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The Paradox of Emotion: Exploring the Authenticity of Phenomena in Fiction

The paradox of fiction challenges our understanding of emotions, as it raises the question of how we can experience genuine feelings in response to fictional narratives despite knowing they are not real. Kendall Walton's theory of fictional emotions introduces the concept of quasi-emotions, which are experienced within the context of make-believe and rely on the acceptance of fictional truths. This notion intersects with Immanuel Kant's transcendental idealism, which highlights the subjective nature of human experience and the influence of mental constructs on our perception of the world. By exploring the connection between Walton's theory and Kant's philosophy, we can delve into the complex interplay between genuine emotions, quasi-emotions, and the belief in fictional realities, shedding light on the paradox of fiction.

first 3d movie in hollywood
Figure 1: The first full-length, colour 3-D movie, November 26, 1952, at the Paramount Theater in Hollywood. (Life magazine)

A Duality of State and Evolutionary Biology

Kendall Walton (1978) argues for a duality of state and a distinction between actual and quasi-emotions. These are established from fictional truths, which arise from the interactions between one's mental state and the fictional experience. This projection of the viewer's mental state into a make-believe truth portrays an individual's reactions as if they were an actor playing a role. In other words, the viewer temporarily abides by the fictional truths, combining both imagining and belief. Through the concept of ideal presence, philosophers like Kames reinforce Walton's position by establishing a vivid imagining that resembles reality, where temporality seems to exist. This aligns with Walton's notion of a make-believe world, where individuals briefly adopt the rules of a fictional world based on their intuition.

Firstly, we must acknowledge that true Fear triggers a cascade of physiological and neurological responses in the brain. Research has shown that the amygdala, a key structure involved in emotional processing, plays a central role in fear conditioning and response. LeDoux (2000) discusses the neurobiology of fear and highlights the amygdala's involvement in fear processing. Öhman and Mineka (2001) explore the evolutionary and cognitive perspectives of fear and anxiety, shedding light on the biological underpinnings and conditioning processes associated with fear. These studies emphasize the intricate interplay between the brain and fear, elucidating the neural mechanisms that underlie our emotional and behavioural responses to perceived threats. The activation of fear pathways in the brain can lead to a range of effects, including heightened arousal, increased attention, and the initiation of fight-or-flight responses, ultimately shaping our experiences and behaviours in the face of fear.

still from psycho
Figure 2. Vera Miles in Psycho (1960)

However, the feelings experienced in relation to fiction are argued to be different from real emotions derived from actual experiences. This is due to the acknowledgement and belief, based on experience, that certain actors or objects are real and have real consequences. The problem of fiction and emotion arises from how a particular can be emotionally influenced by fiction, even when fully aware that these characters and situations were invented or written and are not real. This conflict with realism may allow for a suspension of belief and a momentary escape from reality. However, if this suspension occurs, real fear and pity cannot be experienced, but rather a pseudo-emotion.

Relatedly, one may allude to the Humean argument concerning the viewers' inclination to revisit a novel or engage in another horror film for the sake of pleasure. The enjoyment of negative emotions in fiction is exemplified by the cathartic experience evoked through an actor's portrayal of pathos in a tragedy like Othello. Walton (1978) states that despite Iago's betrayal of Othello, it does not elicit the audience to interfere or become violently grieved as a result of watching a play but rather makes them "happy as when they employ tears, sobs, and cries to give vent to their sorrow." This observation stems from the understanding that the emotions experienced in relation to fiction are distinct from genuine emotions, which, if encountered in reality, would undoubtedly elicit genuine distress, such as fear, anger, and jealousy (Hume, 1875). Nonetheless, it could be argued that emotions cannot be entirely predetermined, as ostensibly negative emotions like fear and anger can paradoxically engender excitement and happiness in certain individuals.

