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Restituting Art: An Ethical Analysis of the Parthenon Marbles Debate

Lauren Stephens, University of Liverpool, UK.

Abstract

Attempting to make clear different theories of cultural ownership, cultural property scholars have divided dominant views into two categories: cultural nationalism and cultural internationalism. Although not discussed in the relevant literature, I claim it is useful to understand these two categories as comprised of the ethical views of deontology and consequentialism. I claim cultural internationalists believe they have good independent reasons against returning problematic cultural heritage like the Parthenon marbles. However, I will demonstrate their arguments are based on consequentialist ethics, and there are just as many consequentialist reasons to return the marbles as there are for them to remain in the British Museum, undermining cultural internationalist arguments against their return.

  1. Introduction

The debate surrounding the Parthenon marbles in the British Museum best illustrates the ethical positions behind cultural nationalism and cultural internationalism[1]. Although not discussed in the relevant literature, I claim it is useful to understand these two views as comprised of the ethical views of deontology – the view that moral actions align with our duties – and consequentialism – the view that moral actions maximize beneficial outcomes. As a brief overview, the Parthenon has stood on the Acropolis of Athens in Greece for two and a half millennia. Four centuries of Ottoman occupation combined with transformations of the Parthenon into churches, mosques, and an ammunitions store caused notable damage to the ancient marble structure. From 1801 to 1812, Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, removed parts of the Parthenon’s frieze, metopes, and pedimentary sculpture to be shipped to Britain (Banteka 2016, 1237; Rudenstine 2021, 378). Substantial damage occurred during this removal, causing further irreversible structural damage to the Parthenon. When later debating their purchase in 1816, Parliament primarily questioned whether Elgin had actually obtained written permission from the Ottomans to take the marbles from the Acropolis, and whether their subsequent purchase by Britain would condone looting art. Those in Parliament who were for or against the purchase of the marbles echo the arguments made today in contemporary debates. An important question concerning the ethics behind the Parthenon marbles’ acquisition asks whether the Ottomans had a right to sell another culture’s art. Is it ethical for conquering nations to sell the cultural heritage of a conquered people? Further, is it ethical to purchase cultural heritage from the occupier of an occupied nation?

These questions were debated and later dismissed by Parliament (Rudenstine 2021, 410). After Parliament approved the purchase of the marbles in 1816 and sent them to the British Museum, the marbles continued to suffer damage. During 1937-38, conservators at the British Museum scoured sections of the marbles with wire brushes and corrosive bleaching chemicals, scraping away ancient traces of paint and artistic details from their surface (Rudenstine 2021, 451). More recently, a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) committee met in early 2021 and expressed concerns about the display conditions where the marbles are kept (Solomon 2021). In August 2021, heavy rainfall in London led to water leaking into galleries in the British Museum, highlighting again the growing concern over the safety of the British collection of the Parthenon marbles.

In 2021, UNESCO officially recommended the Parthenon marbles be returned to Greece. A UK government spokesperson rejected this, saying: “We disagree with the Committee’s decision… Our position is clear — the Parthenon sculptures were acquired legally in accordance with the law at the time” (Chow 2021). While UNESCO recommends their return, the UK remains firm on their disagreement. This lack of official consensus further complicates the persisting ethical problem of the Parthenon marbles in the British Museum. In October 2022, the British House of Lords debated the 1983 National Heritage Act concerning whether certain major UK cultural institutions should be able to return objects with questionable histories (Bailey 2022). If this act were amended, it would provide unique legal opportunities to return some objects to their cultural origins since there is currently no law enforcing such action for museums. However, the Parthenon marbles cannot be returned until the British Museum Act of 1963 is amended (Harris 2021).

Addressing this legal impasse within cultural heritage literature, cultural property scholars have divided the debate into two categories: cultural nationalism and cultural internationalism (Goldsleger 2005, 109; Kiwara-Wilson 2013, 396; Banteka 2016, 1252; Losson 2021, 387). I argue it is important to understand these claims are supported by either consequentialist or deontological ethics since there seems to be a stalemate between these nationalist and internationalist claims in cultural heritage literature, as evidenced by the British Museum and UNESCO’s different judgements about the present location of the Parthenon marbles. As such, an analysis in the terms of moral philosophy may assist in both understanding and adjudicating between the positions.

  1. The Ethics of Cultural Restitution

When seeking to justify responses to moral dilemmas, artworld interpretations of museum ethics typically use a combination of consequentialist and deontological theories (Edson 2005, 51). Deontological theories propose that even if bad outcomes occur, a cultural institution’s actions remain ethical if the institution intended to act in accordance with duties. In contrast to this view, consequentialists believe moral action for cultural institutions is dictated by pursuing the best possible outcomes of an action. When considering the ethical frameworks of deontology and consequentialism alongside the concepts of cultural nationalism and cultural internationalism, it must be noted the former are established and recognized ethical systems, while the latter are theories within the context of museums. It has not yet been considered in extant literature that these views are underwritten by consequentialist and deontological ethical theories, but I argue it is important we consider them in this light to provide the supporting ethical ground for cultural nationalism or cultural internationalism.

While ‘nationalism’ typically means the promotion of a particular nation, in a cultural heritage context it has a slightly different meaning. Cultural nationalism in this case claims the value of cultural heritage can only be fully realized in its original cultural context (Banteka 2016, 1253). Cultural nationalism places importance on originating contexts, claiming cultures who produced a certain object instill within it emotional qualities binding it to the originating culture, leading to a great loss when removed. For cultural nationalism, the proper context for cultural heritage is within the culture of its origin, with importance placed on nation-oriented principles of nationalism, legality, and morality (Kiwara-Wilson 2013, 397). This description best supports the claim that cultural nationalism has parallel moral views to a deontological, duty-based ethic, especially through focusing on specific principles when deciding on moral action. Cultural nationalist views consider nationalism, legality, and morality as moral obligations that should be followed, regardless of whether a majority benefits from this view or not. This view’s focus is on advancing the interests of a particular group of people rather than benefiting a wider group. The return of objects to their original context then becomes an ethical act righting the wrongs of past unethical action against a particular cultural group (Goldsleger 2005, 109).

Cultural nationalism could call for all cultural heritage to be returned to its original context, even if there were no wrongs with regard to rights of ownership. Taken to its extreme, cultural nationalism might serve as a foundation for museum scepticism. Museum sceptics believe not only that an object’s original nation best serves our understanding of it but also that an object’s being situated within cultural institutions destroys its contextually dependent purpose (Carrier 2006, 52). Museum scepticism, therefore, claims art needs its original context in order to be best understood, and so, cannot thrive within any museum context. Although museum scepticism is an extreme position with similar aims as cultural nationalism—namely, the return of cultural objects to their originating cultural contexts—there is little literature suggesting the return of all cultural objects is a solution for specific dilemmas within the art world, even when advocating for conceivably cultural nationalist approaches. Those in the literature who use cultural nationalist claims usually support it within contexts of looted cultural heritage.

In contrast to cultural nationalism, cultural internationalism is the idea there is universal interest in the preservation and display of cultural property no matter where it is situated (Kiwara-Wilson 2013, 397). The claim I wish to tease out is that defending a cultural internationalist view is really defending a consequentialist ethic. What is missing from cultural internationalism, by its favouring of concepts like universal interest (i.e., the maximization of it through utilitarian calculation), is cultural nationalism’s emphasis on universal principles and laws. Those in the artworld who uphold the importance of cultural internationalism describe themselves as belonging to the idea of the universal museum. In 2002, a ‘Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums’ was signed by eighteen directors of leading museums within Europe and the United States (Thompson 2003, 251). The aim of the Declaration was to justify the presence of objects with questionable provenance within leading museums, stating: “The universal admiration for ancient civilizations would not be so deeply established today were it not for the influence exercised by the artefacts of these cultures, widely available to an international public in major museums,” (Karp et al. 2006, 248). This Declaration outlines the strongest argument for the international museum: the display of cultural heritage, even if questionably looted, serves the people of all nations by maximizing the appreciation of past people. It is crucial to note the emphasis on maximizing a particular good despite a perceived wrong. Emphasis on maximizing the good indicates an underlying consequentialist ethic, signifying the ends of maximizing cultural appreciation justifies the means of looting cultural heritage.

The Declaration asks, does the good resulting from the display of cultural heritage outweigh the bad of its dubious origins? This is akin to the question asked in ethical discourse whether the ends justify the means. Deontological ethics would not support an argument which treats a looted culture as a means to the end of the enjoyment of cultural heritage, while a consequentialist ethic could conceivably support this. For deontology, the looted culture should be seen as an end in itself, and there is no moral duty or justification for looting cultural heritage. Further, if a deontological maxim stating it is ethical for museums to purchase looted heritage were created, the universalization of this maxim would be self-defeating, undermining the ethical legitimacy of the artworld. If cultural institutions claim to “serve society and its development” (Edson 2005, 3) yet condone the looting of heritage by purchasing and displaying such looted objects, this would defeat the goal of the service and development of society since looting a society’s objects is antithetical to its development.  Conversely, a consequentialist framework could claim there is moral justification for purchasing and looting cultural heritage: the good produced from its display, like the maximization of aesthetic pleasure or knowledge of other cultures, outweighs the bad of its questionable origins. The Declaration ends by emphasizing universal museums are in service of “not just the citizens of one nation but the people of every nation … To narrow the focus of museums whose collections are diverse and multifaceted would therefore be a disservice to all visitors” (Karp et al. 2006, 248). Which is the greater disservice to visitors, restituting looted art or allowing visitors to believe looted art is acceptable for museum collections?

Adopting restitution policies for looted cultural heritage does not mean all cultural heritage in all museums should be returned (Goldsleger 2005, 116; Losson 2021, 381). Not all cultural heritage has been looted; for those that have, each instance of looting and its return will be unique and unlikely to set precedents for other cases. Different considerations will be applied to each case. Nazi-looted art, for example, will be treated differently than cultural heritage acquired through colonialism. This will not lead to the complete emptying of museums, but rather the removal and return of select items in collections determined as looted cultural heritage.

Although the 2002 Declaration was signed by many directors of large international institutions, it was not signed by the British Museum director at the time. Despite this, and according to several statements made by Neil MacGregor, director from 2002 to 2015, the British Museum can be considered a universal museum (Kiwara-Wilson 2013, 398). Further, MacGregor claimed the Parthenon marbles “have played a vital role in the Museum’s purpose to be an encyclopedia of knowledge and a material record of human history” (quoted in Rudenstine 2021, 381). What typically underscores internationalist predilections is an emphasis on terms like ‘encyclopedia’ and ‘human history’. On their official website, the British Museum states they are “working in partnership for the benefit of the widest possible audience… for this interconnected world collection” (British Museum 2023). The phrases “benefit of the widest possible audience” and “interconnected world collection” are notably cultural internationalist descriptions. Commentators further underscore this stance by saying the British Museum’s position on restitution debates is not about ownership but about displaying “everyone’s culture” in one place for “maximum public benefit” (Challis 2006, 39). International and universal museums believe safeguarding and promoting universal values benefits audiences, which justifies imposing limitations on cultural property restitution rights (Thompson 2003, 258).

Cuno (2014) especially praises the British Museum as the “archetypal encyclopedic museum” and defends cultural institutions against restitution claims. While Cuno’s views are culturally internationalist, I claim the arguments he uses also reflect consequentialist ethics. He explains the promise of encyclopedic museums as encouraging cultural exchange, curiosity about the world, and a cosmopolitan worldview (Cuno 2014, 120). What matters most for Cuno is not how artworks were obtained by museums, but the alleged total good they can produce. Losson (2021) responds to Cuno’s cultural internationalist claims against calls for restitution, calling them at best ironic since most universal museums were created and continue to reinforce nationalistic ideas of the superiority of their host nation. The Louvre reinforces the superiority of France, and the British Museum reinforces the superiority of Britain (Losson 2021, 387). The encyclopedic, internationalist museum protests against nationalistic views when restitution claims are made but remains at its core nationalistic.

  1. Ethical Debate

There are codes of professional ethics by which most UK museums abide. At the national level is the Museum Association (MA) code of ethics, and at the international level is the International Council of Museums (ICOM) code of ethics. If a cultural institution follows a code of ethics, it stands to reason it believes duties and principles should be upheld. If a cultural institution claims to be in the service of communities, then it stands to reason it believes in the widest benefit for all when deciding to act. As mentioned earlier, cultural institutions usually incorporate both deontology and consequentialism when deciding on ethical action (Edson 2005, 51). Operating with both consequential and deontological ethics typically does not cause conflict by itself, but these ethics are in conflict when assessing artworks with problematic histories like the Parthenon marbles. Cultural internationalists aim for the best outcomes for the largest number of people. To operate a cultural institution under this theory of the greater good does not, at face value, seem ethically problematic. Where there is no evidence of questionable provenance, a consequentialist ethic works well for universal museums if, in fact, they are in service of the people of every nation.

