The Aesthetics of Mimesis: Ancient Texts and Modern Problems

The Aesthetics of Mimesis: Ancient Texts and Modern Problems

The Aesthetics of Mimesis: Ancient Texts and Modern Problems

The Aesthetics of Mimesis: Ancient Texts and Modern Problems


Mimesis is one of the oldest, most fundamental concepts in Western aesthetics. This book offers a new, searching treatment of its long history at the center of theories of representational art: above all, in the highly influential writings of Plato and Aristotle, but also in later Greco-Roman philosophy and criticism, and subsequently in many areas of aesthetic controversy from the Renaissance to the twentieth century. Combining classical scholarship, philosophical analysis, and the history of ideas--and ranging across discussion of poetry, painting, and music--Stephen Halliwell shows with a wealth of detail how mimesis, at all stages of its evolution, has been a more complex, variable concept than its conventional translation of "imitation" can now convey. Far from providing a static model of artistic representation, mimesis has generated many different models of art, encompassing a spectrum of positions from realism to idealism. Under the influence of Platonist and Aristotelian paradigms, mimesis has been a crux of debate between proponents of what Halliwell calls "world-reflecting" and "world-simulating" theories of representation in both the visual and musico-poetic arts. This debate is about not only the fraught relationship between art and reality but also the psychology and ethics of how we experience and are affected by mimetic art. Moving expertly between ancient and modern traditions, Halliwell contends that the history of mimesis hinges on problems that continue to be of urgent concern for contemporary aesthetics.


The concept of mimesis lies at the core of the entire history of Western attempts to make sense of representational art and its values. This book sets itself a pair of aims: first, to undertake a searching reexamination of the ancient roots of that history, from the formative approaches of Plato and Aristotle to the innovative treatment of mimesis by the Neoplatonists of late antiquity; second (and not only in my final chapter), to engage with and elucidate the complex legacy bestowed on aesthetics from the Renaissance to the twentieth century by mimeticist ways of thinking.

My concern throughout is with philosophical theories and critical models of mimesis. It would be a very different task, of which Auerbach’s book Mimesis remains the most famous exemplar, to investigate the specific kinds of artistic practice that various versions of mimesis might claim to explain or justify. Significantly for my purposes, Auerbach himself barely touched on the theory of mimesis. in particular, he had almost nothing to say about the role of mimesis in the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, or about the recurrent influences, direct and indirect, positive and negative, that Platonic and Aristotelian paradigms of mimesis exercised on later thinkers. It is a relief, needless to say, not to be in competition with Auerbach.

In more recent times, as the extent of my (nonetheless selective) bibliography testifies, a mass of work has appeared on various facets of the whole phenomenon of mimeticism in aesthetics, as well as on other, partially related concepts of mimesis in psychology, anthropology, and beyond. My own book, however, offers the fullest reassessment yet attempted, I believe, of the ancient foundations of mimetic theories of art, and in the process it claims to correct and replace numerous misconceptions about not only the materials of those foundations but also the later edifices that have been erected (or superimposed) on them.

The book represents the culmination of many years’ worth of thinking about Plato, Aristotle, and their importance for a revised history of aesthetics. the kind of history I have in mind, and to which this book is intended to make a contribution, is one that looks back beyond the crucial but in some ways philosophically narrow developments of the eighteenth century (when, in a nutshell, “aesthetics” was named and baptized with an identity so restricted as to imperil its connection with, and importance for, the rest of life), as well as beyond the diverse forms of antirepresentationalism thrown up by the twentieth century. It thereby endeavors to rediscover a structure of ideas at whose center lies a sense of the vital, mutually enriching bonds between representational art and human experience at large.

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