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Danto’s indiscernibility: an intercultural interpretation

Peng Feng
p. 80-95

Abstract

To discern the indiscernibles is the main purpose of Danto’s philosophy of art. Influenced by analytical philosophy, Zen Buddhism, and symbolism, three ways of discernment can be identified in Danto’s text: the external discernment, the internal discernment, and the middle discernment, which, roughly speaking, mean a discernment by means of examining the object, self-reflection or enlightenment, and the relation between experience and expression, in Danto’s terms, the aboutness and embodiment, respectively. However, neither analytic philosophy and its external discernment nor Zen and its internal discernment can distinguish the indiscernible indeed, only symbolism and its middle discernment have the potential to do so. Unfortunately, Danto was so indulged in analytical philosophy and Zen that he could not see this promise from symbolism.

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Introduction

  • 1 This essay has been developed from my lecture at School of Philosophy, Wuhan University, Oct. 8, 20 (...)
  • 2 About the debates, see Auxier and Hahn 2013, and Rollins 2012.
  • 3 See Kelly 1998.
  • 4 For neo-Wittgensteinist anti-essentialism in aesthetics, see Weitz 1956.
  • 5 Rollins 2012: 1.
  • 6 Danto 1988: 134.
  • 7 Ankersmit 1998: 48.
  • 8 Fung 1976: 255.
  • 9 For details, see Kivy 2004: 2-4.
  • 10 Wittgenstein 2002: 3.
  • 11 For Langer’s symbolism, see Nelson 1994.

1With the controversial claim of “the end of art”, the ingenious method of indiscernibility, and the unique ontological trifurcation, the components of which are divided as the subject, the representation, and the world, Arthur Danto is regarded as one of the most important Anglophone philosophers of art post-1945.1 Danto indeed has the greatest influence and triggers the most widespread debates in contemporary philosophy of art.2 His ingenious way of reconciling essentialism and historicism makes his philosophy of art so strong and unique,3 especially in the context of neo-Wittgensteinist anti-essentialism dominating the area.4 Most of Danto’s ideas are illuminative and provocative. However, they are not unquestionable. In this essay, I shall examine the concept of representation and the method of indiscernibility that are regarded by Mark Rollins as two major features in Danto’s philosophy.5 I admit that Danto grasped one of the key features of contemporary art, the New York art after the 1960s, when he focused on the indiscernibility. This means that one of a pair of indiscernible counterparts is a work of art and the other is a mere real thing or a different work of art. However, I do not think that Danto found the answer to his question. He seemed not to discern the indiscernibles successfully. Although Danto properly classified art as representation, he did not continue, especially in his early writings, to distinguish artistic representation from other representations, such as history, action, knowledge and so on, which he treated with the same methodology of indiscernibility. Danto was not only a philosopher of art, but also a philosopher of history and action, a metaphysician, and an epistemologist. Art is only part of his philosophical interest. In other words, his interest in art is philosophical instead of artistic. He “make[s] philosophy out of art”.6 Since art is not philosophy after all, and there are differences between art and other philosophical objects such as history and action, Danto equates art with philosophy and does not distinguish art from other philosophical objects, which makes his philosophy of art seems to be incomplete. The uniqueness of art is underemphasized. There may be some reasons to explain this incompleteness. One of them is, from my point of view, that Danto, consciously or not, neglected one source of his thoughts, that is, Cassirer-Langerian symbolism. Danto was deeply influenced by Susanne Langer when he was a student at Columbia in the early 1950s. Among many influences on Danto’s thoughts, three of them should be mentioned. In addition to symbolism, analytic philosophy and Zen Buddhism are the other two important influences that Danto openly acknowledged. Based on these three sources, three ways of discernment can be derived, that is, the external discernment, the internal discernment, and the middle discernment. However, neither analytic philosophy and its external discernment nor Zen and its internal discernment can discern the indiscernibles, only symbolism and its middle discernment have the potential to do it. Art is a kind of representation in Danto’s mind, while the central issue of Zen is not so much representation as “present”. Zen opposes representation, in the sense that representation is defined as “the making ‘present’ ‘again’ of what is ‘absent’”.7 Zen is not interested in representation but in how to remain “present”. Since Zen does not need any symbolization, Fung Yu-lan calls it “a philosophy of silence”.8 For Zen, the crucial is the internal enlightenment that happens in mind. This internal enlightenment is unexhibited. Only the Zen practitioner himself can experience the enlightenment. In this sense, I call Zen’s discernment the internal discernment. So, perhaps, Zen can help us understand the indiscernible--the core of Danto’s philosophy, but one cannot definitely say that it can help us understand art. Analytic philosophy also was not friendly to philosophical study of art. In the 1950s and 1960s when Danto created his philosophy, philosophy of art was at the risk of being expelled from the philosophical family by the linguistic analysts.9 As Ludwig asserted, “what can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence”.10 The neo-Wittgensteinians in aesthetics adhered to this dogma and only said what can be said, which is the opposite of Zen as a philosophy of silence. In this sense, I call the analytic discernment the external discernment. Symbolism is different from both analytic philosophy and Zen Buddhism. Briefly speaking, symbolism tries to bridge the speakable and unspeakable and let the silence speak. In this sense, symbolism seems to be somewhere between analytic philosophy and Zen Buddhism, and so I call symbolist discernment the middle discernment. Unlike analytic philosophy, symbolism is friendly to philosophical study of art. Influenced by Ernst Cassirer, Langer developed her symbolistic aesthetics that aims to articulate the distinctive characters of the arts. According to Langer, the arts use a special symbol, i.e., the presentational symbol or nondiscursive symbol, which is different from the discursive symbol adopted by science and ordinary language. The presentational symbol can somehow amalgamate the “present” and “representation” and make a work of art represent something else as well as present itself.11 Langer’s presentational symbolism is particularly well suited to explaining the arts. When Danto defined art with “aboutness” and “embodiment”, we can see Langer’s influence on him. “Aboutness” directs art to something else, while “embodiment” pulls art back to itself, and together the two constitute a presentational symbol that makes a work of art represent something else as well as present itself. Unfortunately, Danto was so absorbed by analytical philosophy and Zen that he could not see this promise from symbolism.

