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Fear and Belief

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 19, Number 1, April 1995
pp. 94-101 | 10.1353/phl.1995.0046

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Philosophy and Literature 19.1 (1995) 94-101

Notes and Fragments

In his recent article "Fear Without Belief," John Morreall argues that once we have an adequate understanding of fear -- and in particular, once we understand that not all fears are based on or conceptually involve beliefs -- Kendall Walton's well-known "puzzle" concerning whether we can fear what we know to be fictional "dissolves." I would like here to point to some questions and difficulties raised by Morreall's article.

Walton's puzzle is based on what is often described as a "cognitive" account of the emotions, according to which emotional states, including fear, are founded on beliefs and judgments. Thus he writes, "It seems to be a principle of common-sense, which ought not to be abandoned if there is any reasonable alternative, that fear [for oneself] must be accompanied by, or must involve, a belief that one is in danger" (Walton, p. 7). Radford has made a similar point about other sorts of emotional state: "Roughly speaking," he argues, ". . . for someone's pity for another to be unproblematic, the pitier has to believe that the pitied third-party [is] suffering in some way." Elsewhere he says, "we have to believe in [a person's] torment to be tormented by it." Given that we do not believe in the reality of fictional suffering or torment, nor that we are threatened by fictional beings, it would seem to follow that our affective responses to fictional characters cannot properly be described as states of pity or fear. As Walton says, describing a person watching a horror movie, "Charles does not believe that he is in danger, so he is not afraid" (Walton, p. 7).

Morreall challenges this conclusion, which has been the subject of a great deal of debate over the last fifteen years or so, by attacking the cognitive account of fear. He takes that account to involve two central claims; namely (1) that "fear must have an intentional object," and (2) that "in order to fear something, one must believe that it is dangerous to her" (p. 360). In response to (1), he offers a number of counterexamples, which he suggests represent "cases of instinctive fear without intentional objects." How effective are these counterexamples? First, Morreall notes that we may be frightened by loud noises. Yet, "when some joker sneaks up behind us and pops a balloon or shouts 'Boo!' we do not have to think of a gunshot or rapist to be scared" (p. 361). Now, suppose that some joker does sneak up behind you and pops a balloon. Your heart leaps, you shriek, you jump. Delighted, the joker says "Got you! You were really afraid that time!" One response to the joker would be this: "I wasn't afraid; you simply startled me." I take it that there is a real difference between being afraid and being startled. But what exactly is that difference? It would surely be implausible to try to make it out in phenomenological terms, for one state may feel very like the other. And given Morreall's account of the physiology of fear (the release of epinephrine into the blood causing a faster and stronger heartbeat, a redistribution of the blood away from the skin and extremities towards the muscles and head, and so on) it looks very unlikely that we shall be able to make out the difference in terms of physiology. In fact, I suggest, the difference between being afraid and being startled is a cognitive difference. A person who is simply startled by a loud noise doesn't have any thoughts or beliefs about it; a person who is made afraid by the noise is a person who has thoughts about it, thoughts in which the noise is in one way or another associated with danger or harm. These thoughts need not be "occurrent," nor even conscious. However, unless we suppose that a person does have thoughts in which the noise is associated with danger, we have no reason to describe her as "afraid" rather than "startled." If we abandon the idea that the fear which a loud noise may arouse in us is intentional, that is, then we...


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