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Book Notes: “Philosophy the Basics” by Nigel Warburton

Summary

Philosophy the Basics by Nigel Warburton (2013, 5th Edition) is a concise introduction to the field of philosophy. The book is structured around important philosophical themes rather than a chronological history or survey of key figures (e.g. Plato, Descartes, Kant, etc.). While historical elements and the ideas of important philosophical thinkers appear throughout, Warburton’s goal is to take the reader on a tour of the important philosophical questions and the theories, concepts, and frameworks used to answer those core questions. These are fundamental, existential questions that humans have been exploring for millennia: Does God exist? What does it mean to be good? Am I dreaming? How can I know something with certainty? Do we possess souls?

The book is organized into 8 short but information-dense chapters. Each chapter represents an important branch of philosophy. For instance, Chapter 2 “Right and Wrong” considers the branch of philosophy known as ethics or moral philosophy. Ethics examines right and wrong behaviors, why we should be good, the nature of virtue, intention vs. consequence, and a lot more. Warburton walks the reader through the three main schools of moral theory: duty-based (deontological), consequentialist, and virtue (Aristotelian) theories. In each case, Warburton explains the rationale behind the theory, key proponents and tenets of the theory, and criticisms against the theory (Warburton, to his credit, maintains this objectivity throughout the book, he repeatedly presents both sides of any argument).

Introductory surveys of this kind offer two key benefits. First, the reader gets the broad strokes—a kind of highlight reel for a topic that might otherwise appear daunting or impenetrable to the outsider. Second, the reader gets to identify those narrower topics that really resonate and take note for future inquiry (Warburton facilitates further exploration by furnishing comprehensive bibliographic recommendations at the end of each chapter).

Philosophy the Basics is an excellent springboard for the layperson into a vast topic. Warburton is a British philosopher noted for his efforts to popularize the subject; he has published a half-dozen introductory philosophy books and also hosts a long-running podcast, Philosophy Bites. I enjoyed this book thoroughly—it’s been years since I last read Plato, Descartes, Hume, et.al. in college. Warburton reminds me that, in the hand of an effective communicator, philosophy is both universal and anything but boring.

Pros: The thematic approach to the subject works really well here. Warburton is skilled at presenting complex ideas in clear but simple terms. The author repeately demonstrates the useful habit of presenting an idea and considering it from all angles (pro and con).

Cons: Warburton omits logic from his survey. It’s a justifiable decision owing to space constraints, but would have been nice to have.

Verdict: 7/10


Highlights

Introduction

  • What is philosophy?

    • Vague answers:

      • Philosopher is what philosophers do. It is the relevant characteristic shared in the writing and thinking of figures like Plato, Descartes, Hume, Kant, and more.
      • Dictionary definition: “love of wisdom.”
    • Author’s attempt at an answer:

      • “A way of thinking about certain sorts of questions.”
      • Makes use of logical arguments.
      • “Philosophers typically deal in arguments: they either invent them, criticize other people’s or do both.”
  • Philosophical questions loosely consider the meaning of life:

    • Questions about religion.
    • What is right and what is wrong?
    • Questions about politics, rules, and governance.
    • The nature of reality, the mind, science, art, and any other topic.
  • Example: A fundamental belief that killing is wrong.

    • Why is killing wrong?
    • What is the justification for a given position?
    • Is it always wrong? Are there circumstances where it is justified? (e.g. self-defense)
    • What about euthanasia?
    • How do you define ‘wrong’?
  • In part, philosophy is the examination of belief.

  • Why study philosophy?

    • Helps us explore existential questions.
    • Provides a way of thinking about a wide range of issues (by analyzing arguments and arriving at reasonable conclusions).

Chapter 1: God

  • Philosophical question: Does God exist?

    • Individual and societal answer may affect our behavior as well as how we understand the world.
    • “If God exists, then human existence may have a purpose, and we may even hope for eternal life. If not, then we must create any meaning in our lives for ourselves.”
  • Theism: a general view that a monotheistic God exists, is omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent.

    • Christians, Jews, and Muslims adhere to this view.
  • The Design Argument (aka Teleological Argument)

    • The observed world is evidence of a Creator.

    • The metaphor of a “Divine Watchmaker” is often used.

    • Argument relies on analogy: complex objects in the real world are “made” by someone, ergo natural objects must have been similarly built.

