Philosophy as Art


“I view the philosophical essay as an art form whose medium is ideas.”

That’s George Sher (Rice University), writing in the current issue of Philosophy Now about the point of writing philosophy (apart from its extrinsic benefits, like tenure, recognition, etc.).

Why think that writing philosophy is itself an artistic endeavor? Professor Sher acknowledges the claim might be met with skepticism:

If [the idea that writing philosophy is itself making a kind of art] is not immediately apparent, it is probably because most published philosophy is not particularly artful. Much of it bristles with unilluminating acronyms, needless formalism, stultifying announcements about what will be accomplished (and, again later, what has been accomplished), and nested sequences of subordinate clauses that read like rental agreements.

But, he says, these supposedly unartful qualities should be instead understood as descriptions of aspects of the artistic medium:

Far from undercutting the idea that philosophers are working within an art-form, these annoyances only bring out the demanding nature of the conventions that define the form. Working philosophers who want to create something beautiful must reconcile the rigid formal and intellectual requirements of most journals and (to a lesser extent) book publishers with the classic range of literary requirements—clarity and elegance, economy of expression, accessibility and intelligibility, aptness of word choice, fluidity in making transitions, appropriateness of level of diction, writerly tact, and regard for the proportions and overall shape of the work, to name just a few.

The tension between truth and beauty is endemic to many forms of art, but within philosophy it’s right there at the surface and it shapes the conventions that define the form. And, because it does, the complaint that philosophical essays are too inference- and argument-heavy to count as art is no more legitimate than the complaint that haikus are too compressed.

Sher himself doesn’t think that conceiving of writing philosophy as a form of making art can itself provide a satisfying account of the point of writing philosophy, but nonetheless as an interpretation of the nature of philosophical work it has its appeal.

 

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Michel
7 months ago

Unfortunately, I don’t find that particular claim particularly convincing. The walls of my bedroom are painted, and so share many properties in common with paintings; indeed, I can imagine a painting that’s visually indistinguishable from one of my walls (i.e. it’s the same size and painted exactly the same colour). But that doesn’t make them artworks.

Any account of art-kinds which claimed that merely sharing formal properties in common sufficed to make something art would be deficient, I think (not to mention extensionally inadequate, given the history of 20th century art).

Philosophers of art differ on what’s needed to make a kind an art-kind, but some plausible suggestions include the right sorts of appreciative practices, an artworld, or an appropriate network of conventions.

It’s not that philosophy _couldn’t_ be an art form (whose associated vehicular medium, like conceptual art, is “ideas”); it’s that it _isn’t_.

P.D. Magnus
Reply to  Michel
7 months ago

The trick, though, is that philosophy does have appreciative practices, a corresponding social world, and governing conventions. To say that they aren’t the right kinds of practices, that its social world isn’t an artworld, or that its conventions aren’t artistic conventions simply begs the question against the suggestion that philosophy is art.

The question ought to be whether seeing philosophy as art highlights any of the features which we find rewarding about it or which make it worthwhile. If it’s a useful lens for viewing philosophy, then the pedantic debate about whether it is strictly-speaking really art falls away. And if it’s not a useful lens, then whether it could technically count as an art by some criteria doesn’t matter for much.

Michel
Reply to  P.D. Magnus
7 months ago

Yes, there are lots of appreciative practices out there, and only some art art-relevant. Simply having an associated appreciative clearly practice isn’t enough, since most human practices do, and clearly most human practices aren’t artistic.

But, at a minimum, we have (1) a history of the practice of art and (2) institutional structures which help to sort out the ones that count from those that don’t. It won’t be because of bedrock features of those practices, but we shouldn’t be overly fashed about that, considering we’re talking about a social kind.

Pretty much anything can be a useful lens for viewing something else, when the relevant similarities are sufficiently cashed out. I just think that the dissimilarities here are more significant. But I also took Sher to be making a more robust claim than that, though that may well just be an excuse to exercise the pedant in me!

