My first book on aesthetics was An Ontology of Art (Macmillan, 1989). It argued for a close connection between the finished product (canvas, musical score, literary text) and the action of the artist in producing this. Its main thesis was that the work itself is not merely the canvas, score or text, but rather that action which resulted in their production. Views according to which the artist’s action are important in the so-called “singular” arts such as painting are often assumed to support the idea that the artist’s original canvas is aesthetically privileged, and that a proper engagement with the work requires one to see that original. I argued that this is not the case and that, under certain conditions, a reproduction of the original is as valuable and useful, aesthetically speaking, as the original.
The Nature of Fiction (CUP, 1990) argued for a certain view about what constitutes truth in fiction. Pace Lewis, I argued that what is true in the fiction is what beliefs it is reasonable for the reader/viewer to attribute to the author, under the assumption that the story is told (as Lewis himself put it) as known fact. It also argued for an account of the fiction/nonfiction distinction in terms of the sort of (Gricean) communication involved: roughly speaking, if the author intends to get the reader to believe the content of the story, we have nonfiction; we have fiction where the intended attitude is imagining. I treated fictional names as Lewis treated theoretical terms, defined by a process of Ramsefying the content of the story. I offered an account of the emotions we have towards fictional characters and situations based on a theory of the emotions which allowed emotions to have either beliefs or imaginings as their cognitive components.
Image and Mind: Film, Philosophy and Cognitive Science (CUP, 1995) was an attempt to develop a positive theory of the film medium which rejected, more or less completely, the at that time dominant theories dependent on psychoanalysis. I argued for a number of theses: (a) the film image is not, pace Walton, transparent but does constitute a distinctively “mechanistic” form of representation; (b) the movement we see on the screen is real and not illusory; (c) viewers do not imagine seeing the events of the film, though their imaginings have a distinctively visual character; (d) to make sense of flashbacks we do not need recourse to the idea that the viewer has a sense that events of the story are temporally present; (e) films do not have narrators in the sense that literary narratives sometimes do; (f) we can make sense of unreliability in a film narrative without recourse to the idea of an unreliable narrator.
Recreative Minds: Imagination in Philosophy and Psychology (joint with Ian Ravenscroft, OUP 2002) was the first book-length treatment of simulation theory. It argued that the operations of the imagination can be understood as underpinned by simulative mechanisms which allow various kinds of mental processes to be taken “off-line”. We argued that this is as true for sensory imaginings as for the cases of simulated belief-desire reasoning which were the flagship examples of simulation. We argued that autism and schizophrenia can, in part, be understood as disorders of imagination, being cases, respectively, of an impoverished and an uncontrolled and poorly monitored imagination. We argued, finally, that the emotions are distinctive in this: while imagination uses counterpart to beliefs and desires, and not beliefs and desires themselves, the imagination deploys what really are emotions; one may be (literally) upset by the fate of Anna Karenina, just as one can be by the fate of a friend. Peter Carruthers said of the book: “…their careful dissection of many of the issues and arguments that they consider is quite masterful”
Arts and Minds (OUP 2004) is a collection of thirteen essays, some not previously published, many revised. Philosophical questions about the arts go naturally with other kinds of questions about them: we can't think constructively about representation in art without thinking about representation; text, meaning, reference and existence get similarly drawn into the conversation. Some ideas that philosophers of art deal with emerge from other disciplines. In literary theory an enormous amount of attention has been lavished on tracing the sources of unreliability in narrative. Is the result adequate to the details of the particular works we call unreliable? Contemporary film theory is generally hostile to the fiction/documentary distinction. Are there in fact any grounds for this? Art is sometimes said to be an historical concept. But where in our cultural and biological history did art begin? If art is related to play and imagination, do we find any signs of these things in our nonhuman relatives? Sometimes the other questions look like ones the philosopher of art has to answer. Anyone who thinks that interpretation in the arts is an activity that leaves the intentions of the author behind needs to explain how and why this differs so fundamentally from ordinary conversational interpretation, where the only decent models we have are ones that depend crucially on the recovery of intention. Anyone who thinks that imaginative literature has anything to tell us about time had better have a position on how earlier and later relate to past and future. Anyone who thinks that empathy plays a role in literary engagement had better have a psychologically plausible account of what empathy is. The essays in these collections are all attempts to make these links between philosophical aesthetics and other areas of inquiry.
Narratives and Narrators: A Philosophy of Stories (OUP, 2010) Narratives are artefacts of a special kind: they are intentionally crafted devices which fulfil their story-telling function by manifesting the intentions of their makers. But narrative itself is too inclusive a category for much more to be said about it than this; we should focus attention instead on the vaguely defined but interesting category of things rich in narrative structure. Such devices offer significant possibilities, not merely for the representation of stories, but for the expression of point of view; they have also played an important role in the evolution of reliable communication. Narratives and narrators argues that much of the pleasure of narrative communication depends on deep-seated and early developing tendencies in human beings to imitation and to joint attention, and imitation turns out to be the key to understanding such important literary techniques as free indirect discourse and character-focused narration. The book also examines irony in narrative, with an emphasis on the idea of the expression of ironic points of view. It looks closely at the idea of character, or robust, situation-independent ways of acting and thinking, as it is represented in narrative. It asks whether scepticism about the notion of character should have us reassess the dramatic and literary tradition which places such emphasis on character.
Imagining and Knowing: The Shape of Fiction (OUP, 2020) Works of fiction are works of and for the imagination. Additionally, they very often provide opportunities for learning—for the acquisition of knowledge and of skills. And the learning they provide comes to us through our imaginative engagement with them. We learn from them in surprisingly effective ways, and what we learn is often the sort of thing we can hardly ever learn in other ways.
So it is said. This book defends the connection between fiction and imagination; it responds to a number of challenges to that idea, and argues that there lie within the domain of the imagination a number of not well-recognised capacities that make that connection work. The book is less enthusiastic about the connection between fiction and learning. The connection is surely one that exists, but it is easy to exaggerate it, to ignore countervailing tendencies to create error and ignorance, and to suppose that claims about learning from fiction require no serious empirical support. The book makes a case for modesty about learning from fiction: it suggests that a lot of what we take to be learning in this area is itself a kind of pretence, that we are too optimistic about the psychological and moral insights of authors, that works of fiction bear little resemblance to the celebrated thought experiments of the sciences, that the case for fiction as a Darwinian adaptation is weak, and that empathy is both hard to acquire from fiction and not always morally advantageous.