, we can envy fictional characters, e.g., want what they have (e.g., courage)

12.    Pity toward fictional characters is possible

         a.      CTE: Need to identify the object of the emotion and the beliefs that go along with it

         b.      Main aim of article to explain this and answer objections



14.    How beliefs about fictional characters/events are possible

         a.      Neill rejects the claim that because fictional characters aren’t actual, we can't believe things about them (e.g., that they suffer misfortune)

         b.      We do believe things about fictional characters/events

                   i.       E.g., If we didn't believe that Harry Potter was courageous or suffered because of his parent’s deaths, then we would not have paid enough attention to Rowling's novels or we would not have understood them

         c.      These beliefs are aimed at the story

                   i.       Our beliefs about fictional characters are to be analyzed as claiming “it is fictional that” (in the story this is how it goes)

                   ii.      The belief that Harry Potter is courageous amounts to the belief that it is fictional that Potter is courageous (or “in the story, Potter is courageous”)

         d.      *These are real beliefs (with fictional contents as objects), not fictional or pretend beliefs

                   i.       Real beliefs about the story

15.    Similarly, pity aimed at fictional characters involves real pity (not pretend pity)

         a.      Shed real tears (not fake ones or ones similar to those caused by smoke) and get lump in our throats

         b.      (Somewhat) similar bodily sensations and experiential features as pity aimed at real events/characters

16.    Objection: How it is possible to pity fictional characters given that no actual suffering is taking place?

         a.      You can’t feel pity for someone unless you believe they are suffering

         b.      Neill argues that belief in actual suffering not required

17.    Reply: What is required for pity is the imaginative ability to adopt a perspective (see things from someone’s point of view)

         a.      We can do this with the suffering of real refugees and with the suffering of fictional characters

         b.      Worry: Could this ability get one fear for oneself?


18.    There are general differences between feelings in response to beliefs about fictional world and about actual world

         a.      David Hume claimed that emotions aimed at fiction feel “less firm and solid and lie on us with less weight”

19.    Neill: Our emotional responses to fiction are typically (though not invariably) of shorter duration and less intense than emotional responses to similar actual characters and events

         a.      Is Neill right about this?

         b.      But are cases when emotions directed at fiction are more intense than emotions directed at actual events/people

                   i.       What one feels for or about a fictional character can be more intense than one's feelings about actual events/people, e.g., Might feel less strongly about children in Afghanistan who have lost their parents or legs than about Harry Potter losing Dumbledore

         c.      Neill explains the shorter/less intense nature of emotions aimed at fiction by suggesting competition for attention

                   i.       In responding to fiction there are a variety of aspects to pay attention to and different approaches we can take to the work

                   ii.      Watching a performance of King Lear, we emotionally respond to the characters, but when lights go on, start thinking about the play as a whole and as work of art

                   iii.     The characters we care about are part of something else that demands our attention (other aspect of the work of fiction)

                   iv.     Is the idea that there are lots of different things to think about when responding to a work of fiction so the emotional response has lots of competition for our attention?

                            (1)    But in real life, there is also lots else that competes for our attention




21.    One: Pleasure in suffering objection: Pity directed at fictional characters not real because we enjoy the story of their suffering and pity requires distress not pleasure

         a.      If we really pitied fictional characters we would not seek out and enjoy the depiction of their suffering (but we do, so therefore we are not pitying them)

         b.      Taking pleasure in someone else’s suffering is not to pity them

                   i.       If we take pleasure in Oedipus gouging out his eyes when he finds out that his mother (who he had unknowingly married after killing his father) Jocasta hanged herself, then we are not feeling pity toward Oedipus

22.    Neill’s response to talking pleasure in suffering/tragedy

         a.      First, sometimes our response to fictional suffering is not pleasurable

                   i.       We close the book or leave the theater

                   ii.      Or we continue to read/watch not because we enjoy it, but because we feel we should endure the story

