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Constructive Thoughts on Pierre Menard

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 35, Number 2, October 2011
pp. 338-347 | 10.1353/phl.2011.0014

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

With thanks to Prof. Berys Gaut

Contextualism underlies a large part of the modern discussion of art interpretation. It is often accepted by both interpretational monists, who claim that there is always one correct interpretation of any given artwork, and pluralists, who argue that there can be many justified interpretations. It is also often accepted by constructivists, who claim that the interpretative effort of the audience is a part of the creative process that has influence, not only on the interpretation, but also on the artwork itself—i.e., artworks are partially constructed by the audience. Notably, a large number of contextualists actively resist constructivism and endorse one of the other options.

In this paper I will not try to take a stance in the discussion between monists, pluralists, and constructivists, but rather focus on pointing out an issue present within the contextualists' argumentation, and specifically the often used Pierre Menard example. I argue that the current use of this example is underspecified and can make constructivism an inevitable conclusion for all contextualists, even those who argue most fiercely against it. At the very least, this article shows that the popular example should be thoroughly rethought if it is to be useful for contextualists.


Contextualists hold that the aesthetic properties of an artwork are partially determined by the history of its production, cultural setting, and other contextual properties. One of the most prominent arguments for this view rests on the case presented in the famously quoted "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" by Borges. As various authors have argued, a text word-by-word identical to Cervantes's Don Quixote written in the twentieth century would have different contextual and therefore different aesthetic properties than the original. Following this, interpretations of these works would have to be different, even though both would have identical noncontextual properties. This implies that contextual properties of artworks should be included in the interpretation.

To abstract from the Menard case, the above argument establishes that an objectx, which is structurally and/or materially identical to y, can have a different set of aesthetic properties by virtue of being produced in cultural and historical context Cx rather than Cy, and by artist Ax rather than Ay. What it does not say, however, is whether the creation of x is in any way related to y, and, most important, if Ax was aware of the existence of y when creating x—i.e., it does not determine whether the two works were created independently or not. While this might seem irrelevant to the matter at hand, the argument that I am about to present shows that this distinction can be vital.

The pluralists seem to have paid little attention to this issue. Borges's story explicitly states that Menard not only knew the original Don Quixote by Cervantes—he read it when he was twelve and reread it later—but also studied the text and its context in much detail and was even familiar with its modern interpretations. There are no changes introduced to the example when it is used in philosophical discussion, and thus it would seem that philosophers also think that Menard (or any Ax) can be aware and thus not independent of Cervantes (or any Ay). In fact, the arguments offered by the pluralists often similarly implicitly assume that such connections are permissible.

Levinson in his "IIL" uses the Menard example without change. After quoting it, he adds that a similar case can be made for one person writing the same thing twice in two contexts—it seems obvious that such a person would know his or her own previous writing, and thus, although no explicit point is made regarding the issue, it looks like there is no requirement set regarding the independence of the creation of the second work (p. 196). Moreover, Levinson explicitly says that were two separate composers to create identical sound structures twice in different contexts, the two sound structures would constitute different works—and he compares this case to the case of the same composer creating the same structure at two separate times ("MW," p. 68; p. 73n also mentions this specifically). The other examples used in...

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