    • Arguments against Design:

      • Analogies are problematic. They assume similarities between phenomena that might not be true.
      • Darwins theory of evolution by natural selection offers a plausible alternative explanation.
      • The Design Argument doesn’t prove the existence of a monotheistic deity. One could argue that a group of gods could have achieved a similar outcome.
      • Natural inefficiencies might hint that the Creator is not all powerful (e.g. the human eye isn’t perfect, consider short-sightedness, cataracts, etc.).
  • The Fine-Tuning Argument (aka the Anthropic Principle)

    • God fine-tuned the conditions of the universe just-so to bring about evolution and life.

    • Arguments against:

      • The lottery objection: statistically unlikely outcomes are still possible and even probable when given sufficient numbers and time.
      • Luck and randomness cannot be discounted even though humans prefer cause-and-effect narratives.
  • The First Cause Argument (aka the Cosmological Argument)

    • States that everything is caused by something. Nothing can spring into existence without a cause.

    • The first cause was God.

    • Arguments against:

      • Contradictory: Sets up a causal chain of events but then arbitrarily selects God as the start of the chain. Why must the causal chain stop at God?
      • Infinite regress: A never-ending series going back infinitely. Shouldn’t causation extend infinitely?
      • Unwarranted conclusion: The argument offers no evidence for an omnipotent and omniscient God.
  • The Ontological Argument

    • God is the most perfect being imaginable.

    • Per St. Anselm (1033-1109): “That being than which nothing greater can be conceived.”

    • God’s existence is a given much as the definition that the sum of a triangle’s interior angles will be 180 degrees.

    • Arguments against:

      • It allows us to define arbitrary things into existence (e.g. a perfect island, a perfect beach). However, just because we can imagine such a thing doesn’t mean it exists.
      • Existence is not a property. Existence is a precondition of possessing any properties at all.
      • The existence of evil raises questions about an all-good God.
  • Knowledge as a type of true, justified belief.

    • Justification is when knowledge is based on credible evidence or reasons.
    • It is possible to hold unjustified beliefs.
  • The Problem of Evil

    • Evil exists in the world, this is undeniable.

    • There are different types of evil:

      • Moral evil or cruelty: humans inflicting suffering on other humans (and even animals).
      • Natural or metaphysical evil: earthquakes, disease, famine. May arise from natural causes but can be worsened by human responses or incompetence.
    • How can an omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent God allow evil to exist?

    • Theodicies: Deist explanations for the compatibility of God and evil:

      • Saintliness: Evil is justified because it can lead to moral goodness. It is an opportunity to overcome suffering.
      • Artistic analogy: Beauty and harmony are only achievable through contrast. Evil contributes to this harmony as an oppositional force.
      • Free will: God grants humans the ability to choose how to act and behave.
  • Miracles as evidence of God’s existence.

    • Miracle: an act of divine intervention in which a law of nature is broken.

    • Arguments against:

      • David Hume: Used a kind of Occam’s Razor in which the simpler explanation for an event is the more likely one.
      • Evidence suggesting that a miracle didn’t occur will be greater than evidence supporting the miracle.
      • Humans are good at self-deception and prone to psychological errors.
      • There is an incentive to report miracles (gain status, approval and be viewed as special).
      • All religions claim miracles. Can all the gods be true or exist?
  • Pascal’s Wager (aka The Gambler’s Argument)

    • Blaise Pascale (1623-62) used this argument to demonstrate that belief in God is a reasonable strategy (rather than the existence of God).

    • Argument says that the rational decision is to believe in God since the upside (if he exists) is big. The downside if he doesn’t exist isn’t a big problem. Maximize winnings and minimize losses or regret.

      • Bet on God and win (God exists): eternal life.
      • Bet on God and lose(God doesn’t exist): we die.
      • Don’t bet on God and win (God doesn’t exist): we die.
      • Don’t bet on God and lose (God exists): no eternal life.
    • Arguments against:

      • We can’t simply decide to believe whatever we want.
      • The solution is insincere and motivated by self-interest (and God should be able to see through the ruse).
  • Non-Realism is an alternative to Theism. Non-realism views God as a set of moral and spiritual values. It’s a representation of the highest human ideals.

    • Critics view Non-Realism as a kind of atheism.
  • Faith: religious faith makes philosophical and reasoned arguments irrelevant.

    • Faith requires trust first and foremost. It is based on belief rather than evidence or reason.

Chapter 2: Right and Wrong

  • Ethics (aka moral philosophy) is the branch of philosophy concerned with questions about right and wrong.

  • Three types of moral theory:

    • Duty-based
    • Consequentialist
    • Virtue-based
  • Duty-based theories (aka deontological)

    • Christian ethics: Western moral teachings based on Judeo-Christian ideas (e.g. The Ten Commandments).

