Arthur C. Danto

Art and analysis

RP 090 () / Interview

RP: Your philosophical work appears to be made up of two fairly distinct strands: what one might call a mainstream analytical strand and a more unconventional aesthetic strand. The second strand is dissident, first because itʼs about aesthetics – it takes art seriously, philosophically – and second because itʼs broadly Hegelian in inspiration. Historically, analytical philosophy has always relegated aesthetics to the margins of the discipline, while its disdain for large-scale historical theses like the ʻend of artʼ is well known. Is this how you view your philosophical writings? Or do you consider them to be more all of a piece?

Danto: I donʼt think of myself as dissident, philosophically, in any obvious way. I couldnʼt have written about aesthetics in the way I have if I wasnʼt an analytical philosopher. For me, the beauty of contemporary art – art from about 1965 onwards – is that it has been carrying out a far-out thought experiment of the kind you can find in the work of Derek Parfitt, or someone like that. What became The Transfiguration of the Commonplace was originally to have been my ʻAnalytical Philosophy of Artʼ. I had the image of a five-volume work: Analytical Philosophy of History, Analytical Philosophy of Action, Analytical Philosophy of Knowledge, Analytical Philosophy of Art, and finally, Analytical Philosophy of Mind. It was very European. My model was Santayanaʼs five-volume Life of Reason. On the other hand, it says something about what analytical philosophy had come to mean to me by the end of the 1970s that I didnʼt want to use that title. There was a problem because ʻanalytical philosophy of artʼ was pre-empted by a practice I had no interest in – nickel and dime quibbles about Goodman or Beardsley or Dickie or Dewey, a mirror-image of the massive waste of effort the problem of reference had become, leaving us no wiser than the Pre-Socratics. Also, the style of Transfiguration was different. It was jazzier. One of the problems I had in trying to write the fifth volume – on mind – was that I couldnʼt get that style into what I was looking for. Nevertheless, Iʼve tended to maintain what I think of as my analytical credentials, whatever the outside perception. What was interesting for me was the way I arrived at certain points – discovered certain things in Hegel, for example – that I hadnʼt thought about for a long time.

RP: Did you study Hegel as part of your university education?

Danto: I went to Columbia University as a graduate student in the early 1950s and we were required to master the history of philosophy. So I had to answer questions about Hegel in the examinations. I had that in my head. It was a heavily historical department, with some great scholars: John Herman Randall Jr. and Paul Kristeller, especially. But that was also one of the problems with it. I didnʼt learn anything about analytical philosophy at Columbia. I discovered it in my first job, at the University of Colorado. I was hired with two other people: one was a student of Norman Malcolm, the other was a student of Gilbert Ryle. I didnʼt know anything about that stuff, and it was very exciting to me. When I was given a job back at Columbia a year later, I returned with a missionary zeal. I thought this was really the way to do philosophy. You had the sense you were clearing up things. It was exhilarating.

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