Pratt Symposia

 

From this perch, the agenda before us this evening concerns the inter-relations, conflicts and confluences of two distinct ways of knowing the world, and by extension, effecting and altering the natural world by means of their respective mind-sets, lexical and sign structures, and reigning paradigms; namely, the way of Art and the way of Science. Philosophy, it could be argued, is yet another distinct way of knowing the world. Thus we have not only art and science but also philosophies of art and philosophies of science and philosophies of nature. Hence, philosophy has a paralogical relation to both art and science. While sorting out the triadic correspondences prevailing among them as they address nature (and each other) is a matter fecund with potential disputation.

 

The initial obligation here is to establish terms for description; to determine what art and science have in common (if anything), how philosophy may serve to mediate interpretive conflicts between the two; and what significance it has to the fate of the world's ecological and moral health if a breach between the perspectives, methods, attitudes and practices of art and science as it is perpetuated and continually magnified.

 

Some of the pivotal key descriptive terms employed and examined are: information...perception...fact...theory... certainty...doubt. While consensus, subjective and objective, knowledge, progress and finally, truth.

 

Information is—so to speak--the straw that stirs the drink...how is information generated and manipulated in both art and Science? What consequences (including unintended ones) flow from their respective applications. That is, what kind of information does art provide and what kind does science (and thus technology) provide.

 

Information (understood and defined here as a difference that makes the difference) shapes our techno-culture as it is established and filtered through separate domains of mind, or epistemes, or ways of knowing the world. Information is thus shaped data...as words are shaped breath...why employ the term shape?...Here we'll digress a bit to briefly review the Platonic conception of ignorance as slavery, and thus philosophy as the way to freedom (most cogently expressed in the allegory of the cave)...With a slight twist, I would submit that the world's techno-culture is enslaved or addicted to a controlling and data-shaping process of information that is justified and maintained by the scientific mind-set and its instrumental apparatus, and that the consequences are the equivalent of Platonic ignorance...the manifest, palpable proof being the degraded condition of the earth's biosphere, apparently bordering on ecocide.

 

Art, specifically the visual art, therefor has recently acquired the existential duty to function (at least in part) as science's foil; by way of reshaping information vis-a-vis the biosphere's precarious state...In a sense, by way of introducing an aesthetic epistemology and/or by revivifying a sense of the sacred in the overall scheme of things.

 

That much said, the next turn of the screw would address how art and science may co-operate in this reshaping...Emphatically without art being co-opted by lip service, and winding up as a mere patina for the techno-apparatus as it goes about business as usual. According to Gombrich, it is in perception that art and Science meet.

 

Now, the longest standing tradition in philosophy has been that perception--especially touch and vision, the Greek Visio-Tactile method of verification—provides undeniably true knowledge. Philosophers have generally sought certainty and have often enough claimed it...whereas scientists, who as accustomed to their theories being modified and upset by new data (or shifts in the rules of evidence), generally settle for today's best bet. Philosophers have a heavy investment in perception...staking their all on the certainty of knowledge from the senses because they require secure premisses for their arguments from experience. Scientists, on the other hand, who are used to errors in measurement and observation by instruments and have consequently found it necessary to check, recheck, compare, recompare and repeat experiments (Popper's rules of refutability come into play here)...do not so readily expect reliability from the senses...Indeed, many if not most scientific instruments have been developed precisely because of the limitations of the senses and the unreliability of perception...for its quite simple to produce and demonstrate all manner of dramatic illusions which could hardly occur if perception were constituted by direct and reliable knowledge...although illusions of object-perception have been discussed by philosophers from Aristotle (e.g. the optically "bent" branch in the water) to Berkeley (e.g. the tree falling in the uninhabited forrest), and recently as well, philosophy generally has given more attention to errors of logic and ambiguities of expression (exemplified by the work of Carnap, et al) than to the fallibilities of perception...Thus art and its agencies acquires the additional existential duty of re-positioning the roll of perception...of the cleansing of the doors of perception...to paraphrase Blake.

 

Now to the issue of Facts:

 

Beginning in the early 17th century, science displaced religion and classical texts, and works of art as the authority on most issues of fact. If one wishes to know something about the facts of the world one does not consult the Bible (a sacred text of any kind for that matter) or their respective institutions, or works of art...One consults what science says about the matter. Thus we usually assume that whatever natural science claims about some issue is objectively true, or, at a minimum, virtually true. Nevertheless, "the heart has its reasons, which reason knows nothing of" (Pascal). Thus, there are numberless issues in which the authority of science is questionable, even dubious.

 

Hence, art's essential function is not to necessarily generate facts (exactitude is not truth, said Matisse)...it is instead to invent and / or uncover truths in and about the world that are independent of the facts...that transcend the factual...truths that are imagined, co-equal with those that are observed.

 

With respect to the notion of progress, the conceptual lynchpin in science and technology's monopolistic grip on the on the modern (or post-modern, if you prefer) zeitgeist...or ethos, shaping this juncture in history.

 

Along with Karl Popper and Paul Fyerabend, Thomas Khun is one of the most persuasive and influential philosophers of Science...Khun has distinguished normally practiced Science from abnormally practiced science...the former being the hacks and cogs in the techno-apparatus's wheel...the later being the rara avis, the heretic, the counter statement...I would borrow from Khun and apply the same to art and artists...Thus, there is normally practiced art and abnormally practiced art with the same aspects & attributes as stated above; and it is here that we come upon two constants that the scientist and artist share in common...the abnormal ones, that is. The first is ambition...which generally begins in frustration with prevailing orthodoxy and is goaded by the spirit of hierarchy, or the spirit of Agon...and the second is curiosity, which fuels intuition and the imagination; thereby evolving novel propositions, paradigms and forms.

 

Finally, to conclude...This from Mary Midgley's recent book Can't We Make Moral Judgements?

 

"There is...a vast spread of essential knowledge that forms no part of "science" even in the broadest sense and cannot be supported by it. Among that spread of non-scientific thought, moral judgments, and other value-judgments such as aesthetic ones, certainly do take their place somewhere...To say that is not to locate them in irrationality. It is simply to say that they are not part of science...This...is not a disaster. It simply shows that we should get rid of some unreal expectations. There is no single, infallible form of knowledge, forming a standard against which all others must be measured and by whose help they will finally be made impregnable. Instead, there are many different ways of knowing, each with their own standards and their own suitable kinds of evidence. The pattern of our knowledge is much more like that of a forest of different interdependent plants, or a city of different interconnected buildings, than of a single enormous building piled on a single foundation stone."

 

 

Frank Gillette

1975 / NYC / Lecture delivered at Pratt Institute