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Painting Over the Mind-Body Problem
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Painting Over the Mind-Body Problem

Keith Lehrer

The editors asked me to comment on how being an artist, a painter, sometimes a performance artist, influences or informs my work as a philosopher. Art changes the content of experience for me, including the content of art and philosophy. Danto in his remarkable writings philosophizes art. I find, and he might agree, that he succeeds because art philosophizes. I intended to quit philosophy ten years ago to paint, but my painting philosophized and called me back. It showed me and explained to me the relationship between mind and body, for example, between representation and the things represented. Here is my experience of painting and some philosophy.

As I paint, the sensory experience of what I do is about something. I may not have planned or intended that it be about anything, but the sensory qualities I experience as I paint are about something, even if only about color and form, but usually about thought and feeling. I create a physical object vibrant with sensory qualia and provocative intentionality. The painting is a mentalized physical object.

I wondered what the relationship between mind and matter is like as a philosopher. I experienced what it is like as a painter. As my painting acquires a mental life, qualia and intentionality, my philosopher reflects. Where did the mental life come from? It came from me. It is my mind in the painting, out there, in the paint and canvass. So as I paint and experience what the painting is like, I experience at the same time what the relationship is like between paint and canvass, on one side, and qualia and intentionality, on the other. I experience what it is like for a physical object to be mentalized. I know from the experience what the relationship between mind and body is like as I experience the mentalization of the artwork. I paint over the mind-body problem.

How can I experience the relationship between the mental and the physical and know what it is like? This is a request for description and explanation, the work of a philosopher. How is the physical object mentalized, and how can I know what the mentalization of the physical object is like? There is an experience of the surface of the painting used as an exemplar of experience when I focus my attention on the exemplar in aesthetic attention to what it is like. By a natural kind of magic, the sensory particular becomes conceptual and general, as Hume suggested. Look at Blue Monochrome by Klein, just the blue, then look at another blue, my Blue, and you will know when I am showing you one and not the other. You have a representation of the first, an exemplar representation, employing the exemplar as a vehicle of representation. The exemplarization of the experience uses the exemplar as an exhibit of the general plurality of objects it represents, which, of course, includes itself. The exemplar is an appearance used as a vehicle of representation. It may, of course, be used to refer to many appearances, true of the things it refers to, and true of itself. Exemplarization uses the exemplar as the term of representation. Exemplarization differs from exemplification in Goodman. The exemplar, not some predicate or property, is what refers to individuals that are instances of it. Exemplarization is reflexive when the exemplar represents and is, at the same time, an instance of itself.

The exemplar may be used to refer to other things, to some physical object, the painting Blue Monochrome, exhibiting what it is like. But the exemplar remains representational, that is, true of the instances it represents. As I reflect on my activity of painting, on the phenomenology of painting, I note the philosophical gain. The exemplar shows me, in one direction, what it represents, whether appearances or objects, but in another direction, it shows me how I represent these things in terms of the exemplar. The exemplar is Janus looking in both directions. I know what sensory qualia are like, for the exemplar is one. I know what the physical object is like, for the exemplar shows me what it is like. I know what my conception is like, for the exemplar exhibits that. I know what the relationship is like between mind and body, subjectivity and objectivity, thought and object as I paint.

I have spoken elsewhere of the details of this. I have tried to explain how the sensory exemplary loops back onto itself in presenting or exhibiting the content of which it is part. I want to insist on the loop in the content of visual arts as the sensory surface that carries the message also exhibits that message as being about itself. I have also argued that there is a similar loop in consciousness as the conscious state loops back onto itself in our awareness or representation of it. The sensory materials convey the content that they exhibit. As an exhibit of the content, they are part of the content. That is how they can present content aesthetically. They become an exemplar that is exemplarized by the mind to yield an understanding of the content of the work. The exemplar stands for the content and is part of the content for which it stands. Mixed media, a favorite of mine, calls attention to the exemplar and calls attention to a process of exemplarization. It does not pass through mind unnoticed. So it is a kind of art that calls attention to what art is like. Art reconfigures experience as the mind exemplarizes the sensory phenomenology to obtain the content, the understanding, it seeks. Art reconfigures many things and non-things. It also reconfigures art. The sensory exemplar loops back onto itself and reconfigures art in process of creating art. After seeing a great work of art, experience will never be the same, including the experience of art. Art is that part of experience that reconfigures experience. Painting is that part of art the reconfigures experience in terms of the sensory exemplar that shows us what the reconfiguring of content is like.

Art ties together mind and body, thought and object, me and my world, me in my world and my world in me. I have just published a book, Art, Self and Knowledge, to explain all this, with a website containing the relevant images including those referred to above. You can also visit my painting website. Then you will know what I am like as I mentalize myself in art. In case you don't, here is a new self-portrait.

2011 © Keith Lehrer

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