Analytic philosophy and the external discernment

  • 12 Carrier 2013: 215.

2Danto was influenced by philosophies from different traditions, times, and branches. Among the philosophers who had great influences on him, Descartes and Hegel are emphasized by many researchers. As David Carrier points out: “Writing within the traditions of analytic philosophy, Danto has brought Hegelian concerns into an essentially Cartesian philosophy system. We cannot understand his aesthetics […]”.12

3Carrier might be right about Descartes, but he is wrong in suggesting that Hegel played a role in the development of Danto’s thought. When Danto wrote The Artworld, his seminal essay in the philosophy of art, the main influences came from analytic philosophy and Zen.

  • 13 Danto 2013a: 666.
  • 14 Danto 2013b: 234.
  • 15 Ibidem.

4Danto confessed when he wrote The Artworld, he “was not influenced by any reading on continental philosophy, but by my analytical peers”.13 In “Reply to David Carrier”, Danto said the same thing that his ideas in the philosophy of art really came from the analytical philosophy he read in the 1950s, “none of which was in the philosophy of art”.14 In the 1960s when Danto’s philosophical and literary were formed, nothing came from Hegel. “I really had never read Hegel”, Danto said, “when I wrote ‘The Artworld’ I had not read him, really, even when I wrote “The End of Art”. […] Hegel played little role in my thought at that time”.15

  • 16 Danto 1997: 6-7.
  • 17 Danto 2013c: 581.

5The case of Descartes is different. The state of dreaming and the state of being wake were conceived as a discernible pair by Descartes in Meditations that inspired Danto to develop his methodology of indiscernibility.16 However, Descartes did not focus on the issue of indiscernibility. In addition to this initial inspiration, Danto did not get much from Descartes to develop his philosophy centered on the methodology of indiscernibility. Danto said, “the contrast deepens when we introduce the philosophy of action which, so far as I know, Descartes never exactly discussed”.17

6Even if Danto cited a lot from the history of Western philosophy, including Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Leibniz, Berkeley, Kant, Hume, Hegel, Nietzsche, James, Freud, Santayana, Dewey, Heidegger, Sartre, and so on, the most important influences on his philosophy are, as he admitted, from Analytic philosophy, especially his analytical peers. However, analytic philosophy seems not to contribute much to his discerning the indiscernibles.

  • 18 Danto 1997: 8-9.

7In Connections to the World, Danto gave six examples to illustrate the character of philosophical problems, including dream and waking, moral conduct and non-moral conduct, determinism, and chances, thinking beings and mere machines, works of art and mere real objects, universe with God and without God. They “are differences of a different sort than those that divide pairs of things that happen to resemble one another a great deal, such as identical twins, or two products off the same assembly line, or two insects of the same species”.18

8There are two kinds of indiscernible pair of things, one philosophical, the other not. The philosophical one belongs to different kinds, while the non-philosophical one belongs to the same kind. The examples recruited by Danto to illustrate the character of philosophical problems were conceived or made by Descartes, Kant, Hume, Alan Turing, Marcel Duchamp, and George Berkeley, respectively. None of them are Danto’s analytical peers.

  • 19 Putnam 1973.

9The exception is Hilary Putnam. Putnam was one of Danto’s analytical peers with whom Danto was familiar. After the six examples, Danto mentioned Putnam’s Twin-Earth thought-experiment. Earth and Twin-Earth are a pair of indiscernible counterparts. They are identical in every respect. There is, however, one exception. Water on Earth is H2O, while water on Twin-Earth is XYZ. Therefore, the waters must ultimately have different meanings on Earth and Twin-Earth.19

  • 20 Danto 1997: 10.
  • 21 McGinn 2002: xi.
  • 22 Danto 1997: 13.

