On Philosophy

May 11, 2009

The Philosopher As Artist

Filed under: Metaphilosophy — Peter @ 2:57 pm

It is common to view the philosopher as a kind of scientist, a view I call “the philosopher as scientist”. Philosopher as mathematician also has some traction, but then again mathematician as scientist is extremely popular itself, and so, by the transitivity of analogies, this is not really an alternative. In any case, through “the philosopher as scientist” we are encouraged to understand the task of the philosopher as basically the same as that of the scientist, but with a different subject matter, and with mental experiments (a.k.a. intuitions) in place of physical ones. Just as science is expected to strive towards some final and perfectly correct theory, so philosophy expected to tread on a similar path. Little good comes of thinking in this way, since philosophy bears little resemblance to science, and less to math. A better model – although deficient in its own ways – is see the philosopher as a kind of artist, and thus philosophy as art.

End Products

Let’s explore this analogy by considering how art is different than science, and then by thinking about which of the two is more like philosophy. Perhaps the most significant difference between the two is that science is an act of discovery, while art is an act of creation. Science is out to capture the facts about the world, and the closer it comes to reflecting those facts the better we judge it to be. Art, on the other hand, does not necessarily have to reflect anything. Some art is non-representational. Other works picture scenes that have never occurred outside of the artist’s imagination. In any case, every work of art adds something new to the world – even artistic photographs – while science succeeds only when it perfectly copies what is already there. Although some sculptors speak figuratively of their work already being present in the raw stone we know that this is not literally true. What art is adding is not something physical; science produces something new in this sense as well: new printed pages full of figures and theorems. What a work of art creates is some new perspective, some new idea, some new thought crystallized into physical form and inserted into the public sphere. This is how even a photograph can be creative – an act of creation – in the artistic sense; through the photograph some beautiful image is made physical and public that previously existed only privately in the mind of the photographer.

Philosophical activity, I claim, is better understood as an act of creation rather than an act of discovery. But what is philosophy creating? Art has largely emotional import and gives us new emotional perspectives on the world; it provides mainly emotional insights. Philosophy seems to do basically the same thing, but on an intellectual level rather than an emotional one; it provides intellectual or conceptual insights. The best philosophy provides us with new concepts, new intellectual tools, that let us understand the world in a novel way. Consider Sartre’s invention of “bad faith”, for example. Through the idea of “bad faith” Sartre describes self-deception as it never had been before; specifically as embracing a self-conception that runs contrary to our true natures – often our radical freedom. It is not the case that bad faith is the only valid way of understanding self-deception, and that every other theory is somehow a mis-characterization of it. No, bad faith is a new way of looking at self-deception, a new way of understanding its significance, and a new way of connecting it to other aspects of life. Self-deception existed before Sartre, but bad faith did not, just as beautiful women existed before Leonardo da Vinci, but the Mona Lisa did not.


Another substantial difference between art and science is that in science it is possible to order every theory from better to worse, and to speak about one theory improving upon or replacing another. But when it comes to art no such ranking is possible. There is good and bad art, but it is hard to draw such absolute comparisons between good art. And certainly one piece of good art does not replace or supersede another. A work by Monet does not supersede one by Rembrandt; after Monet Rembrandt’s work does not become a mere historical footnote in the development of art. But of course in science this happens all the time. General relativity theory replaces Newtonian mechanics, making the latter good only as an engineer’s approximation and for teaching students. But Rembrandt is not considered only an approximation to the “true” beauty captured by Monet, or vice versa. In art there is room for many different works of art, each of which can be a success in its own way. But in science where two theories deal with the same subject matter there is room only for one; eventually one of the two must be shelved as less correct.

Again, I think it is obvious that in this respect philosophy is more like art than science. Of course philosophers argue amongst each other as if philosophy was like science, and spend large amounts of time trying to “prove” that their position is “correct” and that those of their opponents are at best approximations to the philosophical “truth”. But if they really feel that this is how philosophy should be then they must also think that philosophy is an abject failure. We still teach and read Plato and Aristotle, and not as mere approximations; they still have interesting things to say to us. If philosophy is really like science where better theories are supposed to supersede worse ones then we haven’t made any progress in the last few thousand years, at least when it comes to the subjects Plato and Aristotle talk about. Obviously it would be absurd to say this. It is absurd even to think it. Philosophy makes much more sense when we understand it in basically the same way we understand art. Yes, there is good and bad philosophy, and some philosophy is better than others, just as there is good and bad art, and some art is better than others. But there is room for as much philosophy as we like on any subject, so long as each is adding some new interesting perspective none has to invalidate the others, even if they make contrary claims. Philosophers making contrary claims is like two artists paining the same scene in a different style; the fact that they differ does not mean that we have to throw out one of them.

