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On Wielding Ockham’s Razor

There is a structural reason why authors are rarely one hundred percent happy with the reviews of their books: whereas the reviewer reads the book under the light of the author’s previous ones, the author reads the reviewer’s review in the perspective of the next book. This unfortunate yet inevitable predicament is all the more acute if the author pursues a single questioning in book after book—which is my case regarding the suite, Pictorial Nominalism, Kant after Duchamp, and Aesthetics at Large, all of which Alex Weintraub has read diligently. I feel I must therefore focus my reply on a few shifts and changes of mind that align the old material with the recently published and the as yet unpublished, but not without having first expressed my gratitude to Mr. Weintraub for his thorough reading of my work and the detailed critical attention he has given to it.

Let me start from my reviewer’s assertion that “de Duve explicitly aims in both Kant after Duchamp and again in Aesthetics at Large to challenge Duchamp’s anti-aesthetic reception.” This is absolutely right and needs to be contextualized, even historicized. My interest in Duchamp goes back to 1975, three years into the legacy of Harald Szeemann’s Documenta 5, where I first experienced the shock of conceptual art, and the year of a major exhibition of abstract monochrome painting at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum. I saw no contradiction between being in love with the most advanced painting and being really excited by conceptual art. Nor was I impressed by the claim that conceptual art had tolled the death knell of painting—I had seen the phoenix rise from its ashes before. What alerted me is that it didn’t take long for some to proclaim that conceptual art had revealed that art, in its true nature, was completely dissociated from aesthetics. Joseph Kosuth’s assertion, “All art (after Duchamp) is conceptual (in nature) because art only exists conceptually,” is paradigmatic.1 The “anti” in Duchamp’s anti-aesthetic reception did not aim at pitting one taste, say, for conceptual art, against another, for painting, but claimed that taste überhaupt, aesthetic judgment as such, was obsolete. This is where I knew something was wrong, if only because such a theory would force us either to throw all art before Duchamp on the ash heap of history or to reject conceptual art wholesale. Today no one (I’d say, not even Kosuth) entertains such a dogmatic theory anymore. The fight against the anti-aesthetic is no longer a pressing issue, except residually, in view of the fact that the anti-aesthetic reception of Duchamp’s work has morphed into institutional critique and that the latter endorses an institutional, “political,” and thus non-aesthetic, theory of art.

Alex Weintraub raises two questions regarding my “Kant after Duchamp” approach. He writes:

My first question concerns de Duve’s account of Fountain, Bottle Rack, In Advance of the Broken Arm, and other so-called pure, or unassisted, readymades. Pure readymades are said to be unmodified, manufactured objects that have been merely selected as art.

Without waiting I must warn the reader against an ambiguity that is of some consequence because it appears in the title of Weintraub’s review as well as a bit everywhere in the text: the expression “pure readymades” is his, not mine. (I checked: there is not one occurrence in either Kant after Duchamp or Aesthetics at Large.) I deem this warning important because the belief in pure readymades would align me with the kind of formalism many ascribe to Greenberg (forgetting that he rarely wrote “pure” without putting the word in scare quotes).2 That said, Weintraub’s error is menial because what he means with “pure readymades” is unassisted readymades, plain, unmodified objects straight from the factory, the kind of readymades he quotes me as defining thusly: “Readymades are works of art that condense all the artist’s decisions into one single choice.” He rightly insists that they are actually never straight from the factory: they are inscribed, signed, upturned or hung from the ceiling, and so on, and most importantly, presented as art. They require, says he, “at least two aesthetic decisions and not just one: (1) the choice of this ready-made object as art and (2) the choice to present this object as art.” Pondering over his critique I realize that he is right, not on the number of decisions,3 however, but on the fact that the relevant one is presentation as art. The context from which he extracted the above excerpt is the analogy (drawn in chapter 8 of Aesthetics at Large) between the author of readymades and the painter at the very moment when they contemplate their finished work:

At the particular moment when the difference between artist and viewer melts into air, the difference between a painter and an artist who chooses a readymade evaporates, too. Readymades are works of art that condense all the artist’s decisions into one single choice.4

I was wrong in singling out choice. Weintraub is closer to my intent when he writes that “a pure readymade would need to be a ready-made object to which no other aesthetic decision ought to be claimed beyond its baptism.” Indeed, the decision that condenses all the others and that is itself condensed in the act of baptizing the object “art” is the decision to present the object as art and in the name of art. As I wrote in chapter 4 of Aesthetics at Large: “The presentation of something in the name of art carries an invitation to judge it in reference to art that the mere presentation of something as art does not carry.5 ” Weintraub doesn’t pay attention to the “in the name of art” issue, which is most unfortunate because therein lies a significant progress of Aesthetics at Large vis-à-vis Kant after Duchamp.

Attached to Weintraub’s first question is the question of how my “interpretation of the readymade is said to impact one’s reading of Kant.” This must also be historicized: we are now in the early’80s. I shared with countless artists and critics the conviction that the readymades had forced the art historian who took them seriously to engage in the pursuit of an art theory capable of accommodating them. The theory I was striving for had to be valid for all art, before and after Duchamp, in particular for modernist painting down to the monochrome: it had to be an aesthetic theory. The choice of Kant’s theory came about independently of my musings on the readymades. (I credit Clement Greenberg and Jean-François Lyotard for having incited me to study Kant assiduously.) Of the various aesthetic theories on the market (Hegel’s being the main competitor), Kant’s—by the way, it’s not a theory, it’s a critique, in the reflexive, self-examining sense Kant gave to the word—was the only one that offered a satisfactory answer, both philosophically profound and valid transhistorically and transculturally, to the question “Why do we, humans, have art?” (not to “What is art?”—probably a futile question). Once I had made the choice of Kant, the problem became to use Ockham’s razor to shave off all side issues that might distract me from the task at hand: update Kant’s Critique of Judgment for post-Duchampian times. Kant’s own wielding of Ockham’s razor showed me the way: I had to replace the antinomy of taste with the antinomy of art and solve the latter the way Kant had solved the former. Therefore, contrary to what Weintraub maintains, my interpretation of the readymade did not impact my reading of Kant, for I don’t count as an interpretation the trivial realization (1) that appreciating a snow shovel for its beauty does not make it art and (2) that for a snow shovel to be art it has to be called art. Nor did my reading of Kant (or at this point, anyone’s reading of Kant’s antinomy of taste, if it is attentive enough) impact my interpretation of the readymade, although it certainly influenced my understanding of all art and made me wonder how to integrate readymades in that understanding. Mentally replacing the word “beautiful” with the word “art” in Kant’s antinomy and, by implication, in the whole of the Analytic and Dialectic of the Beautiful, was simply the most economical way of beginning to update Kant’s Critique of Judgment for post-Duchampian times.6

As I argue in the first chapter of Aesthetics at Large, the replacement of “beauty” with “art” is neither gratuitous nor an artifact of the theory but rather an historical necessity with multiple causes, some of which I shall approach in the second volume in connection with Romanticism. (Weintraub shows that he has an inkling of where this would lead me when, in endnote 18, he criticizes the last chapter of Volume One. I regret that he has relegated his critique to an endnote; perhaps Volume Two will give us an opportunity to engage with it.) Suffice it here to say that Duchamp and the readymades have no agency whatsoever in what makes the replacement of beauty with art necessary. It would be much closer to the truth to say that Duchamp and the readymades are themselves the product of that replacement’s necessity. This is a crucial point, made early on, whose importance grew slowly in my work, and that has come to occupy front stage only with Duchamp’s Telegram—my next book: the manuscript is at the publisher’s.7 Duchamp is not the author, the agent, or the cause of the sea change that has forced me to update Kant’s aesthetics, he is merely its messenger. Alex Weintraub is an art historian; I believe he will find in Duchamp’s Telegram some answers to his queries. Meanwhile, I’m sure he will pardon me for taking the following passage in his review as a textbook example of a misunderstanding that may be subtle but is no less fundamental. When he writes that Duchamp’s “works sufficiently deracinated artistic practices from their prior conventions in order to establish what de Duve calls the Art-in-General system,” he thinks he is going along with me but he is not. Artistic practices were already deracinated from their prior conventions when Duchamp proceeded to show this with Fountain. And Duchamp’s works did not establish the Art-in-General system; the latter was in place before his birth. (Chapter 2 of Aesthetics at Large, which Weintraub has read, makes this plain, even though it doesn’t develop the demonstration.)

