“ ‘An Unaccountable Pleasure’: Hume on Tragedy and the Passions” is an article written by British philosopher Alex Neill, in which he attempts to analyze Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, writer, historian, and economist David Hume and his theory on the paradox of tragedy. Essentially, he recounts Hume’s claims that there is an interesting paradoxical phenomenon which arises when people watch or read a well-written or well-produced tragedy: they seem to enjoy it; the more the people’s passions are aroused, they more they will take pleasure in the sadness and unhappiness that they are (un)consciously becoming a part of by reading or watching said tragedy.
In this particular excerpt, he focuses on the arguments of British philosophers Malcolm Budd and Flint Schier, in which they disagree with Hume’s opinions and believe that his aim was to explain how “a negative emotion can be transformed into a positive one.” Both Budd and Schier agree that Hume’s solution to the paradox of tragedy is flawed and assert that it focuses only on the audience which experiences predominantly negative emotions without feeling uneasy (which is very improbable) and disregards the part of the audience that is simply not affected by the tragedy that happens to the characters. They claim that this interesting “metamorphosis” or “engineering” of passions and emotions, in which a negative feeling transforms into a positive one, is “nonsensical,” as it is impossible to feel “pain-free terror.”
In my opinion, Neill argues that Budd and Schier manage to somehow miss Hume's point and don't realize that Hume does not, in fact, really believe that a negative passion can be transformed into a positive one, or vice versa. Instead, he believes that the focus is put on the audience or the subject itself and the “hedonic charge” of their emotions. If the spectators didn’t know that pride, for instance, is a “pleasurable” emotion, then they’d interpret it as “painful,” which means that the audience simply characterizes the pleasurable emotion of pride as a painful one and “transforms” it into a new emotion—humility.
Essentially, Neill contends that Hume’s arguments aren’t as black and white as Budd and Schier claim they are. He believes that, instead of asserting that there is a certain emotional engineering that happens when we read or watch a good tragedy, Hume argues that the first emotion, be it positive or negative, merely strengthens the second emotion without changing or overpowering its basic hedonic charge or character. However, Neill also mentions that he doesn’t absolutely think that Hume’s theory on the paradox of tragedy and our experience of it is a particularly persuasive one.