10According to Danto’s interpretation, the way of discerning the indiscernible Earth twins conceived by Putnam in his thought-experiment is not philosophical but scientific. As Danto points out, “the difference between the two Earths is finally for science to determine”.20 Analytical philosophers would agree with this scientific discernment, since analytical philosophy, as described by Colin McGinn, “is more like science than religion, more like mathematics than poetry—though it is neither science nor mathematics”.21 However, Danto disagreed with this scientific approach. The way of discerning the indiscernibles will not, according to Danto, be accessible through science. “They are different sorts of differences, hidden in different sorts of ways”.22 In short, analytical philosophy indeed helps Danto to discover his unique issue of indiscernibility, but it does not allow him to solve this problem, especially since Danto did not believe in the scientific discernment which most analytical philosophers prefer.

Zen Buddhism and the internal discernment

  • 23 For details, see Peng 2021.

11In addition to analytical philosophy, there are other sources for Danto’s philosophy of art. Among them, the most exhibited and yet the most hidden one is Zen.23 Although Danto admitted that Zen had a profound effect on his thinking, the influences of Zen have not received attention in recent years in the studies of Danto’s philosophy. It seems hard for Western scholars to believe that Danto’s philosophy of art is based upon a reading of Zen. We are easily convinced that Danto’s philosophy of art develops within his own philosophical system or is influenced by his analytical peers, and his interest in Zen is only a side issue. However, we may have a different interpretation of Zen’s influence on Danto’s philosophy of art, especially when we shift our perspective from West to East.

  • 24 I change Danto’s Wade-Giles “Ch’ing Yuan” into the pinyin “Qingyuan”.
  • 25 For example, Danto 1981: 134; 2000: 106; 2004: 58; 2013: 597; and so on.

12Danto himself indeed said a lot about Zen. From the very beginning, Danto quoted Qingyuan Weixin’s paragraph in his seminal paper The Artworld.24 This paragraph is so important or interesting to Danto that he went on to cite it in several other places.25

  • 26 Danto 2004: 57.

13In “Upper West Side Buddhism” and “Intellectual Autobiography”, Danto wrote about his experience of studying Zen with Suzuki at Columbia. He admitted that Zen helped him to explain why and in what way the indiscernibles, i.e., Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes and the Brillo boxes in grocery stores, were different. Furthermore, Danto seemed to go further to claim that not only his philosophy of art but also the change of art in the 1960s were influenced by Zen. Danto said: “Whether Dr. Suzuki helped cause this change, or merely contributed to it, is not something anyone can say with certainty. But the people who made the changes were themselves Suzuki’s students one way or another”.26

  • 27 Danto 1988: 134.
  • 28 McGinn 2002: xi.
  • 29 Danto 1997: xxii.

14Danto admitted that Zen had played an important role in the transformation of New York art from the 1950s to the 1960s, and his philosophy was inspired by both Zen and the art influenced by it. He confessed, “It was only when I encountered Warhol’s Brillo Box that I saw, in a moment of revelation, how one could make philosophy out of art”.27 Due to the influences from Zen, Danto’s philosophy is somewhat different from analytical philosophy. Analytical philosophy, according to McGinn, “is more like science than religion”.28 However, Zen is, on the contrary, more like religion than science. In this sense, Danto’s philosophy is more like Zen than analytical philosophy, since he admitted: “It is as though philosophically different worlds turned more on faith than on knowledge, like the world of the religiously inspired”.29

  • 30 Danto 2013d: 29.
  • 31 Carrier 2012: 17.

15It is debatable how seriously we should take Danto’s writing about Zen. Danto is regarded as, by others and himself, a systematic philosopher. He admitted that he “conceived of the project of writing a system of philosophy in several volumes […]. It was very much a sort of nineteenth-century ambition”.30 According to David Carrier’s observation, Danto’s system of philosophy “was developed before he published the body of his work on aesthetics”.31 From this, some researchers believe that Danto developed his philosophy of art within his own philosophical system, and he just found it useful to cite Zen as a way of explaining his key ideas. Zen did not really inspire him to create his main ideas and, especially, his methodology of indiscernibility.

16However, from an Eastern point of view, Zen’s influences on Danto’s philosophy are decisive. As an artist, an art critic, and a philosopher, the relation between art and philosophy in Danto’s thinking is complicated. Whether his philosophy was developed, historically, before his art theory or vice versa is not something anyone can say with certainty. However, since Danto admitted both his philosophy and the art from which his philosophy is inspired were influenced by Zen, it seems reasonable for us to believe that Zen came before both his philosophy and aesthetics. In the history of philosophy, only Danto’s philosophy and Zen are so preoccupied with the issue of indiscernibility. We properly see in other philosophies that indiscernibility plays a role to varying degrees, as Danto shows us in his Connections to the World, and yet only in Danto’s philosophy and Zen indiscernibility becomes a crucial issue. When Danto quoted Qingyuan’s paragraph in The Artworld, he recognized a parallel between the indiscernible counterparts of “mountains as mountains” and “mountains once again as mountains” in Zen meditation and the indiscernible counterparts of Warhol’s Brillo Box and the industrial Brillo boxes. Qingyuan’s paragraph is very popular and widely quoted:

  • 32 Danto 1964: 579.

