Art, Truth in
ART, TRUTH IN
The question of artistic truth first arises with the ancients. In his Republic, Plato argues that fine art and poetry cannot impart truths because they do not give humankind access to the Forms. Just as a mirror can only deliver a reflection of the particulars that themselves are merely reflections of the Forms, so painting and poetry amount to little more than pale images of Platonic Ideas at a third remove. Aristotle, in contrast, defended poetry as a means of obtaining general knowledge about probable courses of human events. One could learn from Antigone, for example, the likely turn of affairs when two strong-willed and unbending people, each convinced that he or she is in the right, disagree on matters of principle.
Though this topic is usually referred to in terms of "artistic truth," it is more precisely a concern with knowledge and the question of whether one can derive knowledge—or, even more broadly, cognitive value, from artworks. Truth, of course, comes into the picture, since it is one of the criteria of knowledge. Plato maintained that poets, like Homer, had no knowledge to teach and for that reason should not be esteemed as the educators of the Greeks. Aristotle, on the other hand, argued that poetry, especially tragedy, is akin to philosophy, since it has general truths about life to convey, namely universals about what is necessary or probable in the run of human events.
Throughout most of Western history, the view that art contributes to knowledge held sway. However, with the great advances of modern science and the empiricist philosophies that accompanied it, art began to look as though it had comparatively little, if anything, to offer by way of knowledge. Art, indeed, began to be treated by positivist philosophers as a primarily noncognitive enterprise.
Two types of arguments have been raised in order to challenge the cognitive credentials of art. The first group of arguments can be called epistemic. These allege that artworks cannot educate audiences because what artworks have to offer is not knowledge, properly so called; art is epistemically defective in various ways. The second group of arguments can be called aesthetic. They contend that it is inappropriate to expect artworks to function as sources of knowledge, even if for centuries in Western culture and others, art has been an object of respect for this very service.
The epistemic arguments against the cognitive pretensions of art include: the banality argument, the no-evidence argument, and the no-argument argument. The banality argument takes a close look at the kinds of theses for which artworks are so often commended for teaching to their audiences. These are often truisms of the order of "crime doesn't pay" or "the prejudice of first impressions can be misleading." If this is knowledge, the skeptic observes, then it is nevertheless hardly something that we are taught by novels like Crime and Punishment or Pride and Prejudice. Rather, in order to understand such novels, we probably already need to have some version of these commonplaces in our cognitive stock. According to the banality argument, there may be truths embodied in artworks, but they are rather paltry, bland, and known by nearly everyone before they encounter the artworks in question. So we cannot be said to learn them from artworks. Indeed, having access to these bromides is often a condition for comprehending the very artworks that contain them. But in any event, these truisms are in no way as revelatory as scientific discoveries are; if they constitute knowledge at all, it is common knowledge.
Whereas the banality argument concedes that there may be knowledge, albeit of a threadbare sort, to be had from artworks, the next two arguments deny this possibility. Of course, one can derive beliefs from artworks; but skeptics charge that it is impossible to gain knowledge from artworks. For knowledge involves not only beliefs, or even true beliefs; those beliefs must also be based upon something—either evidence or argument. And artworks, as a matter of form, it is charged, typically lack these sorts of accompanying justifications.
The no-evidence argument shows the influence of empiricism most clearly. Since Aristotle, it has been claimed that artworks, notably literature, give us knowledge of general truths concerning human life. But, the skeptic retorts, most artworks trade in particulars and one cannot justify a general claim on the basis of a single case. It is not adequate evidence, even if the case is as arresting as that of Antigone versus Creon. Moreover, a very great many of the case studies that are supposed to carry these generalizations about human life are fictional. No claim, general or otherwise, can be supported by a made-up story. Furthermore, most of these fabricated stories are invented precisely to corroborate the point the author wishes to promulgate. So not only is the evidence insufficient; it looks like it is tainted to boot. Thus, the skeptic surmises, artworks cannot be said to afford the kind of general knowledge for which they are so often applauded just because they are evidentially defective.
Of course, not every general claim needs to be supported by empirical evidence. Many philosophical generalizations are not. And the knowledge in which much art is said to traffic is philosophical, concerned, for example, with issues like free will. Since no amount of evidence is going to sway the free will debate one way or the other, the fact that artists do not back up their perspectives on free will with empirical evidence makes them no worse off than philosophers. The no-evidence argument, that is, does not cut against philosophical artworks.
