On the Genuineness and Rationality of Fictional Emotion: A Phenomenological Approach

Michela Summa is currently guest professor at Kassel University and she is working on her habilitation project about imagination, fiction, and social experience at Würzburg University. Her research interests include: philosophy of perception, of imagination and fiction (particularly in Hume, Kant, and the phenomenological tradition); aesthetics; phenomenology of time, space, and memory; phenomenological psychopathology; phenomenology of intersubjectivity and sociality. 

Michela Summa is currently guest professor at Kassel University and she is working on her habilitation project about imagination, fiction, and social experience at Würzburg University. Her research interests include: philosophy of perception, of imagination and fiction (particularly in Hume, Kant, and the phenomenological tradition); aesthetics; phenomenology of time, space, and memory; phenomenological psychopathology; phenomenology of intersubjectivity and sociality. 

A post by Michela Summa.

While reading a novel, watching a movie or a play, we are often emotionally touched by what is described or represented. This very common phenomenon has prompted a complex and multifaceted debate on the status of so-called “fictional emotions”, i.e., of emotions directed at something merely fictive or imagined  (cf. Currie 1990, 182f.; Friend 2016; Gendler and Kovakovich 2005; Radford 1975; Tullmann and Buckwalter 2014; Walton 1978, 1990; Gendler 2010). The main questions raised in this debate are whether these emotions can be considered to be genuine and rationally grounded. These questions are mainly motivated by the two following remarks: (i) fictional emotions are not based on the belief in the existence of what moves us, and (ii) they do not motivate us to act in the same way as emotions for something real or possibly real do.

Even if it seems obvious that imagining and the related emotions can motivate us to act—actions like taking precautions in order to avoid a disaster or engaging in the realization of a project are based on such emotions—emotions in the face of something merely imagined or fictive still have something puzzling about them. This comes to the fore if we consider the following questions.

Why do we consider some reactions inappropriate when we experience such emotions? Why would it be inappropriate to run away from the cinema while attending to a frightening scene, while it would be appropriate to remain stuck to your seat or to tighten the hand of your friend sitting nearby? Why would it be inappropriate to run to the actress playing Desdemona and express to her your pity and sympathy, or try to save her, while it is appropriate to be moved to tears while watching the tragedy?

The answer we give to these questions, I believe, is connected to the way we conceive of the genuineness and rationality of fictional emotions. The conception I am elaborating is based on an inquiry into the structure of our subjective involvement in fiction, as based on the plurality of modes of self-experience within the unity of consciousness (cf. Summa 2018). In my ongoing research, I refer to Husserl’s and Sartre’s phenomenological approaches to imagination in order to investigate this structure. For both, imagination underlies our experience of fiction (cf. Summa 2018) and it implies a doubling of experience and self-experience, which however occurs within the unity of consciousness.

Husserl (2001, 341 f.; 2005, 672) emphasizes how, in all imaginative experiences, there is an oscillation between the awareness of ourselves either as presently imagining (as “real-I” directed to the imagined scene as imagined) or as living in the imagined world (as “phantasy-I” participating or living in the phantasy world). Both kinds of self-experience are co-present while we imagine and while we are experiencing fictions: the phantasy-I is not another subject; it is me, as if I was living in the phantasy or fictional world.

Emotions in the face of fiction or the imaginary are based on the oscillation between these two modalities of self-experience in imagination, and Husserl also discusses how we can be affected by the imaginary both as real-I (emotions about phantasies) and as phantasy-I (emotions in phantasy). This duality implies that we are never fully lost in our imaginative experience—in such a way as to fully lose the sense of its irreality, or the “as-if”. When we are immersed in the imaginary or fictional world, we still have an accompanying perception of ourselves as living in the real world.

In partly different terms, we can find a duality of self-experience also in Sartre’s inquiry into the imaginary. Sartre argues that “it is advisable to distinguish two sharply contrasted persons in us: the imaginary me with its tendencies and desires—and the real me” (Sartre 2004, 146). Emphasizing that the two “cannot coexist”, Sartre apparently defends a different view than the one just sketched. However, what he thereby means is precisely that the imaginary me and the real me are correlated to two different and irreducible types of objects (imaginary and real). And this does not conflict with the above claim that the two forms of self-experience are expressions of one consciousness. 

