Summary of Peter Wessel Zapffe’s ‘On the Tragic’ (orig. “Om det tragiske”, PAX Forlag 1941)
The summary was first published in English, in the 1983 edition, pp. 619-622.
See also “my” article at
Comments in brackets [ and ]’s are added by me.
The words that are italicised were originally so in the edition I’ve copied from.

This summary is protected by Norwegian and International Copyright Laws, hereby violated in the name of Existentialistic Philosophy, due to the lack of translated material.


The world of experience is considered in this work from the point of view of the concerns of the individual entities. This means that the entities are classified according to what is important and necessary for them, what they are concerned with. They can thus be classified in an ascending scale from an assumed lack of all concern (the non-organic world), via entities to which humans attribute concerns (plants, animals without consciousness), to what we call conscious animals with a more differentiated range of concerns (§§ 1, 3, 4).

After these comes the primitive or «low-status» human being, characterized by basic concerns (biological concerns, simple desires), and the scale continues with increasing differentation, ending with the «great» men and women, the highest representatives of their respective cultures. In addition to the concerns of primitive people, such people have the desires and values in the broadest senses of these worlds, together with the most highly differentiated social and metaphysical concerns. This system has the advantage of including a great deal of material under a single viewpoint.

Alongside the scale of concerns one can draw up a scale of abilities (a distinctive group of qualities in the entity, or organism); these are associated with a group of concerns relating to development or realization (§8 et passim). The concerned individual consciously attempts to realize his concerns by using his abilities. Sometimes the abilities are adequate (sufficiency), sometimes they are inadequate (deficiency), and sometimes there is a surplus of ability in relation to the demands of the problem or situation. The surplus may provide additional advantages, it may be irrelevant to the solution of the problem, or it may have harmful consequences (§8 and ch. 5.). When an ability occurs with a single or a very few functional variations it is referred to as predetermined; when it is mutable, sometimes with an unlimited applicability, it is referred to as non-determined. These are also the two extremes of a scale; in between one finds for example a wrong determination, where an ability is determined in a way that is unfortunate compared with another way assumed to be more fortunate, and variations of this are over-determination, where an ability is too strictly determined, and under-determination, where it is too little determined (ch. 3, 5 and 6, §82).

The normal and valid realization of a concern is referred to as the proper solution to the problem that existed prior to the realization. When a proper realization cannot be obtained (owing to conditions inside or outside the organism), then the concerned individual may settle for a pseudo-solution, a surrogate (ch. 6).

The environment (ch. 3) in which the organism attempts to realize its concerns may be so formed that it consciously promotes or wishes to promote the realization; it is then referred to as a sympathetic environment as regards of these factors. Sometimes the environment takes no conscious part in the realization; it is then indifferent. Finally, it may sometimes consciously work against the organism, and then it is referred to as inimical or satanic. In all three cases the environment may have been propitious, unpropitious, or neither, irrelevant (§4).

The result of the conflict (after a single clash or over a longer period) may be the attainment of the concern (sanction), or its non-attainment (veto); sometimes, on the other hand, it may be opposed or violated. When primary concerns are deeply and irreversibly violated the event is referred to as a catastrophe (ch. 7). A catastrophe may be elementary or qualified, i.e. contain qualities that drawn attention to it rather than to something else. Some of these catastrophes have a particular quality referred to as tragic; they are then part of a whole, a tragic process (§75).

The tragic process has three characteristics; a culturally relevant greatness, or magnitude, in the afflicted individual, a catastrophe that befalls him, and a functional relation between the greatness and the catastrophe. With this definition of tragedy the study approaches its principal aim: to give a meaning to the word «tragic» that is sufficiently nambiguous [1] and that cannot naturally be applied to any other term (§1), and one that at the same time lies well within the mainstream of aesthetic and literary tradition.

This choice of meaning has a further advantage, in addition to the purely terminological one: The quality of the process described by the word tragic, in its empirical aspect, has strong philosophical implications. Tragedy is given a central and dominating role in the human battle of concerns and throws a significant light on the human condition here on earth (§§76,90,91). «Significant light» means a light that reveals consequences that are relevant for human concerns. The victim not only undergoes immediate suffering, through the violation of the relevant concern, he is also deprived of his fundamental expectation; a spectator with the same concerns as the victim will therefore also feel his expectation waver. This expectation is that of a universal moral system, a regulation of history according to human values. In other words: the expectation that perfectibility will lead to fulfilment is confounded when a tragic constellation blocks the way to a proper solution and opens the way for a pseudo-solution or defeat (§93).

The adequate affective reactions of a spectator to the violation of a concern of his own or of a person he identifies with are aversion, dejection, disgust, bitter revolt, and so on. His reaction as a whole is to reject what has happened; to use Volkelt’s expression, the event «should not happen». This ought to be particularly true of qualified catastrophes and especially tragic processes. But experience shows that accidents to others can under certain circumstances attract the spectator. How can one explain (i.e. make available to the understanding through some structural model) this apparent paradox? Is this merely a special case of the fascination contained in all unusual events of great magnitude in spite of the suffering they may cause a fellow human being? Or are there indications that the spectator is attracted because of the human suffering involved? Or are we dealing with two completely different ways of experiencing the event, two irreconcilable aspects? An elucidation of this question in practical terms is attempted in ch. 9, cf. §§13 and 81.

The value of witnessing another’s misfortune has been shown to be isolated and to some degree intensified when a tragic process is recreated in literature or in other forms of art. The description and explanation of this and especially «the problem of tragedy» have tempted philosophers and aesthetic writers (particularly Europeans) for over 2000 years. This is briefly dealt with in ch. 11; own studies are described in §§95 ff. Each of the factors that are regularly present in a tragedy are examined for their capacity to contribute to the experience of the spectator, and the results are summed up in the following contention: the richest experience a tragedy can give is a pseudo-solution of the metaphysical problem of meaning through poetic sublimation (§102).

Although the problems associated with tragedy have been taken up by many of the most prominent European men of letters, the results are neither convincing nor conclusive for a modern reader, despite a blinding wealth of detail. The newcomer is quite willing to acknowledge the authority vested in this imposing list of names; on the other hand it is notable that the renown attached to names such as Aristotle, Lessing, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer does not derive from their researches into tragedy, which have been more or less a side issue. There seem to be two main reasons for the lack of clarity and the endless discussions: first, that researchers have not managed to describe the tragic process in such a way that it could be clearly distinguished from a non-tragic process, and secondly that they have not distinguished clearly enough between tragic process, tragic writing, and what they variously refer to as tragic experience, tragic mood, tragic feelings, etc. (cf. §§110, 111, 112).

By distinguishing as accurately as possible between these concepts, I have tried to contribute to research on the subject.


[1, I wonder if it’s supposed to be ‘ambiguous’]
[ch. Short for chapter. ]

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