But, the skeptic replies, genuine philosophical theses, even if unaccompanied by a body of empirical evidence, are nevertheless advanced by means of argument and/or analysis. Yet that is something that artworks characteristically have not got. Nausea may assert that humans are free; the novel may even be said to illustrate the point. But there is no argument to that conclusion in the book. However, if there is no argument, then there is no philosophical knowledge to be had from the text. At best there is unsubstantiated belief.
Nor, the skeptic adds, do commentators on artworks—including even those commentators who speak as though artworks are involved in making philosophical knowledge claims—argue about the truth or falsity of the cognitive theses they excavate from artworks. This lack of concern with argumentation by critics, then, is thought to lend additional credence to the skeptical view that art is not in the knowledge business. If it were, there would be more explicit argumentation both inside the artworks and in the critical estate that surrounds them. The lack of argumentation implies that art is not about securing knowledge, and, be that as it may, sans argumentation it does not do so anyway.
The epistemic arguments against art propose that what artworks deliver is not worth being called knowledge—it is either too trivial or it is unjustified. As a matter of fact, art just is not a suitable vehicle for the communication of anything robust enough and defensible enough to be counted as knowledge. But another set of arguments worries that knowledge is just the wrong thing to expect from artworks. Even if some artworks could convey knowledge, knowledge is never something we should legitimately expect from artworks. These arguments may be regarded as aesthetic, rather than epistemic, in nature. Three of them are: the common denominator argument, the no-expertise argument, and the mistaken-belief argument.
The common denominator argument points out that even if some artworks appear to provide knowledge—as Moby Dick does concerning whaling—many other artworks, like a great many string quartets, do not. Therefore, the expectation that artworks afford knowledge or even that they suggest knowledge claims does not apply to all artworks. Knowledge is not a generic criterion of artistic excellence. Yet if something is a criterion of artistic excellence, it must be relevant to the evaluation of every artwork. Knowledge is not. Consequently, knowledge is an inappropriate expectation to bring to an artwork qua art.
Artists study their craft and the materials that comprise their art form. Painters learn perspective, poets master prosody, musicians scales, and so on. Their expertise is with the tools of their trade. They are not psychologists or political scientists or sociologists. They have no special expertise that entitles them to float generalizations about human life. How would a studio-arts education prepare one to discourse on human affairs? This is one of the earliest charges lodged against the attempt to enlist art as a producer of knowledge. Perhaps Plato holds the copyright on the no-expertise argument; Socrates used it to demolish Ion and, by extension, Homer.
Another argument striving to demonstrate the irrelevance of the pursuit of knowledge by art stresses that many artworks have been committed to beliefs that we now regard as obsolete and mistaken, and yet we still esteem the works in question. Indeed, many classic artworks are committed to beliefs that are contradicted by the beliefs recommended by other classic artworks and still, despite these contradictions, we are happy to embrace works on both side of the debate (say free will versus determinism) as canonical. But, it is conjectured, this would not be possible if we thought that truth and knowledge were appropriate standards for art. In that case, artworks associated with false beliefs would have to be demoted in our estimation. That they are not implies that knowledge is not an appropriate concern when it comes to art.
Responding to the Skeptics
These arguments against the cognitive status of art are longstanding and serious. However, they can also be challenged in various ways. As a group, the epistemic arguments presuppose that if art is cognitive, then it will transmit knowledge to its audiences and this knowledge will take the form of general truths that can be stated in propositional form. Consequently, commentators often seek to outflank the epistemic objections by refusing this presupposition and locating the cognitive contribution of art primarily elsewhere than in the presentation of innovative general truths that can be articulated in propositions.
There are a number of different—nonexclusive and nonexhaustive—alternative candidates here and each suggests a way in which art may be said to make a contribution to cognition, broadly construed. Against the banality argument, it may be said that though artworks often deal in commonplaces, these are commonplaces that we are apt to forget. The cognitive function of art in this regard is to recall to mind the kinds of truths—such as the dangers of indulging a hasty prejudice or refusing to bend when one right is on a collision course with another—that are well known but oft forgot. Artworks, like Pride and Prejudice and Antigone, are vivid reminders of what we already know, but that of which we are prone to lose sight.
Indeed, artworks—engaging as they do the senses, feelings, emotions, imaginations, and cognitions of their audiences—are especially efficacious instruments for educating peoples in the ethos of their culture, because by mobilizing so many powers of a person at once, artworks deeply embed the common knowledge of a society in its participants in a way that makes it readily accessible for retrieval and use. Arguably, the multidimensional address of the artwork suits it as a means for educating a populace in its ethos in a fashion unrivaled by any other mode of communication.
