Love of Wisdom Doesn’t Mean Seeking Eternal Truth, Research Time, 23/10/2013

Some final thoughts after finishing Joe Margolis’ Aesthetics book. The last argument of this short, but dense and rewarding, book is a sustained critique of the major theorist of aesthetics in the English language since the mid-twentieth century, Arthur Danto. An impartial survey this book is not. Ultimately, Margolis sees a fundamental problem in how Danto combines his universalism with his historicism. He says you can combine these productively, but that Danto doesn’t.

Some disclaimers before I riff for a while. One, I don’t yet know a whole hell of a lot about contemporary aesthetic philosophy, and Margolis’ book serves as a critical (and boy, is it ever critical) introduction to Danto’s aesthetic theories. I went to Margolis as a starting point, an entry to the field. I’ve always tried to avoid general survey books or books that claim impartiality when I really want to engage with a new field of thought. It’s the same reason I don’t trust textbooks anymore: they simplify a complex field of thought too much. I’d rather leap into a new field with the help of works by writers whose work I already trust. Like Jean-Paul Sartre helping me dive into Marxism, Joseph Margolis is helping me dive into aesthetic theory. 

Two, my remarks today are more general thoughts on whether philosophy, as a discipline, should pursue the truth, rather than pursue truthfully understanding the world. There is a difference between the two.

Danto is quoted, “I am . . . an unabashed essentialist, as much concerned with specifying necessary and sufficient conditions as I would be were I in the immediate company of Socrates, engaged with him in the pursuit of definitions. What may look like historicism on my part is my recognition that except and until art revealed its deep philosophical nature through history, there was nothing philosophers could do, not knowing the way art was to reveal itself.”

Basically, this is sham historicism. Genuine and honest historicism is the view that all of existence is subject to change. We don’t know how that change will come or what will come about, but all is changeable, and will change eventually if you wait long enough. This makes the traditional philosophical quest for the eternal unchanging truth about the world impossible.* In the kind of historicism Danto describes as his own, the flux of history is a means by which conditions eventually arise that reveal eternal truths to us. If we’re paying attention at the right time, eternal truths appear for us to recognize and accept. They could be about any subject: the nature of the good, the character of God, the structure of justice, or the essence of art.

*I don’t think very many people in the discipline think philosophy is about the discovery of eternal truths through pure reason anymore. But it’s an unfortunate tendency of thinking among some mediocre practitioners and some particularly annoying undergraduates

This isn’t real historicism. It’s lip service to historicist insights so those ideas can be more easily dismissed from an essentialist perspective. If you accept contingency as the nature of the world, then you won’t want an essentialist perspective on the universe. You won’t believe in The Good, but in various goods for creatures and bodies of various types, and their relations. You won’t believe that art has an invariant essence, that there could ever be an unchanging categorical definition of what art is that “carves nature at the joints.”

That old Platonic saying doesn’t realize that the joints of nature change over time, and that a clearly true idea in one context isn’t true in another. This isn’t an arbitrary relativism, because philosophy takes on an ordering task in this vision of truth. Philosophy becomes about mapping truths to their conditions of validity, understanding how the flux of history operates. I think that’s actually a much better practice than how philosophy has been conceived as seeking eternal truths through pure reason. After all, on that latter conception of philosophy, it has an end: when all the truths are discovered, philosophers must retire because the task is done. On my conception of philosophy, the practice need never end, but only change.

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