[Topics: Evolutionary Biology, Paradox of Fiction, Philosophy of Art, Psychology]
Why Stories Make Us Feel:

Colin Radford’s So-called “Paradox of Fiction” and How Art Prompts Human Emotion



In the mid-1970s, philosopher Colin Radford wrote an article entitled “How Can We be Moved by the Fate of Anna Karenina?” In the article, Radford argues that emotional responses to works of fiction are as irrational as they are familiar. He calls this the paradox of fiction. And Radford’s fellow philosophers of art have spent the decades since that article’s publication arguing with each other about the best way to disagree with him.

As a person whose own art is the writing of fiction and whose academic background is primarily in literary theory, I am particularly interested in this topic, as well as in the philosophy of art more generally. The issue I have with almost all of the responses to Colin Radford over the years is that they largely agree that there is a paradox to be solved. In this article, I will argue that Radford’s evaluation of emotional responses to fiction as a ‘paradox’ is, at best, too hasty, and, at worst, blatantly incorrect.

Colin Radford’s Argument:

I would like to start by presenting the premises of Colin Radford’s argument. Bizarrely, this will be the first time on The Gemsbok (after two and a half months, and nine articles on philosophy) that I lay out one philosopher’s specific argument as a formal list of premises with a conclusion—with the arguable exception of a casual restating of the cultural differences argument—because most of my articles have focused on overviews, introductions, and definitions thus far. But I digress; here is the argument (the text of these premises has been copied from the argument’s IEP entry):

(1) In order for us to be rationally moved (to tears, to anger, to horror) by what we come to learn about various people and situations, we must believe that the people and situations in question really exist or existed.

(2) Such “existence beliefs” are lacking when we knowingly engage with fictional texts.

(3) Fictional characters and situations do in fact seem capable of moving us at times.

And I would add Radford’s obvious conclusion from these premises to be,

(4) Therefore, our being moved by fictional characters is not rational.

In the logical sense of the word, this argument is perfectly valid. Given the truth of the premises, the conclusion must be true. But it is both unsound (meaning one or more of the premises is false) and, at any rate, not a paradox.

At one point in the IEP article on this ‘paradox of fiction,’ the author attempts to explain the longevity of the discussion begun by Colin Radford in the following way: “At least in part, this must be because what Radford offers is less the solution to a mystery (how is it that we can be moved by what we know does not exist?) than a straightforward acceptance of something mysterious about human nature (our ability to be moved by what we know does not exist is illogical, irrational, even incoherent).” Well that’s all well and good for a preliminary instinct, but it seems a perfectly solvable mystery to me, and one which was never terribly mysterious to begin with.

Human Brain - paradox of fiction - Colin Radford

Thought Theorists and Future Planning:

I think Colin Radford’s argument is mistaken. And I think its most egregious errors are all contained within his first premise, which is actually the premise most often confronted in the extant responses in the philosophical literature since its publication. Most such objections come from so-called ‘thought theorists,’ who feel that entertaining a notion’s possibility may be sufficient for emotional response without accepting the notion’s truth or reality; I would agree with this response, and would seek to give a more precise account of my version of this orientation toward fiction.

So, what leads me to believe that the first premise is so mistaken and that the thought theorists are moving in the correct direction? Well, to put it bluntly (and more than a little manipulatively), I am led to believe the first premise is false by my knowledge of biology, psychology, and common sense. In order to see this, let us think about another time when a person experiences emotions: when considering the future.

If Colin Radford contends that emotional responses to non-real events are irrational, constituting a paradox of fiction, then surely Radford would also have to conclude that it is “illogical, irrational, even incoherent” that a human can experience emotional responses to considerations of the future. When imagining a close family member some day going through a horrible illness or injury, it seems perfectly consistent to feel intense sadness. The fact that the imagined scenario is fictional (and may never—depending on the illness, even hypothetically—come to pass) is no obstacle to feeling that this emotional response is rational.

Its rationality derives from our need to generate the appropriate practical response in order to better understand, plan for, and/or avoid the elements of the fiction (whether that fiction is future or art). Such future-planning takes place primarily in areas of the brain which evolved very recently, and are exclusive to highly intelligent species with well-developed forebrains; far from a paradoxical contradiction of humanity’s emotional response systems being in working order, humanity’s capacity for what one might term ’empathetic simulation learning’ is a vital part of what makes humans the skilled thinkers, and thus dominant species, that they are today.

