MORRIS WEITZ, IN A GROUNDBREAKING publication entitled “The Role of Theory in Aesthetics” took aim at a longstanding notion in art theory called essentialism. This work provoked much debate within the art philosophy community and is part of a larger movement known as anti-essentialism that was popular in the 1950’s.
Weitz’s piece, however, is arguably the most popular anti-essentialist pieces, as well as one of the most debated pieces in twentieth century aesthetics. Weitz positioned himself against the traditional essentialist methodology and proposed using Ludwig Wittgenstein’s family resemblance argument as an alternate method for identifying art objects. Weitz proposed that in asking “what is art?” aestheticians were really asking the wrong question altogether.
The question he believed needed to be fundamentally addressed instead was “what kind of concept is ‘art’?” Weitz used this question to propel both his defense of Wittgensteinian family resemblances, as well as his defense of art as an ‘open concept.’ Weitz is widely considered to have renewed interest within the analytical philosophy for aesthetics, where his claims have been challenged for over fifty years, most famously by Maurice Mandelbaum in the 1965 piece “Family Resemblances and Generalizations Concerning the Arts.”
Weitz later developed a philosophy of criticism, in which the critic must describe, interpret, evaluate, and finally theorize about the work in question.
What Weitz argued against fell in lock step with much of 20th century thought in every field, including politics. In philosophy, essentialism is the view that, for any specific kind of entity, there is a set of characteristics or properties all of which any entity of that kind must have. This view is contrasted with non-essentialism which states that for any given kind of entity there are no specific traits which entities of that kind must have.
A member of a specific kind of entity may possess other characteristics that are neither needed to establish its membership nor preclude its membership. It should be noted that “essences” do not simply reflect ways of grouping objects; essences must result in properties of the object.
An essence characterizes a substance or a form, in the sense of the Forms or Ideas in Platonic idealism. It is permanent, unalterable, and eternal; and present in every possible world. Classical humanism has an essentialist conception of the human being, which means that it believes in an eternal and unchangeable human nature. This viewpoint has been criticized by Marx, Nietzsche, Sartre and many modern and existential thinkers.
The point of this prologue is to highlight the notion that the foundation upon which the task of art criticism rests depends not on the framework but upon the foundation itself. Thus, we must question ourselves: does our worldview depend upon the incumbent strengths of essentialism (order), or the sprawling mysteries of its detractor (chaos)? In other words, is the universe a world of chaos, or a world of order?
To arrive at the proper response to this question, might we also presume that the world itself should lead us to the correct answer by showing us a living example? But after Heisenberg, despite the fine work of Popper and Hayek, we are still no closer to understanding the smallest particles in the universe, which appear highly ordered at certain phases in time and space, but still fall suspiciously prey to the lure of chaos when observed.
Yet, the question of creativity within the scope of aesthetics must be renewed with each generation. While we seem to have enough experimental data now to show that our minds are deeply involved in the quantum realm, we might inquire of The Mindful Universe: Quantum Mechanics and the Participating Observer by Henry Stapp with enough gusto to grab a clue.
We can believe that Stapp is close to something substantial, even essential, when it comes to the mind-body connection. He bases his projections on physics, but is sure to point out that we are not talking about billiard ball (Newtonian) physics anymore, but quantum physics. And we end by grasping not at straws but at the realization that the true nature of quantum physics is psychophysical, and therefore consequential.
But does this new knowledge help us sort out the debate between essentialism and anti-essentialism?
To be continued…