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Philosophy and the Arts: Seeing and Believing.

Philosophy and the Arts: Seeing and Believing. By ANDREW HARRISON. Thoemmes Press. 1997. pp. 209. 12.99 [pounds sterling].

THIS BOOK is in Bristol Introductions, a series on philosophical themes. Its editor, Ray Monk, strikes a slightly jarring note when to puff its fortunes he claims recent discussions in aesthetics `have tended to steer clear of the large and crucial question of what art has to teach us in favour of more manageable (and less interesting) topics, such as the analysis of our critical vocabulary' (Preface, xi). He also seems to think that `trite examples of aesthetic judgement ("That is good", "This is beautiful") ... have too often blighted the work of philosophers when discussing art' (Preface, p. xii). This might have been just about true thirty or forty years ago, but it is a travesty of what is happening now. It is not unusual for philosophers like Monk, distinguished for their work elsewhere, to parachute into aesthetics and proceed to make generalizations about it in apparent ignorance of the literature. Nobody would treat other branches of philosophy, say, the philosophy of mind, like this.

This book is both humane and humanist (these do not necessarily go together). Harrison reminds us that for Aristotle and Kant the possibility of art lies at the core of our idea of what it is to be the sort of beings we are and of the unfashionable idea that we discover or celebrate a hope in our underlying humanity in the exercise of aesthetic judgement (Introduction, p. xix). This study concentrates on how representational art, that is, pictures, metaphors, and stories, mean what they do. The author says it is not concerned with aesthetics (p. xv). I wish I had as certain a grasp of what counts as aesthetics. In any case, the book deals with issues commonly discussed in the literature. Harrison sees his project as seeking to lay the groundwork of what happens when forms of communication push towards their own limits (p. xix). Art is said to function by establishing new conceptions of a potentially shareable world of the hitherto personal and private by pushing towards the limits of what can be represented or conceived (p. xviii).

The lining up of pictures, metaphors, and stories prompts the questions whether these are species of the same genus or are category mistakes in the making here, but the persuasive character of Harrison's writing deflects these worries. The book is organized in two parts, `Seeing' and `Believing', topics which have preoccupied Harrison for as long as I can remember, and which also give the title, Seeing is Believing, to an important early volume of poems by the fine poet Charles Tomlinson, also based in Bristol. `Seeing' has chapters on `Pictures' and `Drawings', `Believing' on `Metaphor' and `Fictional Frames'.

To respond to painting we must have some conception of the thought that is necessary to the medium (p. 8). I find a difficulty in this which Harrison fully sees but which I am less than clear that the book finally resolves. If we can say what the thought is, then it has been expressed in language and is no longer peculiar to the medium of painting. If, on the other hand, it can only be seen in the painting and not repeated in language, then what assurance do I have that when I look at a painting what I see are thoughts? The difficulty also arises in connection with Harrison's belief that there are pictorial metaphors (this is' a literal, not a metaphorical, claim). For all the hundreds of paintings that I have looked at, I am by no means sure that I saw a metaphor in any of them. Perhaps this is analogous to Antisthenes' problem with Plato's universals: `I see a horse, Plato, I don't see horseness'. `I see a painting, A. H., but I don't see thoughts or metaphors'.

What I understand much better is Harrison's call to wonder at the phenomenon of pictorial representation. We should eschew the easy nature of pictures which seduces us into theoretical complacency. The central puzzle about the pictorial is that we can construe pictures apparently just by looking. The sentences we can understand are of the same kind which we can produce for the understanding of others, but this is not so for pictures; our inability to make a Vermeer-type picture has little connection with our capacities to recognize it (pp. 11-12). The commonest role of a picture is to communicate how things look, and our ability to make and recognize pictures lies in our ability to identify and transcribe the look of things into the picture, so Harrison speaks of the portability of looks (p. 16).

Anyone who has had the good fortune to know Andrew Harrison will know that he is a gifted teacher of philosophy and--I will not spare his blushes--he was even so while still an undergraduate. He is a teacher from an era before the nauseous quality control and Orwellian doublespeak of the present. Then the teaching of students consisted in their privilege to witness their teachers singlemindedly confronting the issues of philosophy. So this book crackles with ideas and sudden insights in a continuing conversation, e.g. the brilliantly perceptive remark, almost casually dropped, that Hume's philosophy treats as valid only that which can be pictorially represented. A world in which we communicated only via pictures, Harrison says, would be blind to those features of the world which radical empiricists were traditionally sceptical of, such as cause or responsibility. Hume has difficulty with what in principle we cannot draw or photograph (pp. 88-89).

Other examples from the first part of the book of Harrison's lively and provocative thought include a defence of the innocent eye against Gombrich's famous criticisms (p. 39) and a discussion of the lost but once deep connection between ideas of visual art and observational science (p. 44). An example from the second part of the book is this: the novel, Harrison says, stands to modern puzzles concerning moral psychology in a way comparable to how invention of perspective stands to Renaissance problems of the visual perception of the real world (p. 183).

