Tag Archives: paradox of fiction

Dissolving Anna Karenina’s Paradox

Philosophers of art have a long-standing problem known as “the Paradox of Fiction“, also known as “Anna Karenina’s Paradox”.[1] The problem is generally presented thus (this is not a direct quote):

When we watch scary or touching (or exciting or funny) movies, we claim to be actually feeling the emotions the medium is meant to inspire. When Anna Karenina dies, we say we feel sad, in the same way we would feel sad if a friend told us their mother had died. If we later found out the friend had been lying, however, we would become angry instead of sad: this implies that we must believe in the truth of a situation in order to feel genuine emotion. Yet we know that Anna Karenina does not exist–her tragedy is a falsehood, but we still say it makes us feel sad. This presents a contradiction: either we are lying when we say we feel sad, or the kind of sadness we feel when we hear of the death of someone we know is a qualitatively different emotion than the one we feel when we witness the death of a beloved character. This seems to be supported by the fact that we do not engage in behaviors that would normally be associated with emotions such as fear, anger, or sadness when engaging with fiction: we do not run screaming from the movie theatre in terror when we see the monster approach the screen; we do not call the police when a character in a book is murdered; and we do not climb on stage to seek revenge if a character we like has been wronged in some play.

In short, the problem is that the emotions we feel when we engage with fiction seem to be different than the emotions we profess to be feeling.[2] Normally I would work up to my refutation gradually, but this is–I’m sorry–an incredibly stupid “problem”. The so-called “paradox” of fiction can be completely dissolved with just a few simple counterexamples. Continue reading

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