      • Ethics based on external authority of God and his precepts.

      • Arguments against:

        • What is God’s will? The Bible is contradictory and open to interpretation.
        • What about conflicting rules?
        • This ethical system is based on the assumption of God’s existence.
    • Kantian ethics:

      • Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) asked “what is a moral action?”

      • Kant believed moral actions were performed out of duty rather than inclination or expectation of gain.

      • Kant viewed the motives of action as more important than the action or its consequences.

      • Self-interest was not a moral motive for Kant.

      • Maxim: the general principle underlying an action.

        • Example: The Good Samaritan might have acted on the maxim to help others in need when you feel compassion for them.
      • Categorical Imperatives: absolute and unconditional duties. These are commands to act in certain ways.

        • Example: You ought always to tell the truth.
        • Example: You ought never to kill anyone.
        • Kant’s basic Categorical Imperative: “Act only on maxims which you can at the same time will to be universal laws.”
      • Hypothetical duties: tell you what you ought to do to achieve a goal (or avoid one).

        • Example: If you want to be respected, then you ought to tell the truth.
      • “Kant thought that for an action to be moral, the underlying maxim had to be a universalizable one.”

  • Consequentialism describes theories where right and wrong are based on the outcome rather than the intention.

    • Utilitarianism

      • Key advocates: Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873).
      • The goal of human activity is happiness (hedonism).
      • Good is whatever brings about the greatest total happiness.
      • Utilitarianism considers probable consequences because it is difficult to predict the outcomes of specific actions.
      • A common criticism is that utilitarianism can be used to justify immoral actions.
    • Negative Utilitarianism

      • The goal of this view is to minimize unhappiness or suffering (rather than maximize happiness).
    • Rule Utilitarianism

      • Combines utilitarianism with deontological ethics.
      • Consider general rules about actions that produce greater happiness for the most people.
  • Virtue Theory

    • Based on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.

    • Virtue theorists are interested in personal character and the individual’s life as a whole. Individuals should cultivate virtue.

    • Eudaemonia: Greek word for true happiness or the good life.

    • Virtues are patterns of behavior or feeling. Ways of acting and feeling in specific situations.

      • “A virtue isn’t an unthinking habit, but rather involves an intelligent judgement about the appropriate response to the situation you are in.”
      • A generous person, would act generous in various situations.
    • Which patterns and behaviors should be treated as virtues? How do we decide which virtues to cultivate and celebrate?

  • Practical or Applied Ethics

    • Applying ethical frameworks to imagined or real-world situations.

    • Example: euthanasia (mercy killing).

      • Is it morally acceptable to end someone’s life?

      • We should distinguish between voluntary (patients wishes to die), involuntary (will of the individual is ignored), and non-voluntary (patient is unconscious).

      • Use the lens of the above moral theories to understand the varying positions:

        • Christian ethics: Must decide between the Ten Commandments and the New Testament Commandment to love one’s neighbor.
        • Utilitarian: Must consider the balance of happiness resulting from a given decision.
        • Virtue Theorist: Might consider the virtues of the person performing the euthanasia.
  • Meta-Ethics considers second order-questions.

    • First-order questions are “what should we do?”

    • Second-order questions are theories about the theories.

      • Example: “What is the meaning of ‘right’ in the moral context?”
    • Three meta-ethical theories:

      • Ethical naturalism
      • Moral relativism
      • Emotivism
    • Naturalism: assumptions and ethical judgements are based on scientific facts (natural world).

      • Objection: Hume’s Law: The “is-ought” problem occurs when people make claims about what ought to be based on statements about what is (the gap between descriptive and prescriptive or normative ideas). Related to the fact-value distinction.
    • Moral Relativism: morality is a description of values held by people at a given point in time.

      • “Moral judgements can only be judged true or false relative to a particular society.”
    • Emotivism: claims that all ethical statements are literally meaningless. They do not express facts, they express the observer’s emotion or opinion about facts.

Chapter 3: Animals

  • Increased philosophical interested in contemporary times about differences between humans and animals and treatment.

    • Peter Singer (1946-) is an important thinker in this arena.
  • Speciesism: the belief that the interests of other species is invalid, inconsequential, or of lesser importance.

    • “Speciesism takes the species as the defining feature of moral worth, not the capacity of the individual concerned to have interests.”
  • Anti-Speciesism: The belief that non-human animals do have interests, particularly mammals.

