What Danto’s “Philosophy” Is





“The realm of spirit is dark and difficult terra incognita insofar as philosophical understanding is concerned, though it is as well, so far as human understanding is concerned, the most familiar territory of all.  It is in the realm of spirit that we exist as human beings.”


-- Arthur C. Danto, Connections to the World, p 274





Arthur Danto has been well-known as an avowedly secular philosopher.  Yet something remarkable has been going on in his later work.  His final sentence of Connections to the World is this: “It is in the realm of spirit that we exist as human beings.” This suggests for Danto something “close to what Hegel meant by ‘objective spirit,’”[1] and this has struck some commentators some as very surprising.   For here is Arthur Danto, signatory to Paul Kurtz’s Secular Humanist Declaration, adopting an arguably non-secular vocabulary. 


Though Danto himself does not regard this “spiritual turn” as an especially radical departure from his earlier work, there is something thoroughly radical about it.  For here we have a substantial claim, at least implied on Danto’s part – that into the “dark and difficult terra incognita” of spirit, we do nonetheless see.  And what we find there (apparently) is not opacity but a stubborn yet penetrable translucency.  I find this utterly fascinating.  I shall not make complete sense of it here, but I shall try to give an introduction to the contours of Danto’s thinking, in a way that might suggest, however obliquely, where this all might someday lead. 

I shall be concentrating on what Danto view of “philosophy” turns out to be.




“What Philosophy Is” was the title of a little book by Danto, published back in 1968, which begins with an interesting and perplexing puzzle. For if we raise the question of what philosophy is -- unlike, say, physics or architecture -- we do not step outside philosophy itself.  A question like “What is physics?” (asked at a certain level of profundity) is not really a question a physicist is going to answer, at least not from within her actual practice of doing physics – any more than, in Plato’s celebrated dialogue, Euthyphro can wisely answer questions about what “piety” is merely by pointing to what he’s doing to his poor father.  This same question about philosophy draws us spiraling ever deeper into philosophy.   And so “the question of the nature of philosophy…is, unfortunately, an internal question.”[2]


This distinction between external and internal has been an important motif for Danto’s work ever since. The way he addresses and employs that distinction sets him apart from others these days who ask this same general kind of question.  Many who have puzzled about the strange status of philosophy have concluded that philosophy is not all it’s cracked up to be.[3]  Thus, for some, philosophical terms (along with language in general) are supposed to be inherently unstable, shimmering with marginal semiotic resonances that defy firm meanings; but even if meanings were firm (they insist) we are still imprisoned within the house of language itself.[4]  So one obvious way to go in such matters is to declare that philosophy as a discipline has no deep things to say, just because we can’t ever get out of the spiral of questions about the very language in which any answers have to be framed.  This, though in far too rough and crude a form, is the general approach taken by perhaps the typical “postmodernist”– or, as Danto at one place puts it, by the philosopher whom we might call, “for somewhat complex reasons,”[5] simply “R.” 


Danto himself, on the other hand, retains a comparatively “high” view of philosophy’s standing – though not quite as high as some of his illustrious predecessors have.  It is true, he would say, that philosophical questions are not empirical ones: they leave the world just the way it was before any such questions are even asked.  And the succession of philosophical questions has a remarkable cadence to them: from system to system throughout the history of philosophy, “the same drama being reenacted over and over again, as though in compliance with the same choreography.” But this has not led Danto to suppose that philosophical questions are either a meaningless misuse of language, or a mere reflection of transitory cultural conversations (“edifying”[6] or otherwise).


Well then, why – given this monotonous lack of progress in the discipline -- has Danto not given up on philosophy?  The answer I think lies with two key notions he employs throughout his work, the first of which is the notion of indiscernibility.  Danto’s view is that philosophical distinctions, whatever they are, are not “natural” distinctions – they are not, as analytic philosophers often say, natural kinds.  There may indeed be natural (“real”) distinctions between, say, hydrogen and oxygen, or horses and hyenas, or humans and non-humans (or whatever) – but philosophical distinctions cannot be like these.  For these natural distinctions are ultimately the sort we can discern – or at least stipulate -- with scientific precision (if not simply by commonsense observation).  These are empirically significant.  But philosophical distinctions, on the other hand, have to do with distinctions between empirical indiscernibles: two different philosophical explanations leave the world unchanged, regardless of which might turn out to be correct.  (Remember, for example that famous “refutation” of Bishop Berkeley by Samuel Johnson….[7])


If this is right, then the difference between philosophical “worlds” cannot really consist of the fact that in one world there exists something lacking in the other.  And this is worth reiterating: this very point about what a philosophical difference has to be, Danto thinks, is virtually required by the history of philosophy itself.   Only this can account for the strangely repetitious cadences of philosophical explanation -- where, for example, idealism gives way to empiricism and then swings back again.  For if philosophical differences were internal to the world, then why do idealists and materialists keep reappearing at almost predictable intervals, as philosophy has moved from one era to the next?  Philosophical claims are not like claims about, say, phlogiston.


