Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Willing Suspension of Disbelief

Samuel Taylor Coleridge once suggested that when reading fiction or viewing film we temporarily abandon our standards concerning what is real and what is make-believe. He said: "Willing suspension of disbelief for the moment...constitutes poetic faith." But, according to Noël Carroll, many problems arise with this account. To begin, in order to disbelieve something willingly, one must first be aware of the belief--in order to disbelieve it. We are rarely aware of these beliefs while reading fiction or watching a movie. Also we do not have the ability to will, or to decide consciously, what we do and do not believe. A willing suspension of disbelief suggests that belief is somehow something over which we have conscious control.
[Sarah E. Worth, "Aristotle, Thought, and Mimesis: Our Response to Fiction" The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 58, no. 4 (Autumn 2000) p. 334. It should be noted that, despite the way the first sentence reads, Worth is not suggesting that Coleridge discussed the watching of films! It should also be said that none of what follows is an objection to Worth, but to the understanding of the phrase in Carroll's argument, of which she is simply providing a handy summary.]

Neither of these seem to be a genuine problem for the idea of willing suspension of disbelief. Coleridge's phrase is pretty clearly a twist on the much more common phrase, "suspension of judgment". Suspending judgment is indistinguishable from, and is sometimes called, suspension of belief; that was the whole point of the phrase when skeptics first started talking about it. It's not at all obvious that we can only suspend judgment in matters where we are only considering one particular point, rather than on a whole topic; for instance, you can suspend judgment on matters out of your field of expertise, without considering any particular claims. Why wouldn't the same be true of suspension of disbelief? Nor does it seem plausible to claim that no one can possibly suspend judgment about anything because we can't believe at will; first, because we do, in fact, believe at will (we just can't change our beliefs by the mere decision to do so), but more importantly, and less controversially, because suspension of belief clearly is a matter of suspending active occurrences of belief, rather than standing, habitual beliefs. That is, you suspend belief by suspending active believing, or active expressions of belief, rather than by ripping out the belief altogether. The same is true of a suspension of disbelief: in a sense it doesn't matter what you disbelieve in the ongoing sense, it just matters whether you mentally express it or things that follow from it. Willingly to suspend disbelief in unicorns is quite clearly not the same as refusing to disbelieve in unicorns in any sense at all; it is just the suspension of disbelief in some sense.

Indeed, this is quite clearly what Coleridge had in mind. The phrase comes from his discussion in the Biographia Literaria of his collaboration with Wordsworth on the Lyrical Ballads:

In this idea originated the plan of the 'Lyrical Ballads'; in which it was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.

Note that it is a temporary phenomenon -- "for the moment" -- which simply eliminating your disbelief could not possibly be. Note also that this is not a mere 'not-disbelieving by choice' -- it explicitly requires that the material in question have enough "human interest" and "semblance of truth" to make it possible, so it partly requires movement from outside. And this is confirmed by an earlier claim, in which he says of the kind of poem he was to write,

In the one, the incidents and agents were to be, in part at least, supernatural; and the excellence aimed at was to consist in the interesting of the affections by the dramatic truth of such emotions as would naturally accompany such situations, supposing them real. And real in this sense they have been to every human being who, from whatever source of delusion, has at any time believed himself under supernatural agency.

So here we have an "interesting of the affections" and a "dramatic truth" in the expression of emotion that would go with the relevant situations "supposing them real". The latter phrase I find particularly interesting, since willing suspension of disbelief does seem to very like reasoning on the basis of a supposition: you can obviously take assumptions you disbelieve and, in something like a willing suspension of disbelief, simply set this aside in order to see what follows. I would suggest, actually, that the two are simply different examples of exactly the same phenomena: as plausibility is the poetic counterpart of validity, so reasoning ex hypothesi is the dialectical counterpart of willingly suspending disbelief. Indeed, far from being a strange or irrational phenomenon, it is all part of what one must do in order to understand properly any position with which one disagrees.

The connection of the phenomenon to faith, by the phrase 'poetic faith', is also quite clearly deliberate, since Coleridge is explicitly drawing on Romantic analogies between poetry and religion: the poems in question are to evoke the experience of the supernatural by describing supernatural events in such a way as to allow the poetic analogue of the response to supernatural experience, faith. This shows another way in which both the arguments fail. To have faith you do not have to have some specific point to believe in mind; faith being a disposition, you can be simply waiting for revelation, so to speak; and, likewise, whether one holds that there is any such thing as belief at will, it is nonetheless the case that belief and disbelief on the basis of faith is in some way voluntary. And nothing prevents us from having a voluntary (and thus willing) openness to what the poet is revealing, despite the fact that we would actively disbelieve it in other contexts.

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