K. Walton on Fearing Fiction

In Stecker and Gracyk, Aesthetics Today (2010) 

This document is a summary of Kendall Walton, "Spelunking, Simulation and Slime"
My personal comments are in red.

The essay is an alternative to Lamarque's position.

The framing question: Why are we interested in fictional worlds if we know they are fictions? I watch a movie, The Slime, and I know that there is no such monster who can threaten me. Can I fear the slime?

Walton's framing assumption: We respond to such worlds by imagining them.

Why would we want to do this with a novel or a movie?

 Consider how these guide our imaginations -- the words of a novel or the visuals of a movie guide our imagining. In this respect, they are like grown-up versions of children's toys. The toys are props in a game of make-believe. So are the words of a novel, etc.

Since we are actively doing something in response  we are going to have real responses in games of make-believe (something very much like what happens when we play a game and become excited, angry, and so on, with REAL EMOTIONS in response to the game). When we watch a fictional movie or read a fictional novel, we are mentally simulating doing something else. (In watching a movie, I am seeing the screen and I am mentally simulating seeing the events that are being shown.)

NEGATIVE THESIS: If a fictional story makes me feel fear, it does not involve fear of the fictional thing (when I know it is a fiction). WE CANNOT FEAR A FICTIONAL THING THAT IS UNDERSTOOD TO BE FICTIONAL.

Example: Someone with claustrophobia reads (or writes) a description of being trapped in a small cave. The words make the person imagine the event, which is to simulate (mentally) being trapped. This simulation can be genuinely upsetting.

POSITIVE THESIS: Simulating an experience can generate real psychological responses. Modern psychology tells us that the human ability to simulate events allows us to predict how others will respond to them, which is a very useful thing to be able to do!

It appears that simulating a thing gives us simulated emotions, including some of the real "affects" of a real emotion. (Thinking about the possibility of a friend getting the job that I want does not create genuine jealousy; it creates a simulated jealousy, an imagined jealousy.)

Don't confuse feeling something (even feeling it strongly) with having an emotion.

So why simulate emotions by watching/reading fiction?

It can reveal lots about our own nature! (If I don't feel pity for the sisters at the start of Sense and Sensibility, I may realize that I'm a cruel person.) And it can teach us about how other people feel about situations.

                        Last updated June28, 2011 ~ All text 2011 Theodore Gracyk