Understanding Art as Contingent: a Linguistic Approach to Metaphysics

What is art? When confronted with this question, one might point at a Van Gogh and say: “This is art!” But the metaphysician’s answer is different. The metaphysician wants a comprehensive definition encompassing everything we might point to when asked what art is. To do this, they continue in asking: what makes the Van Gogh “art?” What is art, really?

  1. The metaphysical proposal

A metaphysician might approach the topic in a few ways. First, the physical object hypothesis: the novel Moby Dick is a physical object. This strikes me as immediately problematic. Which physical object? The first manuscript? My copy of Moby Dick? Moreover, when I’m writing an essay on Moby Dick, I’m not commenting on the book’s physical properties. Instead, I am writing on esoteric, expressive, and, importantly, non-physical properties of my imagined Moby Dick, what one might call “my reading of Moby Dick.”

If we are inclined to give up our search for the one or the many physical objects that constitute Moby Dick, we might simply conclude that Moby Dick is not a physical object but a psychological one. Moby Dick, on this view, lives in our minds – it is the sum total of thoughts, feelings, and responses we have while reading it. But now we have the reverse problem: in talking about Moby Dick, I still want to refer to the physical book that I hold in my hand as “Moby Dick.” If some cataclysmic event were to wipe out  the human race, but had the decency to spare all our copies of Moby Dick, we wouldn’t say the novel ceased to exist, even though there is no one to read it. Further, when we say that Herman Melville wrote Moby Dick, we don’t mean that he wrote our mental states. We mean that he put pen to literal paper in such a way to produce Moby Dick the book.

  1. The linguistic rejoinder

These two intuitions present a linguistic challenge for the metaphysician’s proposal. When we attempt to get a unified theory of the novel Moby Dick as physical or psychological, our language is pulled apart, and many of our common usages of the word “novel” are rendered incoherent. But why can’t we say that the novel is both physical and psychological? Because then we don’t have the unified and comprehensive understanding that the metaphysician cares about. It seems we can either have metaphysical consistency or linguistic ease, but not both.

I will argue that our metaphysical worries are unnecessary. In the following sections are two arguments against definitions of “art” that rely on metaphysics: one argument that leads to an infinite regress and one that problematizes the line between physical and psychological objects. The conclusion I will draw is one in line with Wittgenstein: we should be satisfied that the term “novel” is defined by its use in our language.

2.1 Metaphysical sinkhole

The metaphysician begins her inquiry for the true meaning of “novel” by searching for a concrete definition, one that gives the necessary and sufficient condition for an object being categorized as a “novel.” We might, for example, take the following definition of novel:

“A fictitious prose narrative of book length, typically representing characters in action with some degree of realism.”

In subsequent attempts to either problematize or accept this proposed definition, and draw broad philosophical conclusions from this definition, metaphysicians are inclined to ignore the same metaphysical questions about the words that constitute the proposed definition, and instead accept their common usages. The metaphysician is tempted to, in other words, grant our intuitions regarding words like “narrative,” “complex,” and “human,” while denying our intuitions regarding “novel.” Metaphysicians search for the unifying, simple form that defines “novel” but grant that other terms (e.g. “narrative”) can be used in the “usual way.”

If metaphysicians believe that the process of defining “novel,” and drawing out metaphysical inconsistency, can lead us to philosophical truth, then they owe a similar account of the metaphysics of the words they use to define a term like “novel.” If the metaphysician were to be philosophically honest, they would seek accounts for words like “narrative,” which in turn would mean providing accounts for the words used to define “narrative.” The trouble for the metaphysician is that this project has no end. It leads to an infinite regress.

2.2 Metaphysical invisibility

A second argument cuts deeper. Perhaps the physical-psychological distinction isn’t that robust. An obvious difference between the two is that we can literally point to a physical object and name it.

This process of pointing out physical objects is so embedded in our linguistic practice that it is often thought to be divorced from human psychology. However, when I point to a book, I might be picking out one of many characteristics it has; its hardness, its color, its smell. I might be pointing at it to indicate a small object as opposed to a large object. The pointing alone cannot point to what I mean to identify. This further identification requires psychological priming: in the context of pointing at a white object, pointing at a black book gains new meaning. The physical object “book,” viewed in this sense, becomes firmly situated within psychological and linguistic human practice. When I point to the physical object Moby Dick, I am identifying something that occupies both realms: the physical and the psychological.

2.3 The true, yet ordinary, meaning of the word

In light of these arguments, I suggest the following rethinking: the term “art” need not mean anything more than the ordinary act of pointing to art. When asked to define “novel,” the teacher should identify many things that are novels—where “things” here is broadly conceived to all that is physical, psychological, abstract, or concrete. A language learner should feel content that she has mastered the word ‘novel’ when she can use the word correctly and identify an unencountered usage for the term. No student, and no teacher, will be capable of supplying a definition of “novel” suitable for every encounter.

This view might worry the metaphysician who chiefly seeks unity, objectivity, and non-contradiction in our language usage. But language doesn’t share these same goals of unity and objectivity. Language develops in the direction of contingency: a phrase is or becomes meaningful and usable insofar as it is intelligible to the listener. Words can have conceptual unity, but this is an occasional byproduct of usefulness. In other words, if “blorp” can be effectively used by a community of language speakers to refer to both A and not A, then “blorp” can and will be used to that effect.

The metaphysician’s pursuit of objectivity in language—the definitively true dictionary that renders our word usages true or false—is unnecessary. Language is contingent; it is used by and defined by individuals to aid in their everyday practices. Objectivity is useful in language creation only insofar as it allows individuals with radically different perspectives to understand each other. But this objectivity isn’t the kind the metaphysician searches for—this sort of objectivity might be better termed commensurability, or intelligibility. Human language has flourished for millennia while any “objective” dictionary has stayed hidden. Beyond that, it isn’t obvious that we should want this kind of objectivity to play a leading role in language, for our language evolves and grows as new vocabularies arise and change our descriptive possibilities. This evolutionary process isn’t a weakness but a lovely feature.

There are a few major upshots of this view of art. First, the history of “what is art” is now explicable. The term “art” has evolved, because “art” is defined contingently. Consider the following two facts:

  1. Van Gogh’s paintings were at one point non-artistic. Van Gogh was not an artist.
  2. The medium of photography at one point didn’t exist. Photographs were not art.

Before, these facts might have caused us worry: if art is defined by its medium (the physical object hypothesis) then how can new mediums enter the equation? On the other hand, if art is constituted by some psychological state, how are we to account for radical changes of opinion, such as Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” making the categorical leap from not-art to art? If we instead frame language as contingent on usage, these sorts of changes in meaning can be accounted for psychologically and sociologically. At one point it was not useful to describe “Starry Night” as art; artists had different ends (for example, unity of artistic practice divided into schools of art).

Another upshot of this definition of art-objects is that it puts the logical priority on language and not metaphysics. The idea that metaphysical arguments can expose the fundamental underpinnings of our language—and render certain usages incoherent—is an unnecessarily reductionist one. Terms like “art” – that take a manifold of usages – have the emergent ability to transcend the physical/psychological border that metaphysics purports to erect. Rather than reduce these usages to a unity, we should appreciate these usages for their idiosyncrasies.

2 thoughts on “Understanding Art as Contingent: a Linguistic Approach to Metaphysics

  1. Wonderful article; greatly enjoyed it, and agree with you and Ludwig: language works because of its almost endless malleability, that has little crowded do with any over arching theorizing.

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