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Art, Interpretation, and Understanding (Part 2)


Since the act of interpreting seems to have something in common with the scientific viewpoint and since, moreover, it was said that there was something unique about interpretation within the aesthetic viewpoint, it will be important to distinguish aesthetic interpretation from the project of arriving at scientific knowledge.


An initial distinction has already been alluded to above.  Certainly, what modern scientific methodology sets apart as relevant facts can usually be linked to their quantifiablility (witness modern psychology).  The aesthetic standpoint, by contrast, seems to require a different set of facts, including one’s subjective reaction to the art object and, at times, some concern with the intention of the artist or author in creating his artwork may play an important role.  Neither of these concerns is allowed to arise as legitimate kinds of data within a purely scientific standpoint.


This type of scientific viewpoint may be labeled the modern empirical-scientific standpoint, so as to distinguish it from a further kind of “scientific” standpoint that might be called the classical epistemic-scientific standpoint.  This latter point of view is one that was developed at what is often considered to be the infancy of western culture.  It is the kind of epistemic standpoint that Plato and Aristotle developed according to which anything, whether it be a goose, a rosebud, or even such things as justice and love, can be   made accessible to the understanding by a process of classification and division.  The foundation and guiding principle of this classification and division is ultimately the goal of defining each thing in such a way that it can be distinguished from all other things.  This way of conceptualizing what it means to know or understand something is so deeply ingrained in our very way of discussing those terms that it is difficult to conceive of another way of understanding them that does not lead into it at some point.  Since understanding is usually held to be a matter of both relating one thing to other things and of telling them apart we seem to be led inexorably into the whirlpool of episteme when we wish to discuss “understanding” and “knowledge”.

Aesthetic interpretation falls into this whirlpool, and with mixed results.  On the one hand, it allows for a systematic treatment of the affective elements that the interpretation of art must accept and which the empirical-scientific standpoint cannot admit.  It accomplishes this by treating such elements as concepts that may be related to other concepts.  A certain whole is, moreover, held to emerge from a blending such elements with others that may be taken to be more or less the facts of what is presented.  For example, if one sets out to interpret Picasso’s Guernica, not only the figures presented and their historical context will be relevant to grasping a sense of the painting, but also a reflection upon the way in which one is affected by the way in which they are presented, and not only this, but often at least some attempt to divine what Picasso must have intended in that presentation will be relevant to its interpretation.

An Image from Picasso’s Guernica

On the other hand, there is that within the aesthetic standpoint, something within affectivity itself that resists conceptualization, and to that extent resists the epistemic model of understanding.  Indeed, if the epistemic model is taken to be the only model for understanding, then there is that in art that cannot be understood.  This aspect of art has a greater importance for its interpretation than might at first be recognized.  One could not get very far in understanding Guernica without first grasping, at a very basic affective level, such things as shock, horror, and revulsion; nor could one truly comprehend Chekhov’s “Lady with a Dog” without first being able to relate to emotions such as the desire, desperation, and long sought fulfillment that make up the elements of his story of fin amor.  A good writer or artist may even be judged, as was the case with Tolstoy and others, to be a master of his art precisely because he understood such emotions and was able to made his audience feel them and weave them together into experiences perhaps hitherto unknown as such to his reader.

Yalta: the setting for Chekhov’s, “The Lady with the Dog”.

It is not that the epistemic approach fails, so much as the fact that its success depends upon what cannot revealed by pure episteme alone.  In this respect, its projected definitions of love, loss, etc. fall short in a crucial respect.  It would even seem quite reasonable to say that inasmuch as a definition for such terms fails to invoke the essential affective qualities the term implies it does not truly capture its essence.  Hence, art comes to have what appears to be a doxastic, open-endedness with respect to the extent to which the interpretation of it can be said to be conclulsive.  On the other hand, inasmuch as art can be said to reveal what is essential to such inner experiences, it may be said to get nearer to what is essential to them than a purely conceptual approach can reveal.  Herein may be seen certain limitations of both Platonism and Aristotelianism.  More than this, the present discussion can be linked to contemporary discussions of consciousness that affirm it to be something inaccessible from a purely scientific standpoint.  One might go slightly further and add the qualification that the shortcomings of the “scientific” approach may be said to include both the empirical and the epistemic understandings of the term.

Plotinus one of the founders of Neo-platonism

It seems that this failure is due not only to the fact that, as was the case with the empirical approach, there is that in art which is essential to it, that resists objectification.  It also fails to a certain degree due to the fact that (as was explained above) even within the conceptual sphere, such affects cannot be made into conceptual objects as Plato’s Forms and their Aristotelian descendents may be said to have been.  It seems rather that what is essential to them must be invoked in some way by art itself.  Finally, to the extent that aesthetic interpretation, properly understood, does this uniquely (inasmuch as it must involve an interpretive standpoint that acknowledges the fundamental role of the affective side of art), we may be said to have arrived at an aspect of the interpretation of art that sets it apart not only from purely “scientific” perspectives, but differentiates it from other ways of grasping or “understanding” something.

This critique of  the epistemic point of view may be summed up by saying that we lack access, from a purely epistemic point of view, to what is revealed by a purely aesthetic point of view.    It may be seen that these two represent two distinct aspects of human experience.  In what follows, the idea will be explored that art has a unique role in bringing together these two aspects of human experience , and subsequently, in teaching us what it means to be human in the fullest sense: a sense that projects toward overcoming alienation from oneself and from humanity by reunifying these two sides of our experience.

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One comment on “Art, Interpretation, and Understanding (Part 2)

  1. I have not had the time to read completely this letter. My impression is that the problem is addressed quite well by Friedrich Schleiermacher in Hermeneutics and Criticism (Cambridge U. Press) and in particular, in his discussion of the technical and psychological sides of interpretation. That is the ground work for thinking about the questions being raised about aesthetics and epistemology and then, Biblical interpretation in general reaching as far back as Augustine’s refutation of the Manicheans. I look forward to re-reading this essay above though, and thinking more clearly about it. Thanks.

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