However, if cultural internationalist consequentialism is aimed at producing the best outcome for the largest number of people, how could the present state of the Parthenon marbles be the best outcome for the most people? After all, even if Elgin did legally purchase the marbles from the Ottoman Empire, is it ethical to obtain cultural heritage from occupying powers? It cannot be in the best interests of the citizens of every nation to defend artworks’ provenance as obtained from an occupying power. It is a weak argument that a greater good occurred overall when weighing the loss of the Parthenon marbles for Greek culture – a loss still felt today – against the overall aesthetic experience of their display in the British Museum. I argue if cultural internationalism uses a consequentialist ethic to defend its views on the problem of the Parthenon marbles, then a consequentialist ethic can just as easily be used to call for their return.

The principle of utility is key here: a consequentialist ethic would claim the greatest amount of good would see the reunification of the Parthenon marbles in the Acropolis Museum in Athens. Since Melina Mercouri’s campaign in the 1980s as Cultural Minister of Greece, the British Museum has argued Greece lacked the necessary resources to display the marbles. However, this argument was challenged by the construction of the new Acropolis Museum in 2009. Today, the Acropolis Museum not only showcases the sections of the marbles it owns, but also highlights missing sections still held by the British Museum. The gallery, which has outer glass walls facing the Parthenon, serves as a touching reminder of the obvious omissions in the display. Since 2009, the argument that Greece lacks what the British Museum can provide no longer stands. Additionally, the return of the marbles would see the British Museum gain greater ethical standing within the artworld, while the Acropolis Museum would gain a more comprehensive collection of what is considered the most important marble sculptures in the world. Scholarship of the marbles would improve, and political relations between Greece and the UK could improve as well.

If an ethical calculus were performed, all these goods combined would outweigh the return of the Parthenon marbles from the British Museum collection. If the ethical goal is the maximization of good consequences of an action, I claim consequentialist ethical reasons could call for the marbles to both remain or leave the British Museum. Cultural nationalism argues for their return based on principles of restoring looted cultural heritage, while cultural internationalism presents mixed perspectives, supporting and opposing their return for the greater good. It is unclear which perspective within cultural internationalism is correct, as both could argue for either action. In contrast, cultural nationalism unequivocally advocates for the Parthenon marbles’ return.

  1. Conclusion

In October 2022, the British Parliament debated amending the 1983 National Heritage Act, eventually deciding against providing a legal route for the return of objects with problematic provenance in major UK cultural institutions (Bailey 2022). Claims made on either side of this debate correspond to cultural nationalist or cultural internationalist arguments. As seen through the relevant literature, there is an interesting relationship between these two views for the case of the Parthenon marbles. What I have tried to show is cultural nationalist views are rooted in deontology, and cultural internationalist views are rooted in consequentialism. It is crucial to recognize restitution cases can differ due to context, and how consequences are assessed may always be open to some degree of interpretation. The outcome of consequentialist ethics does not recommend the return of all objects in all cases, but what I have shown in the Parthenon marbles case specifically is that consequentialism would recommend both remaining and their return. I argue, once cultural internationalist views are analyzed through consequentialist ethics, there are no more good reasons to keep them than there are for them to be returned. By cultural internationalists’ own standards, their arguments do not work: when the good and the bad are weighed for the case of the Parthenon marbles, the scales tip more towards their return.

References

Bailey, Martin, UK heritage minister says government has no plans to amend law that prevents museums from ‘disposing’ of objects (published online 2022), <https://www.theartnewspaper.com/2022/10/15/uk-heritage-minister-says-government-has-no-plans-to-amend-law-that-prevents-museums-from-disposing-of-objects> accessed 14 April 2023.

Banteka, Nadia, ‘The Parthenon Marbles Revisited: A New Strategy for Greece’, University of Pennsylvania Journal of International Law (2016) 37:4.

The British Museum, The Parthenon Sculptures (published online 2023), <https://www.britishmuseum.org/about-us/british-museum-story/contested-objects-collection/parthenon-sculptures> accessed 14 April 2023.

Carrier, David, ‘Museum Sceptics’, in David Carrier (ed.), Museum Scepticism: A History of the Display of Art in Public Galleries (Duke University Press, 2006).

Challis, Debbie, ‘The Parthenon Sculptures: Emblems of British National Identity’, British Art Journal (2006) 7:1.

Chow, Vivienne, The U.K. Has Rejected UNESCO’s Call on British Authorities to Reassess Their Position on the Contested Parthenon Marbles (published online 2021), <https://news.artnet.com/art-world/british-museum-reassess-parthenon-marbles-2016998> accessed 14 April 2023.

Cuno, James, ‘Culture War: The Case Against Repatriating Museum Artifacts’, Council on Foreign Relations (2014) 93:6.

Edson, Gary, Museum Ethics: Theory and Practice (London: Routledge Press, 2005).

Goldsleger, Emily, ‘Contemplating Contradiction: A Comparison of Art Restitution Policies’, Journal of Arts Management, Law & Society (2005).

Harris, Gareth, Boris Johnson says British Museum trustees must decide fate of the Parthenon Marbles (published online 2021), <https://www.theartnewspaper.com/2021/11/17/boris-johnson-says-british-museum-trustees-must-decide-fate-of-the-parthenon-marbles> accessed 14 April 2023.

Karp, Ivan et al., ‘Document: Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums’ in  Ivan Karp et al. (ed.), Museum Frictions: Public Cultures / Global Transformations (Duke University Press, 2006).

Kiwara-Wilson, Salome, ‘Restituting Colonial Plunder: The Case for the Benin Bronzes and Ivories’, DePaul Journal of Art, Technology and Intellectual Property Law (2013) 23:2.

Losson, Pierre, ‘Opening Pandora’s Box: Will the Return of Cultural Heritage Objects to Their Country of Origin Empty Western Museums?’ Journal of Arts Management, Law, and Society (2021) 51:6.

Rudenstine, David, ‘The Epic Dispute Between Greece and England Over the Parthenon Sculptures in the British Museum’, Cardozo Arts & Entertainment Law Journal (2021) 39:1.

Solomon, Tessa, UNESCO Advisory Board Urges British Museum to Return the Parthenon Marbles (published online 2021), <https://www.artnews.com/art-news/news/unesco-advisory-board-urges-british-museum-to-return-the-parthenon-marbles-1234605592/> accessed 14 April 2023.

Thompson, Janna, ‘Cultural Property, Restitution and Value’, Journal of Applied Philosophy (2003) 20:3.

[1] Many thanks to Vid Simoniti and Panayiota Vassilopoulou for their comments on an early draft of this paper.

Critical Contextual Aestheticism

Ryan Wittingslow, University of Groningen, Netherlands

Introduction

According to Thomas Adajian (2018), modern definitions of art typically fall into three categories: (1) ‘functionalist’ definitions, which argue that what makes something an artwork is whether it provides a distinctive aesthetic experience; (2) ‘institutionalist’ definitions, which argue that artworld institutions, rather than aesthetic experiences, baptize something as art; and (3) hybrid theories that combine functionalist and institutionalist aspects.[1] Functionalist and institutionalist definitions of art prima facie conflict. Functionalists assert that artworks must possess aesthetic properties, which are essential in deciding if something is an artwork. In contrast, institutionalist definitions maintain that aesthetic properties are not critical for determining if something is an artwork.

Both perspectives have faced considerable criticism. Functionalist theories are criticized for being both too broad, as they may include objects that possess aesthetic properties (beautiful sunsets, for instance) but which are not typically considered artworks, and too narrow, as they may exclude the possibility of bad art because aesthetic properties account for both artistic status and artistic goodness (see Hanson 2017 on ‘definition-evaluation parallelism’). Institutionalism faces different issues, specifically about defining the appropriate boundaries of who and what should be properly considered part of the artworld. However, both theories also have obvious merits. Functionalism acknowledges and argues that artworks are a privileged category, distinct from non-art objects insofar as their aesthetic properties give rise to some function—e.g., eliciting an aesthetic experience—while institutionalism recognizes the inherently social nature of artmaking, artworks, and the artworld.

Given the tension between the merits and drawbacks of these positions, I cautiously propose a reconciliation. This alternative—which is presented here as a summary of an argument I advance in Chapter 5 of my monograph, What Art Does: Using Philosophy of Technology to Talk about Art (cf. Wittingslow 2023)—is in principle similar to previous attempts to reconcile functionalist and institutionalist perspectives on art, such as Gary Iseminger’s appreciation account (2004), Francis Longworth and Andrea Scarantino’s disjunctive properties account (2010), or Dominic McIver Lopes’ network account (2018). All try to account for both the social and the aesthetic features of artworks, albeit in different ways. However, my tack also significantly deviates from these approaches, as it draws from recent research in philosophy of science rather than philosophy of art. Inspired by Helen Longino’s ‘critical contextual empiricism’, I argue that art arises from social epistemic procedures that encompass both aesthetic functions and institutional practices. Within these procedures, aesthetic functions are developed, validated, and enforced through institutional practices rather than being solely tied to the artistic outcomes of those practices. I call this approach ‘critical contextual aestheticism’.

Three Approaches

In philosophy of art, the term ‘art’ is used in at least three distinct ways. These include: (1) artmaking, referring to the processes and methods by which artworks are created; (2) art identification, focusing on how to distinguish artworks from non-artworks; and (3) the artistic canon, encompassing the collection of objects considered as art. Functionalists and institutionalists approach these aspects differently.

1. Artmaking

Functionalist and institutionalist perspectives diverge on the processes involved in creating artworks and the extent to which these processes are necessary or sufficient for determining something as an artwork. For example, Nick Zangwill — a philosopher I take to be broadly representative of the functionalist view — argues that it is the function of artworks to have aesthetic properties, and that these aesthetic properties supervene upon the non-aesthetic properties of those artworks (2001, pp. 9–23). Zangwill then proposes a normative theory of art based on a process guided by meeting specific success criteria. This process consists of three principally distinct stages. First, the artist must have the insight that it is possible to evoke desired aesthetic properties by creating non-aesthetic properties. Second, the artist must intend to achieve these desired aesthetic properties through the identified non-aesthetic properties. Finally, the artist must successfully fulfil their intention to produce the desired aesthetic properties using the identified non-aesthetic properties (Zangwill 2007).

Institutionalists, on the other hand, focus on art-making practices that account for how objects are accepted as artworks by a given public. Institutionalists typically emphasize the role of the ‘artworld’, a term coined by Arthur Danto (1964) and further developed by George Dickie (1974, 1997) and others, in determining art status. Danto introduces the ‘artworld’ to clarify how we distinguish art objects from seemingly identical non-art objects. How else can we make sense of Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box being considered art, for instance, despite being visually indistinguishable from a non-art Brillo box? Danto believes we need a story that prevents Warhol’s Brillo Box from merging with the actual Brillo box: something that accounts for the unique identity of artistic recognition. This ‘something’, Danto (1964) suggests, is the artworld. Dickie develops Danto’s account further. Further reducing Danto’s account, Dickie argues that to be a work of art is to be an artist-created artefact of a kind created to be presented to an artworld public.

For institutionalists, art-making practices are unrelated to the successful expression of aesthetic properties. Rather, the process of artmaking is founded on a productive relationship between an artist’s intention to produce an object of a specific class, the object itself, and an artworld public’s readiness to accept the object as part of that class. Within this productive relationship, artmaking is unencumbered by the processes and normative criteria that functionalists like Zangwill require. Instead, artworks are merely artefacts of a type created for presentation to the appropriate audience, with no additional requirements concerning meeting evaluative or substantial aesthetic standards.

2. Art Identification

The second meaning of art is ‘identification’—that is, how an individual can distinguish art objects from non-art objects. Identification is a three-term relation involving a subject or subjects, a theory by which artworks can be accurately identified, and an art object. Through this relation, we emphasize a virtuous interaction between a subject’s (p) beliefs about an object’s art status, the artwork (w) itself, and the art theory by which the subject can justify holding those beliefs. Fulfilling these three conditions signifies that ‘p identifies that w is art’. While this general characterization applies to both functionalists and institutionalists, they each handle the matter of justification differently.

Functionalists assert that the correct identification of aesthetic properties justifies the attribution of something as an artwork. This is evident in Zangwill and other functionalists’ work on art (besides Zangwill 2001, 2007, see Beardsley 1982; Eldridge 1985; DeClerq 2002; for a general overview of both functionalist and institutionalist definitions of art, refer to Adajian 2018 and Davies 1990). If the function of artworks is to possess aesthetic properties, and if the presence of those aesthetic properties is what makes something an artwork, then accurately identifying aesthetic properties is a necessary condition for properly identifying an artwork as an artwork.

