Wednesday, 12 November 2008

summay: in and out

Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism

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Volume 66, Issue 1, Pages 11-24

In and Out: The Dynamics of Imagination in the Engagement with Narratives
1 Department of Philosophy
Lafayette College
Easton, Pennsylvania 18402
Copyright 2008, The American Society for Aesthetics by Blackwell Publishing

Despite the attention the topic has received in recent years, there is still little agreement on how best to characterize what is at the core of engaging with narratives, irrespective of the medium—whether novels, films, plays, and so forth. Here, I look at a portion of contemporary philosophical debate, specifically, at Noël Carroll's and Matthew Kieran's criticisms of what we can call for convenience the "participant view" of narrative engagement.1 Such a view comprises those accounts that, albeit in rather different ways, explain narrative engagement in terms of a narrative perceiver's self-oriented responses, that is, of responses involving some sort of imaginative projection onto the narrated events or some sort of imaginative sharing in the mental states of the characters.The spectrum of notions invoked by such theories goes from identification to empathy, with the latter sometimes explained as mental simulation, to that form of imagination that Richard Wollheim dubbed "central imagining."

Yet, likely this is again an instance where the imagination fails; hence it can hardly prove that imagination should not be explained by means of simulation.

They are (1) a construal of empathy and simulation, as they figure in this context, as mere inferential tools to attribute mental states to others; (2) relatedly, an emphasis on a narrow conception of narrative interpretation, hence a failure to consider all of the aspects of narrative understanding as well as properly to consider issues of narrative appreciation; and (3) a construal of empathy as incompatible with other kinds of responses and engagements of the imagination.

(2) The claim that we do not need empathy in order to know what the mental state of narrative characters is also betrays an undue emphasis on interpretation only, indeed on interpretation quite narrowly conceived: as aimed at categorizing narrative characters under the appropriate emotional terms.

I suggest, then, that 'sympathy' be used to refer to that form of engagement that amounts to empathy plus a concern for the other.

It is worth noting that, as empathy is shown to be a process central to other responses, including other-oriented ones such as those of sympathy, there appears to be a heavier burden on the onlooker theorist to show the minor role of self-oriented responses, that is, of empathy, than on the participant theorist to account for other-oriented responses, that is, for sympathy.

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