- The Question of Style in Philosophy and the Arts
The question, “Should philosophers concern themselves with questions of style?” motivates this rich collection of twelve essays on the interrelatedness of content and its formal representation in both philosophical writing and the arts. Alongside issues such as aestheticized forms of philosophizing and the relationship between method and style, there are articles on Heinrich von Kleist’s Marionettentheater, the graphic works of William Hogarth, Alexis de Tocqueville’s use of metaphor and paradox, the use of ellipses in Johannes Kepler’s astronomical theories, and eclecticism in eighteenth-century English architecture.
Style has been an explicit concern for historians and theorists of the arts long before it came to the fore in philosophy. The editors think philosophers can learn a lot not only about the concept of style but also about philosophical style by looking into the practices of musicians, architects, and painters and by thinking about how styles are formed, transformed, and understood in the arts. By comparing the arts and philosophy, we can move toward something lacking in contemporary discussions, namely stylistic categories specific to philosophy. Richard Wollheim’s essay, for example, offers many categories appropriate to painting that could be relevant to philosophical writing.
A provocative point traced here is that until the end of the eighteenth century, “style” had little to do with the meaning of a work of art—the term merely denoted an artwork’s place in the hierarchy of art. Before 1800, there was hardly a question of choice among styles: contributions to a practice were regarded not as belonging to one style or another, but as falling within or being alien to a practice. Only in the early nineteenth century did style become a key element in the meaning of a work, when it took the place previously occupied by nature, antiquity, or absolute standards of reason. With the traditional bearers of meaning gone, one could no longer look to content for meaning, and artists turned to style to create meaningful art—style being that aspect of writing, painting, or building traditionally associated with ornament, that could be varied without changing the content. Gradually, the “variable” element in art became the prime bearer of meaning.
The claim here is that an analogous transition from stylistic monism to pluralism occurred in philosophy about a century after it did in art. This shift away from the monistic geometrical and mathematical standards of philosophical reasoning established in the late sixteenth century was brought about by philosophers such as Nietzsche and Wittgenstein. Lambert Weising suggests that, with Wittgenstein, there is a substitution of style for truth—a point which seems equally true of others, notably Nietzsche. A consequence of this new [End Page 187] pluralism is a loosening of what can be called philosophical reasoning, and an increasing receptiveness to and acceptance of a diversity of philosophical styles. Questions of style do tend to arise in connections with philosophers of the literary sort—Plato or Kierkegaard. Now philosophers have much less difficulty regarding as philosophical a work such as Pascal’s Pensées, which has traditionally been treated more as literature than as philosophy.
One of the challenges of this collection is to refute the view of those who deny that the content of their philosophical writing depends at all on style. This would give support to a thesis defended by Martha Nussbaum in this journal in 1983: “No stylistic choice can be presumed to be neutral—not even the choice to write in a flat or neutral style” (p. 146). Beryl Lang, who has addressed this question in other books and articles, argues that style is relevant to all philosophical writing, even that professed to be “style-less.” Lang correctly shows that philosophers’ general disregard for expressiveness, and their belief that the proper philosophical method will lead all who follow it to the same results, has itself become a feature of philosophical writing. So “style-less” writing is a philosophical...