Before I had studied Zen for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains and waters as waters. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and waters are not waters. But now that I have got the very substance I am at rest. For it is just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and waters once again as waters.32

  • 33 Danto 2004: 55-56.

17Danto believed that the difference between “mountains as mountains” and “mountains once again as mountains” in Qingyuan’s paragraph indeed illuminates the distinction between Warhol’s Brillo Box as an artwork and the industrial Brillo box as a real mere thing. However, the parallel between Qingyuan’s statement and Danto’s indiscernibles needs more clarification. Danto’s indiscernibles are twins, while Qingyuan’s indiscernibles are triplets. There are three states in Zen’s spiritual journey, and at each state, the mountains are the same. The distinction between the mountains at the three states cannot be descried by the eye. Therefore, there are three pairs of indiscernibles: “mountains as mountains” and “mountains as not mountains”, “mountains as not mountains” and “mountains once again as mountains”, and “mountains as mountains” and “mountains once again as mountains”. For simplicity, let me call the three pairs of indiscernible mountains M-pair 1, M-pair 2, and M-pair 3, respectively. Danto missed M-pair 1 and M-pair 2 in Qingyuan’s statement, perhaps due to a misleading of the English translation. Danto used Alan Watts’s English version rather than Suzuki’s, even though he first encountered this paragraph through the latter.33 Since Zen practice does not change the mountains, I do not believe that practitioners do not see mountains in the second stage, or even in any stage. They indeed see mountains, and yet interpret them as something else. Therefore, it would be better to modify Watts’s English translation “I saw that mountains are not mountains, and waters are not waters” to “I saw mountains as not mountains, and waters as not waters”, even though the repetition does not sound elegant in English. However, considering Zen’s appreciation of repetition, keeping the repetition in English translation parallel to its original Chinese text seems not to be a bad choice.

  • 34 Danto argued, “To see something as art requires something the eye cannot de[s]cry – an atmosphere o (...)
  • 35 Fung 1976: 264.

18Danto’s indiscernible pair of Warhol’s Brillo Box and the industrial Brillo boxes seems to be similar to M-pair 1, rather than to, as he himself believes, M-pair 3. The distinction between Danto’s indiscernible pair of Warhol’s Brillo Box and the industrial Brillo boxes is that the former has “atmosphere of theory” or “artworld” and the latter does not.34 The distinction between the counterparts of M-pair 1 is also a kind of theory, i.e., Buddhist theories. The first stage is common sense before Zen’s practice. When people start to practice, they can easily be captivated by Buddhist theories. However, the theories only produce illusion, not enlightenment. Only by reaching enlightenment can Zen practitioners be rid of the illusion. However, it is easy for Zen practitioners to see the illusion as enlightenment. Or, in other words, it is not easy for them to see enlightenment as common sense. Therefore, for attaining true enlightenment, as Fung indicated, “rising yet another step” is needed.35 After “rising yet another step”, the Zen sage comes back to the world of common sense. He sees the mere real things again, without the illusion caused by the atmosphere of Buddhist theories. When Danto especially and exclusively relies on theory, he seems to miss this “rising yet another step”.

19Another anecdote (gongan) of Zen can also support my interpretation:

  • 36 Hsieh 2010: 62-63.

Whenever Monk Juzhi was asked [about Chan], he simply raised one finger. Later, a visitor asked Juzhi’s boy attendant, “What important Buddhist teachings does your master talk about?”. The boy, too, raised his finger. Having heard of this, Juzhi cut off the boy’s finger with a knife. As the boy screamed in pain and ran away, Juzhi called him back. When the boy turned his head, Juzhi nonetheless raised his finger. The boy was suddenly enlightened.36

20Master Juzhi’s finger and his disciple’s finger are a pair of the indiscernibles. The distinction between the fingers is imperceptible. However, this case of finger twins is different from the Earth twins conceived by Putman in his thought-experiment. The difference between the water on Earth and on Twin-Earth is imperceptible but can be identified by the scientific approach. However, we cannot use this scientific approach to identify the distinction between the finger twins. The distinction between the finger twins lies in their different psychological states or intentions, which can only manifest through self-reflection. I call this way of discerning the indiscernibles internal discernment, which is opposed to the external discernment. The former is religious discernment, while the latter is scientific discernment.

21However, the case of finger twins cannot be conceived as a pair of an action and a mere movement that are indiscernible. The disciple’s raising his finger is not a mere movement but an action on the one hand, and yet, on the other hand, the master’s raising his finger is somehow beyond an action.

