Home > aesthetics, philosophy > Practice Exercises — Art objects

Practice Exercises — Art objects

Continuing down the list of Unsolved Problems in Philosophy Wikipedia page, the next problem with which we shall concern ourselves is the question of art objects.

The problems here arise when we start trying to put clear lines between art objects and non-art objects, or between particular instantiations of an art object and some wholly original piece. This problem is not, actually, in any fashion different from yesterday’s problem of Aesthetic Essentialism. The fact is that these problems occur at the edges of the conceivable whenever we try to explicitly categorize.

“Art objects” as a word-symbol does not actually refer to any particularly definable class of objects. Naive categorization does not hold, and sooner or later we’re going to recognize that this is not just true when dealing with the set of all sets which do not include themselves. The problem here is the problem of vague predicates, the same exact problem that more explicitly rears its head in the Paradox of the Heap.

What needs to be understood is that all natural predicates are necessarily vague, albeit some more so than others. To express more formally: it’s been understood for some time that a word is a symbol that refers to some entity in the world, be it material, conceptual, categorical, etc. There is, however, a fallacy in thinking that the entire world of entities is referred to, in some clearly defined relationship, by a word. Words do not clearly point to discrete spaces, but they more accurately point to regions of a space filled with entities. The borders between regions are simply not defined, much like a hand gesture pointing vaguely “over there.” In the right context, such a vague hand gesture can be quite helpful, and in the context of our ordinary lives, a word’s association with some nebulous ontic cloud is enough for us to get by.

We can, perhaps, encapsulate a large space of that which is considered art with some clear definition, but there will always be boundary problems. At some point, I will clearly articulate the theoretical underpinnings of this inassailable rift between our linguistic and ontic worlds, but for now let this particular argument be observational philosophy: nobody can clearly define art or what makes a particular piece of art because these concepts are not clearly defined in relation to the world about which they speak. For us to place rigid boundaries against them defies the natural meaning of the words, and is a case of philosophers self-interestedly building a world they can understand; this is not our duty. Our duty is to understand the world in which we exist already.

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Categories: aesthetics, philosophy
  1. July 18, 2011 at 3:54 am | #1

    But doesn’t language itself build a world we can understand? Surely it’s not so much that it’s not philosophers duty to do this but rather that we (whether we are philosophers or not) have no other means of understanding than by symbolic representations. And when it comes to the representation of ‘regions’ we have no alternative but to arbitrarily place boundaries like blue or red. The problem then is not so much that we do so but that we do so and deceive ourselves (and others) that the finger that points has a clear object.

    • July 18, 2011 at 4:53 am | #2

      Language specifically builds a world we can communicate, not one we can understand. We can understand directly, with sufficient practice, and we do not require symbolic representations (again, with sufficient practice). And we certainly do have an alternative to the arbitrary placement of boundaries: we can recognize that these boundaries are fictitious and be comfortable with unclear and imprecise separation.

  2. July 18, 2011 at 6:27 am | #3

    I agree about the possibility of recognising the imprecision in the things we describe – a kind of situated knowledge perhaps. This seems to be where we agree but I’m a little confused about your assertion that we understand directly. How do you know this?

  3. July 18, 2011 at 8:15 pm | #4

    Direct perception has to be occurring somewhere, or else we lock ourselves into infinite regress. If we’re not directly understanding the world, we’re directly understanding the symbols we’re using to understand the world. With direct understanding possible, moving the direct understanding into the world can be conceived of as merely a process of learning a new symbolic system, wherein the world is a symbol for itself.

    Direct perception also occurs when one is in a state of flow, as defined in positive psychology.

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