The Library of Living Philosophers
by Rick Lewis
Arthur Danto is an American analytic philosopher and art critic who has spent the last half century teaching at Columbia University. He is wideranging in his interests, but his most influential work falls into two areas. Firstly he has been one of the bridges between the two divergent traditions of thought in modern Western philosophy, by taking some major figures from the history of Continental philosophy, particularly Friedrich Nietzsche and Jean-Paul Sartre, and writing about their works treating them as if they were Anglo-American analytic philosophers. Purists may pale at the very idea, but Danto’s deep scholarship and clear writing style has pulled this stunt off with considerable success, reconnecting these thinkers to ongoing debates in the analytic tradition and thus vastly increasing their influence among the academics of Britain and North America. Until quite recently many professional philosophers in Britain dismissed Nietzsche by saying that he was more a poet or a literary figure rather than a philosopher as such; this attitude has now completely disappeared and Danto is due some of the credit for that. He has illuminated these thinkers from a new angle and introduced the complexities of their ideas to people who might otherwise have shied away because of the unfamiliar terminology and unexplained background assumptions in their works. Arthur Danto’s reputation in this area is illustrated by the affectionate play on his name which appears in The Philosophical Lexicon (edited by Daniel Dennett):
arthurdantist, n. One who straightens the teeth of exotic dogmas. “Little Friedrich used to say the most wonderful things before we took him to the arthurdantist!” – Frau Nietzsche
Danto’s second major area of influence has been in aesthetics, where he has worked on the classic problem of how you decide whether or not something is a work of art. Danto has argued that what all works of art have in common is that they all relate in some way to an ‘artworld’, to an accepted artistic theory, or to the history of art as a whole. So if someone puts a toilet in the middle of an art gallery and calls it art, then it is art if (and only if) it makes sense in the history of the development of art over the centuries. Maybe the history of art was just ready for a toilet in an art gallery then, and what distinguishes it from ordinary toilets are the interpretations which those educated in art history put upon it. Danto has a view of the development of the history of art inspired by Hegel. He claims that eventually, through its growing consciousness of itself, art becomes philosophy and thus comes to an end.
Some critics claim that the Danto approach is overly inspired by a few movements in modern art and doesn’t take into account the diversity of art over the centuries, but Danto has written as an art critic on a very wide range of artistic forms, even including science fiction writing (of which he is dismissive: “Nothing so much belongs to its own time as an age’s glimpses into the future.”). Despite his insistence that art becomes philosophy, Danto has never been under any illusions about the status of aesthetics in contemporary debate, wryly commenting that aesthetics is currently “about as low on the scale of philosophical undertakings as bugs are in the chain of being.”
© Rick Lewis 2000
The Philosophy of Arthur Danto, in the Library of Living Philosophers Series, edited by Lewis E. Hahn, will be published by Open Court Press.