Institutionalists, on the other hand, adopt a position about art identification that is neutral concerning the proper identification of aesthetic properties. Instead, justification is linked to an artwork’s relationship with a specific artworld public. Firstly, the artwork must be the sort of thing intended to be presented to an artworld public. Secondly, the artworld public in question must be “prepared in some degree” to understand the thing intended for presentation, per Dickie (1997, 81): “A public is a set of persons the members of which are prepared in some degree to understand an object which is presented to them”.

Without shared aesthetic criteria against which artwork status can be attributed, this means that the public in question is entirely responsible for creating and enforcing the definitional and evaluative criteria by which potential art objects are assessed and validated. A consequence of this assertion is that, if artworld publics are fundamentally accountable for the standards under which artworks are recognized as artworks, and these standards are not tied to normative aesthetic criteria, then there is no requirement for theories of art to be consistent between communities. As a result, institutionalists tend to be pluralists about justifiability in a way that functionalists are not.

3. The Artistic Canon

Lastly, the third aspect of art is the artistic canon. This is the complete collection of artworks available to us, encompassing paintings, sculptures, dance, literature, poetry, theatre, or anything else we might commonsensically describe as art. This canon cannot be attributed to a single individual, nor is it associated with a specific time or place. Instead, it is simply the sum of all things included in the category of artworks, including everything housed in museums or private collections, every winner of any award, every work recorded in auction records or possessing copyright protections, and so on. For the functionalist, this collection is the total of all things identified through the normative art-producing and identification processes mentioned earlier. Meanwhile, for the institutionalist, the artistic canon consists entirely of whatever a particular artworld public believes to be art.

The Problem

Neither functionalism nor institutionalism adequately address the complexities presented by artworks. Functionalism neglects the importance of art’s connections to histories, institutions, and egos, while institutionalism fails to fully capture the intertwined nature of normative aesthetic criteria and our understanding of art objects and their functions (indeed, one major criticism of institutional theories is that they do not give us an account of why or how we value art see, e.g., Abell 2012). However, both theories get some parts of the story right.

Functionalists appreciate that, for us to have a definition of art that captures the way we talk about art in ordinary language, we need a robust and non-relative conception of discussing the role of normative aesthetics in art. This is because aesthetic experience is a fundamental part of how we describe and evaluate artworks. Moreover, we ask these aesthetic questions of those artefacts precisely because they are artworks rather than some other kind of artefact. The very ‘art-ness’ of art invites us to reflect on its aesthetic nature. Without trying to make too much of this claim, I think it’s clear that recognizing something as an artwork is to be invited to reflect on its aesthetic qualities.

However, the institutionalist narrative holds real power. By characterizing art as a thing with a social ontology—a thing produced and ratified by the complex web of individuals, galleries, universities and schools, governmental organizations, private institutions, and many other components that make up the artistic enterprise in its entirety—institutionalists can become sensitive to social facts about artists and artworks that are either invisible or irrelevant to functionalists. This may be facts about race, gender, social inequality, education, technique, capital (whether institutional, political, or economic), or anything else. These social facts can and should be considered as part of a comprehensive analysis of an artwork, given that they influence both the creation and reception of works of art.

Institutionalists are also much better equipped to deal with the problem of ‘bad art’. It would certainly contradict ordinary language use of the word ‘art’ to claim that artefacts must meet certain normative aesthetic criteria to be properly considered artworks. In common sense, an object need not be intentionally beautiful, elegant, grotesque, or anything else, to be deserving of the attribution. Instead, when we talk about bad art, we are not discussing objects that have failed to meet the relevant aesthetic success criteria and thus fail to be art. Rather, we mean that, while the object in question is very much an artwork, it is just not a very good example of an artwork. Failure to meet normative aesthetic criteria compromises an object’s quality as an artwork without compromising its character as an artwork.

I have mixed feelings about this issue. I am inclined to endorse the functionalist view on the importance of aesthetic experience, as I take it to be the case that any definition of art that downplays the significance of aesthetic interpretation misses the trees for the forest. What is art, if not an aesthetic enterprise? However, I also think that institutionalism is essentially correct about the social ontology of art. This is not only because it is evident that different communities have different standards for what constitutes art, but also because institutionalism is better equipped to account for the contingent facts underlying the creation and reception of artworks.

A Solution

Helen Longino offers an approach that might help to resolve this issue. In her works Science as Social Knowledge (1990) and The Fate of Knowledge (2002), she contends that philosophy of science is marked by a similar divide between ‘rationalizers’ and ‘sociologizers’. Rationalizers focus on the normative epistemic criteria used to evaluate whether an observation or prediction should be deemed scientific knowledge. Sociologizers, meanwhile, argue that scientific knowledge is a social fact, or a socially mediated product of certain knowledge-making institutions (2002, 77–89).

These factors lead rationalizers and sociologizers to hold radically different views on knowledge and on how these perspectives interact (cf. 2002, 89–96). Generally, rationalizers support an individualist (knowledge doesn’t require community sanction), monist (assuming there is a single correct, complete, and consistent account of facts), and non-relative (justification is not arbitrary) conception of knowledge. In contrast, sociologizers broadly believe that knowledge is non-individual (ratified by groups), non-monist (no assumption of a single correct, complete, and consistent account of facts), and relative (justifications are arbitrary but socially mediated).

Longino believes both the rationalizing and sociologizing perspectives on science are incomplete. The former overlooks the idea that science is fundamentally a human endeavour, driven by histories, institutions, and egos as well as facts, observations, and measurements. The latter fails to capture that science is as much about normative standards as it is about social facts. More precisely, Longino doesn’t think sociologizers are wrong in characterizing scientific knowledge as something sanctioned by the complex web of entities that comprise the scientific enterprise in its entirety. Nor does she think sociologizers are wrong in stating that knowledge is non-monist; she believes it is possible for different communities to have equally valid yet irreconcilable descriptions of a given situation. However, rationalizers get one part of the story right: the scientific enterprise, when properly understood, requires a non-relative conception of what makes science unique.

Longino suggests the solution to this dilemma lies in the procedures governing scientific communities. Although science is indeed a social practice, it is also a social practice in which epistemic norms are part of that practice.

More specifically, she argues that normative epistemic criteria are not applied to scientific outputs. Contrary to the rationalist perspective, there are no procedure-independent criteria for assessing the justifiability of a given claim. We do not, for example, reach the end of the peer review process and then check if the normative epistemic criteria have been applied. Instead, the critical discursive interactions that typify science – procedures like peer review – integrate the desired normative epistemic criteria into the very fabric of the social procedures by which scientific knowledge is produced and sanctioned. In this way, Longino’s ‘critical contextual empiricism’ is a productive blend of rationalizer and sociologizer positions. Science is a non-individual, non-monist, and non-relative enterprise conducted by a knowledge-producing community.

So, what can Longino’s critical contextual empiricism reveal about the qualities, procedures, and institutions of art? I believe it can teach us a great deal. While I do not wish to diminish the real differences between science and art, I think this narrative can offer insights when developing a definition of art. Not only does Longino’s account provide a valuable understanding of how the scientific enterprise is both normative and social, it can also help to unpack the ways in which the artworld is both aesthetic and institutional. Although science and art are clearly subject to different normative criteria and are constituted by different entities, there are meaningful parallels between Longino’s philosophy of science and the conventions and norms governing our successful production and identification of art objects.

I argue that while art and science are subject to different normative criteria (i.e., epistemic versus aesthetic criteria) and possess distinct institutions, histories, and methods, they share procedural similarities. Just as Longino (2002, 124) posits that scientific knowledge is not merely ordinary knowledge ‘except better’ artworks are not simply non-artworks ‘except beautiful.’ Instead, artworks constitute a privileged class of objects. This privilege is not a result of the aesthetic virtues of the artwork in question. Rather, it manifests in the ways we interact with artworks—we interrogate, analyze, and are moved by them in part because we expect to engage, scrutinize, and be affected by objects of this privileged class.

This process succeeds or fails depending on whether a given public recognizes a given artwork as art. The process by which we recognize something as art is multifaceted and influenced by a confluence of overlapping factors: whether we can place the work within the history of art (that is, whether it resembles or has some causal relationship with other works of art); the institutional context in which the work is encountered (whether the work is found in an art gallery, a motel, or a nightclub bathroom); what artworld tastemakers (critics, curators, collectors, etc.) think of the work; the artist’s perceived intentions, and so on. These procedures are fundamentally socially and institutionally mediated.

However, the fact that these procedures are socially and institutionally mediated does not mean no aesthetic criteria are involved in creating and subsequently recognizing artworks. If that were the case, this would be little more than a conventional institutionalist account. Aesthetic purpose is not independent of the procedures by which artworks are ratified as artworks. Instead, for an artefact to be understood as an artwork by an art public, that artefact must, on some level, align with what the art public considers aesthetically purposive about works of art. In my view, the aesthetic criteria to which artworks are subject are built into the institutional, historical, and social procedures governing the production of artworks, much like epistemic criteria are built into the procedures governing the production of scientific knowledge.

Consequently, I propose a productive blend of the functionalist and institutionalist positions. While art has a social ontology, this social ontology is rooted in commonly shared notions of aesthetic purpose. I call this position (via Longino) ‘critical contextual aestheticism’.

Conclusion

What I put forward here is obviously not a fully developed theory of art. For now, at least, it is too vague and imprecise to fulfil that role properly. It also, I believe, raises intriguing questions for specific types of work that we conventionally might regard as artworks, despite not being considered artworks at the time of their creation—certain religious or sacred objects, for instance. Nevertheless, I trust that the account I have presented here is adequate to clarify what a modified form of Longino’s critical contextual empiricism can contribute to a theory of art: a new hybrid theory of art that can capture the strengths of both functional and institutional theories of art.

References

​​Abell, Catharine, ‘Art: What it Is and Why it Matters,’ Philosophy and Phenomenological Research (2012) 85:3, 671–691.

Adajian, Thomas, ‘The Definition of Art,’ in Edward N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, 2018).

Beardsley, Monroe, The Aesthetic Point of View (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982).

Danto, Arthur, ‘The Artworld,’ The Journal of Philosophy (1964) 61:19, 571–84.

Davies, Stephen, ‘Functional and Procedural Definitions of Art,’ Journal of Aesthetic Education (1990) 24:2, 99–106.

DeClerq, Rafael, ‘The Concept of an Aesthetic Property,’ The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (2002) 60, 167–72.

Dickie, George, Art and the Aesthetic: An Institutional Analysis (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1974).

Dickie, George, Art Circle: A Theory of Art (Chicago: Chicago Spectrum Press, 1997).

Eldridge, Richard, ‘Form and Content: An Aesthetic Theory of Art,’ British Journal of Aesthetics (1985) 25:4, 303–16.

Hanson, Louise, ‘Artistic Value is Attributive Goodness,’ The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (2017) 75:4, 415-427

Iseminger, Gary, The Aesthetic Function of Art (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004).

Longino, Helen, Science as Social Knowledge: Values and Objectivity in Scientific Inquiry (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990).

Longino, Helen, The Fate of Knowledge (Princeton University Press, 2002).

Longworth, Francis and Andrea Scarantino, ‘The Disjunctive Theory of Art: The Cluster Account Reformulated,’ British Journal of Aesthetics (2010) 50, 1–17.

Lopes, Dominic McIver, Being for Beauty: Aesthetic Agency and Value (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).

Wittingslow, Ryan, What Art Does: Using Philosophy of Technology to Talk about Art (Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2023).

Zangwill, Nick, The Metaphysics of Beauty (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001).

Zangwill, Nick, Aesthetic Creation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

[1] Adajian is by no means the first to speciate definitions of art; Stephen Davies makes a similar, influential, distinction between ‘functionalist’ and ‘proceduralist’ definitions of art in his “Functional and Procedural Definitions of Art” (1990).

Improvisational Space: Between Action and Artwork

Alistair Macaulay | Deakin University, Australia.

Introduction

Jazz improvisation challenges the standard theory of action and the ontological status of musical works.  Responding to this dual problem, I propose a conception of improvisational space: a loosely demarcated field of musical material from which the sound organization is spontaneously produced. This distinction appreciates both the improvisation’s dynamic production and the coherency of the sound organization, explaining how improvisors are authorially responsible for the sound organization without having a clear idea of what will unfold.  A consideration of this space indicates the sense in which improvisations persist as artworks and how they serve as platforms for further improvisation.  Improvisational space ties together the problematic of liberty and novelty, linking action and artwork. In improvisation’s claims to novelty, I contend that this is not exclusive to the sound organization but the improvisational space as well.

Standard theories of action hold that actors control an action via their intentions, specifying goals they work to accomplish.  Improvisation, however, demands that intentions cannot be specified in advance of their execution.  They must be spontaneous.  Furthermore, an improvisor’s intentions are outstripped by the demands of the action.  Burke and Onsman (2018, 32) note that an improvisation’s spontaneity is underpinned by a myriad of factors – the improvisor, band members, audience, wider performance contexts, and the improvisor’s relationship with the performance as it is being performed.  Improvisation is not a simple process in which a sovereign actor executes an action.  Rather, improvisors respond to and are changed by the performance.

