Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.07.27

Stephen Halliwell, The Aesthetics of Mimesis: Ancient Texts and Modern Problems.   Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 2002.  Pp. ix, 424.  ISBN 0-691-09258-3.  $24.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Andrew Ford, Princeton University (
Word count: 2833 words

This ambitious synthesis proposes that the Greek conception of mimesis was "the most long-lasting, widely held and intellectually accommodating of all theories of art" (5). Against reductive translations of mimesis as "copying," Halliwell presents it as "a complex, variable concept" and "a dynamic one that generated many different models of art" (222-23). Closely tracking the term through Plato, Aristotle and later Greek critics, he finds that "there is no central or consistent commitment in the history of mimeticism to the truth-bearing, as opposed to sense-making, status of mimetic works" (380). He then samples key episodes in post-classical criticism to argue that mimesis remains "of compelling interest for anyone concerned with the status and value of representational art -- past, present, or future" (33).

Halliwell's project may be said to refine the "cognitivist" account of art (see below) in his influential 1986 book on the Poetics1 and to see how far it can be traced backward to Plato and forward through Western criticism up to the present. More broadly, the book argues against simplifying histories of criticism as the replacement of classical ideals of truth-telling by romantic concerns with self-expression and originality. Classical mimeticism, when appreciated in all its complexity, did not sacrifice the formal to the ethical, the subjective to the objective, pleasure to truth. This reviewer has serious reservations about the cognitivist position, but Halliwell has given it a highly nuanced, philosophically sophisticated version that will command the attention of scholars of classical and Western literary criticism.

Twelve chapters are divided equally into three parts: Plato and Aristotle occupy the first two because "[a] prime source of mimeticism's complexity ... is the dialectic built into its history by the interplay between [their] approaches to the subject" (374). The third part follows the language of mimesis through Hellenistic philosophy and Neo-Platonism, with a concluding chapter on "An Inheritance Contested: Renaissance to Modernity."

On Plato, Halliwell's main goal is to bring out his complexity: mimesis meant many things in his works and its applications to poetry present "exploratory, shifting and inconclusive arguments on the subject" (25). Socrates' harassing the rhapsode with requests for expertise in Ion, for example, is "the opposite of a dogmatic work" and is "ambivalent as well as undecided about poetry" (41). Plato's placing metaphysical truth beyond the poet's ken in Rep. 10 ("a particular challenge to one conception of mimesis, not an exhaustive analysis of the subject," 62) should not eclipse his attention to questions of poetic psychology, ethics and politics, matters in which it makes little sense to demand correspondence with some original (Ch. 1). More positively, Plato sometimes recognized different levels of literalness in "image-making" arts, and allowed for the importance of cultural traditions of representation (e.g. Greek vs. Egyptian); from this Halliwell infers "the possibility of approval for at least some kinds of non-naturalistic and heavily stylized figural art" (127). But Plato's attempt to theorize how mimetic art should integrate representational form and ethical significance (the difficult and often neglected passage on judging poetry at Laws 2.667-68 that Halliwell does not avoid, 65-69) "does not yield a wholly perspicuous theory" (131).

Plato's psychology of art (Ch. 2) was not limited to worries about audiences' identifying with low but compelling characters. Always wide ranging, Halliwell discovers in Plato a spectrum of possible psychological responses to a work of art from critical distance to complete emotional identification. The fact that Plato allows for the possibility of spectators' "recognizing" forms of good and base behavior in art (79 ff.) suggests that the psychology of mimesis may permit a dialectic between pleasure and benefit. Halliwell recognizes that Plato is "predominantly inhospitable" to the idea of learning from art, but the reason is not some metaphysical hostility to poetry's lies but Plato's "profound ambivalence" (26). Highly esteeming the "power of the imagination" yet determined that it should not topple reason from its throne, Plato counts as a "romantic puritan." Halliwell takes from Plato the warning that belief in the autonomy of aesthetic experience, when combined with unlimited faith in the imagination, threatens to claim "complete immunity from ethical scrutiny and interrogation" (97). (For some, this is precisely what aesthetics calls for.)

