Friday, June 6, 2014

Does art give us knowledge?

Derek Matravers in his new Introducing Philosophy of Art:  In Eight Case Studies (Acumen, 2013) addresses the issue of whether art can give us knowledge.  The case for knowledge does not seem strong by the end of his chapter "Art and Knowledge."  He underrates it.  Beginning with the art of literature, he quotes James Currie who holds that "Fictions can act as aids to the imagination - holding our attention, making a situation vivid for us..."  For Currie, we can begin to feel what it is like to be certain characters.  The skeptic, Matravers asserts, can always argue against this that fiction is unreliable and hence any imaginative project based on it is as well, and then it is not knowledge.  (126-7)

I recently read Shakespeare's The Tempest and saw a performance of it.  I also recently read an account of the life and work of Machiavelli which stressed the possible contemporary relevance of The Prince.  The Prince and The Tempest are easily compared.  But one is treated as non-fiction and the other as fiction.  One is supposed to make stronger claims to knowledge than the other (although whether the philosophical truths it asserts are in fact true is open to much debate.)  Instead of just comparing them we can see them as in a contest.  We can see them as competing visions of the good society, i.e. of the ideal relationship between the leader of a society and his subjects.  On this view, knowledge of these things is deepened if one reads the two together and thinks about their competing visions.  They were in competition during their time and are still today, although less urgently so.  Why assume that the vision presented in The Tempest is less reliable than that presented in The Prince?  In The Tempest are we just rehearsing possible situations or are we doing something more?   Rather than a mere set of true beliefs I believe that knowledge is a set of skills, beliefs, models, and narratives that coheres and gives power.  Moreover, knowledge changes through history.  An advance in knowledge is a further development of a vision, a model, a world metaphor.  The Tempest advances knowledge insofar as it questions certain accepted relations between the prince and his subjects.  Currie's idea that fiction allows us to "feel what it is like to be those characters" is true but does not go far enough.  As Mactravers puts it, "Currie does not think our exercises of imagination provide us with knowledge of facts, but rather different patterns of behavior."  (127)  That does not tell me how The Tempest can contain within it the promise of knowledge.  ("Knowledge of facts" is a oddity in the first place.  If you have knowledge you have gone far beyond facts:  knowledge is based on facts, it is not of facts.)  Perhaps the notion of "patterns of behavior" comes closer to what I think of as knowledge, although knowledge must not just be a pattern of behavior, a vision, a model, a must also be true.      

 Interested in learning more?  See my book:  Thomas Leddy The Extraordinary in the Ordinary:  The Aesthetics of Everyday Life.  Broadview Press, 2012.  Available at Amazon in paperback, and an electronic version at google where you can also find most of the first 47 pages including the table of contents.  You can also buy it fro  Broadview. 

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