Cover image for Narrative, Emotion, and Insight Edited by Noël Carroll and John Gibson

Narrative, Emotion, and Insight

Edited by Noël Carroll, and John Gibson


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ISBN: 978-0-271-04857-4

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ISBN: 978-0-271-04858-1

200 pages
6" × 9"

Studies of the Greater Philadelphia Philosophy Consortium

Narrative, Emotion, and Insight

Edited by Noël Carroll, and John Gibson

“This is an excellent collection of essays assembled to address an important and challenging question: How can we be emotionally moved by, or learn from, fictional narratives—stories composed of persons, things, and events that we know don't exist? The writers address this question from a variety of perspectives and consider a wide range of examples from literature, drama, and film. The result is a lively, informed, thought-provoking discussion of the contentious borderland between art and actuality. The editors have made excellent choices, and the contributors have written clear-headed, incisive essays. This is a first-rate collection that everyone interested in literary aesthetics, the psychology of narrative, or the theory of fiction will need to have. But, more than that, it's a book that anyone curious about the bearing of fictional narratives on the way we think and feel about things in real life will want to read.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
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  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
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While narrative has been one of the liveliest and most productive areas of research in literary theory, discussions of the nature of emotional responses to art and of the cognitive value of art tend to concentrate almost exclusively on the problem of fiction: How can we emote over or learn from fictions? Narrative, Emotion, and Insight explores what would happen if aestheticians framed the matter differently, having narratives—rather than fictional characters and events—as the object of emotional and cognitive attention. The book thus opens up new possibilities for approaching questions about the ethical, educative, and cultural value of art. The nine essays in this volume introduce the study of narrative to contemporary aesthetics.
“This is an excellent collection of essays assembled to address an important and challenging question: How can we be emotionally moved by, or learn from, fictional narratives—stories composed of persons, things, and events that we know don't exist? The writers address this question from a variety of perspectives and consider a wide range of examples from literature, drama, and film. The result is a lively, informed, thought-provoking discussion of the contentious borderland between art and actuality. The editors have made excellent choices, and the contributors have written clear-headed, incisive essays. This is a first-rate collection that everyone interested in literary aesthetics, the psychology of narrative, or the theory of fiction will need to have. But, more than that, it's a book that anyone curious about the bearing of fictional narratives on the way we think and feel about things in real life will want to read.”
“There is plenty to entertain and stretch the mind in these probing essays by prominent contemporary philosophers. Fresh insight is provided on intractable issues concerning narrative and emotion, with vivid discussion of actual cases from movies like Memento and Sunset Boulevard, to one of Goethe’s lyric poems, sad songs by the likes of Leonard Cohen, discovery plots in tragic drama, and multiple novels and plays. It is the detail of the examples that brings the topics to life and marks the distinctive contribution of this engaging book.”
“The contributors to Narrative, Emotion, and Insight address and explore topics of fundamental concern in aesthetics: Can narrative art—inclusive of music, theater, film, and poetry—convey and confirm truths? Can engaging with it educate us about the world or ourselves? What risks do tendencies to narrativize our lives carry? Whatever our verdict on the educative value of narrative art, the first-rate thinkers in this beautifully written volume offer original arguments and insightful analysis.”
Narrative, Emotion, and Insight is a stunning collection of essays on narrative and the arts. Bringing together the most distinguished figures in the field, it offers exciting new reflections on the nature and significance of narrative in film, literature, music, theater, and life. The essays work together to reveal deep connections among the many different philosophical contexts in which narrative plays a part, generating important new insights and pointing to rich new areas of study.”
“The chapters of Narrative, Emotion, and Insight are individually very strong, some first rate: there are some real gems and nothing to seriously complain about. Taken as a whole, the book provides important correctives and advances appropriately modest, convincing but nevertheless deeply insightful claims about the importance of narrative art. It successfully brings to light issues that anyone interested in the philosophy of narrative and emotion should care about and opens the way for new and promising work in this domain.”
“Noël Carroll and John Gibson’s Narrative, Emotion, and Insight is a thoughtful and wide-ranging anthology in the philosophy of the arts. . . . The resulting essays are as different from one another as one would expect given the open-ended nature of the project, and the essays, on the whole, are also very good: Derek Matravers’ and Peter Goldie’s chapters are particular standouts.”
“[Narrative, Emotion and Insight] is a rewarding read that will be useful to those working in philosophy of the self, personality psychology, and ethics in addition to aesthetics and philosophy of art.”

