The Ontology of Art and Knowledge in Aesthetics
Thomasson (Amie L.)
Source: Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 63, No. 3 (Summer, 2005), pp. 221-229
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction

  1. The ontology of art has provided one of the richest areas of discussion in recent aesthetics, yielding a variety of carefully articulated and well-argued positions about the ontological status of works of music, literature, even painting and sculpture. In some ways the variety of positions seems to be an embarrassment of riches, for it is not clear how we are to decide among these apparently mutually incompatible and often surprising views about whether works of art of some or all kinds are physical objects, abstract objects, action types, and so on. In other respects, work on the ontology of art seems to be embarrassingly impoverished, for there seems to be no natural and non-arbitrary way of answering other questions in the ontology of art, such as how many mistakes a performer may make and yet still perform a work of music; how much restoration a work of painting or sculpture may survive; or even what the exact criteria are for creating a work of literature.
  2. If we hope to resolve these questions and decide among the competing theories, we must step back from the particular debates about the status or identity conditions of a given kind of work to address issues in meta-ontology, particularly as applied to issues in the ontology of art. What are we doing when we argue about the ontological status of works of art? What are the proper methods and criteria of success to be used in answering and evaluating answers to these questions? What kinds of answers can we legitimately expect and demand in questions about the ontology of art?
  3. An influential paradigm of what it is to acquire knowledge has come from a certain (perhaps naive) view of how the natural sciences and other empirical investigations work. According to this paradigm – call it the discovery view – the world contains a broad range of fully determinate, mind-independent facts about which everyone may be ignorant or in error, but (some of) which the scientist seeks to discover by substantive empirical investigations. Thus, one acquires knowledge about, say, the biological nature of whales by ostensively applying the term 'whale' to this kind of thing and undertaking substantive empirical investigations about them (their internal structure, genetics, etc.) in order to discover the real truth about whales' biological nature, which may overturn our common-sense views about them. Moreover, on this view, there is a complete range of mind-independent facts to be discovered, so that, for any empirical proposition P we could formulate about whales, either P or not-P is the case; the only challenge lies in discovering which.
  4. So, similarly, knowledge claims in the ontology of art are often presented as discoveries of fully determinate, mind-independent facts about the ontological status of works of art of various kinds, about which everyone may be ignorant or in error – so that we should not be surprised if the "right" view turns out to be that works of art are discovered rather than created, action-types rather than objects, and so on, and so that we may rightly demand that theories provide precise answers to any questions we care to invent about, for example, the creation, survival, and identity of works of art. I am not concerned here to either defend or attack this discovery view of knowledge, but rather to argue that – whatever its merits as an understanding of scientific or other empirical investigations – thinking of the process of acquiring knowledge about the ontology of art on that model (as, I think, many have been inclined to do) leads us badly astray.
  5. This paper, then, is an exercise in meta-ontology, as applied to issues in the ontology of art, designed to examine what it is we are doing when we formulate theories about the ontology of art, how we can adjudicate among competing theories, and what the limits of knowledge are in this area. In fact, the points to be made seem to have quite general application to much of what goes under the heading of "ontology" both inside and outside of aesthetics. Thus here as elsewhere, I think that careful study of issues in aesthetics can lead to progress in other areas of philosophy.
  6. Nonetheless, the ontology of art provides a particularly useful case study, since (I will argue) issues come to prominence here that might otherwise be overlooked. The consequences of rejecting the discovery model of knowledge for ontological issues are also particularly important for aesthetics since this is an area in which debates about the ontological status of the objects concerned (works of art) play a prominent role, with most beginning from the presumption that there are such objects, the only issue being what sorts of things they are. As a result, the field is flooded with all manner of diverse, and often revisionary, proposals about the ontological status of works of art, as well as attempts to answer all sorts of question about works' identity, creation, and survival. A proper understanding of what we are doing in the ontology of art, I will argue, can lead us to reevaluate this whole ontological side of discourse in aesthetics.

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