Fiction Film and the Varieties of Empathic Engagement

Midwest Studies in Philosophy 34 (1):158-179 (2010)

Margrethe Bruun Vaage
University of Kent at Canterbury
Mindreading, simulation, empathy and central imagining are often used interchangeably in current analytic philosophy, and typically defined as imagining what the other wants and believes – to run these states “off-line.” By imagining the other’s beliefs and desires, one will come to understand and predict his emotional and behavioural reactions. Many have suggested that films may trigger engagement in the characters’ perspectives, and one finds similar use of these terms in film theory. Imagining the characters’ states – with emphasis on mental states – has for example been labelled as central imagining (Choi 2005; Smith 1995), imagining from the inside (Smith 1997), and empathetic reenactment (Currie 1995). In a similar vein, understanding the meaning of a narrative event for a character is understood as empathy (Tan 1996). These accounts all point to ways in which the spectator understands the character and the situation the character is in. Nevertheless, one also finds a different use of the term empathy in film theory, namely as a matching feeling with the character. The emphasis here is not on understanding the character and the narrative situation, but on the emotional output of the process. Often automatic, hardwired affective matching mechanisms are emphasized. This matching feeling with the character has also been discussed as empathy (Grodal 1997; Plantinga 1999; Smith 1995). While all these authors discuss what makes a spectator experience aspects of a character’s state, they point to different kinds of character engagement, and discuss it using varying terms. There also seems to be disagreement as to how film may cue the spectator to engage in these different ways. Here I offer an integrative account of empathy, where all these processes are labelled as empathic. The differences and similarities between them are explored. I argue that, broadly speaking, there are two different kinds of film, each of which elicits its own kind of empathy. Nevertheless, the common core to these kinds of engagement in a character justifies us in calling them empathy.
Keywords spectator engagement  empathy
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DOI 10.1111/j.1475-4975.2010.00200.x
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