In 1978, Walton published his paper “Fearing Fictions”, in which he first explored the groundwork for the make-believe theory of representations. An expanded version of the paper appears in Mimesis as Make-Believe, but the core of his argument remains unchanged. This week, we look at participation in games of make-believe through Walton's eyes and sift through some of the responses to his ideas from the philosophical community, which remains for the most part strangely resolute in its resistance to the idea of fiction and art as founded upon the power of imagination.
Walton's paper was the first significant attempt to address what has been called the Paradox of Fiction, following an argument presented in a paper by Colin Radford that had been published three years earlier. In “How Can We Be Moved by the Fate of Anna Karenina?” Radford addressed the question of how we are able to feel genuine emotions for characters that are not real, and concluded that our behaviour in this regard is essentially irrational. Walton had not seen Radford's paper, since it was published by the London-based Aristotelian Society and not widely distributed until many years later, but between these two papers a rich seam of philosophical debate was set in motion.
Radford lays down the problem succinctly: if we hear a story that moves us to tears, and then discover it is a falsehood we are offended, angered. This implies that existence beliefs are required to be emotionally moved. Yet if we watch a play or read a book, we can be moved to tears despite the absence of existence beliefs. Radford says this is a contradiction, and one that is not easily eliminated, claiming that we are clearly irrational in respect of fictions. Walton's solution to the Paradox of Fiction attacks the claim that the emotions we feel in respect of fiction are genuine, arguing that they are better understood as quasi-emotions (a term we will explore shortly). It is worth noting, however, that Walton does not answer Radford's challenge directly since he does not dispute the irrationality involved: as he noted to me recently: “People are irrational in all kinds of ways, so it is hardly surprising if their responses to fiction are irrational.”
Walton's paper “Fearing Fictions” begins as follows, with what must surely be an allusion to the 1958 movie The Blob (pictured above):
Walton denies the validity of considering the emotions experienced in respect of fiction as genuine, admitting that we become “caught up” and “emotionally involved” but claiming that “to construe this involvement as consisting of our having psychological attitudes toward fictional entities is to tolerate mystery and court confusion.” He notes that if Charles were genuinely afraid of the slime we would expect him to flee the cinema, to call the police, or behave in other ways displaying clear evidence of his terror. But of course, he does not. He continues to watch the film. Walton states: “Fear emasculated by subtracting its distinctive motivational force is not fear at all.” He proposes to consider it instead quasi-fear – a biological analogue of genuine terror, to be sure, but psychologically distinct.
The concept of quasi-emotions extends to any feelings we may have in respect of fiction. Walton suggests that rather than speaking of actually experiencing the emotions evoked by a representation, we can claim that it is fictional that we experience the emotion in question. Charles actually experiences “fictional fear”, although Walton cautions we should not mistake this quasi-fear (i.e. fictional fear) for a special kind of fear, noting that Charles “does actually experience something that, fictionally, is an experience of fear.” The relationship between an emotion and a quasi-emotion is much like the link between our common notion of truth and fictional truth in Walton's system.
There are essentially two ways that one can relate to a representation. On the one hand, one can be a mere onlooker to a game of make-believe – as with an usher at a cinema who watches the audience and not the movie, say, or a person looking at someone admiring a painting, or watching the players of a tabletop role-playing game. Onlookers “do not think of themselves as subject to [a game's] rules; the fictionality of a proposition is not taken to be a reason for them to imagine it.” Conversely, the participants in a game of make-believe must be considered “constrained to imagine the propositions that are fictional in it.” The rules of the game of make-believe are tacitly consented to by any participant, such that they apply principles of generation that prescribe what they must imagine.
Walton asserts that the appreciation of works of art is “primarily a matter of participation,” and participants are “reflexive props in these games.” Participants do more than imagine representations objectively – they themselves imagine that they see or experience the fictional content a given prop implies in a first-person manner: “they imagine, from the inside, doing things and undergoing experiences.” The participants are “props, objects and imaginers all three...” who prescribe imaginings to themselves and about themselves, and they do so (for the most part) alone. Even when participants enjoy a representation together, as in a cinema, “it is usually best to understand each individual spectator of a movie as engaging in his own private game.” Walton notes that the darkness of the cinema helps encourages this sense of privacy.
