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Mimesis as Make-Believe: On the Foundations of the Representational Arts (review)

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 15, Number 1, April 1991
pp. 118-128 | 10.1353/phl.1991.0048

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Critical Discussions Mimesis as Make-Believe: On the Foundations of the Representational Arts, by Kendall Walton; xiv & 450 pp. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990, $35.00. Discussed by David Novitz Kendall Walton's aim in Mimesis as Make-Believe is to explore and explain the foundations of the representational arts. His theory is one that he has stated and restated with increasing detail and sophistication over the last seventeen years, and in this book it bears all the refinement and subtlety of argument that analytic philosophy can muster . This is an engaging, insightful, and persuasive volume. Grant the premises and everything falls into place—give or take some minor details . His premises, though, are bafflingly counter-intuitive, and while it is always difficult to show that another philosopher's intuitions are false, not many readers will agree with Walton's. I will try to show why. Walton's book is divided into four parts. The first three deal with depictive, musical, and literary representations, and offer analyses of our appreciation and emotional responses to them. The fourth deals with the semantic and ontological issues raised by Walton's analyses. In this discussion, I shall attend only to the first three parts of the book. Walton takes care to tell us that he uses the term "representation," both more broadly and more narrowly than is ordinarily done (p. 3). Only fiction, he says at the outset, will qualify as "representational" in Philosophy and Literature, © 1991, 15: 118-128 David Novitz1 19 his special sense, and he has no interest, so he tells us, in nonfictional representations (p. 3). If he is to be believed, representations find their origin not in everyday life, but in make-believe, and function first and foremost as props in games of make-believe. Judging by the examples he uses, Walton is centrallyconcerned with thefine arts ofrepresentation, and if he is to be believed, they find their origin not in everyday life, but in games of make-believe. This, of course, is not to say that they are useless or merely frivolous. They can indeed help us to acquire real-life skills (pp. 11-12), and can be used "frequently for instruction, for conveying information, for keeping records" (p. 351). However, such skills and purposes derive from, and are parasitic on, the role of representations in make-believe. Make-believe, Walton seems to think, comes first; practical applications come later. Games of make-believe are regarded as the foundation of the representational arts (pp. 11-12). While they, and the imagining they presuppose , constitute the core of Walton's theory, he freely admits that he cannot explain what all instances of imagining have in common (p. 19). He nonetheless explains games of make-believe with considerable effectiveness by exploring children's games—"with playing house and school, cops and robbers" (p. 4), and he tells us that in "order to understand paintings, plays, films and novels, we must first look at dolls, hobbyhorses, toy trucks, and teddy bears" (p. 11). Pictures, novels, toy cars and model airplanes, Walton suggests, are prompters: they prompt us to imagine certain propositions, and it is because of this that they can figure as props in games of make-believe (pp. 21-28). Moreover, all the imaginings involved in these games "involve a kind of self-imagining" for, Walton thinks, one must minimally imagine oneself "being aware of whatever else it is that one imagines" (p. 29). Accordingly, if I imagine Harry coming to dinner, I must also imagine myself being aware of Harry coming to dinner, so that my imaginings are for the most part self-reflexive. The function of representational works of art is to serve as props in imaginative games of make-believe (p. 53). Whenever it is true in a game of make-believe that Zoe heals the tiger, the proposition "Zoe heals the tiger" is fictional (p. 35). Hence, Walton tells us that Seurat's Grande Jatte is a prop in a game of make-believe that generates the fictional truth that a couple is strolling in a park. There are, Walton tells us, certain principles ofgeneration: conventions according to which props should prompt certain imaginings and so...