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I argue that it is a mistake to suppose that Hume and Dubos are grappling with one and
the same “paradox of tragedy”—viz., the one just described. I offer a novel interpretation
of Dubos paradox and his solution, defend Dubos against Hume’s criticism, and prepare
the way for an appreciation of some ways in which their views are closer than they seem
at first glance.
1. Introduction
That there is something puzzling about the pleasure we take in good fictional tragedies is
brought out nicely by three intuitively plausible claims we owe to Aristotle:
The characteristic pleasure (oikeia hêdonê) of tragedy comes “from pity and
fear through imitation” (Poetics 1453b4-7).
Fear is “a pain or disturbance due to imagining some destructive or painful
evil in the future” (Rhetoric 1382a21-3).
Pity is “a feeling of pain at an apparent evil, destructive or painful, which
befalls one who does not deserve it, and which we might expect to befall
ourselves or some friend of ours, and moreover to befall us soon” (Rhetoric
It follows from (1-3) that, for Aristotle, the oikeia hêdonê of tragedy comes (i) from
painful and disturbing feelings (ii) through imaginative engagement with imitations of,
among other things, destructive or painful evil. If Aristotle is right, it seems that there are
circumstances in which a feeling of pain is (in some sense) pleasing.
The explicit recognition of a “paradox” here, considered as a central problem in
the philosophy of the arts, comes long after Aristotle. Hume notes in his 1757 treatment
of the paradox, for example, that “the few critics who have had some tincture of
philosophy, have remarked this singular phænomenon, and have endeavoured to account
for it” (OT 217). One of the two such “critics” mentioned by Hume is the Abbé JeanBaptiste Dubos, who announces a few paragraphs into the first part of his sprawling
Critical Reflections on Poetry and Painting that one of his aims is “to clear up this
paradox” (CR 2).
But what is the paradox? Here is a typical way of setting up the problem in
recent philosophy.1 Start with two intuitively plausible generalizations:
T1. It is always unpleasant to feel pity and fear.
T2. Audiences enjoy feeling pity and fear in response to (good) tragic fictions.
Next, add the “apparent conceptual truth” (T3):
T3. “What is unpleasant cannot be enjoyed” (Yanal 1999, p. 144.)
The result (T1-3), of course, is a set from which a contradiction can be deduced. And
since (T3) is an allegedly necessary or “conceptual” truth, presumably either one, the
other, or both of the generalizations (T1-2) must be false. The philosophical challenge
posed by “the paradox of tragedy,” then, is taken to be that of determining which of two
apparently true generalizations is false and why.
Or is it? I shall argue that it is a mistake to suppose that Hume and Dubos are
grappling with one and the same problem—viz., the one just described. In my view, the
Drawn from Yanal (1999).
contrast between their “solutions” is not so knife-sharp as some commentators, including
Hume, would like to think. Rather, their surface disagreement masks an
underappreciated affinity between their views on tragedy and pleasure.
2. Hume’s Reading of the Hume-Dubos Dispute
Hume is widely read as denying (T2), though an interpretive dispute—one we needn’t
concern ourselves with here—has arisen over just what grounds he sees for doing so. In
any case, he seems to be attributing to Dubos the most obvious alternative strategy—viz.,
that of denying (T1):
L’Abbe DUBOS, in his reflections on poetry and painting, asserts, that nothing is
in general so disagreeable to the mind as the languid, listless state of
indolence . . . . To get rid of this painful situation, it seeks every amusement and
pursuit . . . whatever will rouze the passions, and take its attention from itself. No
matter what the passion is: Let it be disagreeable, afflicting, melancholy,
disordered; it is still better than the insipid languor. (OT 217)
That is, Hume’s Dubos proposes that “disagreeable, afflicting, melancholy, [or]
disordered” passions can, in fact, be pleasant—at least in the sense that they can be
preferable to a certain “painful” and “insipid languor,” and hence that the resolution of
the paradox is secured by means of the denial of (T1).