Sarah
Sarah
Reply to  P.D. Magnus
7 months ago

What is art for? To evoke. To interpret something out of you and into another. I fully believe that philosophical essays are an art form. If language is an art, how is this version of its progeny unrelated?

P.S. John
P.S. John
Reply to  Michel
7 months ago

Philosophy and Art belong to two kinds of worlds. While philosophy is based on rational thinking, art is based on aesthetic feelings. If what we say is not logical, it cannot be philosophical. Similarly, if we do not feel pleasure or enjoyment while looking at a piece of art-work, it cannot be said to be an art-work for us. For some others, it may be different that they enjoy the same piece of art-work. Here is another difference between philosophy and art that in philosophy everyone is expected to have the same logical responses to the same questions.

Tony
Tony
Reply to  P.S. John
7 months ago

Philosophy does not hace to be logical. Philosophy can be very irrational, maybe even purposely so! I know parts of my Philosophy are purposely irrational. I dont understand the claim that Philosophy is boxed into logical thinking. I sumply view Philosophy as the art of thinking. Thinking in a way that expresses pleasure or enjoyment in ourselves or others.

Brad
Brad
7 months ago

I see PD’s point, that we might learn something about philosophy by comparing it to art, but I am inclined to agree with Michel. The similarities are rather superficial, and a strict comparison will lead us to misunderstand both art and philosophy. I studied at an art college before I went to university, and I worked in graphic design for a number of years. The world of art is so drastically different from the world of philosophy, and frankly I am far more at home in the latter. I love art, and enjoy galleries, and supporting artists showing their work. But what I do as a philosopher is so very different from what I did in design and as a young artist in training.

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Brad
7 months ago

What do you think of the worlds of board game design, or crossword construction, or baroque music performance, or tattooing, or hairstyling? Many people will claim that these are arts, and yet they differ greatly from each other, as well as from the worlds of art college or graphic design.

Brad
Brad
Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
7 months ago

Kenny
Rightly, as you note, there are aesthetics dimensions to all the things you list, board game design, etc., but I would not equate them with art. In fact, at the art college I went to, the design students (that included me) were seen as outsiders and not artists by the fine artists, video artists, and jewelry designers etc. I think they were correct to draw such a distinction – in fact, when I worked in design, I worked in corporate and packaging design. I designed logos for corporations or theatre companies, beer bottle labels, and signage for gas stations and gas pumps. We took great pride in what we did, but I would not call it art. So I think it is worth distinguishing creative endeavours from art – indeed, art is a creative endeavour but not all creative endeavours are art.

Nous Bros.
Nous Bros.
7 months ago

I like this, despite generally not writing in a way that conforms exactly to the soul-sucking conventions, w/all the acronyms and footnotes explaining what a metaphor is (I really did have to do that once, as per a reviewer) and whatnot. I’m not sure that it’s art, but – as I was coincidentally saying to my cousin the other night – for me, at least, many of the considerations that I factor in when writing philosophy involve the exercise of skills related to writing poetry. The only difference (I said) is that with philosophy you don’t have to also make it be art. 🙂 Obviously (in my view, anyway) the governing question re: the post is what one thinks art is.

Thalassopoeia
Thalassopoeia
7 months ago

The philosophers who have raised philosophy to an art through their prose style have (not coincidentally, I think) seldom historically been associated with the academy. What’s odd about this argument is that attempts to claim the status of art for journal articles. Wouldn’t this argument apply for many other professionalized, academic fields within the humanities and even beyond them?

Timothy Sommers
Timothy Sommers
7 months ago

I think it was Rorty who said that if metaphysics is a kind of poetry, it’s a very bad kind.

George
Reply to  Timothy Sommers
7 months ago

Philosophy as art is not a new idea, as is art as philosophy.

Cathy Legg
Cathy Legg
Reply to  Timothy Sommers
7 months ago

Yes, but he wanted philosophers to produce a better kind.

