Mimesis as Make-Believe

Walton on Make-Believe

Klwalton Any book in which Shakespeare's Hamlet rubs shoulders with Beatrix Potter's flopsy bunnies while Kurasawa's Rashamon is referenced alongside Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles earns my immediate respect! I have become deeply engaged with Professor Kendall Walton's make-believe theory of representation, about which the recent serials have been concerned. As a bookend to the serials, Professor Walton has kindly agreed to a brief interview to discuss his work, his inspirations and his unique viewpoint on both fiction and existence.

Chris Bateman: What attracted you to philosophy?

Kendall Walton: Philosophy is great fun! It is thrilling to think about fundamental issues, having your assumptions rattled or overturned, facing up to apparent contradictions among apparently obvious truths, wrestling with puzzles. A philosophy course in my sophomore year of college convinced me to change my major, tentatively, from music to philosophy. A few more courses and I was hooked — or rather became aware that I had always been more or less hooked on what I now realized was philosophy.

Chris: Why philosophy of art? What drew you to this specific field?

Kendall: Having been a serious musician (probably headed in the direction of music theory), I expected that I would be interested especially in aesthetics and philosophy of art. But my first contacts with these fields, at Berkeley, didn’t take. It wasn’t until grad school at Cornell that I discovered, in a superb seminar with Frank Sibley, how exciting aesthetics can be, how serious, rigorous philosophical thought can connect with real, real-world interests in the arts. Nevertheless, I wrote my dissertation (with Sydney Shoemaker) on other aspects of philosophy (philosophy of language, mind and metaphysics).

Chris: Your first job was at the University of Michigan, where you are still teaching. How did you get started there?

Kendall: I was invited to teach a course on aesthetics. That was rough; about all I had by way of background was the one seminar with Sibley. So I stayed up nearly all night, before class meetings, trying to get ideas on topics I had hardly thought about previously. The adrenalin was helpful, and I came up with my first publication on aesthetics (“Categories of Art”).

Chris: The first of many!

Kendall: What mainly convinced me to focus on aesthetics was the realization that this huge and hugely fascinating area of investigation was largely unexplored, especially in the “analytic” philosophical tradition. There were – no doubt still are – fundamental questions that have hardly been addressed or even recognized, new kinds of theories and approaches waiting to be discovered and tried, common assumptions due to be questioned and possibly overturned. In aesthetics, more than in other areas of philosophy, one can be a pioneer. That is more fun, for me, than fine tuning ideas others have worked on for decades or centuries. And I don’t have to leave behind my interests in music and the other arts!

Chris: What was the inspiration for Charles, whose fear of the fictional cinematic slime has become such a cornerstone to your work? I believe, unlike Gregory and Eric, that he is not based on any real person.

Kendall: Charles is a purely fictional character. I don’t know what inspired him—just an example I used to explore issues about our emotional responses to fiction. I don’t consider the question of whether it is literally true that Charles fears the slime a cornerstone of my work, even though it has exercised a lot of commentators. The largely independent question of how Charles’ emotional experience fits into his game of make-believe is much more important (though still not quite a conerstone, I think). These meta-observations are more explicit in my “Spelunking, Simulation and Slime” (in M. Hjort and S. Laver, Emotion and the Arts, Oxford, 1997).

Chris: What about Gregory and Eric, who you say are real people in your introduction to Mimesis as Make-Believe? How old were when they played the game of imagining stumps as bears?.

Kendall: Greg and Eric, my two sons, serve as fictional characters in Mimesis. I don’t think they have ever played the stump/bear game; maybe nobody has. Actually, I used the example before they were born—in an article published in 1978 (well, that is the year Greg was born). My story of their playing this game is itself a fiction.

Chris: No doubt they did invent their own games of make-believe, though.

Kendall: Yes, on camping trips, they often played make-believe baseball, sometimes using a pine cone for a ball and a stick for a bat. But sometimes they just imagined a ball, without a prop—and then argued about whether a pitch was a strike or a ball! Once when Greg was very young he was looking at an illustrated children’s book about fire engines. He said he wanted to ride in one; then sat on the book. An “unofficial” or “unauthorized” game of make-believe.

Chris: I’m curious about boundary cases with other kinds of play that are not necessarily representational. You use quasi-fear to denote the physiology of fear in the absence of fearful behaviour in the case of a horror movie – is it, therefore, quasi-fear that one experiences on a roller-coaster?

Kendall: Quasi-fear, as I define it, is present in lots of instances of ordinary genuine fear, and in many roller coaster experiences. It is just the physiological and sensational feelings typical of fear – whether or not one is literally afraid of something, and whether or not one is engaged in make-believe.

Chris: So is there a case that the roller-coaster is some kind of representation, or rather that quasi-emotions are properties of playful situations, of which representations are a subset?

Kendall: Roller coasters are interesting. Sometimes probably they involve make-believe; a person imagines there to be danger, while knowing there is none. In other instances one really believes, at a “gut level” anyway, that the thing is dangerous (like the person who is afraid of flying). Such a gut level belief might combine with deliberate or automatic pretense. Some people may experience just the feelings, and perhaps enjoy them, without having anything like a sense of being in danger.

Chris: What about chess... do you think a chess player plays a game of make-believe with their pieces?

Kendall: I doubt that chess players ever engage in make-believe. The game would be no different if pieces were called “Piece #1”, Piece #2” etc., rather than “King,” “Queen,” “Bishop,” and so forth.

