Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

You Think Make-believe is for Kids? Sherlock Holmes Will Teach You a Thing or Two


What follows is a guest post by Nils-Hennes Stear.

How do fictions work? How do made-up characters and their made-up feelings make us cry or rejoice in sympathy? With what are we even sympathizing?

Philosopher Kendall Walton has an answer. His theory of fiction, spelled out in his monograph Mimesis as Make-Believe, is among the most influential and celebrated contributions to the history of aesthetics, if not philosophy. So, when I promised to create an animated explainer film as part of my Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellowship at the University of Southampton, it seemed a promising subject to tackle.

The title of the fellowship’s project, now in its final month, is “Art & Ethics”. Walton’s theory is not really about the relationship between art and ethics and so, great theory though it may be, it looks like an odd focus for the project. Yet many of Walton’s most important ideas play a very important, if implicit, role in the literatures about ethics in the arts. Therefore, in an important sense, it is the obvious place to start.

For instance, take Walton’s central, technical notion of an artwork “prescribing” imaginings. A work prescribes a claim when it makes imagining the claim required for full appreciation of the work. (To get even more technical, this makes it “normative” for appreciators to imagine the claim.) To give a straightforward illustration, the Franz Marc painting Dog Lying in the Snow depicts a dog-shaped figure on a white plane with blue swirls, edged by some green triangles. This painting prescribes, very simply, that we imagine that there is a dog lying in the snow.

The literature on whether ethical properties ever affect an artwork’s aesthetic value has taken this notion of prescription and amplified it to apply not just to imaginings but to responses more broadly. For example, one of the debate’s most central figures, philosopher Berys Gaut, talks about thrillers prescribing excitement and comedies prescribing amusement. It’s hard to imagine this literature without the notion of prescription adapted from Walton’s work.

There is also the ever-growing body of work on ‘imaginative resistance’, the phenomenon whereby readers of literary texts seem unable to imagine the immoral (and other) claims they prescribe. A work that straightforwardly prescribes that we imagine a genocide being good might provide an example. It is Walton’s discussion of this issue that gets the whole literature going. So, while Walton’s theory isn’t directly about ethical issues in and around art, much of the contemporary philosophical discussion of those issues would not have been possible without his theory.

The video you see here shows the world’s greatest fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes explaining Walton’s theory to a bemused Dr. Watson over the course of four and a half minutes. There are a few gags and a few cameos by Walton himself.

This video is a collaboration between me (Nils Stear), media producer Jacob Brookman, Signature Pictures, and Battlecat Studios. The film was scripted and storyboarded by me and Jacob, the music and sound post-production were all Jacob, and the illustrations and animation were executed by Battlecat Studios.

The film is designed to give those interested in the arts or philosophy, whether academics or not, a quick and accessible introduction to the theory and to function as a pedagogical aid to philosophy students and instructors. My co-creators and I are extremely interested to hear what people make of the film, and the uses to which they put it. Please share your thoughts with us at And watch this space. But first, watch the video.

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