Challenged by and open to external factors outside their control, improvisation is enabled by trained habits and extensive know-how.  Gallagher explains, “Performers, based on their well-trained skills … are able to move beyond controlled engagement to the point of not-knowing”, embracing a selective uncertainty (2022, 8).  Similarly, Peters (2017, 118-120) supposes an improvisor scrambles to preserve rehearsed patterns and aesthetic decisions to make sense of the complex and unfolding musical terrain.  What is unclear is how known patterns produce this uncertainty.  Further, this openness to the unforeseen and uncertain obfuscates the improvisor’s liberty and the conferral of agential responsibility.  There is a link between freedom and novelty that remains to be explicated.

Improvisation has become almost synonymous with jazz due to its centrality in the idiom, typically taking the form of theme and variations.  Paradigmatically, improvising musicians take jazz standards as little more than a starting point, extending and transforming melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic motifs.  Jazz bands typically begin by playing a tune before a soloist begins to improvise.  The rest of the band accompanies the soloist, offering harmonic and rhythmic material so they can improvise new melodies.  This is done over the song-form, sticking to the basic harmonic structure of the tune.  Certain chord substitutions can be used, but these follow a certain harmonic pattern.  Improvisation is not chaotic, nor is it accidental, but enabled by intense listening and training.

With its variation, Kania (2011, 400) observes that an ontology of jazz improvisation cannot consist in the same “work-performance tradition” that characterises Western classical music.  Here, instances are separated from the musical work to evaluate the performance’s success.  But improvisors who only recite what has been played before do not seem to be improvising.  Improvisors are compelled to differentiate their improvisations.  Besides raising questions about the novelty of improvisation, this muddies the delineation between musical work and performance instance.  Conversely, doppelganger albums, like Blue, by Mostly Other People do the Killing—a note-for-note sound recreation of seminal album, Kind of Blue, by the Miles Davis Sextet—pose questions about what happens to improvisation after performance.

In this problematic, there are two senses of improvisation, denoting both a noun, an artwork, and a verb, a music-making process.  Improvisation does not challenge the ontological status of musical works because it deviates from a score, but instead because it obfuscates whether the artwork is the determinate sequence of musical notes or its dynamic processes.   Considering instances where a listener might think an improvisor failed to render a particular tune adequately, Lewis (2019, 106) compellingly contends that the performance is the musical work.  While I concur with this analysis, explaining the relationship between action and artwork is necessary.

This article outlines the features of improvisational space and then expands this conception with Taylor’s categorisation of positive and negative liberty.  This makes several claims.  To count as an improvisation, improvisors cannot know precisely what they will perform.  Describing a complex field of opportunities in which an improvisor exercises their faculties, improvisational space accounts for their positive activity.  An improvisor is authorially responsible for a spontaneously produced sound organization because they engender an improvisational space.  In my view, improvisations exist as artworks both as the sound organization and the dynamic processes of opportunity and exercise that saw its performance.  Finally, this indicates how doppelganger scenarios like the album Blue, are novel, outlining how improvisations persist as musical works and how they serve as platforms for further improvisation.

Improvisational Space

An improvisational space is a mobile complex of musical material that offers opportunities in which improvisors can exercise their faculties, trained skills, and thinking.  Before and during the improvised performance, improvisors set parameters around what is to be performed.  The musician calls a tune and begins in a particular key at a certain tempo, dictating, at least for a short while, speed and a tonal centre.  In other free jazz idioms, an improvisor might offer a phrase before investigating less rigidly codified elements.  Burke and Onsman (2018, 29) summarise that improvisors are actively cultivating a “sonic environment” that accords with their aesthetic tastes.  Intuitively, they improvise with material they want to play with and explore.  The improvisor does not know what will unfold, but in this loose demarcation, they delimit and direct future opportunities.  An improvisor is authorially responsible for an improvisation because of their cultivation of the improvisational space, despite being affected by and responding to the demands of the action.

After this initial selection of musical epithets that they want to improvise with, an improvisational space becomes increasingly cluttered with disparate musical material.  The improvisor oscillates between selecting particular patterns that delimit opportunities and relies on their trained habits to navigate the now uncertain terrain.  I discern five interrelated features of improvisational space.  First, an improvisational space is deliberately propagated by an improvisor.  This involves a selection process which impacts what they can then perform.  Second, improvisational space relies on a shared expressive media in which an improvisor is immersed.  Third, the border of an improvisational space is fluid, although formally constituted by various embodied habits and patterns of musical elements.  Fourth, improvisational space is not static but shifts as the sound organization is produced.  Lastly, improvisational space provides a buffer zone between music and noise.

The bass and piano introduction to the song “So What” opens the album Kind of Blue.  Specifying a swinging D Dorian scale, this song sets the tone of the rest of the album, establishing it as the harbinger of modal jazz.  This engenders a complex improvisational space, corralling musical material together – an easy swing with some basic harmonic information – for the other bandmembers to play with.  “So what” is composed in a way that encourages a melodic style of improvisation and exploration rather than the precisely executed chord changes of bebop.  In order to stay musically coherent, the bandmembers, habitually and intentionally, respond with complementary patterns rather than antagonistic or unrelated motifs.  Similarly, during the famous trumpet solo, Miles begins by loosely outlining the musical material he wants to play with, subtly specifying in his lilting swing and sharp staccato what sort of rhythmic accompaniment he is after.

By directing his bandmembers on how they can contribute, we witness that improvisational space relies on the notion of shared expressive media.  An improvisor does not possess a birds-eye or external point of view of the musical material amongst the material.  The determinate set of sounds that are produced in the improvisational space changes its landscape and affects the improvisors.  Davis insisted on little to no rehearsal prior to recording; he wanted to capture the dynamism of improvisation with the improvisor’s initial responses.  Intuitively, the sudden influx of musical information would make it more difficult to communicate, but the bandmembers are able to appreciate each other’s varied contributions.  They move within the improvisational space, navigating the various combinations of musical elements that comprise the space.  Recognising relationships between musical material, improvisors affect these elements, dislocating musical phrases from a history of sedimented usages to another context and transforming the musical material.  However, the improvisor is also affected—their faculties are extended to make sense of the unfamiliar territory.

The third property of improvisational space concerns what is in an improvisational space, stipulating that it does not have a well-defined edge.  An improvisational space is comprised not simply of musical material in the performance but also of its relations to various musical opportunities.  This concurs with Maldonato’s supposition that improvisation lies “between accuracy and inaccuracy; rationality and irrationality, completeness and incompleteness” (2018, 168).  “So What” is a simple tune in the form AABA.  Because it consists in two Dorian scales, rather than a series of fast chord changes, it presents a wealth of musical opportunities harmonically and melodically.  Improvisors do not need to simply spell out the chord tones of an arpeggio—they can investigate how the notes of the modal scales relate to each other.  As such, although an improvisational space is deliberately engendered and indicates certain aesthetic goals, it remains open to unexpected interjections, accidents, and mistakes.

The ill-defined edge of an improvisational space is inextricably linked to the fourth trait of improvisational space, which concerns its dynamic rather than static nature.  An extra comping chord affects the rhythmic information offered to the soloist, resulting in different melodies being performed.  As improvisation continues, more relations between musical elements can be explored.  There are safe, well-trodden routes of traversing the musical material at the centre but also riskier, obscure, and unclear musical opportunities at the periphery.  This is seen in Miles’ trumpet solo in “Flamenco Sketches”.  Moving from the C Ionian to the Ab Mixolydian scale, Miles takes increasingly large intervals that are commensurately difficult to play.  Tricky to pitch, Miles’ muted trumpet obscures the imprecise tuning.  Yet, both the use of the mute and the lead-up to the intervallic leaps warp the constellation of relations in the improvisational space.  Had some other note or phrase been played instead, some other musical opportunities would have been realised—a different improvisational space and sound organization.  As Miles plays an ascending phrase, the top note becomes increasingly expected as the climax.  Originally on the periphery of the improvisational space, it suddenly comes to the fore.  The parameters around an improvisational space are not fixed but move according to the markings of the sound organisation.

If this were a performance of classical music, Miles’ tuning would be derided as a skill error.  Despite the supposed inaccuracies, Miles never sounds out of tune.  The improvisational space functions as a safety net between music and noise.  By virtue of its indeterminate edge, an improvisational space is open to unexpected contributions and so-called errors.  These contributions are codified and interpreted by the existing material and patterns within the improvisational space.  Removed from such an improvisational space, this kind of playing would expose tuning inaccuracies.  Yet Miles’ playing engenders an improvisational space so that these inflections are heard as bluesy, introspective, and harmonically ambiguous.

Opportunity and Exercise

These five characteristics explain the dynamism of improvisation, outlining the sense in which an improvisor is authorially responsible for the sound organization.  Distinguishing between improvisational space and sound organization also illustrates how improvisations persist as artworks.  The sound organization is the constellation that points to the intersecting patterns of the improvisational space.  Once sounded, it serves as a springboard for other possibilities to be explored – a continual process of transformation of musical material that reciprocally extends the faculties of the improvisor.  While the improvisor is changed by the demands of the action, they can be held authorially responsible for the sound organization.  To explore the relationship between liberty and novelty, I turn to Taylor’s conceptions of opportunity and exercise.

Taylor (1979) expands Berlin’s separation of positive and negative liberty, cogently arguing that negative liberty is an opportunity-concept while positive liberty is an exercise concept.  To avoid the aporia of negative liberty as the absence of constraint, Taylor reimagines this as a maximization of opportunities.  With fewer restrictions, an agent has a greater number of opportunities available.  Positive liberty is described as an exercise concept, involving some sort of self-realization.  For Taylor, freedom does not stem from the absence regulations, but is founded in an individual’s ability to recognise their motivations and their capacities to execute them.

Taylor asserts that negative liberty insufficiently describes why someone is motivated towards a specific action.  He writes, “you are not free if you are motivated, through fear, inauthentically internalized standards, false consciousness, to thwart your self-realization; … you have to be able to do what you want, to follow your real will, or to fulfill the desires of your own true self” (1979, 180).  People are not typically held authorially responsible for their actions when there are mitigating circumstances.  Taylor’s point is that one does not realise what they are doing and why from a list of opportunities.

To my mind, Taylor incorrectly grounds negative liberty in the individual rather than the background of the action.  Situating opportunities in the background of the action exhibits how improvisation embraces both a positive and negative liberty.  As musical elements and patterns overlap, musical opportunities arise.  How opportunities are interpreted and realized is contingent on the musician’s abilities and education and are further delimited by what an improvisor can feasibly exercise.  However, a history of sedimented usages also direct the improvisor to execute particular phrases over others.  From the prior analysis of the first trait of improvisational space, an improvisor cultivates certain musical opportunities by the performance of a sequence they can exercise.  As the improvisation goes on and the improvisational space becomes increasingly complex, an improvisor cannot foresee what musical opportunities will arise as they exercise their faculties.  This clarifies the sense in which improvisation is open to the unexpected, and the sense in which improvisation is novel.

Describing a link between the improvisor’s activity and the musical opportunities that arise, understanding improvisational space in this way also appreciates how opportunities outstrip the performer’s control. Although Taylor argues that negative liberty does not involve self-realization, it seems that improvisation does.  Altered by the very doing of the action, improvisors learn how and why certain musical opportunities arise. However, as their habits and faculties are extended and tested, they also learn about themselves – the dynamism that Miles wanted to record.  An improvisor opens up musical opportunities, investigates what can become of their abilities, learns about patterns in musical material and in themselves, and how and why they arise.

Explicating liberty in terms of opportunity and exercise indicates the improvisor’s activity and how their contributions affect the improvisational space and the sound organization.  Having expanded this distinction with opportunity and exercise, I now turn to the ramifications for novelty by considering how the doppelganger album, Blue, relates to improvisational space.  Ordinarily, this sound-for-sound reproduction is not considered a new musical work because the concrete musical material is the same.  On this view, it is just an homage to Kind of Blue.  In their repetition, Mostly Other People do the Killing reduce the original to a composed score.  Blue is not an improvisation and, perhaps worse, has turned an improvisation into a composition.  While this poses intriguing questions about what happens to an improvisation after it is has been performed, locating the aesthetic import of an improvisation only in sound organization fails to capture the differences in its production.  This leads reviewers like Magnus (2016, 182), who is neutral on whether this is an instance of an existing musical work or a new work in its own right, to conclude that the difference between the two albums is in their aesthetic evaluation.

