Philosophy of Art

Published 02 Dec 2016


This paper attempts to establish what practitioners of philosophy can learn from practitioners of Art. In doing so, the paper first looks into art and philosophy so as to offer a clear understanding of the subjects, before turning into the main theme.

What is Art?

Even though the above question appears simple, it is interesting and can, and is answered by reverting to the philosophy of art. In addition, art embraces descriptions of beauty, taste, symbolism as well as representation. Philosophy of art also explores the association existing between the inpidual artist (ideas), and the bigger congregation (audiences, culture, and universe) (Carroll N, 1998).

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That being the case, what does philosophy of art tell us about art? Some versions assert that art is a creative activity, expression or process of humans. According to Leo Tolstoy ‘Art is that human activity which consists in one human consciously conveying to others, by certain external signs, the feelings he has experienced and in others being affected by those feelings and also experiencing them.’ (Carroll N, 1998).

On the other hand, when something is done perfectly or acquainted by study and practice; it is referred to as an art (Carroll N, 1998). For instance, driving a car, dressing in a nice dress, laying a child to sleep or even the art of conversion.

In essence, art includes objects developed by humans that have aesthetic value or present symbolic meaning encompassing drawings, paintings as well as sculpture. Thus from the above observations, art can be said to be a symbolic representation of peoples association with nature (reality/environments). It is able to offer the concealed relations between things. It is beauty, it is truth. However, what does truth and beauty imply? This is where philosophy comes in as philosophy is the art of establishing the truth such that this truth is applied to life. In the same manner, art can be based on established truth that express the wonder and beauty of a relationship to the universe as it is acknowledged in the works of Marcel Proust and Henry Mattisse (Diffey T, 1995).

‘Art is a selective recreation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value judgments. An artist recreates those aspects of reality which represent his fundamental view of man’s natures.’ (Marcell Proust)( Diffey T, 1995), while Henry Mattisse writes ‘when we speak of nature, it is wrong to forget that we are ourselves a part of nature. We ought to view ourselves with the same curiosity and openness with which we study a tree, the sky or a thought because we too are linked to the entire universe (Diffey T, 1995).’

The different forms of art are visual arts which involve aspects such as painting, photography and sculpture among others, and fine arts which embrace music, dance, theatre, literature, poetry, etc.

What is philosophy?

As William Thomas points out, ‘Philosophy studies the fundamental nature of existence of man and man’s relationship to existence…in the realm of cognition, the special sciences are the trees but philosophy is the soil which makes the forest possible’ (Bender J, 1993).

A philosophy is an all inclusive organization of ideas concerning human nature as well as the nature of the truth we live in. it is a guide of living since the subjects it deals with are crucial and enveloping, establishing the course we take in life and how we treat other people.

Among the most important field that philosopher’s deal with fall into a number of separate fields. Among them, the most imperatives ones are; metaphysics which deals with the theory of reality, epistemology that connotes the theory of knowledge, ethics which is theory of moral values, politics which is theory of legal rights and government and aesthetics which refers to theory of nature of art (Carroll N, 1998).

The vehicle for philosophical guidance is religions such as Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism as well as Islam. Religions vary from philosophers not in the issues they deal with but in the ways they employ to address them. Religions are based on mythic stories that existed earlier before discovery of unequivocally cogent methods of inquiry (Bender J, 1993). The present day religion (majority of) appeal to mystical faith as well as revelation sort of belief that claim legitimacy independent of logic, and the scientific method, at least made for the biggest subjects. However, majority of religions are in their commencement pre-rational as opposed to anti-rational, a story teller’s account of philosophic issues as opposed to scientists (Bender J, 1993).

Philosophy in Greek connotes ‘love of wisdom’. Philosophy is founded on rational arguments and appeal to facts (Bender J, 1993). Modern science history began with philosophical enquiries and the scientific method of research and proof is an aspect of the general approach that a philosopher attempts to bring to a question; one that is coherent and vigorous.

Philosophy is known to offer deep and wide questions presently. Dealing with the issues in each branch of philosophy calls for integration of everything one knows concerning reality (metaphysics) or humanity (epistemology, ethics, politics and aesthetics) recommending reasonable inclination in philosophy therefore is not a simple job. Frankly, philosophers more often than not disagree about principle subject; some slipping their own positions in the mix as well (Diffey T, 1995). Thus, there is no particular philosophy world wide as is the case with physics, chemistry among other disciplines.

Having clearly distinguished the two disciplines, then we can embark on the issue of what a philosopher can learn from an artist. This calls us to explore the subfield of philosophy. It relates to nature of art, in addition to performing of arts as well as painting, sculpture and literature (Diffey T, 1995). Major concerns in aesthetic comprise of how artistic creations should be construed as well as assessed and how the arts are linked to one another, to natural beauty, morality, religious science as well as other crucial aspects of human life. The association between art and epistemology has been everlastingly tenuous and burdened with a lot of arguments (Diffey T, 1995). It is acknowledged that there is something meaningful from experiences as well as interactions with works of arts. However, it is not considered as obvious that whether or not the experiences one has with art can produce propositional understanding that is represented by true vindicated belief (Diffey T, 1995).

