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Pathetic fallacy is a literary term for the attributing of human emotion and conduct to all aspects within nature. It is a kind of personification that is found in poetic writing when, for example, clouds seem sullen, when leaves dance, when dogs laugh, or when rocks seem indifferent.
Ruskin coined the term pathetic fallacy to attack the sentimentality that was common to the poetry of the late 18th century, and which use continued among his contemporaries. That fashion was waning just as John Ruskin addressed the matter; nonetheless, as a critic, Ruskin proved influential, and is credited with having helped to refine poetic expression.
The meaning of the term has changed significantly from the idea Ruskin had in mind. Ruskin’s original definition is “emotional falseness”, or the falseness that occurs to one’s perceptions when influenced by violent or heightened emotion. For example, when a person is unhinged by grief, the clouds might seem darker than they are, or perhaps mournful or perhaps even uncaring.
There have been other changes to Ruskin’s phrase since he coined it:
The particular definition that Ruskin used for the word “fallacy” has since become obsolete. The word “fallacy” nowadays is defined as an example of a flawed logic, but for Ruskin and writers of the 19th century and earlier, “fallacy” could be used to mean simply a “falseness”.
In the same way, the word “pathetic” simply meant for Ruskin “emotional” or “pertaining to emotion”.
Setting aside Ruskin’s original intentions, and despite this linguistic rocky road, the two-word phrase has survived, though with a significantly altered meaning.
In his essay, Ruskin demonstrates his original meaning by offering lines of a poem:
They rowed her in across the rolling foam—
The cruel, crawling foam…
Ruskin then points out that "the foam is not cruel, neither does it crawl. The state of mind which attributes to it these characters of a living creature is one in which the reason is unhinged by grief"—yet, Ruskin did not disapprove of this use of the pathetic fallacy:
Now, so long as we see that the feeling is true, we pardon, or are even pleased by, the confessed fallacy of sight, which it induces: we are pleased, for instance, with those lines ... above quoted, not because they fallaciously describe foam, but because they faithfully describe sorrow.
The following, a stanza from the poem "Maud" (1855) by Alfred Lord Tennyson, demonstrates what John Ruskin, in Modern Painters, said was an "exquisite" instance of the use of the pathetic fallacy:
There has fallen a splendid tear
From the passion-flower at the gate.
She is coming, my dove, my dear;
She is coming, my life, my fate.
The red rose cries, "She is near, she is near;"
And the white rose weeps, "She is late;"
The larkspur listens, "I hear, I hear;"
And the lily whispers, "I wait." (Part 1, XXII, 10)
In science, the pathetic fallacy occurs as pejorative technical jargon, and is meant to encourage faithful, true, and accurate communication among scientists, and to discourage figurative speech (metaphor and simile) that might unintentionally communicate a false impression of a natural phenomenon. A classical example is the phrase "Nature abhors a vacuum". Explanations of natural phenomena are less accurate with words such as want and try. For instance, a pathetic fallacy is:
Air hates to be crowded, and, when compressed, it will try to escape to an area of lower pressure.
The fallacy is that the air does not try to do anything. The pressure exerted by a gas is explained by kinetic theory: movement towards lower pressure occurs because of the probability that unobstructed gas molecules will be more evenly distributed between high- and low-pressure zones, by a net flow from the former to the latter, a mechanism that requires no conscious agent.