Noël Carroll is Distinguished Professor in the Philosophy Program at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

John Gibson is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Louisville.




John Gibson

1 Life, Fiction, and Narrative

Peter Goldie

2 Telling Stories: Narration, Emotion, and Insight in Memento

Berys Gaut

3 Philosophical Insight, Emotion, and Popular Fiction: The Case of Sunset Boulevard

Noël Carroll

4 Thick Narratives

John Gibson

5 Narrative, Emotions, and Autonomy

Amy Mullin

6 Narrative Rehearsal, Expression, and Goethe’s “Wandrers Nachtlied II”

Richard Eldridge

7 Rubber Ring: Why Do We Listen to Sad Songs?

Aaron Smuts

8 Discovery Plots in Tragedy

Susan L. Feagin

9 Imagination, Fiction, and Documentary

Derek Matravers

List of Contributors



John Gibson

The idea for this book grew out of a conference held at the Free Library of Philadelphia on October 17, 2006. The conference, generously funded by the Greater Philadelphia Philosophy Consortium, was titled Fiction, Emotion, and Insight. John Gibson organized it, Peter Goldie gave the keynote, and Noël Carroll, Susan Feagin, and Richard Eldridge each contributed papers. Though only one of the papers in the present volume can claim that conference as an ancestor (Eldridge’s), the discussion we started that day concludes in the following pages. It was an auspicious beginning. Noël Carroll was the last speaker of the day, and before he was able to finish presenting his paper, two men in suits entered the auditorium and began hurrying the audience away, denying us every conference’s birthright: a closing discussion of the day’s papers. The men in suits, it seemed, needed to do a security sweep to prepare the auditorium for that evening’s event: a senator from Illinois was in Philadelphia to give a speech. While the senator spoke in the expropriated auditorium, we philosophers took shelter in a cozy South Philly restaurant (the storied Snockey’s, for those in the know), where we had the discussion that should have taken place at the library. Despite the drama, it was by all counts a very good day. The senator eventually got the White House, and we eventually got a book.

The conference participants were asked to prepare papers exploring what they took to be promising new approaches to two of the showcase debates in contemporary aesthetics: debates concerning how works of fiction can be sources of knowledge (hence the inclusion of “insight” in the title) and debates concerning the nature of emotional responses to fiction (hence the inclusion of “emotion” in the title). It turned out to be a good thing that the participants uniformly ignored part of the question put to them. All of them ended up saying little about fiction and opted instead to concentrate on narrative. We were immediately struck by how much this seemed to blow life into these debates, if not always by showing how to solve the old problems, then certainly by opening up fresh and fascinating topics of discussion. We were onto something, we thought, and so we decided that the conversation should migrate from the auditorium to a collection of original, new essays.

With this in mind, the question we put to the contributors to this volume was the following: “Discussions of the nature of emotional responses to art and of the cognitive value of art tend to concentrate almost exclusively on the problem of fiction: how can we emote over or learn from objects we know do not exist? How will aestheticians be able to say something new about these questions if they instead frame the matter in terms of having narratives—rather than, or in addition to, fictional characters and events—as the objects of emotional and cognitive attention?” We did not want to have nine essays all on exactly the same topic, so we asked contributors to use this question as a point of departure, encouraging them to follow whatever line of thought it prompted, as long as it led them back to at least two of the three terms of the title: narrative, emotion, and insight. The hope was to produce a book that as a whole would demonstrate how this approach opens up new possibilities for addressing fundamental issues concerning the emotional, ethical, educative, and cognitive value of art. Since analytic aesthetics has for some time paid significantly less attention to the “worldly” significance of art in favor of discussions of the nature of fiction and the imagination, we thought a volume such as this would be poised to play a role in the shift toward discussions of the cultural relevance of art that is becoming increasingly central to current work in contemporary analytic aesthetics.