In 1959, the Miles Davis Sextet went into Columbia’s recording studio in New York and, with some sketches of tunes from Miles Davis, engendered an improvisational space.  The sound organization that emerged was the album, Kind of Blue.  As a constellation of musical material, it details information about the improvisational space, recording studio, aesthetic and economic attitudes towards jazz, and skills of the bandmembers.  While the sound organization is only trivially different, Kind of Blue and Blue emerge from different improvisational spaces.  Produced in another era, Mostly Other People do the Killing embraces different social and cultural norms around jazz music.  With their accuracy in replicating the original sound organization, Blue does not innovate a new musical style, but is produced out of reverence for the great jazz improvisors on Kind of Blue. 

Magnus observes that Blue comes with a booklet of Jorges Luis Borges’ famous story of Pierre Menard, an author who strives to replicate Don Quixote.  Menard’s aim is not reproduction, “but to put himself in a state of mind where he would write words that coincided with the words in Cervantes’ original” (Magnus, 2016, 180).  Here, the significance of this Taylorian explanation of improvisational space is realised.  While cultivating an improvisational space, an improvisor learns about musical material and themselves as certain musical opportunities are realized.  For the analogy to Menard, Mostly Other People do the Killing, when in the same state as the band that produced Kind of Blue, are re-learning not just their instruments but how they think about music

Producing in another era, Mostly Other People do the Killing embrace different social and cultural norms around jazz music.  By accurately replicating the original sound organization, Blue does not innovate a new musical style; it was produced to revere the great jazz improvisors on Kind of Blue.  Mostly Other People do the Killing cannot realize all the same musical opportunities as those of the Miles Davis sextet.  The goal of Blue was to examine the opportunities that arise from their predilections, and what they had to relearn and change in themselves so as to produce the same sound organization as that of Kind of Blue.  While not presenting a novel sound organization, Blue presents a novel improvisational space with a different set of opportunities.

Kania rebuts the notion that improvised performances are musical works.  This would mean having to call performances of classical music novel musical works as well.  As such, “In classical music, performances are precisely distinguished from the works they are of” (2011, 398).  The reasoning cannot be faulted here. The notion of improvisational space is useful because it demonstrates the relationship between action and artwork.  Knowing the sound organization in advance, it is unlikely that Blue was spontaneously improvised, but its improvisational space is one in which the performers were trying to unlearn their skills and relearn those of the Miles Davis sextet.  Such doppelganger scenarios illustrate how improvisations exist as musical works, both as the sound organization and as the dynamic interplay between opportunity and exercise in an improvisational space.  This relationship explains how, once performed, an improvisor can launch into other improvisations.

Calling a tune and drawing particular musical material together delimits musical opportunities and creates an improvisational space.  While this closes certain avenues, how an improvisor exercises their faculties will beget other opportunities.  In this way, improvisors learn about musical material and themselves.  While an improvisor cannot have concrete ideas about the sound organization, they are nonetheless responsible for it because of how they cultivate the improvisational space.  Improvisational space thus describes a relation between action and artwork.  With this distinction, novelty in improvisation is either in the sound organization or the constellation of opportunities that make up the improvisational space – these same opportunities indicating how it is then used as a platform for further improvisation.

References

Burke, Robert, and Onsman, Andrys, Experimentation in Improvised Jazz: Chasing Ideas (Milton: Routledge, 2018).

Gallagher, Shaun, ‘Surprise! Why enactivism and predictive processing are parting ways: The case of improvisation’, Possibility Studies and Society (2022) 0:0, 1-10.

Kania, Andrew, ‘All Play and No Work: An Ontology of Jazz’, The Journal for Aesthetics and Art Criticism (2011) 69:4, 391-403.

Lewis, Eric, Intents and Purposes, Philosophy and Aesthetics of Improvisation (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2019).

Magnus, P.D., ‘Kind of Borrowed Kind of Blue’, The Journal for Aesthetics and Art Criticism (2016) 74:2, 179-185.

Maldonato, M. ‘Improvisation: The Astonishing Bridge to Our Inner Music’, World Futures (2018) 74:3, 158-74.

Peters, Gary, Improvising Improvisation: From Out of Philosophy, Music, Dance, and Literature (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2017).

Taylor, Charles, ‘What’s Wrong with Negative Liberty’, In Alan Ryan (ed.), The Idea of Freedom: Essays in Honour of Isaiah Berlin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), 175-93.

INTERVIEWS

Looking Backward and Forward: Reflecting on 30 Years of Pragmatist Aesthetics

Interview with Richard Shusterman, conducted by T.J. Bonnet

While I was searching for PhD programs that might allow for studying American Pragmatist philosophy and aesthetics, but with a comparative edge that would encourage me to bring in potentially anything I wanted into the conversation, it was recommended to me that Richard Shusterman may be the best person to study with. That recommendation was profoundly correct. The impact of Richard Shusterman’s aesthetic and philosophical writings has proven to be substantial and influential. His articulation of a distinctly pragmatist form of aesthetics with a focus on embodied subjectivity, alongside the emergence of the multidisciplinary project of somaesthetics, announced his work to be the next great innovation in pragmatist philosophy. Pragmatism is considered an original philosophy unique to the United States. It was first formulated by Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) as a method to clarify statements by looking at their practical consequences. William James (1842-1910) broadened Peirce’s analytical approach into a general philosophical attitude which looked to the ‘cash value’ of philosophy, demonstrating an overriding concern with practical action and the consequences and influences of our ideas. Finally, John Dewey (1859-1952) further expanded on the pragmatism of Peirce and James. Importantly, Dewey produced the first articulation of a pragmatist theory of aesthetics, Art as Experience, in 1934 (though he hesitated to call his theory ‘pragmatist’ for fear of misunderstanding). Shusterman will explain the influence of this work on his own thinking below, along with the personal input of another pragmatist philosopher, Richard Rorty (1931-2007).

This interview depicts how Shusterman came to formulate the ideas in his second book, Pragmatist Aesthetics, and how it looks forward to his work in somaesthetics. Somaesthetics is an original field of research which Shusterman often defines as ‘the critical, meliorative study of the experience and use of one’s body as a locus of sensory-aesthetic appreciation (aisthesis) and creative self-fashioning. It is, therefore, also devoted to the knowledge, discourses, practices, and bodily disciplines that structure such somatic care or can improve it’ (2000, p. 267). While somaesthetics proper is a somewhat ancillary topic in this interview, the discussion covers core ideas that constitute the fundamental approach of somaesthetics, including philosophy as a way of life, the continuity between art and living, pluralism, and meliorism.

This interview with Shusterman, it turns out, was timely, coinciding with the Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design’s conference celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of Pragmatist Aesthetics’ (1992) initial publication. For the reader unfamiliar with Shusterman’s aesthetics, this interview will serve as an introduction to these ideas and how they mesh with his more recent projects. For those familiar with Shusterman’s work, this interview will, hopefully, allow for discovering at least some clarifications, expansions, or anecdotes previously unknown.

T.J. B: Previous interviewers have focused on your work in inaugurating the multi-disciplinary field of somaesthetics, the study of the lived body, or what you call the soma. But somaesthetics is predicated on the philosophical work you’ve done with pragmatist aesthetics, beginning with your book, Pragmatist Aesthetics (2000, originally published 1992), which celebrated its thirtieth anniversary this year with a four-day conference at the MOME, the arts and design university of Budapest. The subtitle for that book is Living Beauty, Rethinking Art. I understand this subtitle was originally your main title for the book. What were you trying to express with that title, and how did you settle on Pragmatist Aesthetics as the main title?

RS: You are right that my project of somaesthetics derived from my work in Pragmatist Aesthetics. It seemed to me a necessary consequence of key ideas in that book, which argued that the soma or lived, sentient, purposive body (with its multiple and transmodal sensorimotor capacities) is essential to the experience both of making and appreciating art and other aesthetic objects. If we want to improve these forms of aesthetic experience that depend on the soma, one way to do so is to improve our somatic knowledge and skills by improving our somatic awareness. Hence, somaesthetics as a field of study. However, there was also another, though somewhat related, philosophical topic of my research that made somaesthetics seem important to me. This was my research on philosophy as an art of living that I treated in Practicing Philosophy: Pragmatism and the Philosophical Life (1997). Here again, the turn to somaesthetics seemed a natural consequence. Since one lives one’s life through one’s body, one can live it better (ceteris paribus) through better bodily skills and somatic awareness. This interest in philosophy as an aesthetic way of life (that I absorbed from philosophers as different as Kierkegaard, G.E. Moore, and Michel Foucault) was already present in Pragmatist Aesthetics, which is why the original title was Living Beauty, Rethinking Art: A Pragmatist Aesthetics, thus signalling that beauty was something to be lived – not just observed in museums –  and that art and aesthetics should be reconceived more broadly to include the arts of living (fashion, culinary arts, ars erotica etc.).

My Blackwell editor, Stephan Chambers, however, suggested I reverse the titles. Through his shrewd marketing instincts and superior publishing knowledge, he convinced me that the main title I proposed, though attractively evocative, was far too vague to function successfully in the system of categories and cross-listings through which the book would be principally marketed, whereas the title ‘Pragmatist Aesthetics’ instead defined a recognizable yet intriguingly new philosophical genre derived from the established fields of pragmatism and aesthetics. Moreover, a generic title like ‘Pragmatist Aesthetics’ could build on the success of my recent Blackwell book Analytic Aesthetics (1989) by implying the existence of an exciting alternative that could challenge analytic philosophy of art and thus enrich aesthetics. I believe he was right, not only because of the title’s efficiency for book catalogues of that time but also, presciently and now primarily for today’s internet search engines (the likes of which did not exist in 1992). In any case, the book has done well with this title, but in some other languages, it also did well without it. The book appeared simultaneously in French (published by Minuit) with the title L’art à l’état vif: la pensée pragmatiste et l’esthétique Populaire (2018), and in German it appeared as Kunst Leben (1994), but most of the book’s 14 translations have ‘Pragmatist Aesthetics’ as the main title.

T.J. B: The first thing you do in the book is distinguish pragmatist aesthetics (primarily represented by John Dewey) from analytic aesthetics. You came from a background in analytic aesthetics. In general, what convinced you to back the aesthetics of Dewey, and how do you broadly characterize his aesthetic philosophy?

RS: What brought me to pragmatism, initially, was not Dewey but neopragmatist philosophy of language and interpretation in the writings of Richard Rorty and Joseph Margolis.[1] Interpretation was a key topic in my work in analytic aesthetics and literary theory, beginning with ‘The Logic of Interpretation’ (1978), which I published as a graduate student at Oxford. My interest in Dewey and his experience-focused theories came only in the late 1980s when, having moved to Philadelphia’s Temple University (situated in the midst of a North Philly ghetto), I became fascinated with hip-hop culture and the democratic potential of popular art, as well as becoming more appreciative of the liberational somatic pleasures of dance. I found analytic aesthetics at that time too elitist and detached from the political and the embodied. I liked the democratic, experiential, embodied dimensions of Dewey’s aesthetics. I did not like his style of argument, which I felt lacked the tightness and focus of analytic philosophy, and I found his views lacking on issues of interpretation, compared to what I found in neopragmatism (Rorty, Margolis, Stanley Fish) and analytic philosophy.

T.J. B: One central quality in Dewey that sticks out to me is what you call the ‘continuity thesis.’ Can you explain what that is?

RS: The key idea of continuity for Dewey’s (2008, p. 16) aesthetics is that we should appreciate not only the difference but also the continuity between the aesthetic experience of the arts and ordinary experiences of life, or as he puts it, ‘the continuity of esthetic experience with normal processes of living’. Aesthetic understanding must not forget that the roots of art and beauty lie in the ‘basic vital functions,’ ‘the biological commonplaces’ that man shares with ‘bird and beast.’ In buttressing this continuity of art and life, Dewey insists on the underlying continuity between a whole series of binary notions, whose long-assumed oppositional contrast has structured so much of aesthetics and philosophy more generally. In aesthetics: the fine arts versus the applied or practical arts, the high versus the popular arts, the spatial versus the temporal arts, the aesthetic in contrast both to the cognitive and to the practical, artists who create art versus the ‘ordinary’ people who appreciate art. With respect to philosophical binaries, more generally, Dewey argues for continuity between the alleged dichotomies of body and mind, material and ideal, thought and feeling, form and substance, culture and nature, self and world, subject and object, means and ends.

The idea of continuity is likewise important to other pragmatists. For example, Dewey’s key concept of aesthetic experience, I have argued, draws heavily on William James’ arguments for the unity of consciousness and the presence of continuities in experiences that appear to be unconnected, such as the sudden roar of thunder breaking the continuity of silence. For C.S. Peirce, the acknowledged founder of pragmatism, continuity was a key ontological principle, which he called synechism.[2]

T.J. B: And this connects to your critique of what you call the ‘wrapper’ model for a definition of art, correct?

RS: It can, in a way, be connected. My aim was to critique the then-current analytic obsession with trying to define art in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions that would precisely capture all but only objects that people consider art. That definitional goal was perfect coverage of art’s extension but without clarifying why art is valued and how we can improve our understanding and experience of art. The point of my critically describing such attempts as ‘wrapper definitions’ was to suggest that, like food wraps, which simply present, contain, and conserve their object, these definitions do not really deepen our appreciation of art or improve art’s practice. The meliorative, transformational aims of pragmatist aesthetics could not be satisfied with purely wrapper definitions.

