Where to Draw the Boundary?

The one comes to you and says:

Long have I pon­dered the mean­ing of the word “Art”, and at last I’ve found what seems to me a satis­fac­tory defi­ni­tion: “Art is that which is de­signed for the pur­pose of cre­at­ing a re­ac­tion in an au­di­ence.”

Just be­cause there’s a word “art” doesn’t mean that it has a mean­ing, float­ing out there in the void, which you can dis­cover by find­ing the right defi­ni­tion.

It feels that way, but it is not so.

Won­der­ing how to define a word means you’re look­ing at the prob­lem the wrong way—search­ing for the mys­te­ri­ous essence of what is, in fact, a com­mu­ni­ca­tion sig­nal.

Now, there is a real challenge which a ra­tio­nal­ist may le­gi­t­i­mately at­tack, but the challenge is not to find a satis­fac­tory defi­ni­tion of a word. The real challenge can be played as a sin­gle-player game, with­out speak­ing aloud. The challenge is figur­ing out which things are similar to each other—which things are clus­tered to­gether—and some­times, which things have a com­mon cause.

If you define “eluc­tro­mugnetism” to in­clude light­ning, in­clude com­passes, ex­clude light, and in­clude Mes­mer’s “an­i­mal mag­netism” (what we now call hyp­no­sis), then you will have some trou­ble ask­ing “How does elec­tro­mugnetism work?” You have lumped to­gether things which do not be­long to­gether, and ex­cluded oth­ers that would be needed to com­plete a set. (This ex­am­ple is his­tor­i­cally plau­si­ble; Mes­mer came be­fore Fara­day.)

We could say that elec­tro­mugnetism is a wrong word, a bound­ary in thingspace that loops around and swerves through the clusters, a cut that fails to carve re­al­ity along its nat­u­ral joints.

Figur­ing where to cut re­al­ity in or­der to carve along the joints—this is the prob­lem wor­thy of a ra­tio­nal­ist. It is what peo­ple should be try­ing to do, when they set out in search of the float­ing essence of a word.

And make no mis­take: it is a sci­en­tific challenge to re­al­ize that you need a sin­gle word to de­scribe breath­ing and fire. So do not think to con­sult the dic­tio­nary ed­i­tors, for that is not their job.

What is “art”? But there is no essence of the word, float­ing in the void.

Per­haps you come to me with a long list of the things that you call “art” and “not art”:

The Lit­tle Fugue in G Minor: Art.
A punch in the nose: Not art.
Escher’s Rel­a­tivity: Art.
A flower: Not art.
The Python pro­gram­ming lan­guage: Art.
A cross float­ing in urine: Not art.
Jack Vance’s Tschai nov­els: Art.
Modern Art: Not art.

And you say to me: “It feels in­tu­itive to me to draw this bound­ary, but I don’t know why—can you find me an in­ten­sion that matches this ex­ten­sion? Can you give me a sim­ple de­scrip­tion of this bound­ary?”

So I re­ply: “I think it has to do with ad­mira­tion of crafts­man­ship: work go­ing in and won­der com­ing out. What the in­cluded items have in com­mon is the similar aes­thetic emo­tions that they in­spire, and the de­liber­ate hu­man effort that went into them with the in­tent of pro­duc­ing such an emo­tion.”

Is this helpful, or is it just cheat­ing at Ta­boo? I would ar­gue that the list of which hu­man emo­tions are or are not aes­thetic is far more com­pact than the list of ev­ery­thing that is or isn’t art. You might be able to see those emo­tions light­ing up an fMRI scan—I say this by way of em­pha­siz­ing that emo­tions are not ethe­real.

But of course my defi­ni­tion of art is not the real point. The real point is that you could well dis­pute ei­ther the in­ten­sion or the ex­ten­sion of my defi­ni­tion.

You could say, “Aes­thetic emo­tion is not what these things have in com­mon; what they have in com­mon is an in­tent to in­spire any com­plex emo­tion for the sake of in­spiring it.” That would be dis­put­ing my in­ten­sion, my at­tempt to draw a curve through the data points. You would say, “Your equa­tion may roughly fit those points, but it is not the true gen­er­at­ing dis­tri­bu­tion.”

Or you could dis­pute my ex­ten­sion by say­ing, “Some of these things do be­long to­gether—I can see what you’re get­ting at—but the Python lan­guage shouldn’t be on the list, and Modern Art should be.” (This would mark you as a gullible philis­tine, but you could ar­gue it.) Here, the pre­sump­tion is that there is in­deed an un­der­ly­ing curve that gen­er­ates this ap­par­ent list of similar and dis­similar things—that there is a rhyme and rea­son, even though you haven’t said yet where it comes from—but I have un­wit­tingly lost the rhythm and in­cluded some data points from a differ­ent gen­er­a­tor.

Long be­fore you know what it is that elec­tric­ity and mag­netism have in com­mon, you might still sus­pect—based on sur­face ap­pear­ances—that “an­i­mal mag­netism” does not be­long on the list.

Once upon a time it was thought that the word “fish” in­cluded dolphins. Now you could play the oh-so-clever ar­guer, and say, “The list: {Sal­mon, gup­pies, sharks, dolphins, trout} is just a list—you can’t say that a list is wrong. I can prove in set the­ory that this list ex­ists. So my defi­ni­tion of fish, which is sim­ply this ex­ten­sional list, can­not pos­si­bly be ‘wrong’ as you claim.”

Or you could stop play­ing nitwit games and ad­mit that dolphins don’t be­long on the fish list.

You come up with a list of things that feel similar, and take a guess at why this is so. But when you fi­nally dis­cover what they re­ally have in com­mon, it may turn out that your guess was wrong. It may even turn out that your list was wrong.

You can­not hide be­hind a com­fort­ing shield of cor­rect-by-defi­ni­tion. Both ex­ten­sional defi­ni­tions and in­ten­sional defi­ni­tions can be wrong, can fail to carve re­al­ity at the joints.

Cat­e­go­riz­ing is a guess­ing en­deavor, in which you can make mis­takes; so it’s wise to be able to ad­mit, from a the­o­ret­i­cal stand­point, that your defi­ni­tion-guesses can be “mis­taken”.