We were delighted, then, when we began to receive the chapters and saw what this approach had produced. The first thing we noticed was that the discussion moves seamlessly between all the major arts—music, theater, film, poetry, and the novel—and so placing emphasis on narrative does not by any means restrict one to a consideration of just the literary arts. The second thing we noticed was the extent to which this approach puts aesthetics in touch with other areas of philosophy. One of the successes of the huge amount of work analytic aesthetics has put into the study of fiction is that it has given aestheticians a stake in important debates in metaphysics, epistemology, and the philosophy of language. We were very pleased to see that deemphasizing (though not ignoring) the role of fiction in art in favor of a discussion of narrative preserved these points of contact while at the same time forging new links to cutting-edge work in ethics, the philosophy of self, and moral psychology. The impression we had, and one we hope readers will share, was of a collection of nine essays that maintain a sense of unity and common purpose while exploring a rich diversity of art forms and philosophical issues.

One thing we found especially interesting is that thinking about literature from the standpoint of narrative rather than fiction makes the passage from art to life not only easy but natural. In a sense this was to be expected. To think about the importance of narrative is to consider the nature and significance of stories, and we tell stories not only when we write literary works but also when we attempt to make sense of ourselves and our lives. Stories are, in this respect, a currency of communication common to art and life. And it is easy to see why this should be so. According to most common definitions of a narrative, a narrative just is the recounting of a story: narratives are, in more technical parlance, “representations” or “presentations”—depending on one’s preferred vocabulary—of stories. But the way a story is told matters immensely. To tell a story a certain way is to invest it with a kind of significance, with a point. If framing one’s thinking about literature in terms of the problem of fiction emphasizes what is “unreal” in literature, framing it in it terms of narrative highlights the endless points of contact between the two: the vast array of ways we use stories to forge a precise sense of the meaning and import of those experiences, practices, and pursuits that we find in both fictional worlds and in ours.

At this point the philosophical debate on the nature of narrative can become rather technical, as can those on the nature of emotion and knowledge, all of which are discussed in the following chapters. We’ve organized the chapters so that the basic philosophical concepts and terminology at play in the debates this volume explores are introduced and defined gradually. The opening essays offer an excellent foundation in the philosophy of narrative and related areas, and the reader who has little familiarity with the fields of philosophy this volume touches on would do well to read the chapters in order. Readers with a basic background should feel welcome to skip around. But on the whole the contributors have managed to avoid the sort of critical and theoretical jargon that can make philosophy inaccessible, and so any educated reader who is curious about the role of stories in literature and life will find herself at home here.

We open with Peter Goldie’s rich and wide-ranging “Life, Fiction, and Narrative.” The issue Goldie explores is one that has long interested philosophers: what gives a life coherence and, ultimately, meaning? An answer philosophers increasingly give to this question is that it is a matter of possessing a narrative of a certain sort: the ability to see our lives as a kind of story, a story, one hopes, not only in which we have a starring role but of which we are also in part authors. Goldie’s interest in this chapter is to assess the considerable skepticism this idea has met. The specific worry Goldie considers is that when we conceive of a human life in narrative terms, we are prone to “fictionalizing tendencies,” as he puts it. The sort of cohesion, closure, and meaning that narrative makes possible in literary works is, according to this worry, dangerously distorting when removed from a literary context and applied to real life. In his characteristically sophisticated style, Goldie acknowledges the dangers of these fictionalizing tendencies, and he sets himself the task of showing us what is nonetheless reasonable and indeed helpful about thinking of our lives in narrative terms. Goldie concludes with a brief but important conjecture about the source of these fictionalizing tendencies: they arise from our need, psychological at root, to find meaning in a world without much of a point. If Goldie is right, this marks perhaps the most basic difference between our lives and the lives of fictional characters: in the end they, but not we, exist for a reason, even if we are all, at some level, creatures of narrative. This makes it clear that one must proceed with caution when looking to literature to make sense of life.