Turning now to what Weintraub calls my “art historical and art theoretical account of the readymade,” I must confess that the definition of the syntagm, “the readymade,” in the singular, has undergone several revisions, which I was not able to explain properly as long as my own understanding of it was wavering. I can’t blame my reviewer for the resulting misunderstanding. He quotes me, correctly, as writing: “The readymade is nothing but the statement ‘this is art,’ as it is affixed to any ‘this’ whatsoever.”8 “The readymade,” here, is not a generic singular for all the readymades, as objects; it has the meaning of a theoretical paradigm, and Weintraub understands it this way. The underlying reasoning is the realization that when a urinal is art anything can be art. I never thematized this reasoning explicitly before Duchamp’s Telegram because of its triviality. I have now begun to address that apparent triviality and discovered that it was an abyss: a progress I can obviously not account for here. At the time of Kant after Duchamp I was happy to focus on the generalizing move the paradigm of “the readymade” authorized, as it allowed to subsume all extant and possible works of art under it: “The readymade, I said before, is a work of art reduced to the statement ‘this is art.’”9 Another instance of using Ockham’s razor to shave off unnecessary questions.

This definition raised serious issues (we are now in the mid-’80s), in particular what (in the ’90s) I came to call the problem of the two hats,10 a problem that arose from the fact that the sentence “this is art” is either evaluative or classificatory (to use George Dickie’s terms; I avoid Austin’s performative/constative dichotomy).11 In its evaluative usage, “this is art” is a judgment that its enunciator pronounces; in its classificatory usage, it is the acknowledgment that the judgment “this is art” has been pronounced by others. (The word “art” is thus never sheerly classificatory, a problem in Dickie’s theory I saw early on). Such is the way I solve the problem of the two hats today, borrowing the notion of acknowledgment, as distinct from knowledge, from Stanley Cavell.12 In Kant after Duchamp I could do no better than accounting for the problem of the two hats by interpreting “this is art” in its supposedly classificatory usage as an énoncé in Michel Foucault’s sense. I do not disavow chapter 7, where this is developed, but there are too many things I would like to change (including some that Weintraub delves on, such as the idea that works of art are shown in order to be judged as such) to advise anyone to read it.

The second question Alex Weintraub raises regarding my “Kant after Duchamp” approach pertains to my “likening of art to proper names, [an] analogy [that] derives from [my] strong reading of the work of philosopher Saul Kripke.” May I interrupt? I don’t speak of an analogy, and I don’t liken the word “art” to a proper name: I claim it is a proper name (when proffered as an aesthetic judgment, of course). Weintraub quotes me as adopting Kripke’s theory that “proper names function as rigid designators, which is to say that proper names are terms that ‘serve to fix the reference and not to pronounce a meaning’ for the objects to which they refer.” He then adds that my recourse “to the Kripkean concept of proper names is theoretically necessary for [my] re-reading of Kantian aesthetics.” So far so good. But when, immediately thereafter, Weintraub proceeds to try to understand why Kripke’s concept of proper names is necessary for my theory, he brings up a weird thought experiment where we would judge Leonardo’s Mona Lisa as beautiful, and then again as art. I scratched my head in puzzlement until I understood why Weintraub went for the weird Leonardo example. He believes me to uphold that “in all earlier and most competing theories of art, the judgment ‘This is art’ logically entails the application of determinate concepts, such as the concepts of the Sister Arts or of specific mediums.” That is not my position at all. In earlier or competing theories (with respect to mine), “this is art” is not a judgment, period. No one says “this is art” in praise of Mona Lisa unless “art” is meant to convey something like “wow!” (I envisaged similar cases in chapter 3 of Aesthetics at large). Independently of such an admiring exclamation, it is a trivial truth that Mona Lisa is art because it is a painting and painting is an art. Weintraub knows this, of course; he even reminds me of the fact. This got me scratching my head again, until I spotted the mistake in his conclusion:

Art’s function like a proper name preserves its logical availability as a substitute for beauty in de Duve’s critique, because art’s usage as a rigid designator renders the term conceptually indeterminate all the way down.

I protest: such trickle-down theorization is completely alien to me; it neglects the function of reflective judgment in the construction of theory. I didn’t reach for the theory of art as proper name because I “needed a philosophical foundation for [my] usage of art as an indeterminate concept.” I reached for the theory of art as proper name because recourse to it was in accordance with my experience as an aesthetic judge while solving the antinomy of art. It is not as if we had the choice, when we make aesthetic judgments formulated as “this is art,” between using “art” as a rigid designator and some other theory. If Kant is right, and even if my update of Kant is incorrect, you no more have a choice of aesthetic theories than you have the choice of flying when you throw yourself out of the window. Kant is my Newton.13

Now, does that settle the question of whether “the Kripkean concept of proper names is theoretically necessary for [my] re-reading of Kantian aesthetics”? If it does, it is scientifically, not philosophically; and not as a foundation for the understanding of art; more in the manner of a catalyst in a chemical reaction: it facilitates the reaction, is not affected by it, and gets removed once the job is done. I must again historicize the evolution of my thoughts, this time on the issue of the proper name. Actually, I’ve done this already in pages 150 to 153 of Aesthetics at Large in anticipation of such objections as Weintraub’s. I state in these pages that I realized in 1982 that the solution to the antinomy of art imposed to read the word “art” not as a determinate concept but rather as a proper name. I had not read Kripke at the time! Then I tell the story of how I got to read Kripke and joke that I even received his blessing. I must have been naïve in thinking that this would get me off the hook. It seems that writing, “I never gave the theory another thought; it had done its work,” rather than inciting Alex Weintraub to turn the page, precipitated his desire to prove me wrong in my understanding of Kripke. Woe is me. Weintraub may be right that I failed to test my theory of art as rigid designator in all possible worlds.14 But does it matter? If I reverted to the common sense-understanding of proper names (à la Stuart Mill) which was mine in 1982, would it change anything substantial to the solution of Kant’s antinomy? I don’t think so.

Weintraub has a thorough logical mind, and so his fixation on the proper name issue is logically of a piece with his neglect of the reflective judgment and of the “in the name of art” issue. The unfortunate result is that, from then on, his review tumbles from one misreading into another. Some are properly grotesque, as when he believes me to mean the word “artist” literally in “language is a spontaneous artist,” or the word “readymade” as a work of art in “words are readymades.” Others are puzzling, such as his refutation of my contention that Fountain is either art at large or nothing. (For “nothing” you may substitute “just a urinal,” “a hoax,” or “crap,” etc.: it definitely means, “not art.”) Art or not art, I don’t see a third possibility. Weintraub offers the category of readymades as if it represented a third possibility.15 He maintains that Fountain was accepted as a readymade, a genre precisely created to accommodate objects such as urinals. That’s right, but it’s putting the carriage before the horses. Who, to begin with, decides that readymades are a genre of works of art, or even plausible candidates to art status? Without a reflective judgment sanctioning at least one readymade, how could art status be extended to the category of readymades, in general?