Hume acknowledges the widespread distaste for boredom to which Dubos appeals,
but charges that “there is, however, a difficulty in applying to the present subject, in its
full extent, this solution” (OT 218). The “difficulty” is that we find actual tragedies in no
way pleasant, even though they make for “the most effectual cure to languor and
indolence” (OT 218).
Perhaps as a result of this confident dismissal of Dubos’ solution, very few
contemporary anglo-american philosophers have devoted even as many paragraphs to the
discussion of Dubos’ proposal as did Hume—who, for the record, presents and dismisses
Dubos’ view within the space of three paragraphs. If we’re to trust Hume—and, if I am
right, many have done so—he and Dubos adopt opposing strategies for resolving one and
the same paradox: Dubos accepts the claim that audiences enjoy feeling pity and fear in
response to tragic fictions, and hence rejects the claim that pity and fear are always
unpleasant. Hume, on the other hand, accepts the claim that feeling pity and fear is
always unpleasant, and denies that what audiences enjoy is their feeling of pity and fear.
3. Hume’s Objection Rejected
The first clue that something is amiss in Hume’s response to Dubos is that the latter
emphasizes precisely the point Hume seems to be raising as an objection: that we find
actual tragedies in no way pleasant, even though they make for “the most effectual cure
to languor and indolence” (OT 218). Dubos not only acknowledges that we do not take
pleasure in actual tragedies, he judges that “the more our compassion would have been
raised by such actions as are described by poetry and painting, had we really beheld them;
the more in proportion the imitations attempted by those arts are capable of affecting us”
(CR 2). That is, I take it: the more we would suffer, were we to witness the actual tragic
events (depicted in a fictional tragedy), the more we are pleased by the fiction.
Further, if Dubos is arguing, as Hume suggests, that disagreeable passions can be
pleasant insofar as they are preferable to (or release us from) a certain sort of painful
boredom, it isn’t clear why Hume should expect him to thereby commit himself to the
implausible doctrine that any experience, however painful, must seem pleasant in
comparison to that boredom. But this is precisely the view Hume seems to think Dubos
not only is committed to but even “asserts”: “L’Abbe DUBOS, he says, “asserts, that
nothing is in general so disagreeable to the mind as the languid, listless state of
indolence” (OT 217, italics added).
In fact, Dubos asserts no such thing. What he does say is at least a bit more
“the inactivity of the mind” is “a situation . . . very disagreeable to man,”
the degree of pleasure we experience in gratifying a want tracks the
“greatness” of that “want,” and
“one of the greatest wants of man is to have his mind incessantly occupied”
(CR 5).
That is, “inactivity” is not the most disagreeable state of mind, though it is “very
disagreeable” nonetheless.
Pulling the straw out of Hume’s Dubos does not, of course, show that Hume’s
Dubos, sans straw, has a good solution to the paradox. For the idea that we take pleasure
in feeling fear and pity in response to a tragic fiction only insofar as that painful
imaginative engagement releases us from a more painful inactivity seems inadequate to
the phenomenology of our experience of a well-written tragedy. Audiences who are
starting to pity a tragic heroine when the curtain drops for an intermission do not turn to
their neighbor and say, “it sure would be awful pitying her so, had I not been so terribly
bored before the play started.”
Luckily for Dubos’ reputation, I think we can fairly conclude that Hume’s Dubos,
minus the stuffing, is still not Dubos. So what is?