    • The capacity to suffer is a key moral consideration.
  • Do animals have rights?

    • Some thinkers believe rights imply corresponding duties and there can be no moral rights without handling these responsibilities.
    • Humans can meet duties towards other species and act morally towards them.

Chapter 4: Politics

  • Equality

    • There are moral justifications for equality (e.g. the Christian belief that we are all equal according to God or a utilitarian belief that equal treatment can maximize happiness).

    • Equality must be qualified: obviously people vary in many dimensions (genetics, experience, preference).

    • Some dimensions of equality to consider:

      • Opportunity
      • Access
      • Employment
      • Political power
      • Financial distribution
  • Freedom

    • Negative freedom: the absence of coercion.

      • “If no one is actively preventing you from doing something, then in that respect you are free.”

      • Governments typically restrict some individual freedoms. These restrictions are often justified as ways to protect the overall society.

      • A central challenge is determining what acts are harmful to others.

        • John Stuart Mill believed that taking offense did not constitute serious harm.
    • Positive freedom: the freedom to exert control over your life. If you can exercise control, you are free.

      • Some argue that only through external coercion can others experience positive freedom. This is a potentially dangerous line of reasoning.
      • Example: A rich and powerful actor who is a drug addict. The actor has great negative freedom (nobody is preventing them from doing things) but little positive freedom (they are not in control of their optimal personal choices).
  • Free Expression

    • Liberal democracies are distinguished by the liberties enjoyed by their citizens.

    • But where should the limits on free speech be drawn?

      • What constitutes harm?
      • Who judges what should be censored?
    • Some like Mill believe in the marketplace of ideas. Ideas that are challenged only become stronger in order to fend of criticisms from opposing beliefs.

      • “Through the collision between truth and falsehood, the truth will emerge victorious and with a greater power to influence action.”
    • The debate over free speech must consider two negative dimensions of speech:

      • Dangerous speech: e.g. someone posts information about making a dangerous explosive online.
      • False speech: e.g. someone is promoting a false idea.
  • Punishment

    • Retribution: View that law-breakers deserve punishment.

      • Whether society benefits from the punishment is immaterial. Punishment is the appropriate response (deontological argument).

      • Retributivism requires a proportional response to the crime committed.

        • Admittedly, this can be difficult to determine for some crimes like blackmail.
    • Deterrence: Justification that punishment discourages lawbreaking (both by the perpetrator and society at large).

      • It is important that punishments be seen and be made public so that there is societal knowledge about the consequences.
      • The benefits to society are a key component (consequentialist argument).
    • Protection: Justification that punishment prevents criminals from reoffending.

    • Reform: Punishment will change offenders, so they don’t commit further crimes.

      • Removing freedom as a form of treatment.
  • Civil Disobedience

    • Is it ever morally acceptable to break a law?

    • Civil disobedience is a belief that breaking an immoral or unjust law is the moral imperative of the populace.

    • Examples:

      • The suffragette movement (women’s vote)
      • Mahatma Gandhi (Indian independence)
      • Martin Luther King Jr (American civil rights movement)
      • Vietnam War and American conscientious objectors and anti-War movement.
    • Civil disobedience involves non-violent, public law-breaking designed to bring attention to unjust laws and policies.

    • Note that terrorists or freedom fighters (depending on where your sympathies lie) use acts of violence for political ends.

Chapter 5: Appearance and Reality

  • Epistemology is the philosophical branch concerned with the acquisition of knowledge.

  • Knowledge of the external world is mediated through the five senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste.

  • What is the relationship between what we think we see or experience, and what is actually present in reality?

    • Can one be certain about what they see?
    • Could one be in a perpetual dream state?
    • Do objects exist when nobody observes them?
  • Common-Sense Realism: View that assumes there is a world of physical objects and that people can learn about those objects directly through the five senses.

  • Skepticism: View that we can never know anything for certain. The understanding that traditional means of knowledge are unreliable.

    • The Illusion Argument is a skeptical argument that questions the reliability of the senses.

      • Sensory illusions demonstrate the problems of relying uncritically on our senses.
      • For instance, train tracks on the horizon appear to converge, hot weather can make a road appear to be moving, the moon appears larger the lower it is on the horizon.
    • The Dream Argument suggests that reality itself may be an illusion if we are caught in the haze of a dream state.

    • Hallucination: similar to the dream argument, this skeptical approach suggests that our senses are in a partially altered state.

    • Brain in a Jar thought experiment: An even more extreme idea is to imagine that we are merely brains in jars and only capable of the illusion of sensory experience.