T.J. B: The concern with continuity makes it seem that pragmatist aesthetics is dedicated to unity instead of difference.

RS: That would be drawing a wrong conclusion, false to my pragmatist pluralism. Dewey’s one-sided dedication to extreme unity in aesthetic experience (namely, not only unity as coherence but unity of wholeness or completion) is one of the key places where I find his aesthetic theory flawed and his artistic sensibilities limited. He produced his masterpiece, Art as Experience (2008; originally published 1934), after the emergence of cubism, surrealism, and Dada, but pays no attention to them or their aesthetics of disunity, division, or shock. One reason I insisted on devoting a long chapter to rap music was to celebrate its aesthetics of sampling and fragmentation. For me, unity and difference are both important; indeed, they are conceptually related. Any meaningful aesthetic unity is a unity involving difference, a unification of different elements. Beauty itself has often been characterized as unity in variety. Unity and difference constitute an essential complementarity, something like night and day. Chapter 3 of Pragmatist Aesthetics, ‘Organic Unity: Analysis and Deconstruction’, focuses on this issue of unity and difference, relationality and individuality, by analysing the antithetical views of analytic philosophy and Hegelian-Nietzschean deconstruction before proposing a mediating pragmatist approach that recognizes both unity and difference, relations and individuals, as co-originary.

T.J. B: I’d like us to turn to interpretation, another area in aesthetics you’ve devoted a lot of thought and writing to. What is your pragmatist position regarding the interpretation of artworks? What’s the goal of the interpretation?

RS: My pragmatist position on interpretation is pluralist, and I maintained a pragmatic pluralism regarding interpretation already as a young analytic philosopher, indeed as a graduate student. My very first essay on that topic, ‘The Logic of Interpretation’ (1978), which I mentioned earlier and which was nourished by my readings of Wittgenstein, Austin, and a host of literary critics (Samuel Johnson, Joseph Addison, Walter Pater, T.S. Eliot, F.R. Leavis), argued that there was no single valid logic of interpretation. Instead, there were a number of different language games of interpretation, having different logics, employing different forms of reasoning, involving different contexts and traditions, and pursuing different interpretive aims, not all of which were focused on truth or knowledge. Some practices instead privileged aesthetic enhancement or maximizing meaning, emotive force, or pleasure. I later rearticulated this position while responding to various critiques of my interpretive theory in a chapter of my book Surface and Depth (2002) that I titled ‘Logics of Interpretation’ in order to highlight its pluralist message. So, to answer your question about the goal of interpretation, my view is that if one looks closely at the history of interpretive practice in literary and art criticism, one sees more than one goal implicit in the conventional idea that the goal of interpretation is the meaning of the work. One can immediately ask whether this meaning is the author’s intended meaning (and at what stage in or after her composition of the work) or is it the (possibly changing) meaning of the poem’s words or perhaps the meaning the work has for the reader or the meaning endorsed by the consensus of an interpretive community. Moreover, I also caution against viewing an artwork’s meaning as a sort of object already existing somewhere, fixed and ready to be revealed. Instead, I would follow the Wittgenstein idea that meaning is simply the correlate of understanding the work; therefore, it is better to describe interpretation as making sense of the work so that it is properly understood rather than as revealing the work’s ‘true’ meaning. I elaborate the details of this pragmatist theory of interpretation in chapter 4 of Pragmatist Aesthetics, while chapter 5 of that book argues for the importance of understandings beneath the level of interpretation. Such understandings guide interpretive practice but also, more broadly, guide our everyday perception and conduct of life. Some of these understandings that exist beneath the level of explicit interpreting are nondiscursive understandings. I focus on the importance of these noninterpretive and nondiscursive experiences in a French-language book significantly titled Sous l’interprétation (1994). The existence and role of such understandings helped bring me to a greater appreciation of immediate, non-reflective somatic understandings that then led me to somaesthetics, which recognizes not only the crucial role of non-reflective somatic consciousness and action but also the value of critical somatic reflection.

T.J. B: What we have been talking about is getting us to perhaps the part of your work that has received the most criticism, which is your defence of popular art and specific forms of music like rap, rock’n’roll and country musicals. Why does popular art need to be defended?

RS: To be frank and blunt, I don’t think that today it needs a defence. But the situation was different in the late 1980s when I began working on the aesthetics of popular music, particularly hip-hop. Rap music was then associated with criminality, was not eligible for Grammy consideration, and was under various forms of surveillance and repression. In 1991, when I first published ‘Form and Funk: The Aesthetic Challenge of Popular Art’ and ‘The Fine Art of Rap’, I had to face the very influential and vehement arguments against the aesthetic validity of popular art or even against the very idea of a popular aesthetic; such arguments dominated academic discourse. The arguments articulated by Adorno and Horkheimer[3] from critical theory, and Pierre Bourdieu from social theory held sway in progressive philosophical circles, while conservative elitist thinkers like Alan Bloom similarly denigrated popular art (particularly popular music).

I’m very happy that today’s young scholars and students do not remember those times when popular art and everyday aesthetics were not welcome in academic seminars and scholarly publications. At that time, popular art needed a defence of its aesthetic potential, and it is important to recall here that my defence of popular art has always been a melioristic rather than an exonerating one. It recognizes popular art’s flaws and abuses, but also its merits and potential. The meliorist position holds that popular art should be improved because it leaves much to be desired, but that it can be improved because it can and often does achieve real aesthetic merit and serve worthy social goals. Moreover, meliorism insists that if popular art is simply dismissed as unworthy of aesthetic nurturing, it will be more vulnerable to degeneracy and exploitation by the crudest market forces. This meliorism means that popular art deserves serious critical study to expose its flaws as well as its merits. Thanks to the progressive democratization of the academy, the battle for popular art’s legitimacy has been won, and there is now considerable critical aesthetic attention devoted to popular art. Pragmatist Aesthetics was an early contributor to that winning battle, and that victory is one reason why, after Performing Live (2000), I’ve not written much about popular art. I still believe it needs critical attention, but there are many people doing that, so I’ve turned my attention to other aesthetic topics beyond the fine arts, such as somaesthetics, fashion, gastronomy, and ars erotica. There is an understandable tendency to associate these practices with the popular arts because they are obviously not part of the traditional pantheon of high art or fine art, even though some forms of these practices display aspects of elitist refinement that seem remote from the popular when that term is construed in terms of ‘the common’ or ‘the ordinary.’[4] I have noted in my work the vagueness and ambiguity of the term ‘popular’, but there was no good way to avoid using it in debates about popular culture.

T.J. B: I think it’s safe to say you’re interested in pushing aesthetics into new and even controversial areas. In 2021, you published a well-researched book on the arts of sex called Ars Erotica: Sex and Somaesthetics in the Classical Arts of Love. Do you see your defence of the aesthetic value of ars erotica to be continuous with your work with popular art?

RS: My aim in philosophical writing, including aesthetics, is to be helpful and honest, not to be controversial or provocative. But some ways of trying to be helpful and honest can result in controversy. One way of being helpful is to explore topics that have been largely neglected, but that seem likely to reward more attention. One way to be honest is to write about what one existentially cares about. When I began exploring the aesthetics of rap music, it was a neglected topic that I also cared about. I was deeply absorbed in listening to the music and discussing it with other fans; I went to rap concerts and even had a column in a North Philly rap fanzine, where I bore the moniker of ‘Rich Frosted.’ When I began to work on somaesthetics, the body was a largely neglected topic in Anglo-American philosophy. Analytic philosophy’s linguistic turn resulted in a disregard for nondiscursive experience, while contemporary pragmatism’s most influential philosopher, Richard Rorty, rejected the nonlinguistic as totally irrelevant and detrimental to philosophy. So, the project of somaesthetics was designed to explore how attention to somatic experience can be useful for philosophy, and especially useful when one considers philosophy as more than a collection of texts but rather as an art of living. I should add that my turn from analytic to pragmatist aesthetics can also be explained as partly deriving from the same aim of being helpful by treating a relatively neglected topic or orientation. In the 1980s, analytic aesthetics was blessed with a host of distinguished senior philosophers: Danto and Goodman, Beardsley and Dickie, Scruton, Urmson, and Margolis. In addition, there was a cohort of very talented younger figures, such as Walton, Carroll, and Levinson, slightly older than I was. The aesthetics of pragmatism, on the other hand, was largely neglected. Dewey’s aesthetics (which he adamantly refused to consider pragmatist) had been eclipsed as old-fashioned, and so pragmatism needed a contemporary aesthetic theory that was not afraid to call itself pragmatist aesthetics.

To return to the book referenced in your question, my philosophical exploration of ars erotica similarly sought to be helpful by exploring a subject whose aesthetic dimensions philosophy has traditionally ignored. Roger Scruton’s instructive book on Sexual Desire (1987) might seem a rare contemporary exception, but it focuses more on the moral dimension of sex and deploys analytic methodology, whereas my ars erotica is genealogical in its approach and pragmatist in orientation. When I began thinking philosophically about ars erotica (because it was an obvious topic for somaesthetic inquiry), I was surprised and disappointed that the pragmatist tradition completely neglected it. This was especially disappointing because pragmatism, with its Darwinian background, melioristic thrust, and concern for the practical problems of men and women, has every reason to treat the topic of sex in a substantive and detailed way. After writing Ars Erotica, I explained the reasons for pragmatism’s neglect of this topic in an article on ‘Pragmatism and Sex: An Unfulfilled Connection’ (2021).

To answer, finally, your question. In one way, my work on the aesthetics of ars erotica is continuous with my defence of the aesthetic value of popular art: in both cases, there is an attempt to explore and thus redeem the aesthetic value of practices whose aesthetic dimension has been denied or dismissed. However, in another way, the treatment of ars erotica in my book is discontinuous with popular culture because the texts I study in that book belong essentially to upper-class culture. These texts, stretching from ancient Greece to the Renaissance, were written by and for the elite of those patriarchal cultures, which essentially meant they were written by upper-class, cultured men and for the pleasure and power of other such privileged men. Sexism and misogyny are rampant in these texts (implicitly when not explicitly). This meant that much of the book’s labour involves exploring what aspects of (and to what extent) those aesthetic erotic theories and practices are nonetheless ethically acceptable and perhaps even potentially ennobling so that the power of desiring love (i.e. eros) could perhaps serve us today as a positive engine for ethical and aesthetic fulfilment through pleasurable, meaningful interpersonal and social harmony. A study of the influential past errors and oppressive misdirections in the history of the aesthetics of erotic love might also be helpful in navigating the uncertain, turbulent waters of sexual relations in contemporary culture with its promising openness to pluralism and transformation in gender identity.[5]

Through this interview, we have been able to touch on a handful of key ideas in Pragmatist Aesthetics, its continuities with Shusterman’s earlier work in analytic philosophy, and what would become his subsequent projects. Shusterman’s always lucid and detailed answers to my questions are productive. I deliberately feigned the false idea that his pragmatist aesthetics insists one-sidedly on unity  in order to elicit his firm response that ‘[u]nity and difference constitute an essential complementarity, something like night and day.’ That false conclusion and the charge of hedonism have been recurring misconceptions in the scholarly literature about his pragmatist aesthetics generally.[6] In addition, questions I assumed would get modest and direct responses were expanded on by Shusterman in ways unexpected, yet perfectly fitting. My indifferent use of the word ‘controversial’ in my last question led to a few remarks on how Shusterman does his philosophical writing, namely ‘to be helpful and honest, not to be controversial or provocative.’[7] But, as he says, sometimes, despite one’s intentions, crossing boundaries strikes others as provocation. Clearly, however, Shusterman’s way is not that of the provocateur or contrarian. Instead, it is ‘nomadic’, as a French interviewer titled him (Droit 2007). Even in this brief interview, that nomadic quality can be found in how we’ve, indeed, looked backward and forward from Pragmatist Aesthetics. [8]

References

Bonnet, T.J. ‘Addressing Common Misunderstandings of Somaesthetics.’ Contemporary Pragmatism 20, no. 4 (November 24, 2023): 378–97. https://doi.org/10.1163/18758185-bja10075.

Dewey, John, Art as Experience (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2008).

Droit, Roger-Pol, ‘Richard Shusterman: Philosophe Nomade’, Le Point, (2007) 13 December 88-89.

Marino, Stefano, Esperienza estetica e arti popolari: Prospettive somaesthetitiche sulla teoriae la pratica (Milan: Mimesis, 2023).

Peirce, Charles S, ‘The Law of Mind’, In Nathan Houser and Christian Kloesel (ed.), The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writing (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, (1992), Vol, 1. 312-333.

