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Bible Encyclopedias

1911 Encyclopedia Britannica


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(Lat. imitatio, from imitari, to imitate), the reproduction or repetition of an action or thought as observed in another person or in oneself, or the construction of one object in the likeness of another. By some writers (e.g. Preyer and Lloyd Morgan) the term "imitation" is limited to cases in which one person copies the action or thought of another; others have preferred a wider use of the term (i.e. including "self-imitation"), and have attempted to classify imitative action into various groupings, e.g. as cases of "conscious imitation," "imitative suggestion," "plastic imitation" (as when the members of a crowd subconsciously reproduce one another's modes of thought and action), and the like. The main distinction is that which takes into account the question of attention (q.v.). In conscious imitation, the attention is fixed on the act and its reproduction: in unconscious imitation the reproduction is entirely mechanical and the agent does not "attend" to the action or thought which he is copying: in subconscious imitation the action is not deliberate, though the necessary train of thought would immediately follow if the attention were turned upon it under normal conditions. Imitation plays an extremely important part in human and animal development, and a clear understanding of its character is important both for the study of primitive peoples, and also in the theories of education, art and sociology. The child's early development is in large measure imitative: thus the first articulate sounds and the first movements are mainly reproductions of the words and actions of parents, and even in the later stages that teacher is likely to achieve the best results who himself gives examples of how a word should be pronounced or an action done. The impulse to imitate is, however, not confined to children: there is among the majority of adults a tendency to assimilate themselves either to their society or to those whom they especially admire or respect: this tendency to shun the eccentric is rooted deeply in human psychology. Moreover, even among highly developed persons the imitative impulse frequently overrides the reason, as when an audience, a crowd, or even practically a whole community is carried away by a panic for which no adequate ground has been given, or when a cough or a yawn is imitated by a company of people. Such cases may be compared with those of persons in mesmeric trances who mechanically copy a series of movements made by the mesmerist. The universality of the imitative impulse has led many psychologists to regard it as an instinct (so William James, Principles of Psychology, ii. 408; cf. Instinct), and in that large class of imitative actions which have no obvious ulterior purpose the impulse certainly appears to be instinctive in character. On the other hand where the imitator recognizes the particular effect of a process and imitates with the deliberate intention of producing the same effect, his action can scarcely be classed as instinctive. A considerable number of psychologists have distinguished imitative from instinctive actions (e.g. Baldwin, and Sully). According to Darwin the imitative impulse begins in infants at the age of four months. It is to be noted, however, that the child imitates, not every action indiscriminately, but especially those towards which it has a congenital tendency. The same is true of animals: though different kinds of animals may live in close proximity, the young of each kind imitate primarily the actions of their own parents.

Among primitive man imitation plays a very important part. The savage believes that he can bring about events by imitating them. He makes, for instance, an image of his enemy and pierces it with darts or burns it, believing that by so doing he will cause his enemy's death: similarly sailors would whistle, or farmers would pour water on the ground, in the hope of producing wind or rain. This form of imitation is known as sympathetic magic (see Magic). The sociological importance of imitation is elaborately investigated by Gabriel Tarde (Les Lois de l'imitation, 2nd ed., 1895), who bases all social evolution on the imitative impulse. He distinguishes "custom imitations," i.e. imitations of ancient or even forgotten actions, and "mode imitations," i.e. imitations of current fashions. New discoveries are, in his scheme, the product of the conflict of imitations. This theory, though of great value, seems to neglect original natural similarities which, by the law of causation, produce similar consequences, where imitation is geographically or chronologically impossible.

The term "imitation" has also the following special uses: - I. In Art-theory. - According to Plato all artistic production is a form of imitation Cul l .q ns). That which really exists is the idea or type created by God; of this type all concrete objects are representations, while the painter, the tragedian, the musician are merely imitators, thrice removed from the truth (Rep. X. 596 seq.). Such persons are represented by Plato as a menace to the moral fibre of the community (Rep. iii.), as performing no useful function, drawing men away from reality and pandering to the irrational side of the soul. All art should aim at moral improvement. Plato clearly intends by "imitation" more than is connotated by the modern word: though in general he associates with it all that is bad and secondrate, he in some passages admits the value of the imitation of that which is good, and thus assigns to it a certain symbolic significance. Aristotle, likewise regarding art as imitation, emphasizes its purely artistic value as purging the emotions (Kb.Oapais), and producing beautiful things as such (see Aesthetics and Fine Arts).

2. In Biology, the term is sometimes applied to the assimilation by one species of certain external characteristics(especially colour) which enable them to escape the notice of other species which would otherwise prey upon them. It is a form of protective resemblance and is generally known as mimicry (q.v.; see also Colours Of Animals).

3. In Music, the term "imitation" is applied in contrapuntal composition to the repetition of a passage in one or more of the other voices or parts of a composition. When the repetition is note for note with all the intervals the same, the imitation is called "strict" and becomes a canon; if not it is called "free," the latter being much the more common. There are many varieties of imitation, known as imitation "by inversion," "by inversion and reversion," "by augmentation," "by diminution" (see Grove's Dictionary of Music, s. v., and textbooks of musical theory).

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Bibliography Information
Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Imitation'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. 1910.

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