My greatest disappointment in reading Weintraub’s review is that he did not adopt the four specifications for the term “art” that I offered in chapter 3 of Aesthetics at Large in an effort to update Kant after Duchamp and to clarify my theoretical claims. I mean, you can’t understand these specifications without adopting them, if only temporarily; nothing prevents you then from demolishing them if you think they don’t succeed in reinforcing the theory. But Weintraub reads everything I write through the prism of the unimportant rigid designator theory. So, he writes:

De Duve has claimed that his specification of a term’s uses does not count as providing a word with conceptual definitions, and so there is no contradiction in claiming that art functions like a rigid designator, while also using art to refer non-rigidly. I find this reasoning difficult to follow. . .

No wonder. Before I parse the next passage in the hope of leaving no ambiguity this time as to what my theoretical claims are, I must, in Weintraub’s defense, express my regret for having subtitled chapter 3 “Remarks on Four Usages of the Word Art.” In earlier publications of that chapter there had been no mention of “usages” but rather of “specifications.”16 I must have thought “specifications” sounded barbaric, I don’t remember; anyway, making the change was a mistake. Although I made sure to write “four different and concomitant usages of the word art17 (I now underline “concomitant”), I cannot blame my reviewer for apparently not having understood that the word “art” could walk and chew gum at the same time. Here is the passage I deem necessary to parse. I’ll divide it into sections, numbered (1) to (4), because each of them deserves a refutation on its own terms.

(1) Even so, it should be recognized that only the name art in de Duve’s term-of-art art altogether conceivably fixes the particular reference that de Duve needs for his claim that art is a rigid designator. (2) Art altogether refers to that universal collection of art objects that serves as our basis for comparison when we wish to count this (an object presented to us) as a work of art. (3) Alternatively, art in art as such points to a collection of art-related feelings, such as enthusiasm or revulsion, which would mean, therefore, that art in art as such is purely connotative. (4) Finally, art in art itself points to the regulative idea that brings these art-related objects and art-related feelings together in aesthetic harmony. These terms will be of use to readers already prepared to grant de Duve’s difference between a word’s usages and its definitions, but they will likely remain points of confusion for those of us still grappling with how to make sense of the claim that art functions like a proper name.

(1) Yes, the name art fixing the reference is the function I have in mind when I speak of “art altogether.” And in that function the name art behaves as a proper name. But Weintraub has it upside down again. Here is how it works: say that an artist comes up with a heap of coal. It so happens that I already have six heaps of coal (or gravel, or dirt) in my personal imaginary art collection: by Bernar Venet, Jannis Kounellis, Marcel Broodthaers, Reiner Ruthenbeck, Stephen Kaltenbach, and Mary Kelly. By judging that “this is art,” I deem that the new heap of coal that’s now been presented to me is qualitatively comparable with—which doesn’t mean qualitatively equal to—those of Venet, Kounellis, Broodthaers, Ruthenbeck, Kaltenbach, or Kelly. What was initially an extra-artistic criterion of comparison has acquired an aesthetic meaning and opened the door to evaluation. (Is the new heap of coal as good a work of art as those of Venet or Kelly? Does it differ enough from them for not being derivative? Etc.) I have no criteria by which I judge heaps of coal as art (certainly being coal is not a criterion); but I do have a basis for comparison (and it’s not limited to heaps of coal). The word “art” in “this is art” fixes the reference, that is, points at comparable things already in my art collection.

(2) Art altogether, I wrote in chapter 3 of Aesthetics at Large, does not deserve its name. Weintraub says that it “refers to that universal collection of art objects that serves as our basis for comparison.” That is true only for an ideal art lover who would actually possess a universal art collection, and so it is not true.18 I have six heaps of coal in my collection, and though it might be enough to find acquiring a seventh plausible, if all there is in my collection is contemporary art cut from the past, my judgment is likely to be under-informed and not severe enough. But even if I were the most cultivated and sophisticated art lover in the world, I would still never have a universal art collection. Thus, another way of defining art altogether as a specification of the word “art” is to say that it gathers all the works of art in the world as if they had all been collected by one individual. The emphasis is on “as if.” The fact that such a collection doesn’t exist doesn’t invalidate the fact that, if it existed, it would not consist of meanings or of feelings (see the next point) but rather of things, objects that can be referred to. (Actions, happenings, performances, concerts, etc., are objects, too.)