Thus at one point Danto seems to wonder whether William James wasn’t right: perhaps philosophy is not “knowledge” after all: “instead, philosophy is like a mood, a coloration of the whole of reality…It is as though philosophically different worlds turned more on faith than on knowledge, like the world of the religiously inspired.”[8] The extent to which this is Danto’s own view is not entirely clear from the context in which this passage occurs.




                     To get clearer on this, let’s give an example.  Danto was led to think about these matters not directly from traditional philosophical problems, but more from questions having to do with art.  What intrigued him about the art scene in the early 1960s was the move out of abstract expressionism to pop and conceptual art, and especially the innovations of Andy Warhol.  For it was Warhol, following in the steps of Marcel Duchamp, who came up with the brilliantly bland idea that a mere Campbell’s soup can or Brillo box, ordinarily a commodity on a store shelf, can be transfigured into a work of art simply by a kind of cultural fiat.[9] 


Andy Warhol
Brillo Boxes
1970 (enlarged refabrication of 1964 project)[10]

This of course scandalized those had taken art “seriously” up to then, but one of the subtexts of Danto’s work has been his willingness to debunk the pretensions of established convention, without however contesting any and all significance whatsoever.  This is not an easy trick to pull off, because once the aura of established authority has been dimmed, it’s not all that uncommon for petulant self-indulgence to replace philistine conventionalism.  Danto tries to navigate between these two.

                     Two points are important here.  (1) What distinguishes Warhol’s work of art from a commonplace item in the supermarket is, for Danto, a matter of ontology.  It’s a philosophical matter, and this has led to his interesting (and controversially misunderstood thesis about the “end” of art).  Since Brillo Box is virtually indiscernible from a box of Brillo pads, the difference has to be something along the lines of what philosophers try to discern. (Whether or not this philosophical discernment can be a matter of “knowledge” is an intriguing puzzle.)  (2) And this, importantly, is not just a matter of abstract theory, but of  what one might call “shared consciousness,” and this cultural phenomenon is of course an historical development.  Danto in this respect is actually a self-avowed Hegelian,[11] though he did not actually begin speaking in quite such a way until later in his career.  Early on, he spoke instead of “an atmosphere of theory” on the part of those in the “artworld”[12] who pay attention to gallery openings. 

So, once again, Brillo Box as first exhibited by Warhol in 1964 was virtually indistinguishable as a natural object from its commercial counterpart.  The difference here is a philosophical, not an empirical, difference, and this is a model of what Danto takes a philosophical problem to be.  The philosophical account of something is not to be decided by any difference internal to that thing as a natural object in the world, because there is no such difference.  Philosophical differences are empirically indiscernible.  Philosophy leaves the world just as it was.  Any genuinely philosophical explanation is external to the world – or, as Danto is fond of saying, philosophical accounts lie “at right angles to the world.”



So what Danto wants to say about philosophy is that it lies, in a way, outside the world because it represents the possible ways of assessing a human being’s status with respect to the world.  For Danto, the enterprise of philosophy is an articulation of philosophical kinds,[13] of which there are a limited array of possible configurations.  And so we have those “strange cadences of the history of philosophy,” where the same disputes seem to reoccur over and again, as if choreographed within a narrow repertoire of what is logically available. 


This philosophical repertoire is comprised of a trinity of doctrines -- of Understanding, Knowledge, and Being ( i.e., “the world”), which are renderings of the relation between subject and representation (understood meaning), the relation between representation and world (knowable truth) and the relation between subject and world (empirical causation):



[Understanding (Meaning)]





                          [ Causation ]                                                                       [ Truth    ]









Philosophical inquiry depends on the fact that these can of course be variously portrayed.  Berkeley erased the world, by rendering it translatable into the content of representations had by subjects – so only two of the three relata remain.  Hume eliminated even the subject, so that only representations remain, and so on.  But whatever configuration we take to be the “true” philosophical, what makes it true is not something in the world itself.


