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  • Learning from Art:Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian as a Critique of Divine Determinism
  • Dennis Sansom (bio)

Art's Critique of Philosophy

We usually think the critic's role belongs to philosophy. That is, to understand art's essential characteristics and why and how we appreciate art, we need a philosophical explanation. Though our tastes for art are unique and personal, we typically think that to understand art we must first explain it. For example, Plato thought he could explain art as an emotional inspiration for people, at best, or, at worse, a distortion of intelligible truths; therefore, according to Plato, art should be dismissed or censored in a society seeking social justice derived from the idea of justice. Aristotle understood art to be the imitation of nature; as an imitation, it needs clarification according to the purposes of nature, and philosophy clarifies these purposes. In either case, art needs to be critiqued by philosophy. It is customary to hear philosophical critics lecture on art rather than artists lecture on philosophy.

But can art critique philosophy? Is it possible for art to provide a scrutiny of philosophy that perhaps a particular philosophy cannot give itself? I think art can provide this critique by using a feature that some philosophers have thought to be art's limitation to clear reasoning—the imagination. Though philosophers like John Dewey recognize the importance and influence of imagination on our moral and aesthetical orientation to the world of experience, typically Thomas Hobbes's view of imagination prevails in the empiricist-leaning philosophers (for instance, David Hume and Bertrand Russell): the imagination is about image recollection and hence necessary for connecting our ideas to empirical experiences. But for this latter approach, the imagination does not inform us about the world; rather it only bridges experience to abstract ideas. What is important, then, is proper understanding. For this approach, the main question is, Can we explain the world based upon our clearest account of the role of understanding? [End Page 1] Whether this account relies upon a psychological model of the brain's workings, a scientific model of successful theory formation, or a logical model reflective of truth relation possibilities, we need philosophy to clarify how we gain knowledge, even in art.

Yet, this approach shortchanges analysis. Psychology, empirical science, and logic are not the only ways to analyze an idea. If a philosophy pretends to explain our experience of the world, then the philosophy opens itself to this question: Is the idea worth holding to be true according to our experiences of the world? A philosophical claim may be logically consistent, based upon generalizations of experience, and be coherent with acceptable views of God, the self, or morality, but if we envision the claim lived out within our experience of the world, would we want to accept it? Is it the kind of life we would want? It takes imagination to answer these questions, and the artist through her or his unique technique and representation can test the existential worth of an idea.

Hobbes's description of the imagination represents only one way to explain it. Imagination is more than an act of memory and recollection. It is also reconstruction. John Dewey's definition highlights this role: "An imaginative experience is what happens when varied materials of sense quality, emotion, and meaning come together in a union that marks a new birth in the world."1 Imagination is always an interpretation of what the world could look like. It not only mirrors but heightens experience to focus on a certain viewpoint about the possible meaning of life. By doing this, the imagination enables us to explore whether certain ideas are worth keeping. That is, if we could picture living this way, would we want to live it?

Because imagination occupies a central role in artistic creativity, art provides a useful means of analyzing philosophical claims about the world. Though a philosopher may be able to present an idea that is logically consistent, clear in its categories of quantity, quality, being, modality, and so on, explicit in all its assumptions, and even "clear and distinct," when the idea is imagined in life situations, it can lose its...


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