Harrison's attack on Collingwood's theory of expression (pp. 60-61) is unfortunate since it makes the common mistake of presenting Collingwood as holding a simple-minded formulaic view of art as expression, a view which can only be held by those who have not worked through his philosophy of mind and who have not understood that it is the entire book (The Principles of Art), not a single phrase, that constitutes his account of art. Our ordinary language understanding of what the slogan `art is expression' could mean fails to capture Collingwood's account of what art is. The reductive nature of Harrison's criticism is an aberration in a book which Collingwood would have found deeply congenial.

In Chapter 2, `Drawings', there are some uncommon thoughts about landscape. Harrison thinks of figures as if they were human landscapes and locates the point of connection between figure drawing and landscape in the tactile imagination (p. 80). In an important challenge to the fashionable but misguided talk of reading pictures, Harrison rightly says maps have to be read; pictures do not (p. 86).

Central to Harrison's project is the view that the core of metaphor lies at the core of our cognitive abilities (p. 110); indeed, there is a general commitment to cognitivism throughout the book. It is tempting, he remarks, to ask what the function of metaphor is, but this assumes we have located it. It seems so simple: metaphor is that which is non-literal. But there are two traps to avoid: that of the arbitrary sign and that which fails to appreciate the scale of a metaphor (p. 123). Harrison's discussion of metaphor should be required reading for all who would do further work on this topic. Metaphor is not to be identified with a brief phrase (p. 126). He gives a much needed warning against taking the standard brief examples of metaphor, such as Juliet is the sun, as adequate examples by which to test theories of metaphor. He takes seriously the question of what is it to identify a metaphor. Identifying Romeo's metaphor is identifying what kind of thought we can ascribe to him and this will be a matter of attention to, say, some two-thirds of the entire play. This is attention of the kind exercised by literary critics.

A bar to diagnosing metaphor is not knowing what beliefs the metaphor maker held (p. 128). `The metaphorical occurs when what is non-deviantly said and meant deviates from belief (p. 131). `If metaphor is fiction with belief, how might it contrast with what we normally think of as fiction, with stow-telling, narrative fiction?' (p. 131). Fiction is fiction with narrative whereas metaphor is fiction which negotiates non-narrational, normally categorial, beliefs. Metaphor invites us to think beyond the range of our own conceptual boundaries--as Goodman says, metaphor is a deliberate category mistake. Narratives become stale by familiarity or weakness of imagination; metaphors die--(1) by cliche, (2) by conceptual change. No theory of metaphor can be adequate if it does not give an account of how metaphors die (p. 133). Too much indulgence in metaphor carries the price of being uncertain of what in fact we do believe. Too little metaphor produces a similar effect: of never exploring the limits of our beliefs for fear of being tempted beyond them (p. 142).

What I have called Harrison's humanist project is at its most evident in his account of fiction (Chapter 4, `Fictional Frames'). A puppy or a pony, he observes, does not know how to pretend. To pretend to be aggressive towards an animal can bewilder it dangerously (pp. 150-151). Nothing could more dramatically indicate how deeply what lies at the heart of art is embedded in the facts of what it is to be us; and our capacity for fiction is in there right at the start. Witness the child's love of story and its quick understanding of what fiction is. Aristotelian slogans, such as that man is the rational animal, etc., suggest a picture of what we take to be the core of humanity--that we can formulate and have opinions about our own beliefs and desires, that we must do so socially, that we delight in and celebrate the possibility of representation, and have a sense of the tragic (p. 153). To Plato's objection to art that it is not true it is easy to reply that what is fictional makes no show of being true (p. 154), but matters get deeper when we compare Plato's fear of poets with the fear the unhappy child has of pretend games.

`An utterance is fictional ... if it is neither true nor false but may yet have the grammatical form of an assertion which normally would be taken that way' (p. 155). For pretending to assert to fit the case of fiction it has to be non-deceptive pretence (p. 156). It is a logical fact about stories that what their plausibility confronts is non-fictional. Stories make sense so long as we learn to hold our questions back (p. 168).

The only hope of enlarging our range of sympathies, Harrison says, maintaining his commitment to a humanist ideal of literature, lies in fiction (p. 188). I would like to believe this. However, it is as likely, I fear, that we bring to our understanding of books the qualities we bring to our understanding of and display in our dealings with people. Shallowness, stupidity, lack of imagination, and characterizing the one are reproduced in our responses to the other.

It should be apparent from this sampling of Harrison's ideas that he has written freshly and perceptively, and also, it should be added, with wit and good humour, on much visited, indeed much trampled upon, subjects. I speak of sampling his ideas since although what the project is is admirably clear, how it is worked out is somewhat more elusive. The book is long on reflections and ideas but short on systematicity. This is a book about philosophy, painting, and literature, and none the worse for that, given the author's passion for all three, but the--unfocused--title raises some misgivings. No other art than painting or literature really gets a look in. But taken as an essay on selected topics in the philosophy of art, the book' is admirable for its originality, humanity, and independence of thought and vision.

The reference (p. 4) to John Hayman's Imitation of Nature should read Hyman, and Peter Lamarque has lost his co-author, S. H. Olsen, of Troth, Fiction and Literature (p. 155).


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Author:DIFFEY, T.J.
Publication:The British Journal of Aesthetics
Date:Oct 1, 1998
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