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Imagination, Emotions, and the Paradox of Fiction

Fall 2016

By Amy Kind

Suppose you’re watching Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. (Warning: Spoilers ahead!) There are moments during the movie when you no doubt feel fear — perhaps when Rey and Kylo Ren battle in the forest on Takodana. There are also moments during the movie when you no doubt feel sad — perhaps at the climactic moment when Kylo Ren kills his father, Han Solo. But of course, as you know full well, these are only fictional characters and fictional events.

You don’t really believe anyone is actually in danger or anyone actually has been killed. Rather, you are engaging with these fictional scenarios by way of your imagination; it’s merely imaginary danger and imaginary murder. Why should such purely imaginary events have the emotional impact they do? In the philosophical literature, this question often goes by the name the paradox of fiction. The paradox arises from the juxtaposition of three claims. Though each of these claims is independently plausible, they are jointly inconsistent. First, it seems that we often have emotional responses to fiction that are genuine and rational. Second, we are having these emotional reactions when imaginatively engaging with the film without ever believing that the unfolding events are really occurring. But third, it seems that we can be rational in having a genuine emotional response to a given situation only if we believe that the situation is actually occurring.

This last claim needs some unpacking. Consider someone who is terrified of a burglar lurking outside his house. Such a fear might seem appropriate. But now suppose we were to learn, not only that there isn’t burglar outside, but that the homeowner also knows full well that there’s no burglar outside. In this case, his terror starts to look considerably less appropriate.

ImaginationsHis emotional reaction is an irrational one. And this applies to other emotional reactions as well: I seem to be in some way irrational when I experience sadness over the death of a loved one despite the fact that I don’t believe that she has died, or when I experience joy about my friend’s new promotion despite the fact that I don’t believe that she has been promoted. In cases where our emotional reactions are out of step with our beliefs, our emotional reactions don’t seem to be rational ones.

Therein lies the paradox about our emotional engagement with the world of fiction. My emotional reactions to the events unfolding on the screen or on the page are out of step with my beliefs — I don’t believe any such events actually occur. So how can I be rational in having such reactions? Am I as irrational in feeling sadness over the death of Han Solo as the homeowner who fears a burglar he knows to be nonexistent?

Philosophers responding to this puzzle have tried many avenues of attack. Some have rejected the first of the three claims that generate the paradox; in particular, they have tried to argue that our emotional reactions to fiction should not be understood as genuine emotions — that perhaps we’re really experiencing only an analogous state that we might think of as “quasi-emotions.” But insofar as, from the inside, our emotional reactions to fiction feel phenomenologically exactly like our emotional reactions to other kinds of events, this response strikes many as unpalatable. 

A different strategy relating to the first of the three claims that generate the paradox is simply to bite the bullet. Philosophers who take this approach have tried to argue that we need to accept that our emotional reactions to fiction are always irrational ones. But this, too, seems unpalatable. Though certain emotional reactions to fiction would be irrational ones — for example, were one to laugh hysterically at Han Solo’s death — it does not seem that we are always being irrational when we experience joy or sadness or fear in response to the fictional events with which we’re engaging when we watch a movie or read a book. While hysterical laughter at Han Solo’s death is irrational, tears are not.

Might we have more success focusing on the second of the three claims that generate the paradox? Some philosophers have tried to argue that when engaging with fiction, we come to believe — at least temporarily — that the described or depicted events are real. This might be a kind of suspension of disbelief, or perhaps something best described as “half-belief.”

But insofar as we do have the relevant beliefs about the fictional events, then our emotions in reaction to fiction would no longer be irrational; indeed, they would be perfectly in line with our beliefs. As is perhaps clear, however, this strategy merely trades one kind of irrationality for another. There might be times when we mistake a work of fiction for a work of history, but when we know full well that the work that we’re engaging with is a work of fiction, it would seem a particularly problematic form of irrationality if we were to start believing that the events being depicted are really occurring.

For these reasons, philosophers have often tried instead to find some way to reject the third of the three claims that we encountered above.

Perhaps our emotions don’t always have to be in line with our beliefs in order to be rational. Maybe having emotional responses when engaging with fiction is importantly different from cases where we have emotional responses to nonexistent burglars and non-occurring promotions. The role that fiction plays in enabling us to explore emotional reactions in a “safe” way to learn how we would respond in certain situations, to help us to understand what kinds of reactions certain new or unexpected situations would generate — seems to have an important utility for problem-solving and planning purposes, and these are purposes that are central to our rational natures and our ability to navigate the world. 

Whether these kinds of considerations are enough to really resolve the puzzle remains unclear, however. It’s not called a paradox for nothing!

Kind is professor of philosophy at Claremont McKenna College. Her recent books include The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Imagination (Routledge, 2016) and Knowledge Through Imagination (co-edited with Peter Kung, Oxford Univ. Press, 2016)