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Hume and the Delightful Tragedy Problem

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 January 2009

Eric Hill
Affiliation:
The University of Louisville
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Extract

‘It seems an unaccountable pleasure’, Hume writes, ‘which the spectators of a well-written tragedy receive from sorrow, terror, anxiety, and other passions that are in themselves disagreeable and uneasy. The more they are touched and affected, the more are they delighted with the spectacle; and as soon as the uneasy passions cease to operate, the piece is at an end.’ It is with this opening remark that Hume introduces the main subject of his essay, ‘Of Tragedy’. In that essay he attempts to account for the pleasure spectators of well-written tragedies receive, i.e. he attempts to solve what might aptly be called the ‘delightful tragedy’ problem, which, in essence, is the paradoxical phenomenon of pleasure being aroused from the ‘bosom of uneasiness’. In this paper I shall critically analyse Hume's solution to the problem; the ultimate point of my discussion will be to determine whether his solution is adequate. I shall begin by focusing briefly upon two accounts of the paradoxical pleasure which Hume mentions and criticizes. Then I shall set out and analyse Hume's own account, and thereby determine its adequacy.

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Articles
Copyright
Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy 1982

References

1 David Hume, ‘Of Tragedy’, Of The Standard of Taste and Other Essays, John Lenz (ed.) (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merril Company, 1965), 29.

2 Margaret Paton, ‘Hume On Tragedy’, British Journal of Aesthetics 13 (Spring 1973).

3 Op. cit., note I, 33.

4 Margaret Paton uses this particular expression to refer to Hume's way of dealing with the problem in question. See her article, ‘Hume On Tragedy’.

5 Op. cit., note I, 32.

6 David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Selby-Bigge (ed.) (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), 276.

7 Op. cit, note 2, 128.

8 Op. cit., note I, 32.

9 Ibid.

10 I should like to thank Professor Douglas Lewis for the acute comments he made on the content and style of an earlier version of this paper.

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