Cover image for When bad things happen to other people
When bad things happen to other people
Portmann, John.
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Publication Information:
New York : Routledge, 2000.
Physical Description:
xxi, 242 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm

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BJ1409 .P67 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Although many of us deny it, it is not uncommon to feel pleasure over the suffering of others, particularly when we feel that suffering has been deserved. The German word for this concept-Schadenfreude-has become universal in its expression of this feeling. Drawing on the teachings of history's most prominent philosophers, John Portmann explores the concept of Schadenfreudein this rigorous, comprehensive, and absorbing study.

Author Notes

John Portmannhas studied at Yale, Cambridge University, and L'ecole des hautes etudes in sciences socialesin Paris. He received his Ph.D. in philosophical and religious ethics from the University of Virginia, where he studied under James Childress, Daniel Westberg, Richard Rorty and Patricia Spears. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Does taking pleasure in the pain of another always represent malice? Or can this emotion reflect a thoughtful respect for justice? And what about humor, which often revolves around a "comeuppance" that those who laugh see as trivial (though the laughter's target may disagree)? These are the sorts of questions Portmann takes on in his nuanced analysis of schadenfreude. The subject has been debated by philosophers over the generations; Portmann engages with them, from Kant and Freud to Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. He draws on literature, too, exploring the positions of Kafka and Dickens, Umberto Eco and Toni Morrison, and applies his normative notion of schadenfreude to current debates on subjects such as capital punishment, media violence, and the cult of celebrity. Portmann defends schadenfreude but urges attention to its basis in "power structures and social forces through which our characters both take shape and shape the lives of those around us." A demanding but productively provocative analysis. --Mary Carroll

Choice Review

These two books are both concerned with people's responses to the situations of other people, especially insofar as these situations relate to the interests or welfare of those others, but the books are very different. Portmann (philosophy PhD from the Univ. of Virginia) is primarily concerned with distinguishing Schadenfreude from other concepts with which it might be confused, arguing that it need not always imply malice, and that Schadenfreude is often an appropriate response to many human situations--e.g., when someone slips on a banana peel but is not badly hurt, or when wrongdoers receive their just desert. In fact, Portmann argues, the pleasure taken in the sufferings of others, when those sufferings are due to their own moral violations, can be an expression of one's own commitment to the morality that is violated. In any case, Schadenfreude is universal. To pretend otherwise is generally the result of confusion or hypocrisy. Ozinga (political science, Oakland Univ.), on the other hand, argues that altruism--which he defines as "behavior benefiting someone else at some cost to oneself"--is much more natural and widespread than is often acknowledged. It is part of nature--found in the animal world. And it is part of human nature too, but many people tend to regard all human behavior as selfish--"behavior that benefits oneself at some cost to others." Ozinga is clear that selfishness is a vice, and that its viciousness stems from the placement of costs on others (not with bringing benefit to oneself). Both books argue interesting theses. Portmann argues that Schadenfreude is not always to be condemned. Ozinga argues that altruism is not so dreamy and idealistic that we never find it in the real world. Portmann and Ozinga agree that the object of their study is more common that has hitherto been admitted. Both books are recommended for all readership levels. S. Satris Clemson University

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsp. ix
Introduction: The Sometimes Sweet Suffering of Othersp. xi
Key to Abbreviationsp. xxii
I. When Pretty Bad Things Happen to Other People
1 Much Ado about Nothing?p. 3
2 Explaining Schadenfreudep. 25
II. When Really Bad Things Happen to Other People
3 The Meaning of Sufferingp. 47
4 Wicked Feelingsp. 75
5 Celebrating Sufferingp. 107
6 Punishment and Its Pleasurep. 129
7 Cheering with the Angelsp. 145
8 Outlaw Emotionsp. 175
Conclusion: The Moral Problem of Schadenfreudep. 197
Notesp. 207
Works Consultedp. 221
Indexp. 235