4. Two Surprising Regularities
One of the interesting differences between the problem that grows out of Aristotle’s
poetics and the problems Hume and Dubos see is that the latter pair can be read as trying
to explain lawlike regularities, fairly described by means of “in proportion to” statements:
P1. Audiences of tragedies “are pleased in proportion as they are afflicted” (OT
P2. “[T]he more our compassion would have been raised by such actions as are
described by poetry and painting, had we really beheld them; the more in
proportion the imitations attempted by those arts are capable of affecting
us” (CR 2)
Notice just how different (P1) and (P2) are. (P1) seems to be puzzling in the following
way: our responses to tragedies involve both suffering and pleasure, and yet contrary to
what we might intuitively expect, an increase in the intensity of the affliction generally
increases (not decreases) the amount of pleasure in the response. (P2), on the other hand,
seems puzzling in a different way: it finds an unexpected proportion not within a single
type of experience (a response to fictional tragedy), but rather between two different
types of experience (one of a real event, the other of a fictional event).
(P1) and (P2) are so different, I suggest, precisely because they belong to different
problems. A brief look at how Dubos and Hume describe the paradoxes they take
themselves to be resolving will bring this out.
5. Dubos’ Paradox
Just after noting the surprising regularity (P2), three paragraphs into his presentation of
the paradox he hopes to resolve in his treatise, Dubos makes a remark that should surprise
readers who take him to have in mind the paradox I described in my opening remarks:
It must be therefore a secret charm that draws our attention to the imitations made
by those arts, whilst our nature feels an inward dread and repugnance at the sight
of its own pleasure. (CR 2)
(Une charme secret nous attache donc sur les imitations que les peintres et les
poètes en savent faire, dans le temps même que la nature tèmoigne par un
frémissement intérieur qu’elle se soulève contre son proper plaisir. (Dubos 1993,
p. 1))
There is no remark in Hume’s presentation of the paradox of tragedy about a “secret
charm,” nor is there any talk of “repugnance at the sight of [one’s] own pleasure.”
(Hume does say that “an action, represented in tragedy, may be too bloody and atrocious”
(OT 224). But he explains that he means by this that no representation of such an action,
no matter how much “energy of expression” a genius devotes to its creation, could ever
win pleasure rather than “uneasiness” (OT 224).)
It seems to me uncharitable to suppose that Dubos is simply making an aside here.
He ought to be clarifying the problem he proposes to solve, and so let’s suppose that’s
what he’s doing. But what contribution could the remark in question make toward the
clarification of his problem, if that problem is simply that of determining which of two
empirical generalizations is true.
Here’s what I suggest: the passage just quoted presents the Scylla and Charybdis
of Dubos’ problem, and the philosophical challenge posed by that problem is that of
finding a way of explaining (P2) while avoiding both monsters. That this might seem
impossible warrants, for Dubos, the use of the term “paradox.” Here, then, is the problem:
On one hand, Dubos wants to deny that artworks in general are morally dangerous,
as they presumably would be if they held a “secret charm” by which they make the tragic,
the violent, and the grotesque appear attractive to us. That Dubos would take up the task
of countering the kind of critique of the arts associated with Plato (a critique against
which he devotes an entire chapter (CR 35-42) of criticism) is unsurprising. After all, it
is often recognized that the justification of the aesthetic appreciation of nature and the
arts is one of the core projects of the eighteenth century.2 Even the phrase “secret charm”
See, for example, Guyer 1993, Ch. 7.
seems to echo, say, Malebranche’s suspicion of the cook’s special “art of making us eat
old shoes in their stews.”3
On the other hand, Dubos wants to deny that taking pleasure in artistic depictions
of tragedy, violence, and the grotesque normally indicates a vicious soul. After all, a
virtuous person, he thinks, “has no such motion in him as can lead him to commit the like
excesses; having an horror by instinct, and, if I may be allowed the expression, a
mechanic aversion to all such unnatural actions” (CR 95-6, italics added). That is, I take
it, the virtuous cannot see anything appealing about a vicious act—there is simply
nothing in their psychology that would permit them to take pleasure in the prospect of
such an act.