Epistemic arguments appear to suppose that the only relevant sort of knowledge is knowing that. But in addition to propositional knowledge, there is also knowledge by acquaintance. Thus, defenders of the educative power of art maintain that art can provide knowledge by affording the opportunity for audiences to learn about certain experiences from the inside—to acquire, perhaps by simulation or empathy in the process of watching a film, a sense of or a feel for what it would be like, for example, to be a slave.
Moreover, in addition to knowledge by acquaintance, there is also know-how. Artworks can contribute know-how in many ways. For example, many of our concepts of virtue, vice, and other character traits are rather abstract, as are our moral principles. In order to learn how to apply these extremely abstract concepts and maxims, we need practice. Artworks, especially fictions, can provide the opportunity to hone our powers of judgment by giving us particulars, often subtly drawn, that enable us to deepen our faculties of judgment and our skill in deploying them. That is, artworks may enhance cognition by putting it to work in assessing fictional characters and actions in terms of concepts and principles—moral and otherwise (e.g., psychological, political, social)—that we possess abstractly, but which we need to exercise concretely in order to acquire a genuine command over them. Furthermore, inasmuch as a refined sensitivity toward the relevant concepts, like true heroism, plays a role in eliciting appropriate emotional responses, artworks facilitate the education of the emotions.
In addition, artworks may serve the cognitive purpose of orientation; they may help us map our world. Novels present us with crystallizations of various character types—often newly emerging ones, like the radical empiricist in Turgenev's Fathers and Sons or the gallery of social tendencies inventoried in Balzac's Comedie Humaine, or the eponymous Sammy in What Makes Sammy Run? These character profiles—assembling a significant constellation of attributes—operate like concepts, supplying us with recognizable paradigms of social types which may even help us to navigate everyday life. Such paradigms are not true or false in the manner of a proposition, but apt or fitting. Nevertheless, aptness is as indispensable to cognition as propositional truth. Indeed, Nelson Goodman claims that the ultimate value of art is that it supplies us with apt models of the world.
Furthermore, art can tutor perception. Landscape painting and portraits can teach us how to look at the world. And Goodman has stressed the way in which even abstract paintings exercise and expand the viewer's ability to make fine perceptual distinctions.
One way to deal with the epistemic arguments, then, is to outflank them. But they can also be tackled head-on. Against the no-evidence argument, it is important to remind the skeptic that not all artworks are fictions and therefore cannot be uniformly dismissed as being evidentially empty for that reason. Nor is it only nonfiction literature with which the skeptic must contend. There is also photography, nonfiction motion pictures, and much installation art.
Moreover, even fictions can contain evidence. Thus, there is no grounds for summarily rejecting all fiction as incapable of proffering propositional knowledge. Michael Crichton's novel, State of Fear, about environmentalism, includes argumentative theses replete with footnotes to substantiate its case. Whether or not Crichton's book is correct is one question. Nevertheless, it is clear that a novel like it could be written that might succeed in proposing a series of true propositions supported by the appropriate documentary apparatus. This conjecture seems unobjectionable, furthermore, since, though many critics have complained about the quality of State of Fear, no one has denied that it is a novel.
Moreover, skeptics are wrong to contend that critics do not initiate charges of falsity accompanied by arguments against fictions. Presently secular humanists in the United States are waging a campaign against horror fictions for fostering superstitious beliefs. Likewise one can bet money that commentators sympathetic to the environmental movement will meet Crichton with the kinds of arguments they would unfurl against any scientist or politician who impugned their theories.
But we need not resort to Crichton to bridle at the no-evidence argument. We need only point out that it sets the bar for communicating knowledge too high. No one denies that the journalism on the op-ed pages of newspapers can convey knowledge. But the beliefs advanced there typically come to us without the kind of evidence it would take to vindicate them in the highest courts of reason. Rather, the author leaves it to the reader to reflect upon her assertions, encouraging us to weigh them against our own experience and to search out further proof of their accuracy. Likewise it may be argued that artists generally play by comparable rules. A novel like Bonfire of the Vanities provides a sketch of the 1980s that we are invited to substantiate on our own. Hence, if the aforesaid journalist is allowed into the knowledge game, so should a certain kind of novelist be. Indeed, doesn't the communication of knowledge usually leave some of the work of corroboration up to the reader? Consequently, that artworks encourage readers to test the hypotheses they suggest in what Peter Kivy thinks of as the laboratories of their minds is not an epistemic deficit. It is a recurring feature of the communication of knowledge across the board.
