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  • The Ontology of Art:What Can We Learn from Borges's "Menard"?
  • Diana I. Pérez (bio)

The question I want to analyze in this paper can be summarized as follows: What is the nature of works of art? This question can be divided into two separate parts: (1) What differential features separate objects that are works of art from other objects that we usually do not consider as such? (2) To what ontological category do works of art belong? Recent discussions around this second topic are usually framed by the more traditional ontological discussion about universals. Thus, to answer the second question, philosophers generally use the distinction between universal and particular or between type and token.1 But nobody would say that every universal (if she is universalist) or every particular (if particularist) is a work of art, because works of art should have "something more." But what is this "something more?" In this paper I will try to answer these questions inspired by the ideas J. L. Borges developed in the short story, "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote."

Works of art are usually considered as particulars because many of them are physical objects, entities that occupy in an exclusive and proprietary way [End Page 75] a portion of space-time, and that are unrepeatable.2 This is paradigmatically the case of sculptures and paintings. A universal, on the contrary, is an abstract entity that can occupy simultaneously or successively different portions of space-time, in a nonexclusive way; that is, the same universal can be completely present in more than one place at the same time or at different times. A unique portion of space-time can instantiate indefinitely many different universals (although not incompatible, incompossible ones). Literary works of art are the paradigmatic case here: the same literary work can be, and usually is, instantiated in many different objects, such as the multiple copies of the same book like those of Ficciones, for example.

The traditional discussions relating to universals include different positions. Some people assume the distinction in the very same way in which I presented it. They are usually called realists because they assume the existence of both separate and different categories; most often they assume that universals are something beyond the mere particulars. Realists can claim that universals exist independently of particulars, in which case they are usually called Platonists. Or they can hold that universals exist only as far as they are instantiated by one or another particular; that is, they exist in re (and not ante rem). But not everybody agrees with realists. In fact there are two other main answers to the problem of universals: the nominalist and the conceptualist. According to nominalism only particulars exist, and universals are just flatus vocis, names, labels, used to refer to those very particulars, maybe because they resemble each other, or because they belong to the same class. According to conceptualists, universals exist only in our heads; all there is in the world are particulars that we categorize under different ideas or concepts, which do not correspond to any nonmental entity.

I do not want to defend a particular view about the nature of universals in this paper. I confess my sympathy with nominalism, and my proposal at the end of the paper—that I call "extreme particularism"—is perfectly compatible with it. However, I will assume in the first part of my paper, for the sake of the argument, that we can make a true distinction between universals (in re or ante rem) and particulars. Recent discussions about the ontology of works of art have usually been settled in the following way: either works [End Page 76] of art are identified with particulars or with abstract universals. It is also acknowledged that the answer could vary from one kind of work of art to another, because it might be held that the various manifestations of art cannot be included within a single ontological category (although some think they can be). The heterogeneity of the different varieties of art indicates that it is difficult to include them all in a single category: consider the obvious metaphysical differences between paintings, sculptures, dance, music, theater...


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