———, The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce. 8 vols. Vols. 1–6 (eds.), Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss. Vols. 7–8 (ed.), Arthur W. Burks (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), Referred to as CP.

Scruton, Roger, Sexual Desire: A Philosophical Investigation (New York: Continuum, 2006).

Shusterman, Richard, (ed.), Analytic Aesthetics (New York: Blackwell, 1989).

———, Ars Erotica: Sex and Somaesthetics in the Classical Arts of Love (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021).

———, ‘Form And Funk: The Aesthetic Challenge Of Popular Art’, The British Journal of Aesthetics (1991) 31:3, 203–13.

———, Kunst Leben: die Ästhetik des Pragmatismus, transl. Barbara Reiter, (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer-Taschenbuch-Verl, 1994).

———, L’art à l’état vif: la pensée pragmatiste & l’esthétique populaire, transl. Christine Noille-Clauzade, (Paris: Éditions de l’Éclat, 2018).

———, Performing Live: Aesthetic Alternatives for the Ends of Art (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000).

———, Philosophy and the Art of Writing (London: Routledge, 2022).

———, Practicing Philosophy: Pragmatism and the Philosophical Life (New York: Routledge, 1997).

———, ‘Pragmatism and Interpretation: Radical, Relativistic, but Not Unruly’, Contemporary Pragmatism (2022) 19:2, 91–112.

———, ‘Pragmatism and Sex: An Unfulfilled Connection’, Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society (2021) 57:1, 1–31.

———, ‘Pragmatist Aesthetics and Critical Theory: A Personal Perspective on a Continuing Dialogue’, Scenari (2022) 16, 197–217.

———, Pragmatist Aesthetics: Living Beauty, Rethinking Art (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000).

———, ‘Pragmatist Philosophy for Our Times: Reviewing Rorty’s Legacy’, Society (2022) 59:5, 583–90.

———, ‘Self-Transformation as Trans-formation: Rilke on Gender in the Art of Living’, Journal of Somaesthetics(2023) 9:1/2, 46-57.

———, Sous l’interprétation, transl. Jean-Pierre Cometti, (Combas: Éditions de l’Éclat, 1994).

———, Surface and Depth: Dialectics of Criticism and Culture (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002).

———, ‘The Fine Art of Rap’, New Literary History (1991) 22:3, 613–32.

———, ‘The Logic of Interpretation’, The Philosophical Quarterly (1978) 28:113, 310–24.

[1] Shusterman recently published two papers reflecting on his engagements with Rorty and Margolis. See ‘Pragmatist Philosophy for Our Times: Reviewing Rorty’s Legacy’ (2022) and ‘Pragmatism and Interpretation: Radical, Relativistic, but not Unruly’ (2022).

[2] Peirce explains this concept in his paper ‘The Law of Mind’ (1992). Also found in CP 6: 102-63.

[3] For more on Shusterman’s engagements with critical theory, see ‘Pragmatist Aesthetics and Critical Theory: A Personal Perspective on a Continuing Dialogue’ (2022).

[4] An Italian collection of Shusterman’s essays, edited by Stefano Marino, bears the title Esperienza estetica e arti popolari: Prospettive somaesthetitiche sulla teoriae la pratica (2023).

[5] Shusterman’s Ars Erotica was the focus of two substantial print symposia. The first was in Foucault Studies, 31 (December 2021) and the second in the philosophical journal Eidos. (Volume 5: No. 4/2021). The full collection of these two sets of papers, including Shusterman’s responses, can be accessed, respectively, at https://rauli.cbs.dk/index.php/foucault-studies/issue/view/845 and https://eidos.uw.edu.pl/issue-4-2021/.  In a recent paper, Shusterman uses the poetry and prose of Rilke to explore the aesthetics of sex and transgender identity. See ‘Self-Transformation as Trans-formation: Rilke on Gender in the Art of Living’ (2023).

[6] See the ‘Introduction to the Second Edition’ in Pragmatist Aesthetics. I address these and other related misunderstandings in my article, ‘Addressing Common Misunderstandings of Somaesthetics’ (2023).

[7] Shusterman’s latest book, Philosophy and the Art of Writing (2022), contains more information on philosophy and writing.

[8] Readers interested in more information on Shusterman’s work should feel free to email the interviewer and explore Shusterman’s Humanities Chair webpage (https://www.fau.edu/artsandletters/humanitieschair/) and the announcements and conferences from the Center for Body, Mind, and Culture (https://www.fau.edu/artsandletters/bodymindculture/). Both of these websites are frequently updated by myself and my colleague Megan Spring.

Cruelty and Humour

Noël Carroll and Valery Vino in Conversation

Philosophical discussions about humour go back to ancient aesthetics, to laughing Democritus and the aporia of Socratic self-irony, to Diogenes the Dog performing tricks on the streets of Athens, and to the lost second book of Aristotle’s Poetics. Dramatized in texts and the arts, the comic emerges not only in popular literature and public events, like Dionysia and Saturnalia, but also in the lives of eminent philosophers in antiquity, the Renaissance, and today. Recently, humour has seen a resurgence in aesthetics, in part owing to the titanic efforts of Noël Carroll. Desiring to learn first-hand about the risky aspects of philosophical wit, Valery Vino invited Noël to engage with a series of remarks and anecdotes borrowed from dead authors, led by Michel de Montaigne, about the nexus between humour and cruelty. In what follows, we consider why humans laugh (sometimes at themselves), what social function cruel humour plays, why a callous sense of humour may be of benefit in the face of life’s horrors, and whether we can hold each other morally culpable for vicious jokes.

Valery: Our dear guest is Noël Carroll, and we are discussing cruelty and humour.

Noël: Thank you for the invitation. I feel honoured.

V: We begin by paying homage to the tradition of humour in philosophy. Michel de Montaigne created Essays(1965 [1580-1592]) while the Renaissance had already been out of shape, in a time of early colonialism and capitalism, the wars of religion, plagues, and famine. In the essay “Of Democritus and Heraclitus”, Montaigne (1965, 303) entertains the philosopher’s appropriate attitude to our ordeals and folly:

Democritus and Heraclitus were two philosophers, of whom the first, finding the condition of man vain and ridiculous, never went out in public, but with a mocking and laughing countenance. Heraclitus, having pity and compassion on this same condition of ours, appeared always with a sorrowful look, his eyes full of tears.[1]

I am wondering if you feel an affinity with Democritus, Noël, or perhaps Heraclitus, or both, or neither?

N: A very interesting question. Well, one thing that Montaigne seems to be getting at is that humour is a coping mechanism (Carroll, 2016), a naturally endowed capacity to enable us to endure the hardships that existence bequeaths us – what Hamlet calls, the slings and arrows that flesh is heir to. We can see that confirmed in our everyday life; think of the jokes told regularly by people confronted with desperate situations – emergency workers, ambulance drivers, the police, firemen, soldiers, doctors, especially surgeons – people who use humour to dehumanize the people they are helping because they need to short-circuit empathy in order to get the job done. If they are going to cut a patient open with a knife, empathy is apt to get in the way. So, they try to detach themselves from the situation and benumb their humane feelings with laughter.

V: I must add politicians to the list—for example, Alexey Navalny’s prison tweets.

N: Humour is a kind of emotional armour—‘functional callousness’ you could call it—and in that sense, it is or involves a kind of cruelty. Human cruelty against nature’s cruelty. Of course, Aristotle says that we not only naturally laugh, but nature has made it such that we are creatures to be laughed at (1999, 65; 2004, 69). And this observation acknowledges the complexity of the situation. The cruelty that human existence entails is not only a product of nature, but also of other humans; the cruelty of humour itself is an ineliminable feature of the nature of humour.

In Aristotle’s theory of comedy, for example, the objects of comedy are people who fail to live up to the norm—comic butts who are not as smart, not as graceful, and not as strong as they think they are (Poetics, §5). In this context, ridicule, laughter, or cruel humour serve as a corrective, a social means of getting people to abide by the norm. To avoid abusive laughter, we strive to conform.

This idea in Aristotle, and also in Plato (e.g., in Philebus, 1906, 156), is the origin of what is sometimes called superiority theories of humour: theories that argue that humour is about applauding ourselves for being superior to others. We abide by the norm while others fall below it, thereby becoming the objects of ridicule. Hobbes (1914 [1651], 27) maybe most succinctly, states that all laughter is a matter of the sudden glory that we feel when we compare ourselves to others, or even to ourselves at an earlier date. Sometimes, we laugh at the dumb things we have done from the perspective of the present, where we think of our current selves as superior to our fallible past selves.

This idea is recurrent through comic theory. For example, Bergson (1914, 5) talks about humour as a corrective, one whose application requires a certain anaesthesia of the heart. Again, this brings us back to the notion that humour requires neutralizing ordinary empathy or sympathy. Think of slapstick comedy, where we laugh when someone slips on a banana peel as a result of not paying attention to what he is doing. We laugh at him for the embarrassing situation that he has gotten himself into by not looking where he is going, as the enshrined cliché recommends.

Again, this laughter, for Bergson, has a social function; it is a behavioural corrective. What does that mean? Well, many of the mistakes—the objects of our laughter—are comic butts who, as a matter of their absentmindedness, inattentiveness, or inelasticity of thought, get themselves in absurd situations. For example, they get stuck in their routines. This gets them into trouble. Think of the unobservant ditch digger who automatically continues to shovel dirt over his shoulder into a wheelbarrow that is no longer there. We greet him with cruel laughter rather than sympathy because it is his own fault. Our mirth, at his expense, is designed to make him behave in the attentive, elastic, and context-sensitive way that human nature demands.

V: In the words of Bergson himself:

Doubtless a fall is always a fall. But it is one thing to tumble into a well, because you were looking anywhere, but in front of you, and it is another thing to fall into it, because you were intent upon a star. It was certainly a star that Don Quixote was gazing. (1914, 13)

N: That sort of absentmindedness is what Bergson thinks humour corrects. So, there is a way that cruelty operates in terms of ridicule—in terms of laughing-at—that is an element or ingredient of an essential feature of humour and amusement.

These superiority theories apply to a lot of cases, but as is typical of philosophical theories, they are not as general as they would like to be. A lot of humour does not seem to be about superiority. Many comedians specialize in humour at their own expense. And much humour is harmless, such as the puns that we make that do not appear to show us to be lording our superiority over other people.

Nevertheless, maybe there is a grain of truth in these superiority theories. Maybe that grain of truth is exemplified by ordinary jokes. Ordinary jokes are like practical jokes (Carroll, 2021).

To see what I mean, let me tell a joke.

There’s a line up to the podium, St. Peter’s podium in heaven—it’s a long line. And there’s a doctor way back in the line. He runs up to St. Peter and says, “Look, I’m a doctor, I was an important person, I should be given an advanced place in this line.” St. Peter says, “No, no, no. Heaven is democratic; you have to take the place back in line.” Half an hour later, a big black car pulls up, and a man gets out holding one of those black bags that doctors carry. He walks up to the podium, winks at St. Peter, St. Peter winks back at him, and the man from the black car walks through the pearly gates. The doctor, way back in the line, sees this, runs forward, and says to Peter, “Hey, I’m a doctor, too! You let that doctor in; let me in.” But St. Peter says, “That was not a doctor. That’s God, He just thinks he’s a doctor.”

V: … It’s like a rendering of “Julius Excluded from Heaven” by Erasmus.

N: Notice that the joke made a kind of sense, but it is really nonsense. You, the listener, have been tricked into accepting as an explanation of the situation something that is utterly absurd. In this way, the listener is always the butt of a joke. And that may be the grain of truth in the superiority theory, supplying some evidence that a kind of calculated trick—a kind of cold-heartedness—at the expense of the listener is a regular or recurring feature of everyday humour.

V: Now, if you don’t mind, we return to Montaigne. On closer inspection, the figures of Democritus and Heraclitus represent different worldviews, the comic and the tragic, intimately linked through our contradictory history. Let me assume that many may find the laughing countenance of Democritus to be counterintuitive, and yet Montaigne is taken by it:

I prefer the first temperament [of Democritus] not because it is more pleasant to laugh than to weep, but because it is more disdainful, and condemns us more than the other. And it seems to me that we can never be sufficiently despised according to our true merit. Pity and compassion are mingled with some esteem and value for the thing we bemoan. The things that are laughed at, are considered to be of no worth. (1965, 303)

To be sure, the world of the ancient Greeks, of Montaigne and Bergson—our world is home to much futile suffering that philosophers, traditionally, are to alleviate. Hence, any thinker who is in a position to take this bizarre, bittersweet pleasure in global misery may come across as cruel or callous, as you have it. One contemporary example of this attitude is George Carlin:

I see it from a distance, I give myself a divorce. George, emotionally, you have no stake in this. You don’t care one way or another – have fun.

You know what, I say it this way, when you’re born in this world, you’re given a ticket to the freak show. When you are born in America, you’re given a front row seat.[2]

And if there is a grain of truth in this punchline, then, here in Australia, we get to see the show on a balcony.

