The dominant forms of contemporary Anglo-American ‘analytical’ philosophy tend to take their orientation from the success of the modern natural sciences in generating theories which enable the prediction and control of events in the physical universe. The dilemma for philosophy in the face of this success has been to establish a role which takes appropriate account of the power of the sciences while justifying philosophy’s own right to existence. The extreme response to this dilemma is suggested by Martin Heidegger, who, in his late work, especially the essay ‘The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking’ (1969), claims that the natural sciences have actually become what philosophy sought to be, by explaining the nature of what there is. This means philosophy has come to a certain kind of ‘end’. As a successor to philosophy Heidegger calls for ‘thinking’, which is concerned with ‘unconcealment’; the fact that the world comes to make sense at all, before it can become the object of true theoretical and other judgements. Such sense he associates with the ways in which major art changes how we relate to the world.
Views like this have been largely ignored in mainstream analytical philosophy, where the focus on epistemology and the revival of a metaphysics concerned with ‘what fundamental kinds of things there are and what properties and relations they have’ (Timothy Williamson) rarely involves reflection on just how unsuccessful the attempt to establish philosophical foundations for the scientific knowledge which determines the nature of our world has been. Agreement in epistemology and metaphysics seems only to be local and pretty short-lived, unlike agreement on many of the core scientific theories that underlie modern technology.
How should one respond to this situation? It is not that the history of epistemology is just to be seen as a history of error: it has real effects on how the world is understood and on how people act in and respond to the world. Descartes’ dualistic conception of a separation between mind and the material world still, for example, influences social practices and theories in many domains. The history of epistemology therefore should be seen in the perspective of how sense is made of the world, in which that sense changes with history. This is one reason why art takes on a greater significance in the sort of philosophy that concerns me than does reflection on what makes scientific theories true, or the construction of theories of ethics, metaphysics, and the like.
It is not that such construction of theories is pointless: it should, though, also include meta-reflection on what significance the claims it results in actually have. What is at issue in paying more philosophical attention to art is exemplified by the fact that the history of modern music – this is particularly manifest in the rapid development of jazz – can be seen in terms of the ways in which notes and sounds which made no sense to one era, which were just ‘wrong’ for that era, come to be ‘right’ for a subsequent era. Something analogous can be observed in all the arts, where, by being put into new forms and new contexts, previously forbidden or senseless material, and modes of expression and articulation, become the norms for new developments in the arts which help frame how the world comes to be understood.
The picture here sees us as fundamentally part of the world in ways that are transformed in the name of making new sense. Mythology and religion can be seen as a preliminary part of this picture, because they also engage people in the world through ritual and other practices (though they do not involve the dynamic changes characteristic of art in modernity). This picture of ourselves and the world contrasts sharply with the picture which results from many accounts of modern philosophy. In the latter, the massive success of the sciences contrast strikingly with the modern obsession with epistemological scepticism that plays such a role in philosophy since Descartes. The core assumption in this case is that there is an essential separation between ‘mind’ and ‘world’ which has to be overcome by a philosophical theory justifying what we think we know.
"The root of scepticism is not the problem of whether we really know anything, but how we inhabit the world in modernity."
My perhaps provocative suggestion is that, given the historical failure of the latter enterprise so far, it is more apt to say that the root of scepticism is not the problem of whether we really know anything, which modern science puts in question by the sheer force of its problem-solving capacity, even if it does not refute epistemological scepticism by a philosophical theory, but rather a wider series of problems regarding how we inhabit the world in modernity. In Romantic terms the failure of the attempt to ground knowledge in a positive theory is seen as part of a more general groundlessness that Novalis and others sometimes refer to as ‘homelessness’. The advance of science and the organisation of modern societies depend on types of objectification that prioritise universal forms over the particularity of things and people. Mathematically based natural science, and modern bureaucracy and law enable huge advances in civilisation, but the price is what Max Weber calls ‘disenchantment’. Values which were previously embedded in complex interpersonal forms of exchange and interaction increasingly become an essentially numerical quantity. The transformation in question enables all sorts of new possibilities for improving the quality of human existence, and it is vital not to underestimate this. At the same time the transformation also gives rise to a concern with qualitative relations between subject and world that can be obscured and eroded by objectification, and this concern points, for example, to the destructive effects of objectification on the environment and on peoples’ lives.
So how do these issues relate to questions about truth and art? The philosophical question that concerns me is not the semantic one of how truth and meaning relate, that leads, for example, to theories which claim that understanding the meaning of an utterance is knowing its truth conditions. Heidegger distinguishes between ‘truth’, which he sees as traditionally meaning ‘the correspondence of knowledge with beings’, and ‘unconcealment’, which is prior to propositional truth: without things coming to be intelligible at all in the context of the everyday world there can be no questions about the truth of what becomes intelligible. If we assume that our relationships to the world are not to be construed just in terms of knowing what there is, but have to include all the ways in which the world makes sense, a different picture emerges, in which music, for example, can make sense of the world in the way it evidently does for those engaged in it in a whole variety of ways.
When music, as it so often is, is seen as a philosophical mystery, this is generally the result of the attempt to objectify what it is. However, if we see music from the perspective of participation in it, it does not appear as a mystery. It makes its own kind of sense, to the point where many people would find it hard to live without that sense. We don’t usually concern ourselves with music as a mystery when we ‘inhabit’ it as listeners, players, or dancers, though we can make stringent demands with respect to ‘getting it right’. This is one indication of how we might think of truth in this context, because the successful practice of music requires a prior basic sense of rightness. This sense can be endlessly refined and differentiated, but without it no music would make any sense, even if what appears right is historically variable and can be in some measure individual (though the influence of social factors means it is never just randomly ‘subjective’). Music can illuminate the world in a way which an objective explanation of music in, say, neuroscientific terms does not, even if such an explanation may have claims to be true in certain respects. Such explanations seem to me evidently false, though, when they try to reduce music to something else, in the manner of Stephen Pinker’s claim that it is ‘auditory cheesecake’ that can be explained by the way it stimulates the brain. What interests me, instead, is what music brings to light in how we relate to things, such as the ways in which rhythm creates forms of sense in our lives. The ways wrong comes to be right in the history of music can, then, be seen to raise questions about how we conceive of truth, of a kind that philosophy has too often relegated to the margins, for example by restricting truth to being just a semantic concept.
Given that art in modernity lives from its ability both to transform the senseless into something that makes sense, and to undermine dominant forms of sense that may obscure vital aspects of the world, there can be no definitive philosophical theory of what this means. Without the historical specificity of how this transformation takes place in particular cases, the substance of what art reveals is lost. As the sciences occupy ever more of the territory previously occupied by philosophy, the kind of philosophy which does not just seek to propose theories in an analytical manner may well become increasingly significant in sustaining resources of sense that the sciences do not provide. The ‘philosophy of art’ can therefore be understood, not only as a kind of philosophy which seeks to explain art conceptually as its object, but also as philosophy that itself emerges from involvement with art. The latter can be said to be philosophy of the kind in which many people already engage, which makes sense in their lives in ways that other kinds of modern philosophy often may not. The tension between these kinds of philosophy is itself a manifestation of crucial issues that need negotiating in new ways, as science and technology play an ever greater role in our lives, both enriching them, and at the same time potentially obscuring vital resources of sense without which human culture cannot thrive.