In short, then, Dubos’ question is: what could explain our taking pleasure in
depictions of what no virtuous person would take pleasure in, other than the presence of a
moral flaw in the depictions (i.e., in the form of a corrupting function of art) or in
Malebranche remarks in the thirteenth of his Elucidations of the Search After Truth (1678) that
“through our senses, God has sufficiently provided for the preservation of our life, and nothing
could be any better” (646). God has given us the capacity to feel pleasure and displeasure
through sensation, and the normal function of this capacity is to attract us to what is good for our
health and avert us from what is bad for our health. This is not to say, of course, that our feelings
of pleasure (or of displeasure) are altogether reliable indicators of what is good (or bad) for our
health, nor is it to suggest that such feelings reveal what is good (or bad) for us, all things
considered. Our feelings do sometimes lead us astray. But they do so, Malebranche thinks, only
insofar as “reason and experience combine to ambush and corrupt them” (645). “If cooks have
found the art of making us eat old shoes in their stews,” or if “our friends take bad food” and “we
do likewise,” this need not reflect poorly on God, who “provided us with the senses only in
relation to the natural order of things” (646). A poison in its natural state would not have “the
kind of taste that would make us swallow it” (645).
ourselves (in the form of a disposition to take pleasure in what we should feel a
“mechanic aversion” to)?
6. Dubos’ Solution
Without dwelling on the textual basis for my interpretation of Dubos’ solution to his
paradox—this is, after all, a Hume conference and I would like to introduce this reading
primarily as a means to clarifying the question of what’s at issue between Dubos and
Hume—here is Dubos’ solution, as I understand it:
First of all, as noted above, he thinks that “one of the greatest wants of man is to
have his mind incessantly occupied.” The proof of this is that “he frequently chooses to
expose himself to the most painful exercises, rather than be troubled with it” (CR 5).
This want explains the fact that persons have the “tastes and inclinations” they do: since
they want their minds to be incessantly occupied, it is understandable that they have
acquired tastes that “furnish them with frequent opportunities of amusing themselves
agreeably with quick and pleasing sensations” (CR 20).
But since individuals are “not organized all alike,” they do not all have the same
tastes. And satisfying some tastes and inclinations—such as those for wine or
gambling—can yield disagreeable consequences along with immediate amusement (CR
21). Thus, it is a happy thing that we have also been provided with a taste for having
“artificial” (or “superficial”) “emotions” (or “passions”)—viz., the emotions typically
excited in us by representational artworks. Such works offer a way “to separate the
dismal consequences of our [real] passions from the bewitching pleasure we receive in
indulging them.” And they do so by “exciting” in us only “artificial passions, sufficient
to occupy us while we are actually affected by them, and incapable of giving us
afterwards any real pain or affliction” (CR 21).
Hence, Dubos’ view is not that we take pleasure in feelings of pity and fear at the
theatre because they relieve our boredom; rather, his view is that we have (as a result of
divine providence?) a taste for having artificial versions of real passions. And part of
what distinguishes the artificial emotions is that they occupy our minds, thereby pleasing
us by gratifying a basic want, and they do so without afflicting us or getting us into
trouble. Finally, and most importantly given the account of Dubos’ problem above, since
they are not real passions, they do not reflect poorly on the character of the person who
has them, nor is their creation in us by artworks a sign that art is generally morally
dangerous. Art is not dangerous, it is, instead, beneficial.4
7. Artificial Passions
This distinction between artificial and real passions might seem especially unclear. In
fact, at least one of Dubos’ readers (Guyer 2004) supposes it most charitable to deny that
Dubos means to be accepting an early antecedent of the view, associated most famously
with Walton (1990), sometimes referred to as “emotional irrealism” (Gaut 2002).5
The author of perhaps the only book-length study of “Hume’s Aesthetic Theory”
in it, however, acknowledges that Dubos is an emotional irrealist of sorts. As Townsend
(2001) puts it,
Dubos leaves hints that the arts are not always innocent in their influence. (For example, he
hopes his book will provide some service to “the censors.”)