22The distinction between the disciple’s raising a finger and the master’s raising a finger is similar to M-pair 3, while the pair of an action and a mere movement conceived by Danto is similar to M-pair 1. Only through internal discernment can one discern the distinction between the counterparts of M-pair 3. In this sense, the discernment of Zen is a religious one, not a philosophical one. Danto’s philosophy is, after all, not the same as Zen.

Symbolism and the middle discernment

  • 37 Danto said: “I took a course with Susanne K. Langer, appointed to take over the courses of Ernst Ca (...)
  • 38 Danto said: “I glumly studied aesthetics with Irwin Edman and, far more philosophically, with Suzan (...)
  • 39 Langer 1954: 52.
  • 40 Danto 1997: xxii.
  • 41 Langer 1954: 51.
  • 42 Langer 1954: 52.

23The third source of Danto’s philosophy is symbolism, which he probably got from Susanne Langer. However, Danto’s attitude to Langer is complex. He admitted, on the one hand, that Langer gave the first positive reinforcement to his philosophical ambitions.37 On the other hand, he denied that the aesthetics of Langer and others had anything to do with his philosophy of art.38 Nevertheless, the core concepts of their philosophy seem to be similar. For Danto’s philosophy, it is representation, while for Langer’s, symbolization. Both representation and symbolization mean that something stands for something else. They need at least three elements. For Langer, the three essential elements are “subject, sign, and object”,39 while, for Danto, they are “the subject, the representations, and the world”.40 It should be mentioned that Langer made a further distinction between signs and symbols. “The sign is something to act upon, or a means to command action; the symbol is an instrument of thought”.41 The sign and the symbol have different functions. “In an ordinary sign-function, there are three essential terms: subject, sign, and object. In denotation, which is the simplest kind of symbol-function, there have to be four: subject, symbol, conception and object”.42 The distinction between the sign and the symbol and especially the distinction between discursive symbolism and presentational symbolism can help Langer identify the arts in a multitude of cultural matters more successfully than Danto did. Langer’s symbolization is mainly aimed at aesthetic problems, while Danto’s representation is interested in general epistemological problems.

  • 43 Although Langer made a distinction between symbols and signs, and her philosophy should have four i (...)
  • 44 Danto 1997: xxv.

24Nevertheless, as far as the basic triadic structure is concerned, Danto is not different from Langer.43 Both are different from other types of philosophy, which are composed of two components or only one. According to Danto, some philosophical positions reduce three components to two: the subject and the representation, the subject and the world, or the representation and the world. The extreme philosophical positions admit only a single component: only the subject, or only the world, or only a system of representations. In Danto’s view, although one can take any kind of position, the philosophy with a triadic structure seems closer to the world as we experience it. Danto wrote, “The extreme views […] are obviously the most exciting and the most challenging, since it requires elaborate and ingenious argumentation to achieve reductions so at odds with our ordinary expectations of the way we and the world must be if we are indeed cognitive beings”.44

25In addition to sharing the same philosophical position, Danto and Langer have the same view on the ontological status of art. That is, as symbolization or representation, art has a position between the subject and the object, through which the subject relates indirectly to the object.

  • 45 Langer 1954: 83.
  • 46 Ibidem: 52.
  • 47 Ibidem: 65-66.
  • 48 Ibidem: 79.

26However, there are important differences between Danto and Langer. Danto’s main contribution to the philosophy of art is to identify art as representation, with which he successfully distinguishes art, such as Warhol’s Brillo Box from its indiscernible counterparts, the mere real thing, such as Brillo boxes in grocery stores. Warhol’s Brill Box is a work of art since it belongs to the realm of representations and is ontologically distinguished from Brill boxes in grocery stores that belong to the mere real thing or “the world” in Danto’s philosophical triadic structure. For Langer, identifying art as a symbol is not the end but the beginning of her aesthetics. Langer’s main purpose is not to identify art as a symbol, but to identify which kind of symbol art is. To do this, she makes a distinction between signs and symbols, between discursive symbolism and presentational symbolism. “Signs are logically distinct from symbols; discursive and presentational patterns show a formal difference”.45 A sign-function has three components: subject, sign, and object; while a symbol-function has at least four: subject, symbol, conception, and object. Langer continues, “The radical difference between sign-meaning and symbol-meaning can therefore be logically exhibited, for it rests on a difference of pattern, it is strictly a different function”.46 The discursive symbolism is articulated and governed by the laws of syntax, which “requires us to string out our ideas even though their objects reset one with the other”.47 While, the presentational symbolism is not governed by the laws of syntax and presents its constituent elements sequentially, but “involved in a simultaneous, integral presentation. This kind of semantic may be called ‘presentational symbolism’, to characterize its essential distinction from discursive symbolism, or ‘language’ proper”.48 For Langer, art is not a sign or discursive symbolism but a presentational symbolism.

  • 49 For the affinities between Susanne Langer, Nelson Goodman, and Ernst Cassirer, see Carter 2015: 401 (...)
  • 50 Goodman 1968: 252-4.
  • 51 Goodman 1978: 68.