                            (1)    Like we think we ought to suffer through Amnesty International reports of torture

         b.      Second, in cases where experience of distressing fiction does involve pleasure, the distress and pleasure must be aimed at different objects or aspects of the fiction

                   i.       Distressed at what is happening/depicted in story

                   ii.      Feel pleasure in how it is depicted (manner of depiction)

                   iii.     He agrees that if the object of pleasure was really the suffering depicted, we would not be feeling pity toward it

                   iv.     It is possible to enjoy others’ suffering (“schadenfreude”), but this is not compatible with pitying them


23.    Two: No desire to help objection, but pity requires this desire

         a.      If one pities someone, one must want to help them

         b.      We do not desire to help fictional characters

                   i.       We don’t want to leap onto stage and prevent our favorite character from being killed

                   ii.      Those who write into soap-operas offering sympathy and advice have got something fundamentally wrong

         c.      So we do not pity them

24.    Neill’s reply to no desire to help objection: Pity need not involve a desire to help (when we know help impossible)

         a.      Examples: We can pity people of the past or people buried in a mine cave in and yet since we know we can’t help them we have no desire to help them

         b.      We might have a desire that we have the ability to help them, but this is different from a desire to help them

                   i.       Contrast

                            (1)    I want to help them (the desire to help)

                            (2)    I wish I could help them (the desire to have the ability to help)

         c.      Is it true that if one realizes that one can’t help someone then the desire to help them is either irrational or not possible?

         d.      Pity requires a desire to help only when one is able to help (and there are not overriding reasons not to help)


25.    Three: Happy ending objection: Pity requires we desire the story to change, but we don’t

         a.      If pity involves wanting the suffering to end or the misfortune not to have happened, then it involves a desire that story have gone differently, but we have no such desire

         b.      Example: Suppose that when the 6th Harry Potter movie came out (The Half Blood Prince) that Dumbledore survived and was not killed by Snape. We would be disappointed or outraged at the audacity of the director changing the plot. But if we pity, then we want the suffering to end or not exist, and we should be happy that it does not. We should want the story to be written differently. But we don’t want this. So we don’t pity.

         c.      Looks like we have conflicting desires about suffering of fictional characters (we both want Dumbledore to die and for him not to)

26.    Neill’s reply to conflicting desires about ending the fictional suffering

         a.      First: Desires may simply be aimed at different things (the suffering and the story) and not conflict

                   i.       E.g., We want (fictionally) Dumbledore to survive. Our being upset at the movie where he survives is not because we want him to die, but because we want the film director to be faithful to the Rowling book (Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince)

                   ii.      Being upset about a change to a “happy ending” does not show we desire the characters to continue to suffer, but rather our desire for a film to be faithful to the book

                            (1)    Why not?

         b.      Second: Desires don't directly conflict because we often don’t desire things that our other desires entail

                   i.       We can pity a fictional character, desire that fictionally things be different for him/her, and not have any desire about the fictional work of which she is a part

                   ii.      Even though our first desire can only be satisfied if the other thing we are not desiring comes to pass

                   iii.     Iced buns example

                            (1)    Even though necessary for losing weight that I stop eating iced buns, my desire to lose weight is not in effect a desire to stop eating iced buns; I may desire to lose weight, w/o having any desires with regard to iced buns

                   iv.     This shows that we can desire things and not desire all the other things that follow from the first desire

                   v.      So yes we might desire that Dumbledore not die (in the story) and yet not also desire that Rowling wrote a different story (though for our first desire to be satisfied the second would also have to be satisfied)

                   vi.     This does suggest that our desires are not fully rational: That we desire things which require other things that we don’t desire

         c.      Third: Conflicting desires are not a problem but a fact of life

                   i.       We have conflicting desires about actual suffering also (where we also pity)

                   ii.      Example: May want a person whose spouse has died to stop suffering and also believe he/she needs to suffer in order to recover from the loss

                   iii.     So we may want a fictional character's suffering to end and also want it not to end for some other reason (it makes for a good story?)


