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  • Qualis Tandem Misericordia in Rebus Fictis?Aesthetic and Ordinary Emotion1
  • Dana LaCourse Munteanu (bio)

Recently scholars have contrasted the nature of aesthetic emotion with ordinary emotion,2 a subject that has not received much attention in the fields of classical literary theory and philosophy. In this paper I offer a brief presentation of modern approaches to aesthetic emotion, and then discuss some ancient views about correspondences as well as differences between emotions felt in real life and emotions produced by art and particularly by literature. I shall not follow any strict chronological order, nor do I claim here exhaustiveness;3 rather my emphasis will be on the various ways in which ancient theorists defined the aesthetic emotion and its unique characteristics.

I. Modern Theories

Emotion has been defined as transaction or interaction between a person and the environment; more specifically, it describes a person’s response to a particular situation. Each emotion consists of a specific relational meaning, which summarizes the benefits and the damages that best characterize the interaction between an individual and the environment.4 Emotions stem from certain evaluations of circumstances, which appear to be cognitive to an extent (for example, one’s appraisal of a threat in the surroundings may lead to fear)5 and often dispose us to action (for example, fear will likely compel one to avoid danger by fleeing).6 Since the beginning of the twentieth century, aesthetic emotion has been explained chiefly by two schools of thought, one focusing on expression, the other on reception of art. Initially, the expression theory emphasized the artist’s emotional input into the work of art, which was seen as a product of creative intuition.7 Alan Tormey (1971) convincingly rejected this Romantic perspective by demonstrating that works of art can evoke emotions beyond the intention of their creator. More recent theorists have used the paradigms of resemblance and personification in an attempt to explain how various arts express or evoke emotions.8 According to these models, a musical tempo can resemble bodily or behavioral [End Page 117] expression of emotion, tremolos can sound as if people are trembling from fear, a sculpture may look like a sad person, etc. Some critics, however, note that no objective criteria can account for such expressions of emotion in art, since, for example, various listeners can find different emotional expressions in the same musical piece.9

Scholars concerned with the reception of art, on the other hand, focus on the manner in which audiences, more specifically viewers and readers, experience emotions. This type of inquiry posits a major problem: the nature of aesthetic versus real life emotion. Emotion in real life comes from an appraisal, from a kind of belief. For example, fear is aroused by the belief that danger is imminent. And yet such a belief cannot be formed by a reader of a novel, or the audience of a horror movie, who knows that only the fictional characters appear to be in jeopardy, and there is no imminent threat in reality. Then how and why do fictional stories move us? Furthermore, if emotion in real life triggers action, it does not do so in fiction; after all, no sane person, while reading the Odyssey, runs away terrified by the Cyclops. Then how should we characterize our aesthetic emotional responses? Scholars are divided on this point. Some argue that aesthetic emotion cannot be emotion at all,10 because it neither relies on genuine cognitive evaluation nor does it lead to motivation for action. Kendall Walton (1990, 196) observes: “To allow that mere fictions are objects of our psychological attitudes while disallowing the possibility of physical interactions severs the normal links between the physical and the psychological. What is pity or anger that is never to be acted on? . . . We cannot even try to rescue Robinson Crusoe from his island, no matter how deep our concern for him.”

Other scholars (Currie 1990, 94–100; Matravers 1998, 52–5) suggest that we should not have to form a belief or a cognitive evaluation of the real circumstances; we simply have to imagine, in order to feel emotions. The role of imagination in arousing emotion is explained by the ‘report...


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