Chris: But the pieces are clearly at some level representative of Kings, Queens, Bishops and Knights, or at least they once were...

Kendall: Those names do indicate a kind of make-believe players could engage in, and perhaps did in the ancient past. It is likely to be what I call a prop oriented game, however, rather than a content oriented one, i.e. a game in which our interest is in the props rather than the fictional world that the props generate. (I elaborate on this distinction in “Metaphors and Prop Oriented Make-Believe,” The European Journal of Philosophy, 1993.)

Chris: Ah, I wish I'd had this paper before writing the Game-Design as Make-Believe serial. I coined the term “functional” as opposed to “representational” which seem to serve the same role as your terms “prop oriented” as opposed to “content oriented”. Can you elaborate on this distinction a little?

Kendall: The make believe in which novels and stories are props are largely content oriented, whereas many metaphors involve prop oriented make-believe. We might think of the names of chess pieces as dead metaphors – recalling perhaps a previous activity of prop oriented make-believe, but one we no longer engage in.

Chris: Without asking you to commit any specific theological position, I'd like to briefly explore ontological disagreements concerning existence claims in respect of God. It seems to me, in your novel account of existence claims in respect of the make-believe theory of representations, that when the atheist disavows the existence of God, there is an implied unofficial game in which God is fictional, and a game of this kind is what the atheist claims the theist is playing when the atheist disavows the existence of God. So does this mean that the atheist considers God to be fictional?

Kendall: The atheist who says “God does not exist” pretends to refer to something by means of the word “God,” and goes on to betray that pretense, i.e. to say that she was only pretending, that she was not actually referring to anything at all. Does this mean that, according to the atheist, God is a fiction? Yes, in the world of the little, “unofficial,” game of make-believe the speaker is engaging in. (This is an instance of “prop oriented” make-believe.)

Chris: What about theists?

Kendall: Well an intriguing possibility is that theists, some of them at least, are themselves engaging in make-believe when they talk about God, that they are merely pretending to believe in God. Fundamentalists will adamantly deny this, no doubt, and they may well be right, i.e. they themselves may not be pretending at all. But some have been struck by what seems to be a strange mismatch between the stated beliefs of some avowed theists and their actual behaviour.

Chris: People who profess a belief in God but behave in a manner apparently totally disconnected with that claim?

Kendall: Yes, the hypothesis that they don’t really believe, but are actually engaging in make-believe would explain this mismatch. But probably we would have to suppose that in many or most instances the make-believe, the pretense, is implicit, something they are not fully aware of. Of course adamant protestations that one is not making believe could be construed as themselves instances of make-believe. One might, in pretense, adamantly insist that one really does believe.

Chris: These kinds of questions concerning beliefs become quite complicated, whether they are theological, ontological or moral! You suggest in the case of art which contains a moral conception we find offensive – such as a story in which the narrator has Nazi beliefs and the narrative unfolds in express support of those beliefs – that you find it reasonable to resort to something like the Reality Principle in dealing with the artwork. Can you elaborate?

Kendall: In the passage you are referring to (pp. 154-155 of Mimesis) I pointed out that we have a tendency to resist allowing as fictional (i.e. true in the world of a story or novel) those moral principles with which we strongly disagree. We may refuse to understand it to be fictional that mixing of races is evil, even if an apparently “omniscient” narrator says that it is, and refuse to accept that, fictionally, characters of different races who strike up a friendship should be punished.

Chris: The point being that usually we take as fictional absolutely everything that an omniscient narrator tells us.

Kendall: Yes, we don’t hesitate allowing it to be fictional that the sun revolves around the earth, or that people travel in time. We tend to favour what I called the Reality Principle of implication with regard to moral matters, whereas other principles often take precedence in the case of non-moral propositions. (This passage in Mimesis led to what has come to be called the problem of “imaginative resistance,” which now has quite a literature.)

Chris: Normally you seem reluctant to commit to questions of interpreting reality because (sensibly) you are concerned this will distract from what is central to your philosophical project. You want to remain on the ontological sidelines, to some extent. But can ethical or moral issues be reduced to a question of objective reality?

Kendall: Well my formulation of this observation implies that there are such things as moral propositions, that (for example) “Mixing of races is evil” and “Mixing of races is not evil” express propositions capable of being true or false. Fictionality, on my account, is a property of propositions. This realist conception of morality is controversial, of course, and I do mean to be neutral about it.

Chris: Moral realism being essentially the opposite of moral relativism i.e. that moral propositions can be made true by objective facts.

Kendall: If there are no such propositions, it won’t make sense to ask whether it is fictional that mixing of races is evil, and neither the Reality Principle nor any other principle of generation will come into play. The puzzle will still arise, however. There will still be our tendency to take issue with an apparently “omniscient” narrator who says “Mixing of races is evil.”

Chris: So the problem of imaginative resistance is independent of one's stance concerning the objective status of morality.

Kendall: What is fictional in the world of the story may be what it is appropriate to say, in discussing the story, “The mixing of races is not evil”, and perhaps, “The narrator has a perverse moral attitude” — however these are to be understood. We still need an explanation of our willingness, generally, to go along with narrators’ pronouncements about time travel, etc., but not with their moral claims, when they conflict with our real world attitudes.

With sincere thanks to Professor Walton for providing this interview, and for his support of the serials concerning his work. The book behind it all, Mimesis as Make-Believe: on the foundations of the representative arts is published by Harvard University Press, ISBN 0674576039, and can be ordered from Amazon or any good book store.


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