Greg B.
7 months ago

I pursued a related thought in an episode of my podcast, Quite Useless, though my interest was more in expanding our notion of what it means to “do” philosophy, the definition of and boundaries surrounding Philosophy as an academic discipline being, in my view, unnecessarily and unhelpfully rigid. I propose that there are artistic modes of conducting philosophical inquiry that deviate from “the conventions that define the form” in Western philosophy since Aristotle… though I suspect that some/most of the folks who have commented here would strenuously object to much/most of what I have to say on the subject.

Lex
Lex
7 months ago

The article is about thinking outside of the boxes we might have falsely portioned reality into. But people are commenting according to the conventions society has regarding philosophy and art constraints. That’s fine if we’re assuming our conventional, socially constructed definitions delineate metaphysically accurate boundaries between forms – but I think Far Eastern philosophical discourses have demolished that idea pretty thoroughly. To counter that you consider art and philosophy as different because you agree with common, perceptionally derived definitions misses the point. We know that the terms “Art” and “philosophy” denote different things – it’s indicated by the simple fact that there are two terms instead of one – the question is whether the distinctions commonly ascribed to the two fields are more like a fence we’ve erected in the middle of a larger field in which we choose to grow hibiscus on one side and daisies on the other, in which case those arguing for philosophy as art are essentially pointing out that people are forgetting we’ve erected the fence, that the soil is the same on either side, that we can choose to plant some daisies and maybe orchids among the hibiscus and that we might even consider breeding hybrids. The detractors are conversely arguing that there are two fields with a natural boundary that cannot be removed, otherwise that if you do remove it the flowers won’t mix or will mix with only poor results. I haven’t properly thought it through, and just answered off the fly after reading, having never read an article on this site before so I don’t hold a strong opinion about it but some thoughts on comprehending the ins and outs of it are that, first of all, our separation of philosophy and theology isn’t necessarily natural and that you have to limit art to a ridiculously limited range of visual production if you want to bar certain theo-philosophical literary works from being called art. I’m actually speaking as an artist as much as as a philosopher (although maybe I’m poor at both endeavours / the endeavour because noone pays me for philosophy or for my art so…). You can see my philosophically expressive art on my Instagram @defect.ink if you like (although what philosophy my art expresses is not obvious to most people without explanation). I can give examples of how art is philosophy which are hard to argue against but I’ve written a fair bit of stuff here and like I say, no-one’s paying me 😉

Debra
Debra
Reply to  Lex
7 months ago

Excellent insight—well articulated.

Gordon
Gordon
7 months ago

There is certainly a beauty to many philosophical works. Bracketting works that are stand out as art for literary reasons alone (Plato stands out here) there is a beauty to logically rigorous philosophical systems just as there is to elegant mathematical proofs. Think of Spinoza’s ethics. One can appreciate this beauty in a way that is distinct from truth evaluation. Kierkegaard has a fun line somewhere that Hegel is like the brilliant architect that designs great buildings, wonders to behold, but have the unfortunate defect that no one, not even Hegel, can live in them.

But we can also ask whether the activity of philosophy is like that of artistic creation, and I think it is. In philosophy the medium of creation is intellectual rather than sensible, but it is still a creative process akin really to play (and play may also be considered a kind of art) So if Art has two components–a component of aesthetic appreciation (when considering the “art works”) and a component of creativity.Thinking is creating (indeed it may be the closest thing we have to creation ex nihilo).

The difference is that while art, I think, is open ended in terms of its ends and may not have any extrinsic ends at all), philosophy aims for wisdom, which is either a kind of deep theoretical understanding of the world and our place in it or being better able to live the good life–not that these are not interconnected!)

A lot of this depends on how we answer the prior question, what is art?

Dawiiiit
Dawiiiit
6 months ago

Art itself is a philosophy. According to Socrates philosophy is a task of investigating and examining things( which also includes art) and to be critical about abstracts concept that underlies everything including art. Art is perfected through philosophical reasoning and it is only by critical contemplation and understanding of it’s abstract quality one becomes prodigy artist. Philosophy is the substratum of all knowledge and it’s a medium that connect man to God.