Andrew Harrison, Philosophy and the Arts: Seeing and Believing (Thoemmes Press, 1997)
Reviewed by Deborah Knight
Despite its title, Harrison’s book does not deal with “the arts” but with linguistic and visual representation and with artforms based on them, in particular pictures and prose literature. Although the jacket blurb promises otherwise, it is certainly not a book for new students. Familiarity with Aristotle, Kant, and Wittgenstein is a prerequisite, as is more than a passing acquaintance with Danto, Wolterstorff, Goodman, and Wollheim. Series editor Ray Monk mentions a possible barrier in his Preface where he warns that Harrison’s prose “is sometimes difficult to follow.” Monk claims that “this is unavoidable” (xii), but a good copyeditor would have fixed a lot of these problems, and others as well.
Harrison’s approach to art is unflaggingly humanistic. His main claim is that art achieves its greatest powers when it “transcends its own limitations” (99). Put another way, great art allows us “to explore the limits of the thinkable” (136). The primary function of art is “pushing the limits of what can be represented or conceived” (xviii). All the mimetic artforms have this capacity, he argues, but perhaps none more so than the novel: “almost any story taken seriously will implicitly examine the nature of fiction itself” (189). That some art can push the boundaries of what can be thought and communicated might seem too obvious to mention, at least to philosophers of art. By restricting himself to representational art ? to paintings that depict and novels with recognizable characters engaged in purposive action ? Harrison is missing out on a range of modernist, self-conscious, avant-garde, and postmodern artworks that are obviously about boundary-pushing. These don’t appear to be the sorts of boundaries Harrison is interested in, although one wonders why not.
The first half of the book, “Seeing,” has two chapters, “Pictures,” and “Drawing,” which make a great deal more sense if you start at the end of “Drawing.” Harrison begins by asking whether there is such a thing as “pictorial thought.” Can pictures communicate thoughts independently of language? He also wants to distinguish “the pictorial as such” from pictures as art (6). The answer to the first question is carried over into the second part of the book, where Harrison asks if there is such a thing as pictorial metaphor. There is, however, a one-word answer to the question about how to distinguish pictures such as your high school graduation photo, the map of the London Underground, and your kids’ drawings from the things made by Rembrandt and Vermeer. The answer is: style. Works of art “necessarily invoke a deep concept of style” – not Goodman’s “style as signature,” but style understood in terms of “how the picture or drawing is made and ‘built up,’ how the paint is handled.” As Harrison tells us: “Representations in art do more than merely represent their subject matter, however significant. Rather they celebrate its significance via the celebration of the work’s facture, the evidence of how the work is made” (94-5).
Style rescues us from a naïve theory introduced in the first chapter. The “easy picture” theory holds that, in the main, recognizing what representational pictures are pictures of is pretty much done just by looking at them (10). If this were right, then we could “explain” artistic, scientific and children’s pictures as “difficult” or “deviant” (14). Harrison proposes to replace the “easy picture” theory with another, according to which art pictures are models. If engineer’s models exhibit or test such things as tensile strength or air resistance, then by analogy we can ask what it is that “pictures in art ? exemplify and similarly ‘test.’” The answer: “aesthetic properties” (93-4). And self-consciousness about testing and exemplifying aesthetic properties is pretty much what “deep” style adds up to.
The first half of the book is difficult to follow, since the “easy picture” theory initially seems to be something Harrison wants to defend. Parts of the argument are not wholly relevant, others are already familiar. Anyone acquainted with this field has come across the critique of the idea that picturing can be explained in terms of resemblance as well as the substance of Harrison’s remarks on photography and perspective. To argue that the meanings communicated by pictures are inherently public rather than private by invoking Wittgenstein and the anti-private language argument does not seem likely to make the problem at hand clearer. A much better account than Harrison’s of how we see pictures can be found in John Willats’ Art and Representation: New Principles in the Analysis of Pictures (Princeton University Press, 1997), a wonderful book that uses research into visual perception and artificial intelligence as a basis for a theory that can deal with pictures made by artists, engineers, children, cameras and mapmakers based on distinctions between viewer-centered and object-centered systems of description.
The second section, “Believing,” has two chapters, “Metaphor” and “Fictional Frames.” “Metaphor” criticizes Donald Davidson, whose argument Harrison describes bluntly as “terrible” (113). Ultimately, Harrison wants to make a case for pictorial metaphors, and the chapter concludes with seven conditions that might make the analogy plausible (142-43). Harrison thinks we should compare linguistic metaphors with fictional stories because stories and metaphors are both types of fictions – although to express this correctly I would have to say, redundantly, that fictional stories and metaphors are both types of fictions. The significant contrast is that stories in general are fictions “with narrative,” whereas metaphors are fictions that “negotiate ? beliefs” (131). Given Harrison’s preference for the idea that art is about transcending limits, it follows that real metaphors invite us to think “beyond the range of our own conceptual boundaries,” a point he derives from Goodman (131). When the power of fictional stories wanes, they become “stale,” but metaphors “die,” either by becoming clichés, or by conceptual change (133). Live metaphors show us how “to explore the limits of the thinkable” (136).