Whereas engaging objects aesthetically is both insightness and emotionally burdening practice, it is also essentially cognitive. Therefore, it can be said that aesthetic engagement is based on various epistemological concerns (Carroll N, 1998). For instance, philosophers claim to know about art. People say that they believed the play was good or bad, but the emotions it produced were called for, justified, manipulative or suitable. In most cases, people allege that they learn from art, that art alters their view of the world and that art has influence on the way they view as well as make sense of the world (Carroll N, 1998).

It also widely acknowledged that works of arts particularly good works of art, can cause view points about the world and can in turn offer knowledge concerning the world (Carroll N, 1998). However, what can exactly be known about art? Does art have any sort of propositional content that resembles the context that philosophers claim to require for other sort of knowledge claim?

The subject of whether philosophers have something to learn from artists revolves back to the period of Plato. Plato warned about the perils of making a fuss of mimetic as well as narrative demonstrations of the world and human actions. A practitioner of philosophy by his engagement with art permits certain emotions or activities that are able to facilitate or produce knowledge. It should be acknowledged that some aspects of art work that are able to produce greater understanding of the surrounding world (Carroll N, 1998). In this case, art becomes a source of insight as well as awareness, even though it cannot be put into propositional language. It can help people (philosophy practitioners) see the world in a new or different way (Carroll N, 1998).

They are often those who view art as being incapable of offering knowledge primarily because it does not generate any truth; they argue that since art cannot offer facts or produce arguments then there is nothing to learn from it (Diffey T, 1995). They further argue that art cannot be acknowledged as a source of knowledge as it is not productive of knowledge, construed in the convectional sense of vindictive true belief. They assert that art is devoid of propositional content capable of being learnt the conventional way, whereas it has influences that promote knowledge and that can promote or weaken the development of understanding. Thus the net effect is to reject art as a source of knowledge as it does not offer true beliefs and furthermore because it does not as well as cannot vindicate the views that it does express (Diffey T, 1995).

However, those who are for and those against concur that art is a source of knowledge, the only way that it can probably satisfy such a function be it that knowledge neglected something crucial to art’s nature as well as value (Diffey T, 1995).

Plato articulates that it is possible for an artist to make a representation of a thing without having advance knowledge of his presentation. For instance, painters represent cobblers when the painters have no idea how to make shoes, and poets write about virtue such as beauty and courage without any clear knowledge of these attributes (Carroll N, 1998). To Plato, it is only philosophers and moreover, those who struggle to intuit (feel) the forms and employ abstract reasoning are able to have know-how of these virtues. To him, the same things exist even for the literary arts in particular. He asserts that the more one engages in emotions brought about by representations, the more likely one is to suffer the influences of an unstable soul and finally the growth of bad attitude (Carroll N, 1998).

Aristotle seems to have agreed with Plato that art influences the development of one’s moral character. These two philosophers believed that people learn from art, however, Plato argued that the gained knowledge was harmful while Aristotle argued that it was beneficial (Carroll N, 1998).

Going back to the period of renaissance and beyond it should be noted that the works of art such as poetry and fiction engages the emotions of a philosopher in a healthy way rather as opposed to detrimental manner (Bender J, 1993). Some philosophers point out that there are there crucial types of knowledge claims that can be made concerning arts which are distinguished by objects. The first is what philosophers claim to know or believe concerning the art object itself and anything unreal or fictional worlds might be linked to that object. The second aspect of knowledge claim about art relates to what is known or believed to be appropriate emotional reaction to the art work. It is crucial to note at this point that works of art are correct, understood through having a certain kind of emotional response to them (Bender J, 1993).

The only problem encountered in this course is that it is not possible to establish the kind of response that is appropriate in relation to a particular work of art (Bender J, 1993).

The last kind of knowledge claim that is available as far as art is concerned relates to the nature of information art can offer about the whole world (Bender J, 1993). It is important to note that art affords imperative insight into the way philosophers order and understand the world. Art gives a certain degree of meaning to the lives of philosophers. Art, particularly literature, draws out novel views (beliefs) as well as new knowledge concerning the world (Bender J, 1993).


From the above, it is noteworthy that philosophy practitioners have a lot to learn from practitioners of art. It is important to acknowledge what constitutes knowledge so as to be able to understand how art impacts the subject.


  • Bender, John (1993). “Art as a Source of Knowledge: Linking Analytic Aesthetics and Epistemology.” In Contemporary Philosophy of Art, ed. John Bender and Gene Blocker. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  • Carroll, Noel (1998). “Art, Narrative, and Moral Understanding.” In Aesthetics and Ethics: Essays at the Intersection, ed. Jerrold Levinson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Diffey, T .J (1995): “What Can We Learn From Art?” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 73 202-11.
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