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Art and Knowledge by James O. Young

Bob Sharpe takes issue with James Young’s theory about art.

We think a philosophical theory is extinct, buried under counterexamples, when all of a sudden it reappears in a somewhat transmuted form. James O. Young revives an old idea, most famously encapsulated in the ancient dictum about pleasing and instructing: he argues that all art works possess cognitive value in addition to hedonistic value. They do this by representing, and the characteristic form of representation in the arts is illustration. Illustration is not the same as exemplification. The main reason why he keeps the two sharply separate is that exemplification cannot account, save via a flawed notion of metaphorical possession of properties, for the way we describe, inter alia, music as grave or exuberant. Illustration, by contrast, offers a perspective on an object, a way of understanding it and in this what he calls ‘interpretative illustration’ is central. Such is the way in which art gives us knowledge of both a propositional sort and a practical form.

The major problem is that something has ‘cognitive value’ if it tells you something you didn’t know before. But the themes of many great works of art are obvious. I did not need Wilfred Owen to tell me that the Great War was brutal and that precious lives were thrown away. I knew that already. Tolstoy’s ‘Family Happiness’ makes the familiar point that in marriage romantic love can be transformed into something different and deeper. If I did not know this before, what would make me want to read either Owen’s poetry or Tolstoy’s short story a second time? Owen ‘brings it home to me’ and Tolstoy fascinates with the vividness of his characters, the way they seem ‘three-dimensional’; in particular, the selfdeception of the wife is handled in a most subtle and intelligent way. ‘Cognitive value’ seems remote from the individuality which we prize in art, an aspect which does not get much mention. And as one might imagine, the cognitive value of music gives the author considerable difficulty.

The book might have been better edited. There is an apparent misunderstanding as to what a trompe l’oeil effect is. Anybody can make this sort of slip but either a reader or a copy-editor should pick it up. There is a also an engaging running battle with a former Academic Vice-president of Young’s university who exemplifies (or illustrates, or both) the idiocies of modem university management. I suspect that this individual isn’t a figment of Young’s imagination and I rather wonder about the wisdom of letting fly in print. This is a controversial book and particularly to be valued for that reason; the argument is quite tightly packed. I would not recommend it to a beginner in the philosophy of art; partly because it needs to be read with a healthy dose of counter-argument and beginners may not be that well-equipped. But it does exemplify the way in which philosophical theories never really die, they only become the undead.

© PROF. R.A. SHARPE 2004

Bob Sharpe is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wales, Lampeter.

Art and Knowledge by James 0. Young pp.180 (Routledge 2001)

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