27Like Langer, instead of trying to distinguish art as a representation from the mere real thing, Nelson Goodman simply claims that artworks are symbols and then clarifies the so-called “symptoms of the aesthetic”.49 In Languages of Arts, Goodman lists four symptoms: syntactic density, semantic density, syntactic repleteness, and exemplificationality.50 In a later book, Ways of Worldmaking, he adds the fifth symptom, multiple and complex.51 However, Goodman is different from Langer who defines art as presentational symbolism. Goodman never provides a definition of art. He merely describes certain recurring characteristics of artistic symbol systems.

28We may allow that Danto successfully distinguishes Warhol’s Brillo Box from its indiscernible counterpart, i.e., Brillo boxes in grocery stores by identifying the former as a representation. However, identifying something as a representation cannot guarantee that it is a work of art, since there are different kinds of symbols and art is one of them. For identifying art in the different kinds of symbols, Danto needs to distinguish art from other kinds of symbols, as Langer and Goodman did.

  • 52 Danto 1981: 146-7.
  • 53 Danto 1998: 195.
  • 54 Robinson 2013: 183.
  • 55 Costello 2012.

29In doing so, Danto adds “embodiment” along with “aboutness” to define art. With the concept of aboutness, he distinguishes a work of art from the mere real things, and with the notion of embodiment, he distinguishes a work of art from the mere representations. Danto writes, “works of art, in categorical contrast with mere representations, use the means of representation in a way that is not exhaustively specified when one has exhaustively specified what is being represented”.52 With aboutness and embodiment, Danto defines art like this: “To be a work of art is to be (i) about something and (ii) embody its meaning”.53 A symbolization or representation with functions of aboutness and embodiment seems close to Langer’s “presentational symbolism” and Goodman’s “exemplification”. When Jenefer Robinson interprets Goodman’s “exemplification”, she also uses “embody” and “about”. The first virtue of “exemplification”, according to Robinson’s understanding, is that “it elegantly captures the way in which many artworks reveal, show forth or ‘embody’ the very themes and qualities that they are about”.54 It means that Goodman’s exemplification also implies aboutness and embodiment. Goodman lists the aesthetic symptoms of artworks, while Danto seems reluctant to define art aesthetically, even though there appeared to be an “aesthetic turn” in his later thoughts.55 Unlike Goodman, who clarifies the aesthetic symptoms of “exemplification”, Danto does not specify the “embodiment”.

30However, the “embodiment” should be specified within Danto’s framework, and only on this framework can art be distinguished from the mere representations. Nevertheless, it does not mean that Danto should follow in Langer and Goodman’s footsteps. Danto could open a new way of dealing with the relation between aboutness and embodiment and a new discernment of the indiscernible.

  • 56 Danto 1997: xxviii.

31We need to realize that the relation between aboutness and embodiment is different from the relations between, roughly speaking, signifier and signified within Langer’s “presentational symbolism” and Goodman’s “exemplification”. Although Langer, Goodman, and Danto all subscribe to some variety of symbolism or semiotics, their views on the relationships between the three components are different. For Langer and Goodman, only through the mediation of symbols can we relate to the world. We do not have other ways to connect the world, and we cannot connect the world without any medium. The world, even the subject, can be reduced to the representation. The triadic structure is finally reduced to a monistic structure. Both Langer and Goodman identify art as a special kind of symbols by means of, for example, syntax and semantics. Danto is different. He recognizes three relations. He says, “The relations are between the world and the subject, between the subject and its representations, and between the representations and the world”.56 It means that there are different ways to connect the subject and the world: with and without representations. How can we imagine a connection without the mediation of representations?

  • 57 Danto 2001: 7.
  • 58 Ibidem.

32In Seeing and Showing, we find a distinction between perception and interpretation that Danto manages to clarify. According to Danto, our perception has a universality across culture and history. What is subject to change is our interpretation, not our perception. Danto writes, “The eye has an evolution rather than a history. It changes through mutation rather than through historical shifts, and the eye as we know it evolved as the human genome evolved, perhaps a million and a half years ago, perhaps longer”.57 Since the evolution of human vision, there have been numerous tremendous changes in the field of visual culture. However, these changes do not penetrate the optical system and so the eye does not change with the history of visual culture. The eye is impenetrable by the representations, and so “the eye as the eye has no further history to speak of”.58

  • 59 Benjamin 2018: 190.

