Monday, April 25, 2016
What is Medium? A sketch about a possible debate between Collingwood, Dewey and Heidegger, where Heidegger wins, but only by a nose
We constantly talk about competing philosophical traditions but often hesitate to actually have them come to terms with each other. For instance Collingwood, Dewey and Heidegger, all writing roughly at the same time, all had a theory about the medium of fine art, one that was pretty central to their theories of art, and yet we see no accounts of the implicit debate between these philosophers (they probably never actually read each other.). Both Dewey and Heidegger could, for example, be seen as both arguing in a profound way against Collingwood's concept of medium. For Coillingood, medium is just related to the craft aspect of art, and really has nothing to do with art properly so called, which is to be found in the ideal realm of the mind. Collingwood is deeply a dualist, although he has some interestingly anti-dualist ways of talking about the creative process in the studio: he can be deconstructed in this way. For Dewey, by contrast, the relationship between medium and message is much more dynamic, much more difficult to tease apart. Heidegger would join Dewey in rejecting Collingwood's idea of medium. He would say that Collingwood's idea is a perfect example of the kind of dualistic way of thinking we find in the tradition of Western metaphysics, where the artwork is something above and beyond the medium, just a matter of applying form to matter. (Heidegger would have a similar objection to Danto, whose dualism is much like that of Collingwood.) He would also, I think, argue that Collingwood is too individualistic in his perspective, giving too much emphasis to the artist and too little to the way that Being can come into unconcealment in great art: "the artist remains inconsequential as compared with the work." But Heidegger would also have a problem with Dewey's conception of medium. Here the dialogue would probably be more subtle and complex. Dewey and Heidegger would certainly agree that "there is something stony in a work of architecture." But Heidegger goes far beyond that, particularly when he talks about the temple. He says: "The luster and gleam of the stone, though itself apparently glowing only by the grace of the sun, yet first brings to light of the day, the breadth of the sky, the darkness of the night." There is a way in which the medium does not just exemplify itself but also does something to the surrounding environment in terms of the way it is experienced. When Heidegger asks us to listen to Being he is calling on us to get back to the point where we can experience architecture in precisely this way. So the material has a quality by which it is inter-animated by its relation to what Heidegger calls "the earth." As Heidegger puts it "the temple-work, in setting up a world, does not cause the material to disappear [as it would in Collingwood], but rather causes it to come forth for the very first time and to come into the Open of the work's world," where "world" refers to the cultural world context of the work. Dewey escapes the Collingwoodian trap to the extent that he brings in the notion that the universe serves as a kind of background to our experience of medium: he is no dualist and usually deconstructs all forms of dualism. And yet he doesn't go as far as Heidegger in the direction of a kind of religious atheism where the idea of medium becomes totally understood in terms of the earth/world dynamic in which earth is informed by its relationship to world and vice versa. Today I feel that Heidegger gives us a richer and fuller view of medium than even Dewey.