In keeping with the above, I would modify his first premise as follows:

(1′) In order for us to be rationally moved (to tears, to anger, to horror) by what we come to learn about various people and situations, we must believe that the people and situations in question really exist, existed, or could exist.

This change from (1) to (1′) would negate (4), and necessitate a small (though significant) modification to (2). It would account for human beings’ emotional responses as a working element of the projection and understanding systems in our brains, and so would preserve the rationality of emoting not just when consuming fiction, but also when considering the future of ourselves and those around us. (As an aside, this account of how Radford’s ideas do not constitute a paradox is very similar to the account of emotional response that can be found in philosopher Richard Moran’s “The Expression of Feeling in Imagination.”)

‘But wait,’ I hear you objecting, ‘people can and do respond emotionally to characters and events in works of fiction that, by all accounts, could never exist.’ Right you are! In order to see how such cases fit in, it will be necessary to consider two further topics: empathy and association.


Oedipus and Antigone by Aleksander Kokular - paradox of fiction - Colin Radford

Oedipus and Antigone by Aleksander Kokular

In his original paper on the paradox of fiction, part of Colin Radford’s defense of his second premise is his contention that, if talk of ‘suspending disbelief’ is really accurate, then people would be constantly attempting to intervene in or interact with the events in a film or play. But I think Radford misses the spirit of such talk of disbelief suspension. What is bought into is not the reality of the events, but the coherence of the events; by definition, high-quality fiction would be that wherein the depicted events are consistent and compelling enough that their possibility, under any conceivable spatial or temporal reality, is granted.

And, expanding on this point, it is also enough for human empathy that the events be consistent and compelling. Consider: if a person that you meet tells you that their sibling is dying of complications from advanced stage Alzheimer’s disease, you do not need them to provide documentation attesting to the truth of their claim before you can feel sad. In this case, the appropriateness of the emotion derives chiefly from the social utility of sharing an emotional state with a conversation partner, and also from the understanding gained.

In addition, it is simply not the case that one’s legitimate emotional reaction, even to something believed as real, necessitates intervention or interaction; in cases like this person on the street (or a video of an actual Alzheimer’s patient, or a dying character in a movie) one’s emotional response may well be coupled with one’s knowledge that one can not do anything to help. Moreover, it is perfectly rational to feel sadness at the idea of a person dying of complications from advanced stage Alzheimer’s disease, without even having to have a particular case in mind (although the rationality here is primarily, as sketched farther above, a result of the learning and planning potential).

Now imagine that the person you meet has not mentioned a well-known malady, but instead said that their sibling is dying of Colin Radford’s Disease. They describe the symptoms of Colin Radford’s Disease and the suffering of their sibling in minute detail, and you are saddened by the plight of this individual and their family. If you later learned that not only do they not have a sick sibling, but that there is no such thing as Colin Radford’s Disease, your earlier empathetic sadness does not suddenly become “illogical, irrational, even incoherent.” The impossibility of the reality of the events only changes the primary utility of the emotional response.

But now push it further and, finally, imagine that this person approaches you and says that they will tell you a story; in the story, a person learns that they have Colin Radford’s Disease, which is terminal and has horrific symptoms, and then goes through some of the suffering associated with those symptoms. It may be ambiguous whether this story is true, and so you assume it is not. Still, that it would be “incoherent” to be saddened by this story seems very odd indeed.

After all, does the listener not understand the concept of suffering from a disease? Does the listener not have the faculty of empathy? In fact, the only things, under the circumstances, which seem able to harm the rationality of emotional response to the story are concerns such as whether the details of the story are consistent, and whether the characters are nuanced in the way that real people are. Note: this is a defense of any person’s emotional reaction to a fictional work, so this does not mean that someone who is not saddened by the story is irrational. This only means that a person who is saddened by the story is not irrational.

