There is continued debate on how one’s feelings should be affected by a work of fiction, a discourse that has been going on for some time. In 1975, this concept was first presented by Collin Radford and Michael Weston. This emotional reaction to fiction, also known as the paradox of fiction, indicates that our responses to fiction are unreasonable because our emotions are at odds with logic. This argument is based on various contradictory reasons, all of which, at first glance, seem to be convincing. Still, when one delves more into the subject matter, it becomes clear that it is refutable. The paper examines the use of paradox in fiction, focusing on understanding Kendall Walton’s various theories that elaborate on the concept with a particular interest in elaborating on resolutions to the paradox.
Summation of Paradox fiction
The paradox theory hinges on multiple grounds, including the first premise, which states that for us to be affected or moved by what we learn regarding specific fictional places and situations, we need to believe that those people and situations did exist. Second, when we intentionally interact with fictitious materials, we discover that such “existence beliefs” do not exist, which teaches us an important lesson. According to the third and final premise, fictitious people and events seem to be able to move us (Matravers, 2021). This applies to certain emotions, such as fear, wherein because of certain people and situations’ ability to ignite the emotion in us, it becomes relatively relatable when such emotions are also born out of an interaction with fictional works.
The works by Shakespeare best bring out an exemplary application of the paradox of fiction. The Hamlet play centres on the tragic events that took place with the Prince of Denmark. The reader or audience is drawn into the story and encouraged to empathize with the protagonist by using various distinct visuals and speech, which results in the reader or audience feeling an emotional connection toward the protagonist. Even though the whole of the material that he wrote is entirely made up, it has been reenacted several times, each time to great compliments. This is due to the audience’s connection with the fictitious protagonist in each version. It satisfies all the elements of the paradox of fiction and asserts that almost all three premises are true (Moyal-Sharrock, 2009).
The first premise is that the reason why the tale of the protagonist impacts the audience is that the audience thinks that the events that transpired around the protagonist were, in fact, genuine. Following the third premise, because this was a play that was made and presented on stage, the actor who played the protagonist’s character had the capacity, thanks to his abilities as an actor, to influence the audience and move them emotionally through his performance (Longo, 2019). On the other hand, only a few philosophers have offered potential resolutions to this paradox.
Literary fiction is like a prop game. Proponents of the pretend theory state that all emotions are “make-believe” emotions. Walton defends the second premise of the paradox and states that all the emotions we feel are make-believe emotions, and we knowingly engage in fictional texts to feel these make-believe emotions. He further elaborates on his claim by stating that, even though these scenes impact us physically and psychologically, the feeling that we get is not precisely genuine emotion (Freeman, 2016). However, this feeling does share many similarities with genuine emotion. Walton states that these will always be quasi-emotions no matter what our body makes us believe, think, or feel.
Quasi emotions differ from actual emotions. They are not generated by existence beliefs but by second-order beliefs. For example, if I watch a horror film and see a monster on screen, my initial emotion would be fear, even though I am fully aware that it is a fictional film. Quasi emotions would be generated here, as a second-order belief is that the monster on screen is make-believe.
Theories to resolve the paradox of emotions
The illusion theory
Denying the fact that we are aware that Anna Karenina is a work of fiction is, in a sense, the easiest way to get around the seeming contradiction that fiction creates. These hypotheses have been given the name “Illusion Theories of Fiction” (Lamarque, 2008). According to these hypotheses, we cannot help but think that there is an absolute monster on the screen while we are watching a movie like Frankenstein because the fiction we read and see is so persuasive that it is almost overpowering. Because fiction creates the illusion that the fictitious character does exist, we genuinely think that the figure does exist, and as a result, there is no contradiction or paradox.
The thought theory
According to the second idea, the Thought Theory, we should be able to mentally envision the character or the circumstance that has moved us emotionally. This is something we learn. This hypothesis provides unwavering support for the third premise and provides evidence to back up the contention that the first premise needs to be reexamined and maybe rewritten. If we pay attention, we can see that the two hypotheses have one thing in common. Both have their own feelings being affected by the visuals they experience. According to Kendall Walton’s idea, much like the youngster, adults may be led to believe that they are experiencing certain feelings due to the content of the environment that is now in front of them (Konrad et al., 2018).
As a result of rejecting the coordination requirement and arguing that instead, humans are moved by ideas, thought theory makes it possible for a clearer theoretical function to be assigned to the aforementioned concepts. It enables us to see that most of the emotional responses we have in our day-to-day lives, if not all of them, are not based on actual situations but on hypotheticals, which means that they are fictional to the extent that they are not actual. This is something that we were previously unable to see. The use of story to depict these hypothetical scenarios by narrative theory highlights once again the significance of the coherence of the underlying narrative in our capacity to experience authentic feelings (Oriaku, 2022). In the end, when we reject the coordination requirement with the assistance of thinking theory, the distinction between reality and fiction is unimportant when reduced to the fundamental truth value.
However, one needs to distinguish between the beliefs relevant to one being moved by what happens in fiction and the beliefs that are entailed by intrinsic knowing that one is dealing with fiction. This distinction is necessary because both kinds of beliefs are relevant to being moved by what happens in fiction. Beliefs about the protagonists and antagonists of a fictional work are somewhat responsible for our emotional reaction to what is happening.
In a nutshell, the paradox of fiction contends that our responses, whether they be positive or negative, to fictitious characters, settings, or events are illogical and cannot be explained rationally. Based on three different premises, the dilemma was argued and resolved by various philosophers. The paper investigated two distinct approaches to resolving the conundrum by looking at the theories. To begin with, both of them attempted to resolve the conundrum and shed light on just what it is that makes it so contradictory. This is something that Kendall Walton brought up in his theory of pretence when he explained to us that the feelings that the audience members are experiencing while they are watching a play or reading a book are only pretend ones (Matravers, 2021). He argues in favour of the second premise and even goes so far as to inform us that we can only satisfy two of the premises.
Freeman, D. (2016). The Paradox of Fiction. Noël Carroll/John Gibson (Hg.), The Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Literature, London/New York, pp. 247–258.
Konrad, E. M., Petraschka, T., & Werner, C. (2018). The Fiction paradox is a brief introduction to recent developments, open questions, and current research areas, including a comprehensive bibliography from 1975 to 2018. Journal of Literary Theory, 12(2), 193-203.
Lamarque, P. (2008). The philosophy of literature. John Wiley & Sons.
Longo, M. (2019). Emotions Through Literature: Fictional Narratives, Society and the Emotional Self. Routledge.
Matravers, D. (2021). Walton on ‘The Paradox of Fiction’: Confusions and Misunderstandings. In Art, Representation, and Make-Believe (pp. 58-73). Routledge.
Moyal-Sharrock, D. (2009). The fiction of paradox: Really feeling for Anna Karenina. In Emotions and Understanding (pp. 165-184). Palgrave Macmillan, London.
Oriaku, S. E. (2022). RESOLVING THE PARADOX OF FICTION: THE OBJECT THEORY (Doctoral dissertation, University of Saskatchewan).