- Danto’s Comic Vision:Philosophical Method and Literary Style
Arthur Danto numbers among the few contemporary philosophers whose writing is really a pleasure to read. Although rarely recognized, the source of that pleasure is Danto’s humor. His philosophical writing is consistently comic (as is his critical writing). Of course, the humor is obviously not of the knee-slapping variety. Yet it is pervasively playful.
Danto will introduce a thought experiment and then explore it in several directions. Unlike many other contemporary philosophers, he is not stingy in laying out his examples. Whereas it is customary for most other philosophers to sharpen their thought experiments like arrows in order to hit their target while carrying no wasted verbiage, Danto elaborates his, often with humorous, even whimsical, incidents and observations—as when discussing the artist J., Danto describes him as “seething with a kind of political rage,” when J. demands the inclusion of his red canvas into the gallery of The Transfiguration of the Commonplace.1 That is, Danto includes more than he needs to do the job philosophically in his examples, and that “more” is typically delightfully droll.
Danto’s thought experiments are never without philosophical effect. But in addition, they are packed with enough clever asides that they [End Page 554] also read like routines. Danto not only constructs powerful thought experiments; he riffs on them. In this article, I am less interested in Danto the philosopher, and more intrigued by his achievement as a writer, specifically as a comic author. Of course, since his writing is philosophical, his philosophical method is intimately connected to his literary style. And, as Danto himself argues in the last chapter of The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, a writer’s style—any writer’s, but in this case Danto’s—expresses the attitudes of the man (or of the woman) to expand upon Buffon.
In what follows, I will try to show how Danto’s metaphilosophical commitments naturally dispose him toward certain literary devices that, interestingly, recur especially in comedy. I will show the ways in which these comic strategies figure importantly in Danto’s philosophy of art. And I will conclude by suggesting that what this style indicates is something about Danto’s overarching perspective—his mode of being in the world (at least, as a philosopher but possibly beyond that as well).
Danto’s philosophical method is well known. He maintains that all philosophical problems have the same character. He contends that “a problem is not a philosophical problem unless it is possible to imagine that its solution will consist in showing how appearance has been taken for reality.”2
Danto’s method of constructing indiscernible counterparts is perfectly suited to demonstrating how appearance can be taken for reality. For example, works that really are artworks, such as Duchamp’s readymades or Warhol’s Brillo Box, are indiscernible from their ordinary counterparts, to the extent that, for instance, a detached, everyday bathroom fixture, lying in a back room in a museum warehouse, might be mistaken, on the grounds of its appearance, for a genuine artwork, such as Fountain.
Danto thinks that this is the shape of all philosophical problems. Philosophical problems are displayed in their proper philosophical form once they can be advanced as a problem of indiscernible counterparts—twins, so to speak, between whom the eye can detect no visual difference, but who are nevertheless twain, such that, for example, the younger twin, on the basis of her appearance, could be mistaken for the older twin. That is, philosophy begins once a comedy of errors becomes possible. Furthermore, Danto believes that this structure generalizes across the history of philosophy. [End Page 555]
Indeed, an arresting number of cases support Danto’s conjecture. Descartes, undoubtedly Danto’s ur-example, invites us to imagine perfectly coherent dreams that are indiscernible from reality; one could mistake such a reverie for the world of waking life. Hume taunts us with the comparison between causally related events—such as windows actually shattered by stones—versus events that appear precisely the same; in other words, events that are constantly conjoined but unconnected—e.g., windows that shatter on their own exactly...