  • Memory is another unreliable cognitive phenomenon.

    • Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) suggests a hypothetical scenario in which the world came into existence mere minutes ago and that everyone inhabiting the world springs to life with a rich set of memories that remember an unreal past.
  • Logic: skeptics could attempt to question logic itself, but this would undermine their arguments as well.

    • This points to the fact that there are practical limits to which assumptions can be called into doubt.
  • Descartes and the Cogito:

    • Descartes argued that if he was being deluded, the very fact that he was being deluded would offer some certainty—if a deceiver was deluding him, it must mean that the victim does, in fact, exist. “I think therefore I am.”
    • There are limits to Descartes’ argument. It says nothing about who we are. Nor does it even require that we are thinking. Critics say his argument only suggests that we might exist.
  • More sophisticated theories of perception:

    • Representative Realism: A modified version of common-sense realism.

      • “All perception is a result of awareness of inner representations of the external world.”

      • Example: If I see a seagull, what I am aware of is a mental representation, a kind of “inner picture” of the seagull.

      • Primary and Secondary Qualities:

        • Primary qualities are qualities of an object regardless of the conditions under which it is perceived or experienced.
        • Secondary qualities are qualities of an object that are part of the sensory experience: color, smell, taste.
    • Idealism: The idea that we are all locked into individual cinemas in our perception of the external world. There is no “real world” outside our individual perceptive frameworks.

      • Objects only exist as long as they are being perceived.
      • Bishop Berkeley (1685-1753): “To exist is to be perceived.”
      • This is not a particularly plausible theory.
    • Phenomenalism: A theory of perception that posits that we only have access to sensory experience rather than the external world. Differs from idealism regarding physical objects.

      • Phenomenalists are trapped in private cinemas, but believes that objects continue to exist even when not projected onscreen.
    • Causal Realism: Assumes that there are physical objects in the external world and that the biological function of our senses is to help us understand and navigate this environment.

      • It assumes that the beliefs we have about the physical world are generally true.

Chapter 6: Science

  • The scientific method represents an important advance in the way humans acquire knowledge.

    • Empirical truth replaces truth by authority (accepting the truth from the Church other luminaries).
    • Empirical truth is rooted in experimentation, observation, and justification of claims through evidence.
  • Scientific method, simple view:

    • Scientists make observations.
    • Scientist records data in an objective manner.
    • Scientist devises a theory to explain the results (the data). This theory is a generalization of the phenomenon.
    • Scientist revises the theory if future results are incongruent with prior theory.
  • Criticisms of the simple view:

    • Assumes that existing knowledge and expectations do not influence observations (they can and do).
    • How we make our observations, for instance our language and terminology, influences our theoretical assumptions.
    • Observation involves selection of criteria or observable phenomena and what is important about the object of study. These choices are not unbiased or wholly objective.
  • Deduction: An argument that begins with specific premises and derives a logical conclusion from the premises.

    • Example: All birds are animals. Swans are birds. Therefore, all swans are animals.
    • If the premises are true, the conclusion must be true.
  • Induction: A type of argument that involves a generalization based on (numerous) specific observations.

    • Example: I observe 1000 white swans and conclude that all swans are white.
    • The conclusions of an inductive argument may or may not be true (example, we may someday observe a black swan).
    • Induction provides a reliable prediction about the future based on our experience. But it is not completely reliable.
    • The Problem of Induction: The reliability problem identified by David Hume.
    • Nelson Goodman’s Riddle of Induction explores a second inductive problem through his concept of an arbitrary property called ‘grue’: “The predictions we make on the basis of induction are not the only ones we could make using the available evidence.”
    • [Note: This is a favorite topic of Nassim Taleb who discusses in Fooled by Randomness and other books]
  • Abduction (aka “Inference to the Best Explanation”)

    • A non-deductive argument that judges the plausibility of a hypothesis based on the quality of its explanation.
    • “The best hypothesis is the one that explains more.”
    • As with induction, the truth of the premises of an argument by abduction does not guarantee the conclusion (it’s more probabilistic in nature).
    • It is useful for situations where more than one explanation is possible.
  • Falsificationism

    • Argument against the simple view of science as developed most notably by Karl Popper (1902-94).

    • “Scientists do not begin by making observations, they begin with a theory.”

      • Theories are speculative attempts to explain the natural world. Theories are a conjecture meant to improve on prior theories.
      • Conjectures are subject to testing and scrutiny. The goal is to prove that a theory is false (rather than true). False theories can be discarded and replaced.
      • “Science thus progresses by means of conjecture and refutation.”
    • A single falsifying instance can invalidate a theory no matter how many prior observations have been made.

