What is art? When confronted with this question, one might point at a Van Gogh and say: “This is art!” But the metaphysician’s answer is different. The metaphysician wants a comprehensive definition encompassing everything we might point to when asked what art is. To do this, they continue in asking: what makes the Van Gogh “art?” What is art, really?
The metaphysical proposal
A metaphysician might approach the topic in a few ways. First, the physical object hypothesis: the novel Moby Dick is a physical object. This strikes me as immediately problematic. Which physical object? The first manuscript? My copy of Moby Dick? Moreover, when I’m writing an essay on Moby Dick, I’m not commenting on the book’s physical properties. Instead, I am writing on esoteric, expressive, and, importantly, non-physical properties of my imagined Moby Dick, what one might call “my reading of Moby Dick.”
If we are inclined to give up our search for the one or the many physical objects that constitute Moby Dick, we might simply conclude that Moby Dick is not a physical object but a psychological one. Moby Dick, on this view, lives in our minds – it is the sum total of thoughts, feelings, and responses we have while reading it. But now we have the reverse problem: in talking about Moby Dick, I still want to refer to the physical book that I hold in my hand as “Moby Dick.”
If some cataclysmic event were to wipe out the human race, but had the decency to spare all our copies of Moby Dick, we wouldn’t say the novel ceased to exist, even though there is no one to read it. Further, when we say that Herman Melville wrote Moby Dick, we don’t mean that he wrote our mental states. We mean that he put pen to literal paper in such a way to produce Moby Dick the book.
The linguistic rejoinder
These two intuitions present a linguistic challenge for the metaphysician’s proposal. When we attempt to get a unified theory of the novel Moby Dick as physical or psychological, our language is pulled apart, and many of our common usages of the word “novel” are rendered incoherent. But why can’t we say that the novel is both physical and psychological? Because then we don’t have the unified and comprehensive understanding that the metaphysician cares about. It seems we can either have metaphysical consistency or linguistic ease, but not both.
At scholastic.com they argue that our metaphysical worries are unnecessary. In the following sections are two arguments against definitions of “art” that rely on metaphysics: one argument that leads to an infinite regress and one that problematizes the line between physical and psychological objects. The conclusion I will draw is one in line with Wittgenstein: we should be satisfied that the term “novel” is defined by its use in our language.
The metaphysician begins her inquiry for the true meaning of “novel” by searching for a concrete definition, one that gives the necessary and sufficient condition for an object being categorized as a “novel.” We might, for example, take the following definition of novel:
“A fictitious prose narrative of book length, typically representing characters in action with some degree of realism.”
In subsequent attempts to either problematize or accept this proposed definition, and draw broad philosophical conclusions from this definition, phys.org notes that metaphysicians are inclined to ignore the same metaphysical questions about the words that constitute the proposed definition, and instead accept their common usages. The metaphysician is tempted to, in other words, grant our intuitions regarding words like “narrative,” “complex,” and “human,” while denying our intuitions regarding “novel.” Metaphysicians search for the unifying, simple form that defines “novel” but grant that other terms (e.g. “narrative”) can be used in the “usual way.”
If metaphysicians believe that the process of defining “novel,” and drawing out metaphysical inconsistency, can lead us to philosophical truth, then they owe a similar account of the metaphysics of the words they use to define a term like “novel.” If the metaphysician were to be philosophically honest, they would seek accounts for words like “narrative,” which in turn would mean providing accounts for the words used to define “narrative.” The trouble for the metaphysician is that this project has no end. It leads to an infinite regress.
A second argument cuts deeper. Perhaps the physical-psychological distinction isn’t that robust. An obvious difference between the two is that we can literally point to a physical object and name it.
This process of pointing out physical objects is so embedded in our linguistic practice that it is often thought to be divorced from human psychology. However, when I point to a book, I might be picking out one of many characteristics it has; its hardness, its color, its smell. I might be pointing at it to indicate a small object as opposed to a large object.
The pointing alone cannot point to what I mean to identify. This further identification requires psychological priming: in the context of pointing at a white object, pointing at a black book gains new meaning. The physical object “book,” viewed in this sense, becomes firmly situated within psychological and linguistic human practice. When I point to the physical object Moby Dick, I am identifying something that occupies both realms: the physical and the psychological.