N: It is true that Montaigne is advocating a position which, even if we don’t call it cruel, we can call it callous or defensively callous. We can see that there is a necessary place for that in life. If we were to contemplate all of the potential trouble—all of the possible sources of sorrow in the world—it would be impossible to move. If we were totally open to not only the misery in our neighbourhood and country but in every country in the world, we would be paralysed. No one would be capable of taking in all of it. Anyone who tried would be completely so overwhelmed that they would not be able to do anything helpful in assuaging it. In order to go on, you need a comic attitude; you need a kind of callousness in order to armour yourself, if only to be able to sympathise with some of those people who have been laid low by suffering. In order to be a person who has compassion, maybe a certain degree of callousness—oddly enough—is required.

You can think of Montaigne as an eminently reasonable, realistic person who is trying to propose the truism that some degree of compassion calls forth a proportionate measure of callousness.

Of course, there is a place for the recognition of tragedy in life. Think of an end of Oedipus Rex, which says, “Call no man happy, until he is dead.” We all have to realize that fate can cut us down at any moment. That’s a terrifying fact of life. Though we forget it during our everyday activities, we need to be reminded of it by things like tragedy. But to get through the day, we need comedy, however callous, to help hold the terror of existence at bay.

V: It is the German language that has a special word to designate that biting pleasure, Schadenfreude, taking delight in the misfortunes of people or the world.

N: There is a wonderful Slavic joke that exemplifies this. A genie appears to a peasant farmer and says, “I’ll give you whatever you wish for, but I should tell you now, whatever I give you, I’m going to give your neighbour twice over.” The man thinks for a second and says, “Blind me in one eye.”

V: … The social and ontological roots of laughter are central to our conversation, and it seems respectful to give voice to Friedrich Nietzsche. In The Will to Power (1975, 56), the author of golden laughter returns to Aristotle:

Perhaps I know best why a human being alone laughs: he alone suffers so deeply, that he had to invent laughter. The unhappiest and most melancholy animal is, as fitting, the most cheerful.

N: Nietzsche was initially very influenced by Schopenhauer, who thought that all human existence was a matter of pain and suffering. Schopenhauer recommended several ways to deal with the pain of life. One was to become an ascetic, which is really beyond most of us. So, he advocated that we pursue aesthetic experience, which would at least give us momentary relief or escape from the troubles of life. Arguably, Nietzsche may have construed humour as a kind of aesthetic experience.

V: Confronted with pessimism and nihilism, Nietzsche would naturally try to correct one of his masters.

N: Upon reflection, he thought, in The Birth of Tragedy, that tragedy should not be apprised as a way of escaping from the pain of life but should be something that emboldens us to confront life head-on. Nietzsche divides a tragedy into two elements. The Dionysian, which is the aspect that acknowledges primordial dissolution, and the Apollonian, the form-giving aspect, an illusion that we need, he believes, because it is life-affirming. And that, I think, is what he is getting at in this quotation: we invent laughter as a way to go on, as a way to survive the pain and terror of life. Humour is not an escape from human existence; it is a way of empowering human existence—and, returning to discussion of Montaigne and Democritus, I think they, too, are getting at something like that as well.

V: I have an apt anecdote about Sigmund Freud. In 1938, a year before dying, while fleeing from Vienna to London, the Jewish doctor was stuck at customs, requested to sign a form stating that he had not been mistreated by the Nazi regime. Reportedly, Freud wrote down: “I can thoroughly recommend the Gestapo.”

N: That is a very good example. Humour can be a means of fighting back, while also being able to feel a little superior—here, that you have gotten off one at the expense of the Gestapo without them realising what you have done.

V: One’s sense of humour reflects their moral standing and milieu. In any society, there are things that we cannot communicate directly, for fear of violating a chain of normative barriers. In the arena of humour, however, jests commonly draw from prejudice, taboos, and fears, which thereby become laughable and thinkable. In this context, I cannot resist quoting America’s previous and, possibly, future president, Mr. Trump: “They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists, and some, I assume, are good people.” The humorous contradiction aside, what we are left with is racist reasoning. This is a dangerous dimension of laughter, since a cruel judgement, particularly one enjoying influence, can incite destructive thoughts and passions toward beings that are not exactly like us.

N: It is a very complicated issue. On the one hand, as represented by another comic theory, the incongruity theory, humour requires that the teller of the joke and the listener share some norms; and humour will be based in breaking those norms. For example, a silly joke is: “Why did the moron stay up all night?” The answer is: “He was studying for his blood test.” Well, you do study for tests, but you don’t study for blood tests. That is a violation of common sense or rationality. Many jokes rely on violating moral norms. That is why it makes sense to say that you can see, among other things, the morality, etiquette, standards of hygiene, and intelligence of a society reflected in its humour, because for the humour to proceed, there must be shared norms of these sorts that are violated and transgressed.

That is one aspect. But it is complicated by the fact that what is said in humour is not usually considered to be an assertion of one’s belief. If I say, “The Earth orbits around the Sun”, I believe it, and I want you to believe it. But when I say, “Do you know the joke, or I’m going to tell a joke”, you know that it is going to be nonsense. Like the joke that I told earlier—the one where God believes he is a doctor. I am not asserting that; I am just kidding. In fact, in ordinary life, when, say, our partner in life or friend gets angry at something we said, the first move we make is to say, “Oh, I was just joking”, (thereby trying to absolve myself from the charge that I am asserting something). But now you begin to see the layer of complexities involved here. Framing something as a joke is an attempt to absolve ourselves from responsibility, from what we call seriousness—that is, from the realm of assertion. Joking is the realm of silliness, not seriousness, and supposedly we should not be held accountable for that.

But we are pulled into two directions. On the one hand, are people culpable for their jokes? Well, since they seem not to be asserting, they do not seem to be culpable. And yet, we do think that some jokes and other comic remarks can be vehicles for things like homophobia. But how, on the one hand, can it be the case that jokes are non-assertive, and, at the same time, that people can be culpable for them?

Perhaps this way. Think of how many jokes depend on the notion of hyperbole, or exaggeration. Let’s take an example, a joke I can make because I am of Irish descent.

“How do you know that an Irish man has been using your personal computer? There’s a white-out on the screen.” Of course, no Irishman is so stupid that they would make corrections in their emails with white-out—at a certain point, you would not be able to see what is on the screen. So, it is hyperbolic, an exaggeration, but it is a way of getting across an assertion without making an assertion. It is a way of saying, well, Irishmen are not really that stupid, but they are very, very stupid.

V: … So, despite the fact that a joke is not making an assertion, nonetheless, it suggests the endorsement of a belief.

N: Yes, exactly—by asking you by way of your laughter to join in endorsing that belief. And to return back to your general claim, it is not only the case that humour will rely on the righteous morality of a culture. Humour will also reveal—because it will presuppose agreement—vicious views that are alive and abroad in your culture.

V: Truly. It is worth touching here on aesthetic education as a cultural matter. Concerning the rules of comical discourse, we take it that another person is getting our joke— understands us—so far as they laugh. Ultimately, it is through smile and laughter (or suspension of these somaesthetic responses) that we engage with humour philosophically. As a global community, alas, we pay little attention to aesthetic praxis. With respect to our topic, I feel shy to laugh on public transport on my own, not to mention that when it is vital to weep, out of nature, it is hard to find an innocuous space. It is not an exaggeration that, in Australia, the public is more likely to associate aesthetics with the art of plastic surgery, than with the philosophy of art, with the cosmetic, rather than cosmic aspects of human beings.

N: I do not know how things stand in Australia. In the United States now, at least with respect to humour, there is more scrutiny being paid. Think of criticisms of comics like Amy Schumer for making jokes about Mexicans as rapists, or Dave Chappelle remarking negatively about transgender people. In the USA, there is now more scrutiny being paid to the sources of legitimate and illegitimate humour, to what humour may imply. There is scrutiny about the possible differences that have to be respected. Many people do not think that Amy Schumer has racial prejudices against Mexicans, that it was not meant in the same way as when Trump said that Mexicans were rapists. Debate and discussion have arisen: are there ways that violate moral norms that are not to be taken “seriously” versus ones that are saturated with vicious or harmful intent? There are some people who say, look, comedy is a free-zone or, to steal a saying: what happens in comedy, stays in comedy. I am pointing out that, at least in the United States, there is a kind of lively discussion about this issue, and some other issues in aesthetics that are becoming a matter of public discussion.

By the way, I think that this is an opportunity for philosophers to join the public discussion, and, if not leading it, at least contributing to it by drawing from centuries of discussion from Plato to Danto.

V: Hard to disagree with you. In the first year of the pandemic, under severe lockdown restrictions, including a curfew, I was fortunate to deliver a semester-long course, “Wit and Laughter”, at the Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy.

N: We should bring these discussions into our classes. You should not think: “Oh, Spinoza wasn’t talking about jokes, so should I be talking about jokes?” These are things that will engage our students, that they will have opinions about, opinions that they can sharpen by being in discussion with fellow students. We should take aesthetics out of the domain of intellectual journals and bring these kinds of issues that people care about to our seminars—that is, things they would discuss after they went to a comic performance in a club, for example, with their friends over a beer. We should bring these conversations into the format that most of us have, which is the classroom. It will make for better classes, classes that students care about because it touches their lives, and it is something that they have a view about. In his biography of Wittgenstein, Norman Malcolm (2001, 28) says that Wittgenstein once said to him that you could conduct philosophy solely in terms of jokes.  We should try that out in our teaching.

V: Let’s outline our discussion so far. Owing to Aristotle and Bergson, we have identified the corrective function of cruel humour, and thanks to Montaigne and Nietzsche, we have found a special place for callous laughter in our lives. With respect to contemporary debates in aesthetics, we have ascertained the relation between pejorative jokes and one’s moral standing, and also, appealing to your telescopic knowledge, Noël, alluded to the need for teaching classes inspired by philosophies of humour.

In closing, could you help me understand the comical dimension of a line once heard on the grapevine? I love it, and do not understand why: “Denis Diderot died in the summer of 1784, over lunch, reaching for a serving of cherry compote.”

N: I suppose the first thing we need to think about is: why is it incongruous? Think of the deaths of other philosophers we know of. Wittgenstein: tell them I had a good life. Hume: the same. You know, those are the send-offs we usually like to quote because there is something edifying about them. Someone reaching for the dessert—that breaks the pattern, that breaks the formula. One thing to think about here is that in the expected context of edification, a cherry compote brings any pretence of lofty sentiment down to earth.

V: Yes, to a taste of cherry.

N: Or go to the next step. Diderot died reaching for the dessert and, then, imagine that his brother asked, “What happened to the compote?”

V: …

N: That was what he cared about! Here we have staged a clash between the absolutely trivial with one of the greatest moments in life, especially for philosophers, supposedly a summary moment, and what issue comes up: who got the compote?

V: … Do you think that this response brings us full circle to Democritus and Heraclitus?

N: Yes, that is one way to armour us against the overwhelming horror of the end of all things, to reduce it to a matter of what happened to the cherry compote.

References

Aristotle, On the Parts of Animals, transl. James G. Lennox, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

Nicomachean Ethics, transl. Terence Irwin, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1999).

Poetics, in Jonathan Barnes (ed.), The Complete Works of Aristotle, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1984), 2316-2340.

Bergson, Henri, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, transl. Cloudesley Brereton and Fred Rothwell, (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1914).

Carroll, Noël, ‘Foreword’, in Kant’s Humorous Writings (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021), xvi-xx

— ‘I’m Only Kidding: On Racist and Ethnic Jokes’, Southern Journal of Philosophy (2020) 58:4, 534-546.

—  ‘The Applied Philosophy of Humor,’ in Lippert, K. et al., (eds.) A Companion to Applied Philosophy(Oxford: Wiley, 2016), 527-538

— ‘Danto’s Comic Vision: Philosophical Method and Literary Style’, Philosophy and Literature (2015) 39:2, 554-563.

Humour: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

Comedy Incarnate: Buster Keaton, Physical Humor, and Bodily Coping (New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell, 2007).

— ‘Two Comic Plot Structures’, The Monist (2005) 88:1, 154-183.

— ‘On Ted Cohen: Intimate Laughter’, Philosophy and Literature (2000) 24:2, 435-450.

— ‘Horror and Humour’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (1999) 57:2, 145-160.

— ‘On Jokes’, Midwest Studies in Philosophy (1991) 16:1, 280-301.

Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1914).

Malcolm, Norman, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

Montaigne, Michel, Les Essais (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1965).

Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Will to Power, transl. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale, (New York: Vintage Books, 1968).

Plato, The Theaetetus and Philebus of Plato, transl. H.F. Carlill, (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1906).

[1] Translations of Montaigne are Valery’s.

[2] In a pre-mortem interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EkTeZLiNCoM&ab_channel=ZiLBERLaND