Ch. 3 considers Plato's fascination with tragedy and concludes that he was the first and only ancient thinker to have an idea of "the tragic" as a Weltanschauung (102-3). The tragic (including Homer) is a "philosophy in embryo" (116), "a corrosive pessimism about human possibilities" (115) driven home by this most persuasive of art forms. Ch. 4 confronts the analogy between the painter and the mirror Rep. 10, which Halliwell presents as a "dialectical gambit" (136). Far from simple-mindedly enjoining artists to copy reality, Plato recognized the expressive capacities of pictorial art (Rep. 401A) and required of painting something more than verisimilitude or naturalism. So too Cratylus and Soph. 235C-36A allow for imitations that have no exact correspondence with originals (128).

In sum, for all his complexity, Plato did not allow that imaginative engagement with poetry could be "a medium or agency of understanding" (92). In Part 2 Halliwell reads Aristotle as combating Plato's mistrust of the imagination with "a radical modification of a psychology that separates imagination from reason, feeling from judgment" (97).

Chh. 5-7 significantly nuance the cognitivist interpretation of the Poetics that Halliwell's work did much to establish through the 1980's. Because Aristotle held that the emotions elicited by mimetic arts rest on cognitive foundations (e.g. pity only arises when we judge some suffering is undeserved), cognitivists infer that Aristotle believed that the full experience of art must be a kind of learning (citing Poetics 4, and 9 on "universals").2

Halliwell starts by asking (Ch. 5) what counts as mimetic art for Aristotle and why. A "genuine but inchoate" notion of fiction (28, 156) can be inferred from the fact that products of mimetic arts, unlike those of mechanical crafts, embody the maker's "expressiveness" and call for "recognition and understanding" (154). As this "recognition" includes "emotional understanding," Aristotle thought that mimetic arts satisfy a "human need to understand the world" (163).

Ch. 6 turns to the psychology of art and argues that Aristotle incorporated "full scope for the emotions" in the way he linked pleasure and understanding. Compared with history, poetry provides "heightened intelligibility" of human action, but this is only "quasi-philosophical" knowledge because its universals are inextricable from their "situations of vividly imagined particularity that constitute the primary fabric of art" (29). Poetry's "universals" are not moral-cum-didactic propositions but plot structures, sequences of events in a possible world against which spectators may test and refine their comprehension of the world, possibly questioning their assumptions.

Ch. 7 gives a cognitivist account of pity in the Poetics to distinguish Aristotle from various moderns and from Plato and Nietzsche -- the two "greatest enemies of pity." Pity for Aristotle was "no raw frisson of sentiment but part of a cumulative, integrated response to the mimetic representation of intelligible but intensely vulnerable human experiences" (29). For the cognitivist, spasms of pity are "peaks of a cumulatively unfolding response to the intelligible significance of the plot in its entirety" (222).

Finally, Halliwell confronts (Ch. 8) the "difficult but important" discussion of music in Politics 8, appreciating that music led the ancients to "the limits of mimetic theories of art." Here Halliwell reads Politics 8.5 against Philodemus' On Music as illustrating a polarization that has often "blighted" the aesthetics of music (255). Philodemus' Epicurean line about music -- that it is sheer sound with no rational or ethical content -- draws out Aristotle's opposing Damonian view of music as a supremely meaningful art form. This is Halliwell's second take on Politics 8.5 (also discussed in Ch. 5 (155-61) to illustrate Aristotle's broad notion of "likeness"), and I suspect the reason is that this is the text that most clearly rules out interpretations of catharsis as a cognitive experience.3 The passage is difficult, and Halliwell's explication is very complex (defining music's ethical "likenesses," homoiômata, as Piercean iconic signs as opposed to visual art's non-ethical, "iconic" sêmeia). Halliwell seems to say that Aristotle studies how music "enacts" ethical states in the hearer to show that the iconic properties of a work and its recipient's experience are mutually implicated.

In the final Part, Halliwell's selects "episodes" from the later critical tradition to show that mimeticism remains more complex than a monolithic "imitation of nature." The ancient writers surveyed in Chh. 9-11 most often exhibit this complexity in espousing contradictory views of the concept. Typically, Halliwell seizes on the implications of a single occurrence of mimeticism language and then complicates it by cross-reference to another passage, whether in another chapter or in another book, which implies a divergent model of mimesis. For example, Ch. 9 argues that Stoic Strabo had trouble reconciling Homer's geographical wisdom with the element of "myth" in his work -- and from this "struggle" sometimes interpreted mimesis in symbolic terms. Philodemus (here On Poets) had something of an idea of fiction from an Epicurean idea of aesthetic pleasure but exhibits an unresolved tension between status of truth and falsehood in mimetic art. The survey continues through Ch. 10 on Duris of Samos, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Plutarch, the older Homeric scholia, with glances at Philostratus and [Longinus]. Ch. 11 takes up ideas of "metaphysical mimesis" of higher reality by lower reality in the Neo-Platonists. Plotinus' occasional hints of an aesthetic idealism (e.g. Enneads 5.8.1) are offset by passages treating art as a mere simulacrum of reality. Proclus is no less ambivalent about symbolic art.

