Genuine Rational Fictional Emotions

In “Genuine Rational Fictional Emotions,” Gendler and Kovakovich (2006) seek to resolve the “paradox of fictional emotions.” The paradox goes like so: 1- we have genuine rational emotional responses to specific fictional characters and situations (the response condition); 2- we believe that those characters/situations are fictional (the belief condition); but 3- we can only have genuine rational emotional responses toward characters/situations if we believe they are not fictional (the coordination condition). Each of these claims is plausible at first blush. For instance, I can respond to Frodo’s plight in Mordor with genuine rational sadness, I can believe that Frodo is merely fictional, and I am not feeling genuine rational emotions for a three-foot high furry-footed curly-haired person (because I believe Frodo is fictional, and so I cannot feel genuine rational emotion for the poor guy). But these three conditions cannot all be true simultaneously.

The solution hinges on the question of whether emotions about actual characters/situations are similar enough to emotions about fictional characters/situations to warrant considering them “two species of the same genus” (p. 243). The differences between these two kinds of emotions (dubbed here “fictional emotions” and “actual emotions”) are related to subject matter (real or fictional) and to motivation (I do not respond to Frodo in the same way as I would if I actually met a real hobbit in such tormented circumstances). Earlier resolutions of the paradox posit that fictional emotions are not genuine, or are not rational (addressing the response condition), or that we lose track of our own belief (addressing the belief condition).

Gendler and Kovakovich deny the coordination condition, and do so partially on the basis of recent empirical research which suggests that autonomic responses (response behaviors linked to the involuntary nervous system) help people in practical reasoning by the following process: we imagine consequences of our actions, which activates emotional responses, and these become reinforced to the point of automatic responses which help us behave rationally (based in part on these automatized responses). So autonomic emotional responses tied to future circumstances (“what if” scenarios) may help us behave rationally. Automatic emotional responses to imaginary events are a part of rationality. Further, when we fear actual future events, these emotions are genuine, even though the events have not happened (and may not happen). So we can have genuine rational emotions about things that do not exist. Concerning the belief condition, with optical illusions we may perceive and respond to things we do not believe. This is because we have automatized our responses to stimuli in such a way as to act subdoxastically (without requiring belief). If this is true, we may have genuine rational emotions toward fictional characters/situations without needing to believe those characters/situations are real (the emotions occur subdoxastically). Without such emotional engagement in fiction, we would be limited in our capacity to behave rationally (we would be limited to our own narrow real circumstances for building up autonomic responses).

This proposed solution is both elegant and convincing, though there are several potential weaknesses. First, the cases given for subdoxastic responses may turn out to be doxastic (but be false beliefs that are overturned by further evidence). When I get near a window in a high-rise apartment, I believe I will fall to my death (I am afraid of heights, and of falling to my death). I also have other beliefs that outweigh this false belief, and which sometimes allow me to stand near the window and enjoy the view without a response of fear. It is not irrational to hold two beliefs at the same time that are contradictory: it is irrational to still hold both after evaluating the merits of each (and recognizing they are incompatible). Second, the force of the argument depends upon our acceptance of the idea that the similarities between actual and fictional emotions are more striking than the differences, but what if we were able to show there are additional differences between the two? For instance, fictional emotion is a source of pleasure (even when the emotion is fear or sadness), which we derive in part from knowing that the fiction is not real. If actual and fictional emotions are indeed different, and if our emotions are not subdoxastic in the case of responses to fiction, then the argument presented here may fail to convince.


Gendler, Tamar Szabo, & Kovakovich, Karson. (2006). Genuine rational fictional emotions. In Matthew Kieran (Ed.), Contemporary Debates in Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art (pp. 241-253). Malden: MA: Blackwell.

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