Berys Gaut’s subtle “Telling Stories: Narration, Emotion, and Insight in Memento looks at a narrative strategy that has become increasingly influential in contemporary film and literature: backwards narration. Through a detailed analysis of the film Memento, Gaut argues that the ways in which backwards narration reverses normal temporal sequencing highlight unique possibilities for both cognitive and emotional engagement with stories. A striking aspect of Gaut’s essay is his argument that Memento not only presents claims about reality, it also partially confirms these claims. This is an original and provocative move: even those sympathetic to the idea that art bears cognitive value often think that the one thing art never does is provide any sort of confirmation for the claims it apparently makes about reality. Gaut develops his argument by exploring in detail how Memento implicitly makes three claims about the nature of memory, and how the very narrative structure of the film—the way in which it weaves its particular story—can be seen as attempting to establish the truth of these claims.

Noël Carroll’s “Philosophical Insight, Emotion, and Popular Fiction: The Case of Sunset Boulevard” continues with the theme of the epistemological significance of narrative art. Like Gaut, Carroll believes that films can put forward veritable claims about reality, but, contrary to Gaut, he sees the relevant act of confirmation as occurring in the minds of the members of the audience and not in films themselves. For Carroll, films like Sunset Boulevard do not merely prompt philosophical thought; they can be seen as actually doing philosophy. And they do philosophy by in effect functioning as philosophical thought experiments, leading viewers to draw a conclusion about some state of affairs by prompting and guiding philosophical reflection on the fictional scenarios of the film. Carroll’s account of this shows that narrative art often enlists both the mind and the passions in the service of philosophizing, and thus that the form of insight it can offer is exceptionally rich, neither narrowly emotional nor cognitive but a melding of both.

The next four essays examine the various roles narrative can play in making possible certain forms of self-understanding. In “Thick Narratives” John Gibson explores a resemblance certain kinds of narrative bear to “thick concepts,” as philosophers, following Bernard Williams, call them. Like thick concepts (concepts such as courageous, vile, etc.), these “thick” narratives are descriptively rich, so much so that they are able to convey a very precise sense of the character of the object of narration, whether that object is a self or a society. In literary works these thick narratives are often used to explore the ethical structure of our cultural practices and the kinds of experiences, relationships, and, ultimately, lives these practices make possible. This, Gibson argues, reveals a novel way to defend the idea that literary works bear significant ethical value.

Amy Mullin’s “Narrative, Emotions, and Autonomy” considers how our encounters with literary narratives can help us to achieve a kind of personal autonomy. The brand of insight literary narratives offer is, for Mullin, bound up with a kind of sentimental education in which we acquire an insight into the nature of our emotions and thus into what we basically value and find significant. Through a careful reading of various novels, Mullin documents how this enables us to see what it is we really care about and then to be capable of cultivating relationships in accordance with this knowledge, resulting, in this respect, in a kind of freedom. Like Goldie, Mullin is careful to point out that as a resource in the search for autonomy, literary narratives also present certain dangers, and hers is ultimately a sensible position that is mindful of the worries philosophers express about narrative conceptions of selfhood and agency.