What's more – unlike the child whose game of make-believe is closely related – the participant avoids “blatantly displaying the fact that they are just pretending”. Nonetheless, the games involved in appreciating representations are “truncated variants of children’s games of make-believe”. The child's game is effectively limitless, while the appreciator is more constrained, but these limitations provide certain benefits. Where the child's game tends to be physical, with art we are “more reflective, more contemplative.” Furthermore, the artist is permitted a far bigger role than, say, the toy designer, in the games we play with an artwork. There is communication between the creator of a representation and its appreciator, albeit only in one direction, and we count on the artist to help us imagine – which is perhaps why so many people feel cheated when a movie deploys what they judge to be substandard special effects.
One final observation in respect of participation: although the prescribed imagining associated with a prop are experienced in first-person, it is not normally an authorised game that the fictional truths generated are about the appreciator. Walton gives the following example:
This brings us back to Radford's Paradox of Fiction. Radford, you recall, suggests (following a line that dates back at least as far as Aristotle) that existence beliefs are a necessary condition for genuine emotional responses. Many of the attempts to solve the fiction paradox rely upon attempts to show independence between emotions and beliefs; Walton criticises these as all too often being “distressingly question begging.” In the context of Charles, he reconstructs the form of such arguments as follows:
Peter Lamarque offers one of the more famous approaches to the fiction paradox in this style, and one that was specifically written contra Walton's theory. Lamarque suggests that Charles does not fear the slime, as such, but rather the thought of the slime. This is an attempt to shift the interpretation away from make-believe and into a more conventionally causal space. Walton notes in Mimesis as Make-Believe that Lamarque is abandoning the original intuition that the slime is the object of Charles' fear, but does not recognise the reasons (Walton states) we should deny it, namely that it is not fear, per se, Charles experience at all, but rather quasi-fear, for reasons we have already seen. Whether one follows Lamarque or Walton on this becomes something of a question of interpretation, but it's not immediately clear that shifting the focus to thoughts adds any clarity to the issue.
Glenn Hartz takes this kind of objection even further, arguing that our emotional responses to fiction are pre-conscious, and that real but subconscious beliefs are automatically generated by our cognitive apparatus in the cases of certain stimuli. Hartz denies the make-believe theory, claiming “how could anything as cerebral and out-of-the-loop as ‘make believe’ make adrenaline and cortisol flow?” But this kind of explanation has the same kind of problem as Lamarque's: Hartz is suggesting that a biological description of make-believe has superior explanatory power. He is not cogently arguing against Walton's theory at all, but rather falling into the common mistake of affording primacy to scientific explanations. As someone who has studied neurobiology very closely in the context of games, I can confidently report that Hartz's objection that make-believe cannot make adrenaline flow is wildly mistaken. Anyone who has become excited by the fictional events of a novel knows this all too well.
In fact, the philosophical community has been almost entirely united in opposing the make-believe theory of representation – although far from of one mind as to how to construct a coherent alternative. Noel Carroll strenuously objects to the idea that we could be both unaware of the rules of the game we are playing but also “completely unaware of playing a game,” claiming that to play such a game must require the intention to pretend. On this point Alex Neill offers a rare (partial) defence of Walton's theory, claiming that opponents such as Harz and Carroll are failing to recognise a key point: “the fact that Charles is genuinely moved by the horror movie is precisely what motivates Walton’s account.” Walton accedes that we are genuinely moved by fiction, what he denies is the claim that the emotions we are moved to are the same as those we experience in normal life. It is not make-believe that our feelings are stirred, this is factual, it is simply fictional that the emotion Charles is moved to is fear.
The debate on this issue among philosophers remains, unsurprisingly, far from settled. Nonetheless, I can find no reason to reject Walton's model on any of the grounds that have been raised so far. Neurobiology may describe what goes on in the brain during make-believe, but nonetheless no-one can deny that imagination is the faculty in play in the context of fiction. Objections thus far have focussed excessively upon movies, and rarely considered novels or games, all of which hold an important part of the puzzle. Philosophy, as both Wittgenstein and Heidegger believed, should not be unduly distracted by scientific descriptions of our experiences, but can and should explore those experiences on its own terms. Walton's theory does precisely this.
Next week: Depiction vs Narration