Similar reservations can be brought to bear on the no-argument argument. Not all theses are defended by means of empirical evidence. Most philosophical claims are not. A leading form of argument in defense of philosophical conjectures is the thought experiment—characteristically a narrative fiction predicated upon engaging the mind of the listener in a process of reflective equilibrium leading to a certain conclusion. But if philosophers are entitled to thought experiments as a mode of argument and/or analysis, why should artists be denied equal logical rights?
Many artworks are narrative fictions. Some at least are arguably thought experiments designed to encourage the embrace of certain discoveries, such as insight into the true nature of courage or compassion. That is, artworks may not only enable us through practice to apply concepts with finesse; they may also invite reflection upon the grammar of the concept in question—either by foregrounding a heretofore unappreciated essential criterion of the concept or by reminding us of the kinds of considerations it pays to remember whenever applying the concept. That is, a narrative artwork, functioning as a thought experiment, can engage the mind of the audience in a process of reflective equilibrium that results in propositional knowledge concerning the concept under scrutiny. Moreover, where the artwork is operating as a thought experiment, it is not without argument; the thought experiment, rather, stages the argument in the minds of the audience.
The aesthetic arguments against artistic claims to knowledge are not more decisive than the epistemic ones. The common denominator argument correctly observes that not all artworks are such that it is appropriate to evaluate them in terms of the knowledge they impart. They are not all vehicles for communicating knowledge; that is not the kind of thing they all are. So if aesthetic evaluation is keyed to the kind of thing a work is, then knowledge is not the sort of thing to employ in the assessment of, for example, most string quartets.
This much is true. However, the aesthete's argument here is more ambitious; it is that knowledge is never an appropriate measure of an artwork. However, some artworks, given the kinds of things they are essentially, are justifiably expected to bequeath knowledge, even propositional knowledge, to their audiences. This is not only the case with certain nonfiction examples. For instance, realist novels are committed, in virtue of their genre, to the production of various insights including social, psychological and political ones. Fledgling realist authors are instructed to become astute observers just because they are expected to inform readers about psychology and social mores. Moreover, since that is the kind of thing a realist novel is—i.e. B; in effect, the genre to which it belongs—it follows that in such cases disclosing truths figure in artistic evaluation. That the expectation of knowledge in inapposite with respect to many genres does not entail that it is out of bounds for every genre. It is not true that a criterion of artistic excellence must apply globally. Many art forms and genres may possess local standards of excellence given the kinds of artworks they are—the realist novel being a case in point.
The realist novel also indicates what is wrong with the no-expertise argument. Some artists—like realist novelists—are expected to sharpen their powers of psychological and social observation as part of their job description. Furthermore, with many of the things that realist authors have expertise in isolating and explaining—such as the ways of the heart or the claims of social justice—it is not really clear who the better experts are. And, in any event, given the power of artworks to engage simultaneously the whole person—feeling, imagination, memory, perception, cognition, and so forth—it is not evident that there is any more effective way of instilling these truths in recipients than artworks.
Lastly, the mistaken-belief argument is a non-starter. To maintain that knowledge may be a virtue in artworks does not imply that it is the only virtue. Thus, it may be the case that works that contain mistaken, perhaps outmoded, beliefs nevertheless have other merits that dispose us to keep them in the canon. That is also why we may be happy to welcome classics that contradict each other into our pantheon. One virtue that they may possess is that they articulate compellingly the mistaken beliefs they uphold as a work from an archaic culture might. Here, the work gives us knowledge of the past, albeit inadvertently. But at the same time if the work is designed formally in such a way that its theses, however false, are given their best face, then we can appreciate the work aesthetically, despite its cognitive shortcomings. Thus, the fact that palpably false artworks continue to hold our interest does not show that truth and knowledge may not be pertinent to our respect for some other artworks. At best it shows that they are not our only desideratum.
See also Aesthetic Experience; Art, Value in.
Aristotle. Poetics. Translated by R. Janko. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1984.
Beardsley, Monroe. Aesthetics. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1981.
Carroll, Noël. "The Wheel of Virtue." Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 60 (2002): 3–26.
Currie, Gregory. "The Moral Psychology of Fiction." Australasian Journal of Philosophy 73 (1995): 250–259.
Goodman, Nelson. Languages of Art. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1968.
Hospers, John. Meaning and Truth in the Arts. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1949.
Johns, Eileen. "Reading Fiction and Conceptual Knowledge." The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 56 (1998): 331–348.
Kivy, Peter. "On the Banality of Literary Truths." Philosophic Exchange 28 (1997–1998): 16–27.
Lamarque, Peter, and Olsen Stein. Truth, Fiction, and Literature. Oxford: Clarendon, 1994.
Plato. Republic. In The Dialogues of Plato. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1953.
Noël Carroll (2005)