Student Question

Can you explain this excerpt from Alex Neill's article “ ‘An Unaccountable Pleasure’: Hume on Tragedy and the Passions”?

Budd points to two major defects in what he takes to be Hume’s approach:

First, it limits the problem to the experience of spectators who are not pained by the represented suffering and misfortune of the tragedy’s sympathetic characters. Second, it applies only to spectators who undergo negative emotions without in any way suffering, which seems impossible if unpleasantness is intrinsic to the experience of these emotions (Budd 103).

Budd is surely right that these would represent serious defects in an account of our experience of tragedy; indeed, any account limited in these ways would be not so much defective as obviously hopeless. So obviously hopeless, in fact, that it ought to be surprising to find Hume espousing such an account. In what follows, I show that he does not do so. I shall begin by arguing that there are reasons to doubt that Hume is guilty of either of the charges that Budd levels in the passage I have just quoted. I shall then argue that the view of tragic experience that Hume offers in “Of Tragedy” is in fact quite different from that which both Budd and Schier attribute to him.

Of the two charges that Budd levels against Hume, the second is the more fundamental, since it attacks what is, on the interpretation offered by Budd and by Schier, the central thesis in Hume’s account of the tragic experience. This is the thesis that in our experience of tragedy, as Schier puts it, “the painful emotions are transformed into pleasurable ones, apparently without loss of identity. Terror is no longer painful at all, but pleasurable” (8). Budd’s charge is that this sort of “hedonic engineering” of emotion, as it might be called, is in fact impossible. For some emotions, at least, are such that having a particular sort of “hedonic charge”—being experienced as pleasurable, say, or as “disagreeable and uneasy”—is intrinsic to the concepts of those emotions (Budd 103). Thus Aristotle, for example, defines certain emotions partly in terms of their hedonic character: fear is “a kind of pain or disturbance resulting from the imagination of impending danger,” while pity is “a certain pain occasioned by an apparently destructive evil or pain’s occurring to one who does not deserve it” (9). Now if this view that the hedonic character of (at least some) emotions is essential to them is right, and it looks very plausible, then the claim that Budd and Schier hold to be central to Hume’s account—the claim that in our experience of tragedy the hedonic charge of certain passions is changed from negative to positive while the passions themselves are left in place—must just be wrong. As Schier says, “there is something almost nonsensical about the notion of a pain-free terror.”

However, we should notice that if Hume does make this claim, then he is guilty not only of proposing something “almost nonsensical,” but also of inconsistency. For in his account of the passions in Book 1 of the treatise, Hume in fact endorses the thesis that the hedonic character of (at least some of) the passions is necessary to them. He claims, for example, that “the passions, both direct and indirect, are founded on pain and pleasure. . . . Upon the removal of pain and pleasure there immediately follows a removal of love and hatred, pride and humility, desire and aversion, and of most of our reflective or secondary impressions” (T 438).

Now it may be objected that all that Hume says here is that the passions are always experienced as having some hedonic character, rather than that any of them essentially involves any particular hedonic character. But it is the latter that he has in mind, as is clear from such statements as that “admiration . . . is always agreeable” (T 374); that “pity is an uneasiness” (T 381); and that “pride is a pleasant sensation, and humility a painful; and upon the removal of the pleasure and pain, there is in reality no pride nor humility.” This latter point he explicitly takes to be beyond argument: “Of this our very feeling convinces us; and beyond our feeling, ’tis here in vain to reason or dispute” (T 286).

Indeed, the account of the causes of the indirect passions that Hume develops in Book 1 of the Treatise depends on those passions having a particular hedonic charge. If pride, for example, were not essentially pleasurable—if it could be experienced as painful—then there would in effect be no way of distinguishing between pride and humility. For on Hume’s account the objects of these passions are the same: the self. And with respect to their causes, what Hume calls the “subject” is the same—“either parts of ourselves, or something nearly related to us” (T 285). Where pride and humility differ is with respect to what he calls the “quality” that “inheres in” or is “plac’d on” the subject: in the case of pride, the quality is something “that produces a separate pleasure,” in that of humility it is something that causes us “a separate uneasiness.” Now if pride were to be experienced as painful, then, given Hume’s thesis about the causal role of a double relation of impressions and ideas in the production of the indirect passions, the operative quality in this case should have to have caused us “a separate uneasiness.” But now our hypothetical state—pride experienced as painful—would be a painful impression, the object of which is the self, and the cause of which is comprised of a subject that is in one way or another related to the self and a quality that causes pain. And that, of course, is on Hume’s account precisely a description of humility. In short, on Hume’s account, pride is essentially pleasurable; if we try to characterise a hedonically engineered pride, pride experienced as painful, we end up simply characterising something else: humility.

Expert Answers

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“ ‘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.

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