The Creative Process

Art and science also have substantial methodological differences. In science new theories are motivated by experiments. Experiments yield data, and when that data conflicts with, or simply isn’t explained by, existing theories there is room for new science. The process of producing new scientific theories is a slow and incremental one because of this. First you have to find data that needs explaining. In light of that data you form a hypothesis. You then test the hypothesis with further experiments, which usually prompt revisions and thus the need to collect even more data. And eventually you end up with something that is worth being called a new theory. Art is nothing like this. Producing good art is not an incremental process. Sometimes the artist is simply inspired, and the very first thing he or she sets out to create is great art. Of course most artists aren’t so lucky, they spend many years developing technical skills, copying the work of other artists, starting projects that don’t turn out exactly as they would like, and in general waiting for inspiration. But, while all that effort may be necessary preparation, the great art that follows on its heels is not a continuation of it. Newton said that he stood on the shoulders of giants, and he was right in the sense that his work built upon what came before. But an artist cannot say the same thing. While art does not exist independently of its history, it does not build upon it, but rather exists in reaction to it.

Once more there are stronger parallels between philosophy and art than there are between philosophy and science. Philosophy does not appear to be an incremental process. There are no revised or improved versions of the Republic. Now I am not denying that philosophy changes over time. Often new philosophy will be developed in light of criticisms leveled against existing positions. But I think it would be a mistake to understand this process as analogous to the revision of a hypothesis in the light of new data. In general philosophers don’t revise their theories, they move on to new ones. Sometimes a criticism is met with change, but it is just as likely to be met with a criticism of the criticism. On the other hand, the process that produces philosophy looks a lot like the process that produces art. Like the artist, most philosophers spend the early part of their careers developing technical skills and imitating the work of other, more famous, philosophers. They don’t produce brilliant new ideas, they make small revisions and small objections to existing positions. This is a lot like the young artist who does his or her best to imitate a famous style, adding only a few flourishes of their own. This phase may never come to an end; there are both philosophers and artists who do technically proficient work but are never truly inspired. Some, however, are inspired. These lucky individuals make a sudden leap past their previous work and produce something new and original. It’s not an incremental improvement over their past work or the work of some other philosopher, it is something never before seen.

History of the Discipline

Finally let’s take a brief look at the historical “progress” of the arts and sciences. Of course “progress” is a bit of a misnomer when it comes to art, since art doesn’t improve as much as it finds new things to explore. This simply highlights the fact that art does not have a linear history; there is not a single narrative strand that ties everything together. Rather the history of art is characterized by a number of movements, many of which overlap. And within each movement there are usually a number of different schools and styles. Overall the history of art is one of diversity. Science has no room for this sort of diversity. The history of science can be understood as a monolithic enterprise. Although there have always been disagreements within the scientific community, it has always been the case that scientists everywhere have been doing the same thing. In other words, the history of science is not littered with movements that are largely incompatible with each other as the art world has been.

It’s hard to deny that the history of philosophy bears a striking resemblance to the history of art. The history of philosophy is littered with different schools or movements, such as Rationalism, Empiricism, Existentialism, and so on. Each of these movements is largely incompatible with the others, and each philosopher, or at least the major historical figures, tends to work primarily within a single one of them. The history of Chinese philosophy is an even better illustration of this similarity; in translation one of the early periods of Chinese philosophy is described as the time of the hundred schools. And the six major schools of this period existed largely contemporaneously with each other. It is hard to make sense of this within the scientific paradigm. Science just doesn’t have schools or styles. Or maybe it has exactly one style that all scientists share. If we were to really press the analogy between science and philosophy we would be forced to construe these schools as something like failed theories. But this hardly does them justice, both because some of them still have traction and because they were hardly monolithic, there are substantial disagreements within a single school of philosophy that makes understanding them as a single theory difficult.

So What?

All I’ve done so far is point out that there are more similarities between art and philosophy than there are between science and philosophy. By themselves these similarities show nothing, and we could choose to see philosophy as a kind of science in spite of them. But that choice would be a problematic one. Because if we continue to view the philosopher as a scientist in light of these dissimilarities with science we will be led to conclude that philosophy is defective. We would see the substantial number of ways in which philosophy is unlike science as ways in which philosophy has historically been a failure. You would feel the need to essentially start over in some radical fashion, to do philosophy in some new way that eliminates these “problems”. But then you are hardly doing philosophy anymore. What you would essentially be saying is that the vast majority of what has been called philosophy was a mistake, and that you would rather do something new, something different, but keep the old name. Isn’t that somewhat disingenuous? If you want to do something radically different it would be more honest to distinguish it from the long tradition you are reacting against.

I think that this is an attitude that you wouldn’t get far with. It is not clear what changes you could enact that would make philosophy fit into a scientific mold. And it is hard to have a positive attitude about philosophy if you see almost all existing philosophy as wrongheaded. This is why I think it is better to understand the philosopher as an artist. By doing so we are able to make sense of philosophy as we know it. The features of philosophy that have been described here are expected for art, and thus they don’t stand in need of correction. There is no need to radically revise philosophy, even if you would like to start a new movement within it. Of course if you adopt this attitude towards philosophy you will be dissatisfied with those who adopt the opposite, and who try to eliminate the artistic aspects of philosophy. But, from this perspective, seeing the philosopher as a scientist is just one movement among many, and no movement lasts forever.

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