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Keith Lehrer's book has stimulated a conversation in the academy about the nature of art and its place in human experience. It is an ambitious book that attempts to offer a theory of everything. Lehrer tells us it began as a book on aesthetics, but then, as one reviewer suggests "it morphed into a rambling, repetitive exploration of epistemology, the possibilities of zombies, human mortality, feminism, the mind-body problem, personal identity, human freedom, and a range of other matters." [Source]
The question "What counts as art?" is one of the oldest puzzles in aesthetics. I remember struggling with that question in a philosophy class at the University of California. Students came to that class with different expectations depending in part on their background and departmental major. The question seemed rather simplistic and vague at first. The art students asked "where are the slides?" - suggesting that if the philosophy professor would just get a slide projector and show some pictures the answer would become clear. (They were used to examples not argument about concepts.) The English majors in the class thought we should read Tolstoy to find out. And, of course, the philosophy students were looking for counter-examples to every offered definition.
Art students reading Lehrer's book will be satisfied because he does provide slides to view as examples for claims made in the text. This approach is most useful because he has linked the images to the text by setting up a website where one can go to view the image being discussed. Looking at the images is rewarding in itself and they do add to the discussion of the concepts and ideas presented. Theories of art have often looked for features of art that isolates it from the rest of our "ordinary" experience. Lehrer argues that art is intimately connected to how we think and feel, to how we see the world and ourselves in the world, and the world in ourselves. Art represents; and its form of representation uses the exemplar as a term of representation which uses the exemplar to exhibit the content of the art form represented and present in the consciousness of the observer.
"Exemplar" is a key term in Lehrer's work. He uses it in his definition of art: "Something is an artwork when it is created or chosen to elicit exemplar representation from aesthetic attention of the receiver responding to what the features of the work are like as new form and content reconfiguring experience in a way that has intrinsic value." (p. 129) I find this notion most useful in the context of literature. The art form we all participate in is - story telling and story building. Storytelling is the conveying of events in words. Story building is sometimes called living. Stories or narratives have been shared in every culture as a means of entertainment, education, cultural preservation and in order to instill moral values. We use stories as exemplars, for example, in the second book of Samuel we read the exciting love story of David and Bathsheba, and learn how David, driven by desire for the beautiful Bathsheba, brings her to his bed and makes her pregnant while her husband Uriah is in David's army fighting the enemies of Israel. David eliminates Uriah by sending a letter (carried by Uriah) to the commander telling him to place Uriah in the fiercest fighting and then to fall back leaving him alone to be killed. After Uriah is killed Bathsheba mourns for him for the appropriate time and then David brings her into his house and takes her as his wife. (2 Sam. 11,12) Shortly after this we are told "what David had done was wrong in the eyes of the Lord." And then, as we read in the King James Version,:
And the Lord sent Nathan unto David. And he came unto him, and said unto him, There were two men in one city; the one rich and the other poor.
The rich man had exceeding many flocks and herds: But the poor man had nothing, save one little ewe lamb, which he had bought and nourished up; and it grew up together with him, and with his children; it did eat of his own meat, and drank of his own cup, and lay in his bosom, and was unto him as a daughter.
And there came a traveller unto the rich man, and he spared to take of his own flock and his own herd, to dress for the wayfaring man that was come unto him; but took the poor man's lamb, and dressed it for the man that was come to him.
And David's anger was greatly kindled against the man; and he said to Nathan, As the Lord liveth, the man that hath done this thing shall surely die: And he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.
And Nathan said to David, Thou art the man.
Nathan's exemplar has been internalized by David and then acted upon to effect a change in David's understanding of the world and of himself in the world. Paintings, sculptures, music, all of these art forms can function in this way to inform us and to make our lives more rich.
The main features of Art, Self, & Knowledge are listed on the Oxford University Press page.
- Shows that philosophy of art is a central area of philosophical concern connected with central issues of experience, consciousness, autonomy, rationality, intentionality, representation, consensus and knowledge.
- Book web site (referenced in the text) shows all the images referred to in the text with brief quotes from the text.
- Discusses social and political issues such as the relation of art to globalization, freedom and feminism.
- Lehrer is a very well-known philosopher, mainly known for work in epistemology, now working in aesthetics.
The three terms of the title, art, self, and knowledge are discussed in the book in eleven chapters. The early chapters on art as exemplar are informed and useful in thinking about how art contributes to self and world and self in world. The attempt in the later chapters to provide a theory of everything (self, mind/body, truth, justification) based on the notion of exemplarized experiences is less compelling and at times repetitive. At times the prose is just a bit opaque:
If I am reasonable in what I accept, for example, and I accept that I am reasonable in accepting that I am reasonable in what I accept, then my reasonableness in accepting that I am reasonable in this way is explained by my reasonableness itself.
Sentences such as this one had me scratching my head for several minutes in a reasonable manner.
© 2012 Bob Lane
Bob Lane is an Honorary Research Associate in Philosophy and Literature at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia.