A little robot, Wall-E, spent hundreds of years in solitude processing garbage in the empty planet, until one day, when he meets EVA. She becomes his girl-friend and sole friend. When she turns inactive for a reason he doesn't understand, he takes care of her, dressing her up and bringing her to picnic.It might be too shameful for you to admit that you felt something in those moments. It is for me. But that does not change the fact that we felt for these characters. Empathy. Identification. These are the words often used to label what happened to us. They say we empathized with those characters. But what does that mean?
Satine, a beautiful courtesan of Moulin Rouge who wants to be a real actress, is in love with a struggling writer. She is about to be raped by the duke who has been their sponsor. She announces that today is the day her life ends.
At the end of a picture-perfect love story in which a young couple overcome their obstacles, the young man watches the love of his life lie in a hospital bed dying of leukemia.
As it turns out, philosophers have spent much brain power to resolve the “paradox” of empathizing with fictional characters. Susan Feagin, for example, contends that “empathy” is feeling exactly what the other person feels and “for the right reasons.” According to Feagin, in empathizing with a real person, we have to believe that we adopted the beliefs and desires of the person in question. (Otherwise, it would be sympathy, not empathy.) In empathizing with a fictional character however, we can't hold such a belief. In fact, we don’t even believe that the person exists at all. So how is it possible that we empathize with a fictional character? Feagin’s solution to this paradox is to say that we imagine having the fictional character’s beliefs and desires, rather than believing that we do. This sounds like saying that the empathy we feel for a real person is categorically different from the empathy we feel for a fictional character. The former is based on the second order belief (the belief that we adopted the other person’s beliefs) and the latter based on imagination.
A more convoluted proposal comes from Gregory Currie, who says we don’t imagine believing the same thing as a non-existing person in empathizing with him, but we (lo and behold) “believe-I” and "desire-I" the contents of his beliefs and desires to simulate his mental states. (Here, the special “I-states” denote real mental states that bear some sort of systematic resemblance to the mental states of the target person.) Moreover, he says that what we do is to simulate “a hypothetical reader of fact” who empathizes with the fictional character in question. So Currie’s solution to the paradox seems to be making up this new mental state (“I-state”) as well as insert an intermediary between us and the fictional character. (It appears to me that the “hypothetical reader of fact” is an unnecessary entity, although some may find it useful for solving what Currie calls the “personality problem,” the fact that we empathize with the kind of fictional characters we wouldn’t empathized with in real life.)
One of the problems I have with these views is their assumption that we really do adopt the beliefs and desires of others in empathizing with real people. How can this be possible? We have no access to other people’s beliefs and desires. We can never truly know them, much less adopt them. Most of time, we only theorize about them. When we attempt to “simulate” them, imagining is the only possible way. Therefore, in my opinion, we always depend on our imagination when empathizing with somebody -- real or fictional.
Another problem is the notion of putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes and identifying with them. Do we really put ourselves in the shoe of Wall-E, or the beautiful 19th century Parisian courtesan, or the lover of the dying young woman? Do we imagine adopting their beliefs and desires (or “believe-I” and “desire-I” them)? I think what really happens is something more complicated. Here is what I think happens when we "empathize" with movie characters (and with real people to a certain degree):
- I suspect unconscious activation of one’s own emotional memories in response to the event on screen is often confused with (or constitutes) what we call empathy. (Oatley, a leading figure in cognitive science of fiction and stories, also lists emotional memories as one of the five processes through which fiction evokes emotions, but for him this is a process separate from “identification.”)
- In some cases, we may become emotional imagining the events in the film happening to us even without simulating the beliefs and desires of the character.
- Once we form an alliance or attachment with a character, our own desire not to see bad things happen to the people we like may be at play.
- Automatic arousal in response to emotional expressions at display on screen, should also constitute our “empathy” experience.
- Furthermore, we sometimes seem to react to the abstract “truth” the event on the screen distills. (e.g., Wall-E’s situation shows us our hopeless bondage to the blind yearning for attachment; Satine’s moment in Moulin Rouge! says that happiness does not last and sometimes you have to pay a horrible price; The end of Love Story reminds us how helpless we are in the face of certain fates.)
Feagin, S. (1997). Imagining emotions and appreciating fiction. In M. Hjort & S. Laver (Eds.), Emotion and the Arts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Currie, G. (1997). The paradox of caring: Fiction and the philosophy of mind. In M. Hjort & S. Laver (Eds.), Emotion and the Arts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Oatley, K. & Gholamain, M. (1997). Emotion and identification: Connections between readers and fiction. In M. Hjort & S. Laver (Eds.), Emotion and the Arts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Davies, D. (2007). Aesthetics and Literature. London: Continuum International Publishing Group.
Tan, E. S. (1996). Emotion and the Structure of Narrative Film: Film as an Emotion Machine. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
My thanks to the members of TMU forms who participated in this discussion thread.