The Willing Suspension of Disbelief

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

What is it

Why don't we run out of the movie theatre when a monster shows on the screen? What kind of mental state is the willing suspension of disbelief?  Why do fiction and drama affect our emotions even when we know they are not real?  John and Ken examine the role of suspension of disbelief in the enjoyment of theatre, movies, video games, and what this trait reveals about the human mind in general.

Listening Notes

Why is it that people can cry and show great emotion when a fictional character dies, isn't this silly, irrational even, to get upset about something that is not real? Ken asks whether these emotions are real, and why they do not move us to action? Why kind of feeling is this if they are not real, full emotions that cause us to change something in our lives. The willing suspension of disbelief is an intermediate state where one puts on hold the belief that the situation is not real, but will pull back when his/her emotions are about to go too far. Why is their believing disbelief though, because they cannot distinguish between reality and fiction? Coleridge says that it is not that people cannot tell the difference, but that the suspension of disbelief is enough to induce the emotional result.

Some philosophers say you are not really sad, but that you have appearance of sadness without real sadness. Ken also asks how much fiction can we really get into as things get less and less realistic. Stephen replies that some things you cannot do in a story before you stop and say it is fake. This is when the audience cannot stay in it, and is no longer are in the occasion, where the person refuses to suspend. An example of this is when the fiction goes against the frame, against morality for instance, and as an audience member you just will not go.

The suspension also allows a person to have experience he might not otherwise have. It gives the person a richer life, and this is lacking in most people's lives. John doubts that the experiences are all experiences we feel are lacking in our life; some are just not things we think we are missing out on. Maybe instead it is training in being human, an avenue for expression of emotions that have not found in expression in our personal lives.

Descartes taught us to actively disbelieve, to question what we are being given. Ken encourages listeners to "try believing something you find hard to believe, try them on." Maybe there's as much benefit to be had in advancing knowledge from turning of skepticism.

  • Amy Standen the Roving Philosophical Reporter (Seek to 4:57): The roving philosophical reporter asks people to comment on a movie, TV show, or video game that causes him/her to lose track of reality.
  • Ian Sholes (Seek to 49:51): Sholes discusses a debate between J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis on the interplay of the realm of fantasy and religion.

Steven Meyer, Associate Professor of English, Washington University in St. Louis


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