33Now, it seems to be possible to specify the “embodiment” by examining the relationship between perception and interpretation. Even though, to borrow a phrase from Danto, the showing cannot penetrate the seeing, the seeing can be maintained in the showing. Aboutness means that art is a kind of representation; embodiment means that art is a special representation in which there is a continuity between interpretation and perception. In other words, the imperceptible meaning or thought can be somehow presented in perception through a multitude of resemblances, no matter how thin, obscure, and tortuous these resemblances may be. The antinomy between literature and painting seems to find its resolution, and thought and image are merged as, borrowing a phrase from Walter Benjamin, “thought-image” (Denkbild). Benjamin observes that by means of xieyi, “painting of ideas” (peinture d’idée), the Chinese painter “signifies thinking by way of resemblance” and finds the “image-thought” (image-pensée).59 If Danto’s thought of the embodiment of meaning can be linked with Benjamin’s thought-image, his philosophy of art does not reject the aesthetic completely. Warhol’s Brillo Box is an artwork not only because it is about something, such as the emerging mass culture, but also because that something is embodied by the box, which means that there are a multitude of resemblances between the Brillo boxes and the spirit of mass culture and so the latter can be somehow presented by the former. If so, discerning an artwork from its indiscernible counterpart is neither an external discernment such as scientific approach, nor an internal discernment such as religious transfiguration, but a middle discernment. The middle discernment is a cultural approach, by which an artwork can be distinguished from the real mere things on the one hand and on the other hand from the mere representations.

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Bibliografia

Ankersmit, F.R. 1998, Danto on Represetation, Identity, and Indiscernibles, “History and Theory”, 37/4: 44-70.

Benjamin, W. 2018, Chinese Paintings at the National Library, “Position: East Asia Cultures Critique”, 26, 1: 185-192.

Carrier, D. 2012, Danto as Systematic Philosopher, in M. Rollins (ed.), Danto and His Critics, Oxford, Blackwell: 15-29.

Carrier, D. 2013, Indiscernibles and the Essence of Art: the Hegelian Turn in Arthur Danto’s Aesthetic Theory in R.E. Auxier, L.E. Hahn (eds), The Philosophy of Arthur C. Danto, Chicago, Open Court: 216-228.

Carter, L.C. 2015, After Cassirer: Art and Aesthetic Symbols in Langer and Goodman, in J.T. Friedman, S. Luft (eds), The Philosophy of Ernst Cassirer: A Novel Assessment, Berlin, Walter de Gruyter: 401-418.

Costello, D. 2012, Danto and Kant: Together at Last?, in M. Rollins (ed.), Danto and His Critics, Oxford, Blackwell: 153-171.

Danto, A.C. 1981, Transfiguration of the Commonplace, Cambridge, Harvard University Press.

Danto, A.C. 1988, The End of Art: A Philosophical Defense, “History and Theory”, 37, 4: 127-143.

Danto, A.C.1997, Connection to the World, Oakland, University of California Press.

Danto, A.C. 1998, After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History, Princeton, Princeton University Press.

1964, The Artworld, “The Journal of Philosophy”, 61, 19: 571-584.

Danto, A.C. 2001, Seeing and Showing, “The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism”, 59/1: 1-9.

Danto, A.C. 2004, Upper West Side Buddhism, in J. Baas, M.J. Jacob (eds), Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art, Oakland CA, University of California Press: 49-60.

Danto, A.C. 2013a, Reply to Robert C. Solomon and Kathleen M. Higgins, in R.E. Auxier, L.E. Hahn (eds), The Philosophy of Arthur C. Danto, Chicago, Open Court: 664-669.

Danto, A.C. 2013b, Reply to David Carrier in R.E. Auxier and L.E. Hahn (eds), The Philosophy of Arthur Danto, Chicago, Open Court: 229-234.

Danto, A.C. 2013c, Reply to Frederick Adams in R.E. Auxier, L.E. Hahn (eds), The Philosophy of Arthur C. Danto, Chicago, Open Court: 576-581.

Danto, A.C. 2013d, Intellectual Autobiography: My Life as a Philosopher in R.E. Auxier, L.E. Hahn (eds), The Philosophy of Arthur Danto, Chicago, Open Court: 1-70.

Fung, Y.-L. 1976, A Short History of Chinese Philosophy, New York, The Free Press.

Goodman, N. 1968, Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols, Indianapolis, The Bobbs-Merrill.

Goodman, N. 1978, Ways of Worldmaking, Indianapolis, Hackett.

Hsieh, D.-H. 2010, Poetry and Chan “Gong An”: From Xuedou Chongxian (980-1052) to Wemen Huikai (1183-1260), “Journal of Song-Yuan Studies”, 40: 39-70.

Kelly, M. 1998, Essentialism and Historicism in Danto’s Philosophy of Art, “History and Theory”, 37, 4: 30-43.

Kivy, P. 2004, Introduction: Aesthetics Today, in P. Kivy (ed.), The Blackwell Guide to Aesthetics, Oxford, Blackwell: 1-11.

Langer, S.K. 1954, Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art, New York, The New American Library.

McGinn, C., The Making of a Philosopher: My Journey through Twentieth-Century Philosophy, New York, HarperCollins.

Putnam, H. 1973, Meaning and Reference, “The Journal of Philosophy”, 70, 19: 699-711.

Peng, F. 2021, Arthur Danto as a Zen Master: An Interpretation of Danto’s Philosophy of Art from a Zen Perspective, “Asian Philosophy”, 31, 1: 33-47.

Nelson, B.L. 1994, Susanne K. Langer’s Conception of “Symbol”—Making Connections through Ambiguity, “The Journal of Speculative Philosophy”, 8, 4: 277-296.