      • It is easier to disprove a generalization than to prove one.
    • Falsifiability: A theory is not a scientific hypothesis if there is no possible observation that can falsify it.

      • Untestable hypothesis may still have value, but they prevent science from progressing.
      • “If there is no possibility of refuting them, then there is no way of replacing them with a better theory.”
    • Note that this view is still subject to human biases and error.

  • Thomas Kuhn (1922-95) and the concept of new paradigms as a different framework for understanding scientific progress.

    • New paradigms involve whole new sets of assumptions which yield new interpretations based on evidence and new problems that can be solved.
    • In this view, science does not progress by individual series of conjecture/refutation cycles but via larger paradigm shifts.

Chapter 7: Mind

  • Philosophy of the mind differs from psychology:

    • Psychology is the scientific study of human behavior and thought.

      • Example: A psychologist might study a condition by running tests on patients or evaluating data.
    • Philosophy of the mind is not experimental. It focuses on analysis and conceptual frameworks.

      • Examples: What is the mind? What do we mean by mental illness?
  • Mind/Body Problem

    • A framework for distinguishing between mental and physical aspects.

      • Mental aspects: thinking, feeling, deciding.
      • Physical aspects: objects and phenomena in the real world.
    • Is this division real or is it imagined?

    • Mind/Body Dualism is the idea that there is a real division between mind and body.

    • Physicalists believe there is no separation between mind and body.

  • Dualism purports that there is some quality that distinguishes physical process (e.g. neurons and brain cells firing) from mental processes (human thinking).

    • Human beings are more than just physical beings.

    • We possess a “soul.”

    • Descartes is the most famous mind/body dualist (sometimes dualism is called Cartesian dualism).

    • Arguments against dualism:

      • Science can only examine the physical world and the effects of our minds on the physical world.
      • Evolution from simple physical organisms undermines the idea of dualism.
      • Dualists are unable to explain the interaction between the mind and body.
  • Physicalism is the belief that mental events can be completely explained by physical events (e.g. events in the brain).

    • Monism: A belief in a singular source or substance. In this case, it’s the physical.

    • “In theory at least, it should be possible to give an entirely physical description of any mental event.”

    • Various physicalist sub-theories:

      • Type-Identity Theory: Thoughts are specific brain states.

      • Token-Identity Theory: Thoughts of the same type need not represent brain states of the same type.

      • Behaviorism: Behavior is a reflex or response to the physical world that represents a tendency (either genetic or learned through experience).

      • Functionalism: Mental states (beliefs, desires, being in pain, etc.) are constituted solely by their functional role. These mental states are influenced through interactions with other mental states, sensory inputs and behavioral outputs

        • Warburton likens Functionalism to computers and software. Functionalism doesn’t consider the hardware, only the software.

Chapter 8: Art

  • What defines art? What makes something artistic? These are some basic questions of the philosophical branch of aesthetics.

  • Some philosophers argue that art cannot be defined. There is no meaningful common denominator among such a range of objects (e.g. paintings, plays, films, novels, music, dance, etc.).

  • Significant Form Theory

    • Argues that art results in an aesthetic emotional response. These responses are non-practical.
    • Significant form is the relationship between the parts of the artwork. The structure itself (rather than subject or external considerations).
    • For painting, for instance, the significant form would be found in the colors and textures of the work to evoke a response.
  • Idealist Theory of Art

    • The actual work of art is non-physical. It is an idea or emotion in the mind of the creator. The physical manifestation mediates this idealized form.
    • Genuine art has no purposes. Craft is different, it has utility (e.g. a chair) or entertainment value (a popular film).
  • Institutional Theory

    • Understands art to have two common characteristics:

      • Art is an artifact: something worked on by humans (even found objects are artifacts by virtue of their being curated and displayed in some way).
      • Art has been granted the status as art by a gatekeeper of the artistic world (publisher, producer, museum curator, etc.).
  • Art criticism:

    • What is the role of the artist’s intentions in the interpretation of their work?

    • Anti-intentionalists argue that we can only judge the work itself (no external information should be used). Art is for the viewer to interpret on its own merits.

    • Authenticity: what constitutes an authentic performance of music or a play? Is this even possible given the distance between audience and creator (in the case of Bach and a modern audience)?

      • Why do we place such great value on original works of arts even when perfect copies (and even forgeries) are available?


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