27.    Summary overview

         a.      Emotions like pity can be genuinely directed at fiction

         b.      In addition to pitying them, we can envy and admire fictional characters and fear for and with them

         c.      But we can’t fear them (for ourselves) or be jealous of them

         d.      Emotions are very different from each other and can't assume one analysis works for all emotions

Alex Neill, Fiction and the Emotions

1.         *Neill argues that some emotions directed at fiction are possible (and rational) and some not. Give examples of each and explain why he thinks they are (or are not) possible and rational.

2.         *Explain why Neill thinks that jealousy directed at fictional characters is not possible while envy is. Now consider fear.

3.         *Does Neill think it is rational to be afraid (for oneself) of fictional characers? Why or why not? How does he account for fear one sometimes feels in response to fiction?

4.         Explain how the “cognitive theory of emotions” creates trouble for the idea that emotional reactions to fiction are possible.

5.         Does Neill think that our emotion of pity directed at fiction involves fictional/pretend (not real) beliefs and fictional/pretend emotions? Explain.

6.         Does Neill think that we believe that “Harry Potter was courageous?” If so, how does he understand the meaning of this belief?

7.         Does Neill think that for pity to be rational/possible we must believe that someone is actually suffering? Does he think that fictional suffering can move us to pity? How?

8.         Give examples of an emotion that results from imaginatively placing ourselves in the position of others and then an example of an emotion that does not result from this mechanism.

9.         Explain the potential problem that arises from enjoying fictional suffering of characters that we pity? How does Neill solve this problem?

10.       How does Neill respond to the claim that pity involves the desire to help and since we have no desire to help people in fiction, we do not pity them?

11.       How does Neill respond to the objection that pitying fictional characters implies that we want the author to have written the story differently (so that the fictional characters do not suffer), but in fact we don’t want the story to be written differently? (Hint: iced buns example).

12.       Are our emotional response to fiction typically shorter and less intense than our responses to similar real-life situations? If you think so, what accounts for this difference?



13.    Desire to end suffering objection: Pity involves a desire that the suffering end, but we do not have such desires toward fiction (perhaps because we know it is not real suffering, only fictional suffering)

14.    Neill reply to end suffering objection: We do desire (fictionally, that is, in the story) that the character’s suffering end

         a.      “Sit tense on edge of seats hoping heroine will get free of her bonds before the circular saw slices her up”


15.    Accounts for emotions in response to fiction

         a.      Pretend emotions: We only have pretend, imaginary emotions, not genuine real emotions

                   i.       Malcolm Budd: "Not literally true that we pity Desdemona or are horrified at Oedipus self-blinding, or envious of Orpheus' musical talent, or are distressed by the death of Anna Karenina, even if there are tears...for we know these people never existed"

                   ii.      Neill rejects this

         b.      Emotions directed at non-fictional objects: We have real emotions but they are directed at things other than fictional characters

                   i.       E.g., the pity we think we feel for fictional characters is really pity for real people who are brought to mind by the fiction

                   ii.      Neill rejects this for pity; accepts if for fear


                   iii.     Not all emotions work this way: When watching a horror movie and shriek/jump from one’s seat, not imaginatively taking the point of view of the monster?? (victim) on the screen



         a.      So is Neill’s claim that we have conflicting desire, we both do and do not want the story to have been written differently? (But it does not seem like we want it written differently.)

17.    Problem restated: Pity involves wanting things to be fictionally different, but then it seems we want the story to have been written differently (but we don't).

         a.      We value works of fiction because they can cause powerful emotions (pity for characters)

         b.      But these emotions have us wanting things to be different fictionally

         c.      This seems to have us wanting the author to have made the story so it didn't evoke that emotion (pity)

         d.      But we don’t want this

         e.      So fictional pity involves inconsistent beliefs and desires


18.    What Neill would say about Dumbledore case:

         a.      When pity Dumbledore and wish he had not been killed, am focusing on particular aspect of the Half-Blood Prince (story Rowling tells)

         b.      In focusing on this, I don't have desires about other aspects of the novel, e.g., plot structure

         c.      If adopt different stance toward novel (as a work of art), feelings likely to change; won't have particular desires about Dumbledore