Richard Eldridge’s “Narrative Rehearsal, Expression, and Goethe’s ‘Wandrers Nachtlied II’” explores the way in which narrative art can help us respond to and overcome many of the uncertainties and anxieties of modern life. He develops a notion of “narrative rehearsal” according to which narrative arts foster the development of reflective capacities that make available to us new possibilities of feeling and thinking. Like Mullin, Eldridge is especially interested in how art plays a role in our search for autonomy, by helping us to achieve awareness of who we really are and then to become self-determining in accordance with this awareness. To illustrate how art makes this possible, Eldridge offers a probing and nuanced reading of Goethe’s “Wandrers Nachtlied II” (Wayfarer’s Night Song II). The poem, Eldridge argues, leads the reader through a process of “working through” not only its content but also the emotions and moods it provokes, and this process in turn brings about a kind of clarification of the self, of what we love, value, and desire. Goethe’s poem, and art more generally, “achieves a kind of fullness of both attention to life and expression of that attention” (Eldridge, X).

In “Rubber Ring: Why Do We Listen to Sad Songs,” Aaron Smuts turns from the literary arts to music. Smuts’s concern here is especially with sad songs, those that typically feature narratives about lost love, separation, missed opportunity, regret, hardship, and all other manner of heartache. Many of us are drawn to sad songs in moments of emotional distress. The problem Smuts identifies is that sad songs do not always make us feel better; on the contrary, they often make us feel much worse. So the philosophical question becomes, why do we listen to sad songs? Smuts makes the surprising and fascinating claim that we seek out sad songs partly to intensify distress. We do this, he argues, because it helps us to reflect on situations of profound personal significance. According to Smuts, this is hardly irrational or paradoxical, contrary to what some philosophers have said about the apparent delight we take in painful art. “It is perfectly human. We need to feel in order to understand what we care about” (Smuts, X). Like Mullin and Eldridge in their accounts of literature, Smuts makes a case for the importance of certain forms of narrative art for prodding us to clarify what we really care about.

The discussion turns to drama in Susan Feagin’s “Discovery Plots in Tragedy.” If tragedy is painful, it is often because of the kind of truth it delivers, those terrible truths that reveal to us, as they did to Oedipus, something about the contingency and uncertainty of life. Feagin’s interest is to explore in detail this form of insight tragic stories offer. She develops an original account of what she terms “discovery plots” and their role in certain tragedies. Discovery plots are those in which the protagonist acquires knowledge of some fact—often a tragic fact—about herself, thereby occasioning a kind of self-discovery that will become “the fulcrum of the plot, the central event around which the plot revolves, and not just another element in the unfolding of the action” (Feagin, X). One of the most interesting implications of Feagin’s careful treatment of discovery plots is that it helps us to see the extent to which the tragic form has survived in contemporary theater, contrary to the idea that in the culture of late modernity a genuine work of tragedy is impossible. Through a subtle reading of Wajdi Mouawad’s 2005 play Scorched, Feagin shows that discovery plots remain the engine of some of the most powerful works of contemporary theater.

The volume concludes with Derek Matravers’s elegantly argued “Imagination, Fiction, and Documentary.” Matravers here exposes as mistaken one of the central reasons philosophers provide for believing that our emotional responses to fiction are different in kind from our responses to “real” characters and events. The commonly proffered reason is that emotional responses to narrative fictions lack the motivational element often thought to be essential to genuine emotions. For example, when we see someone in harm’s way in “real life,” we act, we do something, at least if we are genuinely moved by that person’s plight. Yet when viewing the same sort of thing on, say, the silver screen, we remain in our seats, perhaps gasping, but if we are sane we do not attempt to intervene. This severed link between emotion and action has led many philosophers to think that there is something exceptional and odd about our emotional responses to narrative fiction. Matravers’s response to this assumption is gracefully simple, but its implications are far-reaching. The absence of motivation, Matravers argues, has little to do with the fact that we are witnessing a fiction and everything to do with the fact that we are regarding a representation. Were the representation of something real, say of a war in some corner of the world, we would not suddenly find ourselves driven to act. Regardless of whether the content is fictional or nonfictional, we would look odd, indeed crazed, if we tried to interact, in the required sense, with a representation: a portrait, a film, or a novel. Matravers develops his argument with a sophisticated set of distinctions and observations that, if correct, will require a rethinking of precisely what is so paradoxical in the so-called “paradox of fiction.”

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