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Art as a Way of Knowing
Thoughts about the distinctiveness of artistic knowledge:
A preface to a discussion of the paintings of Thomas Eakins'

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.... Robert Frost once asserted that his poems had criticism in them, and in a similar vein, I would argue that works of art can have a lot of philosophy in them. To the extent that we subscribe to the importance of philosophy, we certainly don't want to confine it to philosophical texts. My working premise is that art can make assertions about reality and the nature of truth that are as philosophically complex as anything in the writing of professional philosophers. Specifically, I want to use the paintings of Thomas Eakins to explore the extent to which works of art can figure philosophical stances. What might it mean to treat Eakins as the philosophical peer of James or Dewey?

Insofar as I shall be using works of art as my source material, it will be necessary for my argument to be far more grounded in specific, observed details than the other sort of argument. While social, legal, and cultural analysis may be conducted at a fairly abstract level, if a work of art is to be taken seriously as a way of knowing, it can only be by coming to grips with its particulars—in virtually microscopic detail. Art is a classic instance of what Clifford Geertz calls “local knowledge”—knowledge that, to some extent, resists generalization. It is not knowledge of anything, anywhere, anytime, but knowledge anchored in a specific sequence of experiences, inflected by a uniquely personal point of view.

Artistic knowledge further differs from social, legal, and cultural knowledge in that it is sensorily embodied. It is not mental or intellectual in nature. It is a form of knowledge that is inextricably intertwined in temporal, spatial, and experiential particularities. It lives in the world and plays itself out along the senses; it is brought into existence in the form of bodies, gestures, movements, tones, and feelings.

However, far from making art's ways of knowing an ill-fitting mismatch for pragmatism's, I would argue that the qualities I have just described make artistic forms of knowledge uniquely suited to expressing pragmatic understandings of experience. In the first place, pragmatism is quintessentially the philosophy of particulars. James summed it up in The Meaning of Truth when he wrote that: “The whole originality of pragmatism, the whole point of it, is its concrete way of seeing. It begins with concreteness, and returns and ends with it.” In the second place, one of the most important contributions of pragmatism to the history of philosophy is its determination to force philosophical knowledge to take account of the look and feel of sensory experience.

The need for a sensorily informed mode of knowledge is a theme that runs throughout James' work—from his warnings about the dangers of “vicious abstractionism” to his exhortations to his reader to “dive back into the flux [and] turn your face toward sensation, that fleshbound thing which rationalism has always loaded with abuse.” James repeatedly argued that in order to “fathom” what he called the “thickness” of experience we must engage ourselves with it in a temporally aware and spatially responsive way. As he wrote in A Pluralistic Universe (with a possible allusion to Satan's negotiation of Chaos in Paradise Lost): “Sensible reality is too concrete to be entirely manageable [abstractly].ÖTo get from one point in it to another, we have to plough or wade through the whole intolerable interval. No detail is spared us, it is as bad as the barbed-wire complications at Port Arthur, and we grow old and die in the process.”

In a sense, James is telling us how we should approach works of art as well. Applied to the activity of artistic interpretation, James' point is that not to “wade though the whole intolerable interval,” not to negotiate the “barbed-wire complications”—merely to summarize the work, floating somewhere above it, disengaged from the specific spaces, times, and bodies that bring it to us—is to betray the very forms of understanding art provides. To be anything other than close and detailed and concrete in our readings is to miss out on the distinctive ways of knowing that art offers. One might adapt James' metaphor and say that the pragmatist shows us not only that we must creep and crawl through the work, but, even more importantly, that such prickly intricacies of involvement are the supreme value of the artistic experience.

Since, in the pragmatic view, the only way to experience something truly is to experience it in all of its “thickness” and “fullness,” the closeness and sensory content of my readings of these paintings might be said to be an attempt to be faithful to the pragmatic method itself. Precisely because the works I shall be examining embrace pragmatic forms of understanding, they require the closest of close readings. (As James' crawling-through-barbed-wire metaphor suggests, the degree of closeness may even be uncomfortable.) Sensorily concrete and experientially detailed methods of analysis are the only way to deal with works that are so deeply committed to sensorily concrete and experientially detailed conceptions of truth.

Painting and pragmatism may seem an odd conjunction, but it is a truism to observe that intellectual revolutions are no respecters of boundaries. It is clear to me that, however it came about, Eakins deserves to be regarded as a pragmatist. At the same time, it is necessary to resist the impulse to understand any parallels we may find between the work of James and Eakins as examples of “influence.” If influence ever explains anything (and it seldom does), it clearly does not apply here. Though James and Eakins were almost exact contemporaries (Eakins two years younger than James, and outliving him by six years), there is no evidence that either of them ever heard of the other, let alone knew anything of the other's work. Eakins' paintings did not reach a significant national audience until after his death, and most of the ones I am going to be discussing were in fact painted before James had published his major philosophical work, so similarities will have to be attributed to the cultural milieu that nurtured both (a milieu shaped, at least in part, by Emerson, who hovers over all of subsequent American culture as a ghostly proto-pragmatic presence).

But however we may account for the family resemblance, I would argue that James' (and later Dewey's) conception of replacing the philosophy of “being” with a philosophy of “doing” finds a striking anticipation in Eakins' work. To adapt the phrases in my epigraph, Emerson, Eakins, James, and Dewey can all be understood to be exploring the ramifications of “forming the hand of the mind” or “transforming mind into a verb.” All four ask us to translate mental processes into practical activities. All four ask us, as James might have phrased it, to reestablish the connection between “conceptions” and “perceptions.” Eakins' paintings, as I understand them, dramatize Emerson's, James', and Dewey's vision of the possible merging our mental and our manual “grasp.”

—Excerpted from Ray Carney, “When Mind is a Verb: Thomas Eakins and the Doing of Thinking,” in Morris Dickstein (ed.) The Revival of Pragmatism: New Essays in Social Thought, Law, and Culture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998), pp. 377-403.

To read more about Ray Carney's thoughts on art as a way of knowing, click on any of the discussions of Thomas Eakins' work in the Paintings section, any of Mike Leigh's films in the Mike Leigh section, any of John Cassavetes' films in the John Cassavetes section, or any of the discussions of independent film in The Independent Vision section.

This page only contains excerpts and selected passages from Ray Carney's writing. To obtain the complete text as well as the complete texts of many pieces that are not included on the web site, click here.

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© Text Copyright 2003 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.