Figure 3. "Othello's Lamentation" A Painting of Othello weeping over Desdemona's body by Willaim Salter (1857)

This phenomenon is evident in high-adrenaline activities like skydiving, as well as aggressive sports such as American football and boxing. A psychoanalyst may further expound on this matter, positing that such examples involve our defence mechanism in tolerating anger and capitalizing on our fight-or-flight response concerning competitive and aggressive stimuli. Moreover, this explanation for the unconventional allure of negative emotions ostensibly accounts for real-life events and remains unaffected by narrative techniques such as romanticism, dramatic tension, and irony. This arguably allows fictional elements to soften the pain experienced from the stimuli, creating a separation from reality and enabling the particular to convert tragedy into pleasure. This mirrors Kames' superficial narrative in that the way the narrative is portrayed influences a particular degree of interest and engrossment. Lively and complete descriptions determine the ability to engage the reader's mind in an ideal presence, where one can experience emotions that seem real, as the person's belief is temporarily set aside. While "a thing ill-described is like an object seen at a distance" because a poorly described narrative fails to "impose on the mind any perception of reality", causing the reader to not be engrossed in the ideal presence and fictional emotions (Kames, 2005).

Kendall Walton's Fearing Fictions

Kendall Walton presents a hypothetical scenario in his work "Fearing Fictions" featuring a character named Charles who reacts with fear to a fictional "slime" that slowly and relentlessly engulfs the earth. Charles exhibits fear-like behaviours such as shrieking and clutching his chair. Although Charles claims to be "terrified," Walton argues for a distinction between reality and fiction, suggesting that Charles' fear is not genuine in relation to the fictional slime. Walton introduces the crucial fact that Charles is fully aware of the slime's fictional nature and has compelling reasons to deny that what he experiences is genuine fear. Instead, Walton proposes that Charles's psychological state can be better described as quasi-fear rather than authentic fear. According to Walton, genuine emotions involve both physiological responses, such as increased adrenaline levels, and a belief in the actual existence of the object or event.

Kendall walton
Figure 4. Kendall Walton (n.d.)

To delve further into the matter, it is evident that Charles did not exhibit a conditional motivation to respond appropriately during the film screening. He displayed no intention of seriously considering actions such as contacting the police or warning his family, indicating a lack of conviction in the reality of the slime. Moreover, the physical manifestations he experiences are not indicative of genuine fear but rather highlight the notion of a "gut belief" rather than an intellectual one. This underscores the idea that an individual's beliefs can render certain actions rational. For instance, a person with a negative gut belief about flying may choose to abort their journey despite being aware of the statistically high safety of air travel, motivated by the desire to preserve their own life. In contrast, Charles does not genuinely believe in the existence of the slime and does not flee the theatre, therefore, we cannot attribute introspection to these automatic and involuntary reactions. Walton also dismisses the argument that Charles "lost hold of reality" and "momentarily takes the slime to be real" by drawing parallels with comparable psychological states, such as feeling pity or admiration for a character like Superman. This implies that Charles may experience a sense of sorrow for the devastation depicted in the movie without compromising his grasp of reality (Walton, 1978). Furthermore, the film may elicit genuine fear in Charles through its depiction, not because he is afraid of the fictional slime itself, but rather because of the symbolic implications it carries. This aspect potentially demonstrates elements of introspection and realism, as the film influences Charles' understanding of slimes and prompts him to contemplate the existence of real and hazardous slimes.

Charles' Fear as Quasi-Fear and Make-Believe Truths

Another aspect highlighted by Walton is the term "quasi-fear," which describes the emotional response we perceive in relation to fiction but is not authentic fear. Charles perceives himself as a "self-portraying actor," and facts about Charles create "make-believe truths" (1978) concerning himself. These make-believe truths stem partially from quasi-fear, but they primarily arise from the belief that the fictional slime poses a threat to his make-believe self. Consequently, Charles experiences quasi-fear because, within the context of make-believe, he believes he is in danger from the fictional slime. This acceptance of the principles of make-believe contributes to the "truth that make-believedly he is afraid of slime" . However, Lamarque offers an alternative explanation for elicited emotions, regardless of belief. He suggests that we can be frightened by thoughts without being frightened of thoughts themselves. Lamarque introduces a cognitive component to the role of belief in emotions, as "vivid imaging replaces belief," and our emotions are directed at real, albeit psychological, objects. This perspective disregards the irrationality of being afraid of the stimuli solely due to representation.

arrival of a train at la ciotat
Figure 5.The legend goes that the first audiences to see “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat” would scream and run to the back of theatre (Sharf , 2020)

Walton continues his analogy using Charles to illustrate how quasi-fear arises from Charles' ability to recognize the principles of make-believe within his environment. This recognition leads to the acceptance of make-believe through cause and effect reasoning, where if A causes B, then Charles is fictionally afraid. This fictionally-induced fear is triggered by Charles' awareness of his quasi-fear sensations. In a similar vein, Kames argues that emotions can be triggered by memory, as the ideal presence derived from recollection in reverie can evoke emotions that are fainter than those from original perceptions. This mirrors Walton's concept of quasi-emotions and the duality between our fictional selves and real selves.

