Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Can you burn a poem? Danto's stupendous discovery!

I try not to dabble in philosophical ontology.  It all seems too abstract and disconnected from reality.  But sometimes a claim just gets to me.  Danto (The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, 33-34) seriously considers the claim that one cannot burn a poem:  one can only burn a copy.  So, on this view, the poem is like a Platonic eternal Form. 

Yes, burning a copy is not burning the poem.  But burn all the copies and you come pretty close to eliminating the poem too, the only things left being whatever remains in the memories of those who had read or heard it.  I cannot go along with the idea that the poem continues to exist even after those memories are erased too.  Burn the planet to a crisp and all the poems (except for those that were put on space ships) are burned as well.  The end of the universe eliminates any survivors.  Poems are not eternal forms. They are no less valuable for that.

Turning to the chapter in which this passage occurs, "Content and Causation" we find Danto's discussion of the famous imagined case of two fragments one of a text of Don Quixote by Cervantes, and one of a text also called Don Quixote and identical to the first, but by a 20th century writer named Menard.  The second text has a very different meaning since, for example, it would be absurd for Menard to satirize chivalry, and so on. What is interesting about this story is that it is completely ridiculous.  One should no more believe that such a thing is possible than believe in miracles.  That it is ridiculous makes it a good story by Borges, from whom it originally comes, but not good philosophy.  Danto pulls off taking it seriously by using it as a premise for an argument in which the conclusion, in my view, is entirely true, i.e. that "works are in part constituted by their location in the history of literature as well as by their relationships to their authors...you cannot isolate these factors from the work since they penetrate, so to speak, the essence of the work." (36)  That is, as Danto intended, the "Intentional Fallacy" of Monroe Beardsley (arguably the leading aesthetician of the previous generation) is no fallacy at all.  The conclusion is fine, and a nice innovation.  But here's the trick.  Danto uses the truth of this conclusion and the dubious way he arrives at it (through this absurd thought experiment) to support an even more dubious theory about the nature of philosophy (and of art) in which indiscernible counterparts play the central role.  Thus on his view "Borges contribution to the ontology of art is stupendous" which makes Danto's own recognition of it to be stupendous as well.  Stupendous.  Really.

Of course Danto's argument hangs on an implied slippery slope argument.  We can all grant that short passages may appear in works from vastly different times or hands.  For example the phrase "the past is prelude" appears in 236,00 places on Google.  So, the argument goes, there are probably longer identical passages that not only come from different hands but also are independent of each other (one author not knowing about the other's work).  So why not a page of Don Quixote (or at least a paragraph) that is identical to a work by a 20th century author who is, perhaps, not even aware of Cervantes' work, and means something entirely different?  But it isn't going to happen any more than that famous collection of Shakespeare's plays written by monkeys.  So why base an argument on it?  Well, my interlocutor responds, it is a "thought" experiment:  you are supposed to imagine the instance and then follow Danto's logic proving that Beardsley was wrong.  Well, that is nonsense.  We just have a claim to "stupendous" ontology based on a string of witticisms tied to a clever story.

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