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Pathetic Fallacy

A term coined in the 19th century by the British art critic John Ruskin to describe an improper or exaggerated projection of emotion onto inanimate objects in literature.

Ruskin explains this with the following example:

They rowed her in across the rolling foam –
The cruel, crawling foam …

Objectively speaking, the foam produced by a churning sea may roll and possibly even crawl, but it certainly cannot be cruel, because this implies some form of purpose that is not inherent to an inanimate object such as the sea.

Notes on the name

Both “pathetic” and “fallacy” are used here a slightly different sense than how we would use these terms today. This is often transcribed as a “illicit humanisation of nature”, but since, on the one hand, it is not limited to natural phenomena and, on the other, it is explicitly about a certain aspect of anthropomorphisation – namely the projection of emotions onto things – it could be better described as “false emotionality”.


Of course, a poem is certainly not a context in which a particularly sober approach is appropriate, and such a projection of human traits can be a valid device for conveying emotional states. Ruskin thus explicitly opposes only an excessive use of such projections, which he sees as a characteristic of bad writers.

It is different with literary genres that indeed demand a more sober way of writing: in a scientific treatise, an expression like “the cruel sea” would certainly be out of place. Nevertheless, we find similar expressions throughout the history of science.

The best known is probably the principle known as “horror vacui ”, which is usually described as follows:

Nature abhors the vacuum.

Here, the term “abhor” implies an emotional capacity that “nature” (as an abstract concept) certainly does not possess.

See also

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