Unreal Nature

April 27, 2013

What Do You Make of It?

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:00 am

… We start, on any occasion, with some old version or world that we have on hand and that we are stuck with until we have the determination and skill to remake it into a new one.

This is from Ways of Worldmaking by Nelson Goodman (1978):

… Where we can never determine precisely just which symbol of a system we have or whether we have the same one on a second occasion, where the referent is so elusive that properly fitting a symbol to it requires endless care, where more rather than fewer features of the symbol count, where the symbol is an instance of properties it symbolizes and may perform many interrelated simple and complex referential functions, we cannot merely look through the symbol to what it refers to as we do in obeying traffic lights or reading scientific texts, but must attend constantly to the symbol itself as in seeing paintings or reading poetry. This emphasis upon the nontransparency of a work of art, upon the primacy of the work over what it refers to, far from involving denial or disregard of symbolic functions, derives from certain characteristics of a work as a symbol.

Quite apart from specifying the particular characteristics differentiating aesthetic from other symbolization, the answer to the question “When is art?” thus seems to me clearly to be in terms of symbolic function.

… To say what art does is not to say what art is; but I submit that the former is the matter of primary and peculiar concern. The further question of defining stable property in terms of ephemeral function — the what in terms of the when — is not confined to the arts but is quite general, and is the same for defining chairs as for defining objects of art. The parade of instant and inadequate answers is also much the same: that whether an object is art — or a chair — depends upon intent or upon whether it sometimes or usually or always or exclusively functions as such. Because all this tends to obscure more special and significant questions concerning art, I have turned my attention from what art is to what art does.

A salient feature of symbolization, I have urged, is that it may come and go. An object may symbolize different things at different times, and nothing at other times. An inert or purely utilitarian object may come to function as art, and a work of art may come to function as an inert or purely utilitarian object. Perhaps, rather than art being long and life short, both are transient.

The bearing that this inquiry into the nature of art has upon the overall undertaking of this book should by now have become quite clear. How an object or event functions as a work explains how, through certain modes of reference, what so functions may contribute to a vision of — and to the making of — a world.

[ … ]

… Once in a while, someone asks me rather petulantly “Can’t you see what’s before you?” Well, yes and no. I see people, chairs, papers, and books that are before me, and also colors, shapes, and patterns that are before me. But do I see the molecules, electrons, and infrared light that are also before me? And do I see this state, or the United States, or the universe? I see only parts of the latter comprehensive entities, indeed, but then I also see only parts of the people, chairs, etc. And if I see a book, and it is a mess of molecules, then do I not see a mess of molecules? But, on the other hand, can I see a mess of molecules without seeing any of them?

[ … ]

… “Well, what’s before me?” That’s the question I begin with here, and I must confess that the answer to this, too, is “That depends …”, and one thing it depends on heavily is the answer to still another question: “What do you make of it?”

… We start, on any occasion, with some old version or world that we have on hand and that we are stuck with until we have the determination and skill to remake it into a new one. Some of the felt stubbornness of fact is the grip of habit: our firm foundation is indeed stolid. Worldmaking begins with one version and ends with another.

… With all this variety, attention usually focuses on versions that are literal, denotational, and verbal. While that covers some — though I think far from all — scientific and quasi-scientific worldmaking, it leaves out perceptual and pictorial versions and all figurative and exemplificational means and all nonverbal media. The worlds of fiction, poetry, painting, music, dance, and the other arts are built largely by such nonliteral devices as metaphor, by such nondenotional means as exemplification and expression, and often by use of pictures or sounds or gestures or other symbols of nonlinguistic systems. Such worldmaking and such versions are my primary concern here; for a major thesis of this book is that the arts must be taken no less seriously than the sciences as modes of discovery, creation, and enlargement of knowledge in the broad sense of advancement of the understanding, and thus that the philosophy of art should be conceived as an integral part of metaphysics and epistemology.

… Some depictions and descriptions .. do not literally denote anything. Painted or written portrayals of Don Quixote, for example, do not denote Don Quixote — who is simply not there to be denoted. Works of fiction in literature and their counterparts in other arts obviously play a prominent role in worldmaking; our worlds are no more a heritage from scientists, biographers, and historians than from novelists, playwrights, and painters. But how can versions of nothing thus participate in the making of actual worlds? The inevitable proposal to supply fictive entities and possible worlds as denotata will not, even for those who can swallow it, help with this question. Yet the answer, once sought, comes rather easily.

“Don Quixote”, taken literally applies to no one, but taken figuratively, applies to many of us — for example, to me in my tilts with the windmills of current linguistics. To many others the term applies neither literally nor metaphorically. Literal falsity or inapplicability is entirely compatible with, but of course no guarantee of, metaphorical truth; and the line between metaphorical truth and metaphorical falsity intersects, but is no more arbitrary than, the line between literal truth and literal falsity.

… We have seen earlier that what does not denote may still refer by exemplification or expression, and that nondescriptive, nonrepresentational works nevertheless function as symbols for features they possess either literally or metaphorically. Serving as samples of, and thereby focusing attention upon, certain — often upon unnoticed or neglected — shared or shareable forms, colors, feelings, such works induce reorganization of our accustomed world in accordance with these features, thus dividing and combining erstwhile relevant kinds, adding and subtracting, effecting new discriminations and integrations, reordering priorities. Indeed, symbols may work through exemplification and expression as well as through denotation in any or all of the various already mentioned ways of worldmaking.

… What a portrait or a novel exemplifies or expresses often reorganizes a world more drastically than does what the work literally or figuratively says or depicts; and sometimes the subject serves merely as a vehicle for what is exemplified or expressed. But whether alone or in combination, the several modes and means of symbolization are powerful instruments. With them, a Japanese haiku or five-line poem by Samuel Menashe can renovate and remodel a world; without them, the moving of mountains by an environmental artist would be futile.

My most recent previous post from Goodman’s book is here.




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