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  • How Philosophers Trivialize Art: Bleak House, Oedipus Rex, "Leda and the Swan"
  • Michael D. Hurley


It is a Perverse but unsurprising irony that answers to the question of whether art can give us knowledge characteristically trivialize that which draws us to individual artworks in the first place. The experience of art is sidelined in favor of the apparent after-effect of that experience. Even those writing against each other tend to converge on this. In an essay contesting Nelson Goodman's epistemic claims for art, Gordon Graham nonetheless agrees that, "The question to be asked of such a work is not, 'Does this effectively capture the scene portrayed?', but 'Does this make us see this sort of occasion differently?'"1 Even attempts to distinguish art as "gift" as opposed to commodity predictably figure its value in terms of what might be taken away: "I went to see a landscape painter's works, and that evening, walking among pine trees near my home, I could see the shapes and the colors I had not seen the day before."2

This state of affairs is perversely ironic for two reasons. Firstly, because the possibility of art's cognitive content is only prompted at all by the immediate experience it offers: without this, art would not excite us the way it does and there would be no debate to be had. Secondly, and more significantly, because a defining part of what constitutes an interest in art is, I should like to suggest, an experience of knowledge; or, more accurately, an experience of knowing. This irony is unsurprising because it is merely another expression of a recalcitrant prejudice in western epistemology that idealizes knowledge as an objectively true, justified belief—perforce excluding the possibility of knowing as a subjective [End Page 107] experience of believing. No wonder the author of Theætetus elsewhere finds poets incapable of offering anything but lies.

Plato's lingering legacy assures that the cognitive content of art be assized according to what might be extracted from the artwork—cashed in like so many casino chips—when we are done with our experience of it. This applies whether the knowledge-bearing being argued for, or against, is conceptual or propositional (e.g., Putnam, Novitz, John),3 or imaginative (e.g., Goodman, Robinson, Currie),4 as well as for the claim that art can offer us moral instruction (e.g., Beardsmore, Eldridge, Nussbaum, Sharpe, Kieran, John).5 There is less consensus as to whether the capacity of art to give us knowledge enriches the aesthetic value of that artwork, but those who would advance this position have been on the back-foot in recent years following a wave of criticisms from, among others, Beardsley, Lamarque and Olsen, Diffey, and Gaut.6

This article addresses art's capacity to give us knowledge as well as the conjunct of whether such knowledge might inform its value qua art. In so doing, it presses a case that has already been disallowed by the terms in which the question of the relationship between art and knowledge is typically put. Whatever efferent knowledge art might offer, it also provides the conditions for a kind of knowing that cannot be translated beyond itself. Only such an experience of knowledge-as-knowing, which is realized through the untranslatable singularity of an artwork, may be considered constitutive of art's aesthetic value. Couched another way: epistemology meets aesthetics not where it has most often been located, in the perfective, at the congruence of the thought and the felt, but in the present continuous, in the engagement of thinking and feeling. Connecting the epistemic and the aesthetic in this way is, then, exactly the opposite proposition to that presented by Douglas Morgan, for whom, "although many words in many arts can and do give us knowledge of many kinds, nonetheless if this knowledge were the key and limit to the love of art, the world of art would be even sorrier than it now is."7


Literature has generated by far the greatest volume of commentary in the debate on art and knowledge. This is to be expected given the bias towards categorizing knowledge as something like data...


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pp. 107-125
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