Robinson, J. 2013, Goodman in B. Gaut, D. Mclver Lopes (eds), The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics, London and New York, Routledge: 179-189.

Rollins, M. 2012, Introduction in M. Rollins (ed.), Danto and His Critics, Oxford, Blackwell: 1-12.

Weitz, M. 1956, The Role of Theory in Aesthetics, “The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism”, 15, 1: 27-35.

Wittgenstein, L. 2002, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. by D.F. Pears and B.F. McGuinness, London, Routledge.

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Note

1 This essay has been developed from my lecture at School of Philosophy, Wuhan University, Oct. 8, 2019. I am very grateful to Ouyang Xiao, Matteo Ravasio, and the anonymous reviewers for their comments, suggestions, and criticism. https://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2016/03/best-anglophone-philosophers-of-art-post-1945-the-results.html, last accessed 20 July 2021.

2 About the debates, see Auxier and Hahn 2013, and Rollins 2012.

3 See Kelly 1998.

4 For neo-Wittgensteinist anti-essentialism in aesthetics, see Weitz 1956.

5 Rollins 2012: 1.

6 Danto 1988: 134.

7 Ankersmit 1998: 48.

8 Fung 1976: 255.

9 For details, see Kivy 2004: 2-4.

10 Wittgenstein 2002: 3.

11 For Langer’s symbolism, see Nelson 1994.

12 Carrier 2013: 215.

13 Danto 2013a: 666.

14 Danto 2013b: 234.

15 Ibidem.

16 Danto 1997: 6-7.

17 Danto 2013c: 581.

18 Danto 1997: 8-9.

19 Putnam 1973.

20 Danto 1997: 10.

21 McGinn 2002: xi.

22 Danto 1997: 13.

23 For details, see Peng 2021.

24 I change Danto’s Wade-Giles “Ch’ing Yuan” into the pinyin “Qingyuan”.

25 For example, Danto 1981: 134; 2000: 106; 2004: 58; 2013: 597; and so on.

26 Danto 2004: 57.

27 Danto 1988: 134.

28 McGinn 2002: xi.

29 Danto 1997: xxii.

30 Danto 2013d: 29.

31 Carrier 2012: 17.

32 Danto 1964: 579.

33 Danto 2004: 55-56.

34 Danto argued, “To see something as art requires something the eye cannot de[s]cry – an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of the history of art: an artworld”. See Danto 1964: 580.

35 Fung 1976: 264.

36 Hsieh 2010: 62-63.

37 Danto said: “I took a course with Susanne K. Langer, appointed to take over the courses of Ernst Cassirer, who died before I arrived. She made a great impression on me, entering the classroom in her spotless Macintosh, carrying a cello. She and I were to become good friends. I wrote paper on Kant for her (the course was to become her book, Feeling and Form), which she genuinely admired, and hers was the first positive reinforcement my philosophical ambitions received […]. None of that discussion (about de Kooning’s Woman series of 1953) appeared in aesthetics courses – certainly not in Edman’s, but not in Langer’s either. That convinced me that aesthetics was not worth studying […]”. See Danto 2013: 8-9.

38 Danto said: “I glumly studied aesthetics with Irwin Edman and, far more philosophically, with Suzanne K. Langer. But I was never able to connect what they taught me with the art that was being made in the 1950s – and I could not see why anyone interested in art should have to know about aesthetics. It was only when I encountered Warhol’s Brillo Box that I saw, in a moment of revelation, how one could make philosophy out of art”. See Danto 1988: 134.

39 Langer 1954: 52.

40 Danto 1997: xxii.

41 Langer 1954: 51.

42 Langer 1954: 52.

43 Although Langer made a distinction between symbols and signs, and her philosophy should have four instead of three components, while, given that philosophy has no more than three components in Danto’s discussion, Langer’s signs and symbols can be merged into representation in order to keep the triadical structure.

44 Danto 1997: xxv.

45 Langer 1954: 83.

46 Ibidem: 52.

47 Ibidem: 65-66.

48 Ibidem: 79.

49 For the affinities between Susanne Langer, Nelson Goodman, and Ernst Cassirer, see Carter 2015: 401-418.

50 Goodman 1968: 252-4.

51 Goodman 1978: 68.

52 Danto 1981: 146-7.

53 Danto 1998: 195.

54 Robinson 2013: 183.

55 Costello 2012.

56 Danto 1997: xxviii.

57 Danto 2001: 7.

58 Ibidem.

59 Benjamin 2018: 190.

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Peng Feng, «Danto’s indiscernibility: an intercultural interpretation »Rivista di estetica, 80 | 2022, 80-95.

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Peng Feng, «Danto’s indiscernibility: an intercultural interpretation »Rivista di estetica [Online], 80 | 2022, online dal 01 février 2024, consultato il 17 juin 2024. URL: http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/estetica/14970; DOI: https://0-doi-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/10.4000/estetica.14970

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