The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Many philosophers have taken Wittgenstein’s suggestion—albeit, interpreted outside its context—to mean that all that we can say in philosophy is what we can say precisely. The project of analytic philosophy has been to make investigation as precise as possible.
Can a philosopher say anything precise about art? Decidedly, no. It is not that it is impossible to think about art; certainly it is, and the results can be fascinating. But contemplation of art through proper philosophy is, in fact, impossible. Philosophy requires smooth systematization and, to a large degree, the tools of logical analysis. Those tools cannot be applied to something so imprecise as human creativity.
Art relies on the various contradictions inherent in subjective experience. When reading a single passage of Tolstoy’s masterwork, War and Peace, the reader feels simultaneous love and hate, envy and repulsion, affirmation and denial. It is this sort of passage that is likely to receive the astute attention of literary criticism. Napoleon is at once the greatest of all men and the smallest. He is the freest and the most bound. It is up to the reader to decide what to make of this. To a large extent, what we have heard in our introductory humanities classes is true: “There is no wrong answer.” There are only more compelling answers. But how compelling these answers are is based on wit, persuasiveness and style. Not on logic.
Add to this already contradictory, imprecise form of expression an even more contradictory and imprecise possible range of subjective reactions—what does one get? We can only say what we think the artist was thinking. And even the artist is not committed to what he or she is thinking, since much of his or her expression is subconscious. Not every artist is committed to the precise order of Raphael. Consider the chaos of Pollock.
Some principles of subjective experience might be articulated. But this is only possible within the framework of the philosophy of psychology, or even psychology itself. Philosophy of art thus becomes a branch of psychology, and that is certainly not what its proponents want. Philosophy’s greatest success comes when it is applied to disciplines with inherent precision, like mathematics and physics. The body of twentieth century analytic philosophy should be seen as progress in philosophy, just as the advances in mathematics and physics have been seen as progress. It is very doubtful if philosophy will ever have such success in art; in fact, that kind of success may just be unattainable.
In Plato’s Republic, Socrates explains his reasons for banishing all poets from the ideal city-state: he fears the pernicious ‘imitations’ of artists who could corrupt the stable order of his Kallipolis, citing the “ancient quarrel” between poetry and philosophy. For Socrates, reverend martyr of Western philosophy, there is something seductive, mesmerizing and inescapably dangerous in the verse of the tragedian or the sculpture of the artist. Because of this, the philosopher uniquely chooses to banish art from his utopian fantasy. There is no room for creators in the static world of the philosopher-king.
But Socrates’ frustrated attempt to exile art from the realm of the thinker is not philosophy’s rejection of aesthetics. Rather it is philosophy’s recognition of the enigmatic, often unclassifiable nature of human expression. For the last two and a half millennia, a host of philosophers—from Aristotle to Hegel to Benjamin—have attempted to define the dynamics of aesthetic experience. Philosophy seeks to inquire, conceptualize and, above all else, demystify. Thus many thinkers have chosen to critically demystify the seemingly superhuman qualities of art by more fruitfully understanding its complex relationship with human identity and perception.
What makes an object a work of art? How do we perceive and define beauty? How does one construct a hierarchy of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ art? These provocative questions can only be approached with the philosopher’s lens, equipped with the ability to distinguish and systematize. Ultimately philosophy can reveal to us the intricate processes involved in constructing and viewing art. Only philosophy leads us to understand far more precisely our differentiation between ‘art’ and ‘non-art’.
Philosophy is at its best when it is used to penetrate the inherent contradictions of reality, carefully annihilating the dogmatic pretensions of received truths. It cannot be limited to the static results and mathematical certainties of logic. Philosophers hope to understand a world, and a human world-view, that is constantly transforming itself. Art is central to our existence because it represents this perpetual flux.
Many of the most revered thinkers became acquainted with philosophy only while falling in love with art at the same time. Sartre’s last book is his attempt to understand the writings of Flaubert; Nietzsche’s first ends with a paean to the music of Richard Wagner. What explains this unique relationship between philosophy and art? If the role of philosophy is to understand what it means to be human, art boldly attempts to express that very wish. Unsurprisingly, the most talented philosophers seem to be astonishing artists in their own right: Socrates banishes all poets from the Kallipolis and lambasts the deceptive rhetoric of the Sophists, but he is perhaps the greatest oratorical wordsmith of all time.
The philosopher is undaunted by what first appears indefinable. If philosophy is the thinker’s mastery of critical understanding, then nothing, not even the protean, difficult nature of art, ought to escape its comprehensive vision.