Le Vampire by R. de Moraine - paradox of fiction - Colin Radford

Le Vampire by R. de Moraine


Another relevant task of the brain is its organization, categorization, and association of different events and topics. A realistic rendering of the suffering of a cancer patient in a fiction belongs to the sections of a person’s knowledge and memories which also house their knowledge and memories of the actuality of cancer. Ditto for a realistic rendering of a relationship’s traumatic end, or, more generally, for any suffering or death (even if the context is not realistic but fantastical; in this general sense, only the suffering or death itself would need to be realistic). Again, the relevant portion of the brain is engaged. But this mental basis is not what makes the association rational and defeats the idea of a paradox of fiction; what makes the association rational is, again, how the association aids in developing understanding.

I would like to set up this account against that of one of Colin Radford’s dissenters. From the IEP article, Kendall Walton denies premise (3) in the following way: “According to Walton, it is only ‘make-believedly’ true that we fear horror film monsters, feel sad for the Greek tragic heroes, etc.” It seems to me that it is ridiculous to say that the fear one feels while watching a good horror movie is not real fear, and so I completely disagree (even if that fear is to a different extent, and mixed with different emotions than would be the case in an actual dangerous situation).

In fact, I think we fear a horror film monster not because that monster is going to literally eat us, but because its threat to the characters in the work is, in effect, the actual phenomena of murder, torture, and predation, which do exist, and which we rationally fear. We fear such threatening attributes embodied, and we come to associate that embodiment with the fear. I think we feel sad for the Greek tragic hero not because we are assured of their existence, but because the suffering of the character in the work is the actual phenomena of failure, loss, and misfortune, which do exist, and which rationally depress us. This account is obviously in intimate connection to the utility of empathy sketched above.

If this is incorrect, then why do horror movie monsters have masks or sharp teeth? Why do they most often stalk when characters are alone or vulnerable? Indeed, why do they not, instead, wear polo shirts and clean khaki pants? Why do they not slip on banana peels while catchy pop music plays? Clearly such mental associations and categories do meaningfully and productively exist. And note, this is not saying that the monster is fear-inducing only because it reminds the viewer of harm or death or whatever else (although that is certainly part of it); it is fear-inducing because, in a sense, it is the concept of harm or death or whatever else. (Literarily inclined readers may notice that this section borrows some ideas from the body of work in modern psychoanalytic literary theory, particularly relating to the idea of ‘play’—as distinct from Kendall Walton’s above ‘pretend theory.’)

Equipped with the material from this section and the previous section, we are now ready to present our final edit of the first premise of Radford’s argument:

(1”) In order for us to be rationally moved (to tears, to anger, to horror) by what we come to learn about various people, situations, and concepts, we must believe that the people, situations, and concepts in question really exist, existed, or could exist.

It may seem that, beyond simply dissolving the supposed paradox, I am now affirming as rational a very broad swathe of emotional responses to fiction. That’s because I am. But I am only doing so because such responses are clear manifestations of beneficial, recently evolved (social and practical) mental systems we have for association, empathy, and future planning.


Anton Chekhov Sketch by M.R.P. - paradox of fiction - Colin Radford

Caricature Sketch by M.R.P.

In conclusion, it is not, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge (who coined the phrase ‘suspension of disbelief’) thinks, that on some limited level we believe the events are really happening; it is not that we are, as Kendall Walton thinks, feeling ‘quasi-emotions,’ but not the same real emotions as elsewhere in life; and it is not, as Colin Radford thinks, that this is a mysterious paradox of fiction in human nature. It is that we are very good at categorizing, learning from, and relating to simulated reality—and that our emotional responses are a part of that process.

The interrelated parts of the mind which are responsible for future-planning, empathy, and mental association would all have involvement in the experience of a fictional narrative, which would entail as part of its utility the appropriate emotional response. Thus, such a response is rational. As I have often concluded in this series, most philosophers in this area would do well to study some biology, just as most biologists would do well to study some philosophy.

Now then, whatever your preferred medium of art, go find a work and engage with it. As for myself, I think I’ll turn to a story by one of my favorite authors, Anton Chekhov; don’t be surprised if I laugh, gasp, or sigh.

(And if your preferred medium is literature, games, or film, my other series can offer some recommendations.)

[Topics: Evolutionary Biology, Paradox of Fiction, Philosophy of Art, Psychology]
Why Stories Make Us Feel:

Colin Radford’s So-called “Paradox of Fiction” and How Art Prompts Human Emotion

was last modified: November 29th, 2022 by Daniel Podgorski
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