Phenomena vs Noumena

Walton's differentiation between genuine emotions and emotions experienced in relation to fiction can be understood through the lens of positivism, similar to Kant's transcendental idealism. Kant's transcendental idealism pertains to the human experience relative to an individual's point of view, suggesting that space and time are mental phenomena operating on pure concepts through sensibility. This contrasts with realism, which posits an independent world as a thing in itself, observed as the noumenal world. Drawing upon this, one can relate Kant's notion of phenomena to Walton's concept of fictional truths. In this framework, the constant appearance of stimuli influences and interacts with an individual's concepts and schemas derived from their experiences, enabling them to envision themselves as heroes or engage in spontaneous acts of imagination. These imaginative experiences may not always be self-conscious but can align with the fictional truths presented in our perceptual experiences.

critique of pure reason
Figure 6. Kant's critique of pure reason (n.d)

Kant (1998) argues that understanding arises from pure concepts and "mediate representations" (B14) that do not solely rely on immediate sensations. These concepts, such as cause and effect, substance, and necessity, shape our experiences and are derived from sensible intuition. However, in the context of fiction, it is important to recognize that a movie, for example, is a "representation only" and not a thing in itself, as it is caused by "time and space [which] are therefore only sensible forms of our intuition" (A369). With absolute certainty, we know that our experiences conform to categories of understanding, such as the expectation that the same cause will bring about the same effect, lest our experience becomes surreal and imaginary. Thus, in this passage, only sensible intuition, as an a priori concept, can provide a framework for posterior knowledge. Yet, in this context, the reader or viewer is experiencing "quasi-fear." Supporting his argument, Walton introduces the example of pie and globs, where children naturally and non-deliberately perceive the size and shape of a glob as that of a pie, creating make-believe truths. Similarly, Walton suggests that representational works of art generate make-believe truths, exemplified by formalism, a school of art critics who evaluate based on the formal structure of art rather than its surrounding context.


Overall, the exploration of the paradox of fiction and the concept of quasi-emotions reveals the intricate relationship between genuine emotions, make-believe truths, and the belief in fictional realities. Kendall Walton's theory of fictional emotions introduces the notion of quasi-emotions, which are experienced within the context of make-believe and rely on the acceptance of fictional truths. This concept aligns with Immanuel Kant's transcendental idealism, highlighting the subjective nature of human experience and the influence of mental constructs on our perception of the world. Through the lens of evolutionary biology, our ability to experience quasi-emotions in response to fictional narratives can be seen as a product of our adaptive capacity to engage with and learn from simulated environments, enhancing our understanding of ourselves and the world around us. The study of fear and emotions in the context of fiction provides valuable insights into the complex nature of human psychology and the interplay between our imagination, beliefs, and emotional responses.

Bibliographical References

Hume, D. & MacLachlan, C.J.M. (1875). Of tragedy. Alex Catalogue.

Kames, L., & Home, H. (2005). Elements of Criticism, In P. Jones (Ed.), Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, I(6).

Kivy, P. (2009). Home Sweet Home, comment on paper presented at the Pacific Division Meeting of the American Society for Aesthetics, Pacific Grove, CA, April 2009.

Kant, I. (1998). The critique of pure reason, In P. Guyer & A. W. Wood (Ed.),

Lamarque, P. (1981). How Can We Fear and Pity Fictions?, British Journal of Aesthetics, 21, 291–304.

LeDoux, J. (2000). Emotion circuits in the brain. Annu Rev Neurosci, 23(1), 155-84.

Öhman, A., & Mineka, S. (2001). Fears, phobias, and preparedness: Toward an evolved module of fear and fear learning. Psychological Review, 108(3), 483–522.

Walton, K. (1978). Fearing Fictions, Journal of Philosophy, 75, 5–27.

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Joseph Norris

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