Halliwell concludes (Ch. 12) by picking out similar sorts of conflict in the later tradition from the recovery of a (Latinized) concept of mimesis ... [as] a defining element in Renaissance criticism" (348) through neoclassicism to the present. Here his aim is to rehabilitate classical mimesis after Romanticism and postmodernism. The Romantic revolution did overthrow "the 'academic' orthodoxies into which some forms of mimeticism had declined" (374), but it was only the late 19th-century polarization between naturalism and Wildean aestheticism that provoked an "undoubtedly widespread romantic renunciation of mimesis ... qua supposed concern with the mere surface plausibility and verisimilitude of artistic images" (360). Modernisms aimed to move beyond the polarized classical spectrum in radically rejecting the figurative and the narrative in art, and, most recently, in abandoning human and natural subjects. But Derrida's critique of the "metaphysics of presence" underlying mimetic theories is faulted for setting up a Platonic straw man and for self-defeating and self-contradictory "skepticism." (In place of these old critiques, shrugged off by those who define writing as "play," I would try to show how Derrida remains Platonic, as Barthes' rhetoric is Aristotelian. Halliwell only glances at what seems to me the most pressing challenge to classical humanism, the Foucaultian deconstruction of the subject.) Hence, the book can urge that the mimeticist tradition still offers a satisfactory aesthetics, "a locus of possibilities within a fully human perspective, a perspective that interprets 'reality' through culturally structured but disputable (and amendable) frameworks of beliefs, standards, and conceptions, rather than by a set of metaphysically absolute reference points" (376).

Halliwell's readings of Plato and Aristotle are bound to provoke discussion. His "exploratory" Plato will sit well neither with dogmatic Unitarians nor Developmentalists, but I am on his side. Yet, granting the complexity (and richness) of Plato's pronouncements on poetry, it still seems to me that Halliwell glosses over one commitment Plato held from Ion and Apology through Laws: whatever concept of mimesis or truth might be in play, Plato always refers poetry (and painting as well) ultimately to the philosopher's evaluation, and this evaluation will be based on what the philosopher knows to be true. Hence, the idea that poets should capture truth and convey knowledge may be a simplification of Plato's thought, but it is not one without foundation in his corpus. As Halliwell knows (374), it is one thing to argue that Plato's corpus yields no simple "mirror" theory about art but another thing to deny that such a simplification constitutes a large part of the Platonic inheritance in aesthetic thought.

Cognitivist interpretations of Aristotle's Poetics now predominate, though objections continue to be raised.4 Halliwell's present account goes some way to softening overly-philosophical construals of "learning" and "universals." And he has a subtle answer to the key question facing those who would use literature as moral philosophy: why bother with literature? why not get our learning in some less complicated way? Halliwell goes beyond claiming a special "richness" or "vividness" for literature and points to a provocative "noise" between medium and message. The cognitive value of literature emerges when the "intrinsically double-faced and ambiguous" (222) concept of mimesis encourages us hold works of art in a "dual focus," both as objects in their own right and as images of possible realities. For Aristotle, the complications that arise from the embeddedness of ethical contents in artistic media awakens critical reflection to hold "objects" and "means" of imitation "jointly in focus" (172). It takes a long chain of implications to reach this aestheticist-sounding thesis, and I doubt Aristotle expected this kind of reading to predominate in the theater. But Halliwell needs this "ideal tension" between a work's "artifactuality" and its human (ergo ethical) content to ward off both simple didacticism and an "aestheticism" that values "the semiotics of the autonomous text" (174).

