Aesthetics,  Art

Feelings and Film

Consider the following scenario: you are watching a movie in which a character, S, is in great peril. You fear for the life of S knowing that there is no such person and no real peril. Are you being irrational? After all, there is nothing to be afraid of.

Perhaps, instead, you aren’t really scared. You’d feel completely differently if you were in peril and the peril was real. You certainly wouldn’t place yourself in peril for fun. Perhaps you are experiencing something like fear for S but not real fear. Still, it certainly feels like fear. Further, it isn’t the case that you’d never enjoy real fear. People pay good money to bungee jump, white water raft, and do PhDs.

The most plausible explanation lies in what grounds our fear for S. Perhaps, instead of a belief, it could be a different mental state. For example, our imaginations might serve as a ‘reasons’ to fear. Berys Gaut claims the following:

“The rationality of fear of objects believed to exist requires one to believe that they are dangerous; and the rationality of fear of objects merely imagined to exist requires one (correctly) to imagine that they are dangerous” (Gaut, 220)

According to Gaut, rationality only requires an appropriate response to whatever kind of mental state the person possesses. If belief, then the belief must explain the emotion. If imagination, then likewise. 

Is this correct? 

I have my doubts. 

According to Gaut, rationality, when it comes to belief, involves having reasons to believe (theoretical rationality). But one might also speak about reasons to act (practical rationality) or reasons to feel (affective rationality). 

Gaut says that reasons to feel minimally require that we respond appropriately to our imagination and we should be able to spot when someone is failing to respond appropriately. That we can do so is “readily graspable, being clear and evident” (217). Hence, reasons to feel merely require the appropriate response to our imagination.

However, consider the following: 

I fear for my daughter. 

I imagine that my daughter has been abducted 

While I can’t find my daughter, the fear is rational (it is possible that my daughter has been abducted). But when I have found my daughter, the fear is irrational.

What if my wife was with me and I’m still panicking? My wife would probably say, “She is safe and sound. Stop thinking about it! You’ll only get worked up for no good reason!

But if Gaut is right, then I could reply, “I have good reason to fear. I am imagining my daughter abducted.” But my wife would be right, and I should not fear. 

Hence, even though Gaut supplies a reason, it is not a good reason. I can explain my fear, but merely explaining it won’t make it a rational explanation. 

Richard Joyce offers an alternative solution in his essay, “Rational Fear of Monsters.” Joyce argues that we are wondering about the wrong kind of rationality. Instead of thinking in terms of theoretical rationality, we should instead treat emotion under the domain of practical rationality. He writes,

“Emotions are often outside our control, in particular when they are based on a belief—I am not in control of my sadness if I believe a friend has just died. But compare the case of sitting quietly, vividly imagining the death of a loved one. Doesn’t this process seem very much in the realm of action? If so, then on such occasions one is being ‘irrational’ if the process fails to serve one’s purposes” (Joyce, 219). 

Hence, according to Joyce, the rationality of my fear is determined by its use. Fear is instrumental to some good or bad end. 

My wife is right about fearing something that hasn’t happened. Why? Most plausibly because it won’t do any good for anyone! My fear fails to have any good purpose, so I should stop fearing.

How does this help solve the problem of fiction. Well, Joyce argues that engaging imaginatively with fiction so as to produce emotions is practically rational. For example, I can chose to fear for S in the movie to further my enjoyment of the movie. Or perhaps by fearing for S I can learn what it is like to be S. I will understand people like her by doing so. 

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.