(3) Weintraub is absolutely right to write “that art in art as such is purely connotative.” But he is wrong to say that it “points to a collection of art-related feelings.” Say I am mourning my mother: am I pointing at grief, as if it were some item on a shelf? The word “art” specified as art as such doesn’t point to, it expresses a feeling. That feeling may or may not be art-related, it may be simple or complex, it may be easily shared or utterly unshareable; what matters is that it results in the feeling that this is art (great art, good art, bad art, the worst art), art as such, or the feeling that this is not art (i.e., that it is fraudulent art).19 Weintraub’s failure to understand  that expressing a feeling is not referring to it non-rigidly probably explains why he begins that passage with the word “alternatively,” as if my feeling in front of the seventh heap of coal did not result from my comparing it to the other six in my collection. Why should expression and reference be mutually exclusive alternatives?

(4) I guess that Weintraub’s tiring obsession with reference, rigid or not, is what makes him write, in the last segment of the above passage, that “art in art itself points to the regulative idea that brings these art-related objects and art-related feelings together in aesthetic harmony.” You no more point at an idea than at a feeling.20 And though there are many instances in life when you can express an idea, this is not the case with art itself. You don’t express it, you act in its name. Art itself is the idea of the purported comparability of all the works included in art altogether. The emphasis is on “purported,” for there is no proof that all works of art are objectively or experientially comparable, which is why art itself is merely an idea. That is what “regulative” means in Kantese: only an idea but a mandatory one. It is clear that works of art have intellectual content beyond their objective or formal qualities and besides the feelings they elicit. The anti-aesthetic theories of art call such content conceptual because they confuse ideas (of reason) and concepts (of the understanding). But the intellectual content of works of art doesn’t beg to be known, as concepts do; rather, successful works of art give us food for thought. Kant would say that they present “something that prompts the imagination to spread over a multitude of kindred presentations that arouse more thought than can be expressed in a concept determined by words.”21

Art as such, art altogether, and art itself are three specifications, three dimensions, if you want, of the word “art.” (The fourth, Art-in-General, which Weintraub doesn’t mention in the above passage, refers to the institution that has replaced the Beaux-Arts system; it has no function in the aesthetic judgment.) I regret to have called them “usages,” for they are concomitant and immanent to each other in every utterance of the aesthetic judgment, “this is art.” The theory that “art” functions as a proper name undergirds art altogether; the empirical evidence that “art” expresses a feeling is adduced in support of art as such; Kant’s double distinction, between concepts and ideas and between ideas of reason and aesthetic ideas, reflectively accounts for art itself. (And knowledge of the art-historical facts that presided over the transition from the Beaux-Arts to the Art-in-General system grounds the existence of the latter.) Are there more such specifications or dimensions? I don’t believe so: we shouldn’t be looking for more. It’s again a matter of wielding Ockham’s razor with the appropriate insight and dexterity.

Ockham’s razor is supposed to shave off side issues and unnecessary inquiries. But what is one person’s side issue may very well be another person’s central question. It seems to me that Alex Weintraub’s aim with his review was to convince me that I should treat the issue of proper name as my central question, simply because it is his. Fair enough. But I wish he had paid more attention to the benefit of shaving off peripheral issues. Let me illustrate this with someone else’s theory of art, namely, Arthur Danto’s. Danto knew very well that Warhol’s Brillo Box is not indiscernible from the cardboard Brillo package in the supermarket. Yet in book after book he treated it as the paradigm of the problem that interested him, the Leibnizian indiscernibility of artworks and mere things.22 This led him to an extremely economical theory, according to which the two criteria—and there are only two—that tell artworks apart from mere things are aboutness and embodiment. And he might be right, to boot. Weintraub knows that I know as well as he that there are no pure readymades in the sense of resulting from nothing else than choice, but he doesn’t ask himself why I neglect this knowledge. Were I to answer, because the theory requires it, I guess his reply would be: that’s exactly it; you bend the facts to make them suit your theory. But that’s not how theory works, at least not in a world where scientific reductionism is a worthy ideal and reflective judgment makes the decisions. You start from a complex and entangled ball of twine and with the help of Ockham’s razor you bring it down to one simple, elegant formula that accounts for most of the facts. And then you amend and complexify your formula until it accommodates the recalcitrant facts. And if it doesn’t succeed, you abandon your theory.

