Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Art as argument

I once ran a panel discussion between an Islamic theologian and a philosopher of art. The Islamic theologian was defending what she claimed was traditional Islamic jurisprudence, that for the sake of freedom of inquiry it is legally permitted to write anything in the context of intellectual verbal argument (even really nasty things about the founder of Islam, as long as long as they were supported by argumentation), but that there are restrictions on, say, what is permitted in art. The idea was that in intellectual inquiry, verbal expressions have a privileged status.

It seems to me that this account of inquiry is somewhat impoverished. While argument can be made in words, it can also be made in other ways. In their fun Handbook of Christian Apologetics Kreeft and Tacelli give this argument for the existence of God:

There is the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Therefore there must be a God.
You either see this one or you don't.
I may not see it, because my own appreciation of music is most deficient[note 1], but I see the kind of argument that is made here, and it is not an argument in words—simply asserting that there is the music of J. S. Bach doesn't do the job. The music is an essential part of the argument itself.

Or consider the following argument:

  1. Guernica
  2. Therefore, war is wrong.

Does it make sense to simply incorporate a work of art as a premise to an argument. One problem—and this may be the reason for the apparent Islamic privileging of verbal arguments—is that arguments that incorporate a work of art as a premise are hard to criticize. I am not a pacifist. So I accept that the above argument is unsound. But it is really hard to see what I deny. Do I deny premise (1), i.e., deny Guernica? That seems to be a category mistake. Or do I deny that (2) follows from (1)? So there is something unfair about the use of art in argument—one is putting oneself beyond criticism, except maybe by a competing work of art.

Difficulties with this notwithstanding, I do think the idea that a work of art can express an otherwise ineffable proposition is defensible. Perhaps Guernica expresses the proposition that war is like this (isn't it fun to use hyperlinks to indicate referrents of demonstratives?). If so, then while denying Guernica is a category mistake, denying the proposition expressed by Guernica is no category mistake.

If so, then poems, songs, novels, etc. can express propositions that have truth value. This might be relevant to an account of Biblical inerrancy that includes the full range of genres found in Scripture.

Final note: I think the Bach and Guernica arguments may have different logical forms. It may not be that the music of Bach itself expresses something that implies the existence of God, so that the music is not a premise, but only a part of a premise—the premise that there is this [mp3 download is from here].


Beancan Tatterpants said...

Does an argument have to have the ability to convince? If that quality is essential to an "argument", I would say that art fails as an argument because it is, at its root, subjective.

Arguments need more support than, "you either get it or you don't". One can't engage a piece of art in the dialectic. One can't elaborate for the piece of art. A piece of art might have multiple, conflicting meanings and interpretations which seems to make for a bad argument.

In one sense, you could say that art has every right to exist as an argument. But it's just not a very good one.

Anonymous said...

I think this picture-argument by Wittgenstein is quite convincing:


philotheos said...

Perhaps there are two issues - whether art (taken in the general sense, e.g. music, painting, poetry) can be an argument (or part of one), and whether visual representation (say, a photograph or a video) can be an argument.

For the latter, it seems that when I have a premise that says "War is like 'this'," [where 'this' refers to some photo of a war scene], it is unambiguous what is being represented. It is also clear that strictly speaking we are not referring to the representation itself, but rather to what is being represented as support for the premise.

As such, visual representations could be non-subjective and a form of non-verbal argument, while not necessarily being art.

For the case of art, the distinction between the work of art, and what it is supposed to represent, if anything, is not so clear. Take Bach, for example. When we have a premise like "There is 'this' [insert Bach piece]," are we referring to
a. the subjective, phenomenal experience of hearing the music,
b. something this experience is supposed to point to,
c. the physical soundwaves,
d. the higher-order properties of the piece e.g. the form and structure, the harmonic variations, etc., or
e. what the stuff in d. points to e.g. the inspiration or genius of Bach?

The answer to this question may bear on whether art can be argument. Perhaps c. can be ruled out on the basis that insofar as we are taking Bach's piece to be art, c. is irrelevant.

Also, (to beancan) an argument's ability to convince doesn't seem dependant on it being non-subjective. And I wonder what one could say to someone who, for example, denied modus ponens. "You either get it or you don't" seems pretty much it. The point being that, it's not so much that people can or do disagree about the premises or their meanings, but rather whether there is any one correct interpretation in the non-epistemic sense.

I haven't really thought much about these issues, but they're pretty interesting.

Heath White said...

On a different but related note, you can do something that has the psychological effect of a written proof in mathematics. Here's one for the Pythagorean Theorem.


Anonymous said...


Very good post.

As for your note 1, I remember Che Guevara had a similar problem with grasping melodies.

As you wrote in the same note, "It's almost as if Zeno's paradox of the arrow was true for me in the case of music." I have thought a lot about the same problem with common making complex inferences. We discussed this already: http://blog.johndepoe.com/?p=396