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Mimesis as Make-Believe (1): Imagination

Mimesis as Make-Believe What do children’s toys, paintings, sculpture, novels, theatre, movies, boardgames and videogames all have in common? Without the faculty of imagination, without the capacity to make-believe that what is represented by these objects has come to life, none of these eclectic forms of human art would have any meaning at all. Imagination is thus the wellspring of the arts, and understanding how we use this power of make-believe can teach us not only about our creativity, but about how we understand the world around us.

First published in 1990, but expanding upon earlier papers from 1973 onwards, Professor Kendall Walton’s Mimesis as Make-Believe: on the foundations of the representational arts presents the distinguished philosopher's “make-believe theory of representation” in fascinating detail, but the basics of his approach are easy to grasp. All works of fiction are representations, in Walton’s sense, and ‘fiction’ and ‘representation’ are interchangeable terms in his theory (except when comparing fiction to nonfiction), and indeed ‘mimesis’, as Walton uses the term, can also be understood as corresponding roughly to ‘representation’.

Walton introduces the centre of his concept as follows:

In order to understand paintings, plays, films, and novels, we must look first at dolls, hobbyhorses, toy trucks, and teddy bears. The activities in which representational works of art are embedded and which give them their point are best seen as continuous with children’s games of make-believe. Indeed, I advocate regarding these activities as games of make-believe themselves, and I shall argue that representational works function as props in such games, as dolls and teddy bears serve as props in children’s games.

At first glance, such a claim seems too trivial to be taken seriously: surely the experience of watching a movie is not as trifling as what is pretended by young children at play? Isn't an impressionist painting is worth more than a young girl's doll? But these objections are about the relative value we place on different representations, and Walton is well-aware of this aspect of art. It does not diminish the merit of interpreting the products of the institution of fiction in terms of make-believe.

Similarly, it's easy to be dismissive of the make-believe theory on the grounds that it is self-evident that imagination of some kind is central to works of fiction. Walton admits that “establishing this much is like pulling a rabbit out of a hutch.” Yet if one works through the consequences of this observation, as Walton does in great detail, it leads to quite startling conclusions about the human experience. He quips: “In the end one might think the hutch must actually have been a hat. But by then the rabbit will be in our hands.”

Walton interprets representations as “things possessing the social function of serving as props in games of make-believe”, and the notion of a prop is central to the make-believe theory. A toy gun, a plastic doll, a painting of a watermill and a game of Cluedo (Clue in the US) are all different kinds of props, but each in its own way mandates specific imaginings. The toy gun is to be imagined as a real gun, and similarly the doll is imagined to be a baby. In parallel manner, the painting of a watermill proscribes the imagining of such a mill, and the pieces in a game of Cluedo proscribe the imagining of a murder investigation. The principles of generation behind the specifics of these imaginings may be wildly different, and can be quite obscure in some cases, but the same essential process is involved in each case.

Propositions, that is, statements about the world, are usually taken to be either true or false. It is true that you are reading my blog, for instance, and false that I am immortal. However, in the case of representations thinking in terms of 'true' and 'false' can be misleading – Walton proposes instead that we think of the propositions associated with representations as being ascribed fictionality, which he sees as a “prescription to imagine”. Thus just as belief aims at the true in our conventional understanding of truth, imagining aims at the fictional: “What is true is to be believed; what is fictional is to be imagined.”

Any given fictional proposition can be seen as a fictional truth, and collectively these form fictional worlds. We are familiar with the idea, for instance, that the episodes of Star Trek constitute a fictional world, but in Walton's theory every representation has a corresponding fictional world: the Mona Lisa prescribes a fictional world in which it is true that a women with no eyebrows has an enigmatic smile. What's more, while any given work has its own fictional world (the work world), every appreciator enters their own fictional world when they appreciate that work.

Thus when I look at the Mona Lisa in the Louvre I enter into a fictional world where, if I am playing what Walton would term an authorised game, I see a woman with no eyebrows and an enigmatic smile. It may be fictional in the world of my game that the woman belongs to an alien species which lacks eyebrows – that is a matter for my imagination – but this proposition can only belong to the fictional world of my game: it is not fictional to the work world of the Mona Lisa that she is an alien.

Over the next few weeks, this serial will work through the elements of Walton's system and provide a brief yet comprehensive introduction to his make-believe theory of representation, while over on another of my blogs a parallel serial will adapt this model to game design. As well as explicating some thorny problems in the philosophy of art (many of which were remarked upon by Wittgenstein), Walton's approach has much to say about how we deal with the world around us – although he himself wisely leaves much of the implications therein unspoken.

Next week: Props


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do you see (or does Walton himself speak of) any relations his thoughts might have to "systems thinking / systems theory" (for lack of a better word)?

translucy: I'm not entirely au fait with systems theory, although I have a general grasp of the motivating concept. Walton definitely doesn't move in this area - he's specifically tied up with philosophy of art, logic and ontology in his make-believe theory. I don't doubt that the two could be intersected, though.

Best wishes!

Hi Chris. An enjoyable update as always. I am ordering Mimesis and make believe. Anyways I am a long time lurker and admirer. Keep writing!

Chris: "Walton definitely doesn't move in this area - he's specifically tied up with philosophy of art, logic and ontology in his make-believe theory."

This fact holds the promise for a very exciting discussion (;-) since the general assumptions/beliefs you outlined above sound very much like a straightforward (but certainly not trivial) extention of some of the foundational hypotheses in current social / organizational psychology - at least relevant to those schools in the field that declare to be "inspired/informed by systems theory".

So a theory of art and a theory of game design that come to results that can directly inform the development of organizational psychology (and the organizational consulting practices derived from it) are indeed quite exciting (to me at least :)

Rod: as ever, thanks for the kind words! Hope you enjoy the rest of the serial(s)!

translucy: these kind of cross-disciplinary discussions are always interesting to me! I'll leave it to you to decide if you should wait until after the main body of this serial is concluded before kicking off on such an endeavour - assuming, of course, you were offering. :)

I 'll pick up my copy of "MaM" in the next couple of minutes - let's see ;-)

When are you posting the ihobo complementary piece?

Mory: I posted last week to announce it... it starts this Wednesday (tomorrow) and the two will then run in parallel.

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