Brains, Persons, and Society *** ABSTRACTS
Cervelli, Persone e Società ***ABSTRACTS
Fearing the Green Slime: Pretending to Feel or Pretending to Refer?
(1) We all experience emotions towards fictional situations or characters;
(2) We all know that these situations and persons are fictional;
(3) But for any rational agent, it seems true that her emotional response towards a given scenario can be genuine only provided that she believes the situation to be real.
So, can we ascribe real emotions to people attending to fiction? In other words, can we truly say that somebody feels fear for a green slime, if she knows that it is only fiction?
Kendall Walton (1978; 1990) has given a solution to the paradox which has been very influent, especially among philosophers of language. He has argued that when we attend to a movie or read a book, we do not experience real emotions, for our emotional reaction – what he calls quasi-emotion – lacks a fundamental element: the epistemic state which constitutes its causal antecedent – i.e. in the case of a green slime, the belief to be endangered by it. We are instead involved in a sort of game of make-believe, one in which we are only pretending to feel a certain emotion towards a fictional scenario as if it were real; as a consequence, we are supposedly only pretending also when we describe this experience by saying that we fear the green slime or feel pity for Anna Karenina. This is why this kind of sentences can be said fictionally true even if, when evaluated out of the fictional context, they should be recognized as false.
I want to claim that Walton’s solution to the paradox of fictional emotions is wrong insofar as it rests on a confusion between two different kinds of pretense. Aiming to give a solution to the problem of the truth-conditions of statements containing non-denoting terms, Walton tries to justify our pretending in referring (our way of speaking as if the object of our emotions were real) by appealing to a pretending in feeling (the fact that we consider our quasi-emotions as if they were genuine ones). But this move is invalid, because the pretending act shifts from the use of the non-denoting term as if it had a real referent to the use of an attitudinal term as if it were appropriate for a quasi-emotion.
I claim that, although the first kind of pretense can be maintained, the latter cannot, because our emotions towards fiction are genuine ones. In other words, although our emotional reactions can be mitigated or even stopped by the awareness that their object is fictional, it is not impossible, in principle, to respond emotionally towards fictional scenarios. In support of my claim I will appeal to neuropsychological data (Damasio 1994, 1999) and in particular to researches concerning mental simulation (Goldman 1992, 1993) showing that the ability to respond emotionally to a certain possible scenario as if it were real is a key cognitive faculty and is fundamental for our being capable of evaluating situations and making rational choices.
Finally, I want to argue that what is wrong in the paradox is neither claim (1), as Walton maintains, nor claim (2), as others argue; rather the problem rests on the constraint that condition (3) poses on what can be considered a genuine emotion. The classical cognitive theory of emotions, which Walton appeals to, is not convincing and must be revisited in the light of the new experimental data.
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