The deadline the editors of nonsite gave me for this reply to Alex Weintraub’s review is tonight. I finished writing my reply late last night and went to bed. The sky was clear and the moon was full, which kept me awake and thinking. There is nothing like a bout of insomnia to incite you to look back on the day’s work and ask yourself whether you did the right thing. I began reviewing the question of whether anything substantial would be changed to the solution of Kant’s antinomy if I reverted to the common sense-understanding of proper names which was mine in 1982. I had answered negatively, but now it dawned on me that in that case Barry Schwabsky’s objection would remain unanswered.23 Then my thoughts drifted to whether I really needed the theory of art as proper name / rigid designator. Weintraub thinks so. His critique was that the theory is inconsistent and therefore threatens to invalidate every other claim I make for art. My reply was that the theory is a catalyst and leaves all my other claims about art intact. But I agreed with him that I needed the theory. Suddenly I was more than awake: what if I didn’t?

A postscript to a reply to a review of a book is hardly the place where to strike a definitive answer to such a question, especially not when the deadline is just a few hours away. So let me conclude on a tentative proposal that makes me really, profoundly, grateful to Alex Weintraub for having forced me to open it. In last night’s insomnia, I remembered an alternative theory to art as proper name that I considered at the time the best available if one were to stick with the idea that art was a concept. I’m talking about Morris Weitz’s 1956 piece, “The Role of Theory in Aesthetics.” In it Weitz treats the concept of art (not just the word “art”) the way Wittgenstein treated the concept of game. We might never find something common to all games, or define the concept of game by way of necessary and sufficient conditions, but we still recognize a game when we see one:

Card games are like board games in some respects but not in others. Not all games are amusing, nor is there always winning or losing or competition. Some games resemble others in some respects—that is all. What we find are no necessary and sufficient properties, only “a complicated network of similarities overlapping and crisscrossing,” such that we can say of games that they form a family with family resemblances and no common trait. If one asks what a game is, we pick out sample games, describe these, and add, “This and similar things are called ‘games.’” This is all we need to say and indeed all any of us knows about games.24

I ask myself in retrospect why I didn’t adopt Weitz’s theory when I was struggling with the antinomy of art, and I’m afraid I know the answer: vanity. I had already arrived at my own solution and would not let go. As I wrote in Aesthetics at Large: “I was rather proud of having cracked a tough nut with the theory of art as proper name.”25 The thesis in Kant’s antinomy of taste was that beauty could not be based on a concept, and in Kant a concept is determinate and knowable; it answers to necessary and sufficient conditions. But Weitz posits that “art,” like “game,” is an indeterminate concept, and this is not only perfectly compatible with Kant’s thesis in the antinomy, it also perfectly foots the bill of Kant’s solution:

However, all contradiction disappears if I say this: A judgment of taste is based on a concept […], but this concept does not allow us to cognize and prove anything concerning the object because it is intrinsically indeterminable and inadequate for cognition.26

Moreover, Weitz’s theory explains much better than my baptism theory how we proceed to make aesthetic judgments about art by comparing the candidate with works we are familiar with, and indeed how we explore our personal collection, going from family resemblance to family resemblance. I need more time to test his theory with regard to the other dimensions of the word “art” besides comparability and reference to art altogether, but I am inclined to give it a try. Weitz’s borrowing of Wittgenstein’s family resemblance beautifully and economically explains the indeterminacy of the concept of art. Talk about wielding Ockham’s razor!