I argue [elsewhere] that Dubos’ irrealism is more plausible, in certain respects, than the much
discussed contemporary versions of the view.
The only difference between an artificial and a real passion . . . is the status of the
object. In so far as imitation succeeds, the passions it provokes are closer to those
that the real object would excite. The difference is one of force. The impression
that an imitated object makes lacks the force of the object itself. The lack of force
is not just a lack of strength in the way the passion is felt, however. It is a
difference in consequences. The effect on the ‘sensitive soul’ by imitations is
weaker, and thus it soon fades.6
What Townsend means here is not altogether clear, but I suspect he means to say: first,
that the ontological status (real vs. imitation) of the object of an emotion determines
whether that emotion is artificial or real; and second, that since imitations lack the
superior causal power of real objects, artificial emotions are less persistent than real ones.
That is, on Townsend’s view, Dubos would have us believe that whether we are having a
real or an artificial emotion depends on whether we are experiencing a real-emotioncausing thing (say, a tragic event) or an artificial-emotion-causing thing (a depiction of a
tragic event). And this sounds very much like saying that opium makes people sleep
because it has a dormative property. If Townsend’s interpretation of the distinction is
correct, Dubos’s distinction is not very informative.
But I’m not convinced that Townsend’s interpretation is correct, since sometimes
Dubos seems to be suggesting that the distinction between artificial and real emotions
just is the distinction between emotions we have some control over and those we don’t.
As he puts it,
Hume’s Aesthetic Theory (New York: Routledge, 2001), p. 79 (italics mine).
the painter and the poet afflict us only inasmuch as we desire it ourselves; they
make us fall in love with their heroes and heroins, only because it is thus
agreeable to us; whereas we should be neither able to command the measure of
our sentiments, nor regulate their vivacity nor duration, were we to be struck by
the very objects which those noble artists have imitated. (CR 25-6)
It may seem to us as though we are not in control of feeling (artificial) grief while we are
engaged in the performance of a tragedy; however, all the while “we are sensible,” Dubos
thinks, “that our tears will finish with the representation of the ingenious fiction that gave
them birth” (CR 25). What makes an emotion artificial is that we are not its passive
victims; on the contrary, Dubos' point seems to be that we normally allow such emotions
to persist only so long as they are pleasurable.7
8. Hume and Dubos
The problem Hume identifies in “Of Tragedy” is much closer to the contemporary
“paradox of tragedy.” Nowhere in his essay does he explicitly address the problem I
have suggested Dubos identifies. However, once we appreciate the difference between
their respective problems, it becomes clear that their disagreement is less sharp. Here, for
example, are two deep similarities:
First, both Hume and Dubos deny (T2), the thesis that audiences of tragic fictions
enjoy feelings of pity and fear. Hume, does so presumably because he thinks the real
source of pleasure is not these feelings, but the aesthetic pleasure we derive from
appreciating the artistry of the work in question. Dubos, on the other hand, denies (T2)
Townsend would presumably reply that, for Dubos, it is only because the passions caused by
artistic depictions are weaker that we can control them.
on the grounds that the feelings we take pleasure in are not real fear and pity (which
would be unpleasant), but rather “quasi-fear” and “quasi-pity” (to borrow Walton
(1990)’s terms).
Second, while Hume does not endorse a distinction between real and artificial
passions (of the sort Dubos does, anyway), he is prepared to distinguish the exercise of
the “deliacy of taste,” as we do when our pleasure in the artistry of a tragedy
overshadows (or converts) that painful pity and fear we feel while engaging with it, from
the exercise of the “delicacy of passion,” which, if it were what successful artworks invite,
would be cause for moral concern about the influence of the arts. (See “OD”)
Both of these points require further clarification and defense. However, I have
undertaken here primarily the negative task of undermining an initially appealing but, I
believe, misleading way of understanding the dispute between Hume and Dubos
concerning the “paradox of tragedy.” There is not one paradox of tragedy that they both
construct and address.
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