Halliwell wants to balance on this fulcrum, but he may be more on one side than he knows, and it is not clear to me whether any cognitivism can do justice to aesthetics. Halliwell is especially close to Martha Nussbaum's recent argument that emotions as elicited by literature can provide us with appraisals of the world that are better connected (by reflection) to a person's sense of well being than the propositions of instrumental reason. Both Halliwell and Nussbaum are being generous by their lights in affording literature a role in moral education; but it strikes me as a narrow view of poetry's functions (it hasn't much to say about lyric poetry), and those interested in literature for other reasons than implicit moral philosophy may regard this defense as a Trojan Horse: it plumps for aesthetics, but installs the moral philosopher as arbiter of the worth of art; it identifies the experience of art with the reflexive self-monitoring we may use in discussing our responses to texts.5

As for the revised history of criticism in part three, Halliwell is right that things are never simple and that it is hard to identify a clear historical shift "from Classic to Romantic." Still, Meyer Abrams' old The Mirror and the Lamp can help us appreciate that central elements of modern thought about art are barely mentioned or only implicit in ancient texts (e.g., as Halliwell notes, mimeticism's comparatively low interest in originality or in the character of the artist). In general, readers of this part must bear in mind that, as Halliwell repeatedly stresses, it is a diagnostic selection of passages, not a complete overview. In his focus on "aesthetic mimesis," Halliwell rules out of consideration such meanings as "behaving like" someone (15 n. 33) or "aemulatio" (293 n. 21), and so Roman writers appear principally in footnotes. The largest gap is medieval philosophy: though omitted on grounds that the vocabulary of mimesis disappeared from medieval discussions of art, Christian metaphysics and hermeneutics mediated important ideas about symbolism and poetic creation found in ancient texts (e.g. the Timaeus of Plato and the Neo-Platonists).

In the authors Halliwell does treat one can be sure that the most provocative mimesis-passages will be acutely examined, but one will not always get a sense of the place of these passages in the entire corpus. An unfortunate result is that he rarely indicates how tangential aesthetic mimesis is to later, rhetorically dominated criticism (e.g. 311-12, on "On the Sublime"). From the way Halliwell zeroes in on two passages from Dionysus of Halicarnassus, one would not know that he wrote several books "On [literary] imitation." This may lead to different evaluations of individual cases (e.g. on phantasia in [Longinus] and Apollonius).

Ultimately, this abstract history of ideas makes us ask whether the writers oscillate between poles of "world-reflective" and "world-creating" mimeticism because they respond to a rich ancient inheritance or because they are being subjected to Halliwell's keen but modern (i.e. classical as inflected by Romanticism) set of questions. It may be that the concept of mimesis remains useful because it summons key unresolved elements in current aesthetic thought: as a rich or riven concept, mimesis can now be expected to be near the basic commitments of any theoretical work in which it occurs; but this need not always be the case, and the Greeks and Romans had other fish to fry as well. If we re-read them looking for more than how they would have met these aesthetic problems, we can agree that the classical tradition has "much to contribute to a better grasp of what is at stake in competing views of the relationship of art and reality" (377).


1.   Aristotle Poetics (London, 1986; reprinted with a new introduction, Chicago, 1998).
2.   A pioneering work on Aristotle's cognitive emotions, W.W. Fortenbaugh, Aristotle on Emotion. A Contribution to Philosophical Psychology, Rhetoric, Poetics, Politics and Ethics, first published in 1975, has just been reissued in a Second Edition (London 2003), helpfully reviewed by Peter Aronoff in BMCR 2003.05.27.
3.   I attempt an explication of this text in "Catharsis: the power of music in Aristotle's Politics," forthcoming in Music and the Muses: Song, Dance and Word in Classical Athenian Culture, edd. Peter Wilson and P. Murray (Oxford, Jan. 2004).
4.   For a valuable recent critique and alternative interpretation, G. R. F. Ferrari, "Aristotle's Literary Aesthetics," Phronesis 44 (1999)181-198; see 182 n. 2 for references to other dissenters, notably Jonathan Lear, "Katharsis," Phronesis 33 (1988) 327-344, the sole non-cognitivist represented in Essays on Aristotle's Poetics, ed. A. O. Rorty (Princeton 1992).
5.   M. Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought: the Intelligence of the Emotions (Cambridge 2001); for an extensive critical engagement, see Charles Altieri, The Particulars of Rapture: An Aesthetics of Affects (Ithaca, forthcoming in Nov. 2003), Ch. 5.

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