New York, November 2020


1.  Joseph Kosuth, “Art after Philosophy I and II,” Studio International, October and November 1969, rpt. in Kosuth, Art after Philosophy and After, Collected Writings, 1966–1990 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991), 18.
2.  The word “pure” in the chapter of Kant after Duchamp titled “Archaeology of Pure Modernism” presents itself free of scare quotes but not free of irony (the mayonnaise theory, etc.). Besides, it is not applied to readymades, and it is meant to echo Kant’s Critique of Pure reason. The title of the next chapter, “Archaeology of Practical Modernism,” makes that clear.
3.  Indeed, whether readymades require one or two or a thousand decisions before the decision to present them is irrelevant. Chapter 7 of Kant after Duchamp reduces them to choosing, naming, and signing. At Weintraub’s suggestion I’d be more than happy to add placing and presenting.
4.  Aesthetics at Large, 154.
5.  Ibid., 59.
6.  See the solution to the antinomy of art in Kant after Duchamp, 321, and in Aesthetics at Large, 149-150
7.  Duchamp’s Telegram, From Beaux-Arts to Art-in-General, forthcoming from Reaktion Books, London, 2021.
8.  Kant after Duchamp, 347.
9.  Ibid., 413.
10.  The two hats were that of the art lover, who judges personally, and the Foucauldian archaeologist, who looks back without judging at an episteme to which he no longer belongs. I sometimes called the former “modern” and the latter “postmodern.” See my book, Essais datés I —Duchampiana (Geneva: Mamco, 2014), 15-17.
11.  See George Dickie, Art and the Esthetic, An Institutional Analysis (Ithaca: Cornell University Press), 1974; J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962).
12.  See Stanley Cavell, “A Matter of Meaning It,” and “Knowing and Acknowledging,” in Must We Mean What We Say?, second updated edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 197-245.
13.  I made that joke in the Art Seminar organized by James Elkins in Cork in 2004. See Art History Versus Aesthetics, ed. James Elkins (London: Routledge, 2006), 82.
14.  He is also right in noticing that, at the time of Kant after Duchamp, I was reticent to embrace Kripke’s theory all the way on account of its essentialism. By the time of Aesthetics at Large those scruples had disappeared.
15.  Not a bad move if he had meant that readymades are neither art nor not-art but rather non-art. If he had entertained that hypothesis he might be on the track of Duchamp’s Telegram. I offer him this as a teaser, not as the admission that there is a third term besides art and not-art.
16.  Variants of this text have been published in several languages. What became “usages” in the book had been, in English, “specification,” in French, “qualifications,” in Dutch, “kwalificaties,” and in Spanish, “calificaciones”. See Aesthetics at Large, 38.
17.  Ibid., 39.
18.  It is not for nothing that I contrived a disingenuous scenario in which I asked the reader to imagine that the ideal art lover existed. See Aesthetics at Large, 44-49.
19.  The conclusion of Duchamp’s Telegram addresses the issue of fraudulent art.
20.  I’m purposely playing with the difference between “pointing to” and “pointing at.” I’m thereby refusing to meta-theorize.
21.  Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. Werner Pluhar (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987), 183
22.  Arthur Danto tells the story of his 1964 philosophical epiphany before Warhol’s Brillo Boxes at the Stable Gallery in the first pages of all the following books: The Transfiguration of the Commonplace (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981), vi; The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), xxiii; Beyond the Brillo Box (New York: Farrar-Straus-Giroux, 1992), 4; After the End of Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 13; The Madonna of the Future (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), xix; The Abuse of Beauty (Chicago: Open Court, 2003), 3.
23.  For Schwabsky’s objection, see Aesthetics at Large, 150-51. It also appears in Weintraub’s review.
24.  Morris Weitz, “The Role of Theory in Aesthetics,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, XV, 1956, rpt. in Philosophy Looks at the Arts, revised edition, ed. Joseph Margolis (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1978), 125.
25.  Aesthetics at Large, 150.
26.  Kant, Critique of Judgment, 213.
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