Sartre also addresses the duality of experience in relation to emotions (Sartre 2004, 136 f.). Besides distinguishing “true” emotions in the face of the real and “imaginary” emotions in the face of the irreal, Sartre also distinguishes two levels in our emotional attitudes related to the imaginary or the irreal, which he also associates to two levels of our self-experience. On the primary or constitutive level, which is still the one of the real me, affective phenomena of desire and fascination are the motor for awakening, shaping, and dwelling on imaginary scenes. On the secondary or constituted level, we emotionally respond to what is imagined or represented. Such responses presuppose our participation in the imaginary, which for Sartre should be understood as an “irrealization” of ourselves (Sartre 2004, 125, 132, 191).

The difference between our emotions in the face of the real and of the irreal, thus, is not a matter of genuineness. The vagueness of this term—which would deserve further attention—does not really help to characterize them. We should in fact be careful not to be misled by Sartre’s distinction between “sentiments vrais and “sentiments imaginaires”, and from the English translation of “sentiments vrais” with “genuine feelings”. This may be misleading, particularly in relation to the above-mentioned debate on the genuineness of fictional emotions. Sartre does not mean to say that “the feelings are themselves irreal, but that they never appear except in the face of irreal objects” (Sartre 2004, 145). Nor does he believe that these feelings are insincere (Sartre 2004, 143). He instead affirms that the crucial difference between feelings in the face of the real and the irreal should be differently conceptualized, namely as a difference in the degrees of freedom and richness. These are complementary characteristics. Emotional reactions to the irreal are freer because they are not confronted with the same constraints and resistances we encounter in reality. However, precisely this lack of resistance also implies the passivity, poverty, and degradation of our feeling in the face of the imaginary (Sartre 2004, 136 f.). For it is precisely due to the resistance of what is real that we become active, for instance in order to change a situation, or to reach what we long for (Sartre 2004, 143 f.)

Although Husserl’s and Sartre’s views partly differ from each other, both offer us reasons to consider emotions for something imaginary or fictional as “genuine”, if with genuineness we mean the authenticity and truthfulness of our participation—through irrealization—in imaginary and fictional contexts. Also, these emotions are rationally grounded on the plurality of experience that is constitutive for acts of imagining in general and for the experience of fiction in particular.

That this plurality is an expression of the unity of consciousness also clarifies why certain less controlled or impulsive behavioral reactions (such as tears, fright, etc.) occur. They are an effect of the “permeability” (Summa 2018) or even of possible contaminations between the different levels or forms of self-experience. Even in such cases, however, our awareness of the difference between the real and the irreal is maintained, and this is what allows us to regulate our more controlled active reactions.


Currie, Gregory. 1990. The Nature of Fiction (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge).

Friend, Stacy. 2016. 'Fiction and emotion.' in Amy Kind (ed.), The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Imagination (Routledge: London/New York).

Gendler, Tamar Szabó. 2010. Intuition, Imagination, and Philosophical Methodology (Oxford University Press: Oxford).

Gendler, Tamar Szabó, and Karson Kovakovich. 2005. 'Genuine rational fictional emotions.' in Matthew Kieran (ed.), Contemporary Debates in Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art (Blackwell: Oxford).

Husserl, Edmund. 2001. Die Bernauer Manuskripte über das Zeitbewusstsein (1917/1918) (Kluwer: Dordrecht/Boston/London).

———. 2005. Phantasy, Image Consciousness, and Memory (1898-1925) (Springer: Dordrecht).

Radford, Colin. 1975. 'How can we moved by the fate of Anna Karenina?', Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 49: 67-80.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. 2004. The Imaginary. A Philosophical Psychology of the Imagination (Routledge: New York).

Summa, Michela. 2018. 'Experiencing reality and fiction: Discontinuity and permeability.' in Michela Summa, Thomas Fuchs and Luca Vanzago (eds.), Imagination and Social Perspectives: Approaches from Phenomenology and Psychopathology (Routledge: London/New York).

Tullmann, Katherine, and Wesley Buckwalter. 2014. 'Does the paradox of fiction exist?', Erkenntnis, 79: 779-96.

Walton, Kendall. 1978. 'Fearing fictions', Journal of Philosophy, 75: 5-27.

———. 1990. Mimesis as Make-Believe. On the Foundations of the Representational Arts (Harvard University Press: Cambridge MA, London).