The discussion of metaphor leads us back to the concept of style. Harrison argues that “an almost perfect case of conceptual extension via metaphor” is our ability to talk about paintings in terms of their “‘expressive’ properties” ? for instance that a line is “relaxed, nervous or hesitant” (142). Because the conceptual extension has been successful, we are speaking literally if we describe a painting in expressive terms. In the meantime, there are pictorial metaphors, as we are taught by the great artists. So “Rembrandt’s (or Cézanne’s) searching gaze is not mere looking; it is probing, constructing, building with a brush that draws” (147). This sort of painterly style affects not only the painting but also the viewer, since our “grasp of how to construe the paint becomes at the same time a shift in our concepts of what attending is, or can be” (147). While it is clear that Harrison is deeply committed to this view, the idea of pictorial metaphor remains primarily a figure of speech.
The final chapter on stories discusses examples ranging from drama through popular fictions to the Novel (Harrison uses the capital). Harrison rejects the idea that everything found within a literary fiction is inevitably fictional ? although this view is held by so few that it seems unnecessary to refute. Distinguishing fictions from Fiction makes more sense, but has been done more instructively by, for instance, Peter Lamarque and Stein Haughom Olsen in Truth, Fiction, and Literature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), a book Harrison footnotes. Harrison wants to refute the idea that our most basic relationship to fiction is one of mere pretence. By contrast, in many cases we come to care strongly about fictional stories, and when we do we are concerned with the “sort of ‘fit’ fiction has with what we take to be the real world” (157). Harrison rehearses some very familiar material here: distinguishing between plotted stories and mere chronicles, between fiction and history, between fiction and non-fiction. He argues that in reading fictional stories we make any number of non-fictional assumptions, for instance that “Holmes and Watson are men as men are, then beyond that Victorian gentlemen as we suppose they were” (160). The payoff of fiction is non-fictional (161). This line of thought has a long tradition in literary scholarship and the conclusion is not a new one.
Framing is the main topic of Harrison’s discussion of literary and non-literary fictions. Where Harrison talks about frames, however, we might more straightforwardly talk of conventions. The invisible fourth wall of the proscenium stage, for instance, is a “fictional frame.” The naïve view Harrison is combatting supposes that there should be a fourth wall preventing us from seeing the action onstage. But this seems too naïve to take seriously. Harrison is right to draw our attention to the kinds of generic knowledge that establish the differing conditions of verisimilitude from genre to genre, although the discussion could be developed. It is true that we accept characters who break spontaneously into song in films like Singin in the Rain as long as we think we are watching a musical. Framing might be a useful metaphor, but to talk about fictional framing risks reintroducing the confusion between logical fictions and literary genres that Harrison has just tried to dispel.
Harrison nevertheless thinks that “the truly significant artistic invention of the post-Enlightenment world” is the psychologically realistic novel ? what Leavis had in mind when he wrote about the Great Tradition (180). The Novel “places the responsibilities of the imagination at the moral ‘eye-point’” (181) by giving readers access to the mental life of characters. The Novel promotes “generosity of imagination” (182). The psychologically realistic novel allows us to discover what it is ” like to be” in a particular situation and is thus wholly comparable to the development of perspective in Renaissance drawing, which allowed people to know what it is “like to see” from a particular point of view (183). Novels like Middlemarch and Hard Times as well as those by Flaubert and James depend on a fictional frame: “an assumption concerning the possibility of psychological knowledge that will make sense of the story” (187). According to Harrison, this is not part of the fiction of the story; it is a condition of being able to understand the story as fiction. The most important benefit of psychologically realistic novels is their ability to “enlarge the scope of our own moral psychology” (188).
Harrison’s position shares a lot of common ground with so-called ethical critics, most notably Martha C. Nussbaum and Wayne C. Booth, neither of whom are mentioned in the bibliography. What he has to say about such things as plot construction, character psychology, generic conventions, and literary point of view has been presented better elsewhere, though again the bibliography is silent. The commitment to mimesis as well as the persistent emphases on realism and naturalism – defined in philosophical rather than literary terms – mean this chapter is pretty thoroughly in the grip of a dated humanistic conception of literature – and this despite references to Dennis Potter and Angela Carter, as well as the mention of postmodernism. Another defender of literary humanism, Peter Lamarque, acknowledges that his position will strike many as “old-fashioned.” Harrison would have done well to name this problem himself and address it.
In place of a conclusion we have a final paragraph that returns us to Wittgenstein and asserts that if “the representational, mimetic, arts are concerned with any one thing it is to confront the fact” that we live at the limits of what can be communicated (195). Harrison believes this, and believes that the value of art derives from this persistent human need to transcend boundaries. If this is an intuition you share, or a metaphor you find illuminating, you might well enjoy the book. If this strikes you as a dated and peculiarly philosophical intuition, you could give the book a miss.
2000 © Deborah Knight