Now this makes Danto what he calls an “externalist” when it comes to philosophy.  (“Externalism” and “internalism,” in this sense, relate to questions of philosophical language: does linguistic reference lie outside or inside the linguistic realm?)  This brings into view Danto’s second key notion, which is  representation.  Representation, as Danto means it, turns out to be important because it speaks to a natural objection one might raise at this point.  For this idea of philosophy as an externalist activity seems entirely counterintuitive, at one level at least, because both the subject and the representation are internal to the world, in a way that our little diagram above seems to miss.  (For where are selves and thoughts if not in bodies?)  And this is obviously right.  This is a point that pragmatists, and especially neo-pragmatists,[14] tend to favor: language for them is just a natural tool for accomplishing things in praxis.  There is a laterality about all this, which is apparent (once again) when we consider art.  Danto relates how the painters have made use of what we might call lateral reference – allusions to the work of others, as when Raphael painted the Holy Family in the style of Leonardo’s famous work on the same subject, or how John Trumball painted George Washington on a horse that recalls the noble steeds depicted from Roman days.  Nonetheless, Danto declares, it is not those allusions that are being represented in what we might call a vertical sense.  The representational subject is the historical Mary and child, or it’s the actual Revolutionary General, not (he insists) the mere idea of them.


This example is meant to draw the distinction between references within the representational firmament itself – what we call semiotics these days -- and references to the external world.  But from painting it still might not be so obvious that a representational vehicle, as Danto calls it, can serve double duty in just this respect.  So think here instead of a photograph taken at a convention of Elvis impersonators.  At one level, we might say that the photo is “of” Elvis Presley – tiresomely so, perhaps, since here might be dozens of persons depicting the same dearly departed entertainer.  This is what the picture is “about” at one level – Elvis and none other.  But at another level, it’s really “about|” the particular Tom, Dicks, and Harrys who actually attended the convention, and all the regalia of sideburn and gracelandish costume does not alter that representational fact. 


Many “philosophers” these days, admittedly, will not want to follow Danto at this point.  Many remain “internalists” when it comes to the language of philosophy – or whatever is left of philosophy when the external dimension is shorn away.   Indeed, “it is impossible to emphasize too heavily the sheer incommensurability of an externalist and an internalist approach”[15] in these matters.  And to many, Danto’s insistence on vertical reference might seem quaintly conservative. This is after all just the kind of preoccupation that analytic philosophers have typically been cornered by – questions about how (as Bertrand Russell famously asked) an expression can denote anything, and when it comes to a sentence whose subject is a non-denoting expression (like ‘The present King of France is bald’ or ‘Unicorns have horns’) – how such sentences can be meaningful or even, in some cases, true? 


This is a very long story, which Danto refers to as the “chilling tale of fictional reference.”[16] I shall not add any more cold wind by drawing it out any further.  The point I really want to make is that from an analytic standpoint, Danto is rather quite radical, because not only does he want to add vertical reference to the concerns of literary criticism (which has not been much preoccupied with such things lately); to philosophy, he also wants to add the concerns of horizontal reference – what he calls the “network of reciprocal effects,”[17]  which are the very stuff of any semiotician’s study.  And what’s especially interesting to me is this.  When these two concerns are combined – when our very lives as physically embodied human beings are regarded both as reciprocally related texts and as objects of horizontal reference, we have entered the space Danto calls “spirit.” And here we require not just two planes of reference, but a third – a “z-coordinate” – which we can call self-representation.  And at least from my own reading of Danto’s work, which he is now apparently prepared to accept,[18] here is just where Foucault enters the picture, as the spiritual power of self-representational discourse becomes apparent to those who experience themselves being transfigured through the cultural icons in which they recognize their own depiction.  


This then seems to be what Danto wants to say about art and about spirit as well.  When he claims that a literary text “contains an implied indexical,”[19] what he seems to mean is that the act of really reading a text is also the act of transfiguring oneself in imagination.  And one does this same thing insofar as one really lives one’s life, as one invents one’s own narrative.  The existentialist connection here is not accidental: two of Danto’s earliest books were about Sartre and Nietzsche, so it is perhaps not too surprising that this is the kind of point he should now be making.  Others have made similar points.[20]


This is why literature cannot be simply a network of reciprocal effects, a mere semiotic phantasm, “an infinite windowless library”[21] where, as in a Huysmans novel,[22] life is only a shadow play of weightless images – a kind of Cartesian dream lacking only the Evil Genius.  Life itself is a performance, and performatives[23] presuppose a reference to the context that makes the sincere performance real.  There is a kind of bad faith in supposing one’s own life to be lacking such a context, just as there is a kind of blindness in supposing that even a French literary critic is drawn to literature simply to be drawn to literature.  No (Danto insists) -- good literature is “about” us its readers, and when we read in this way, we refer not just to representations themselves, and not just to the rest of the external world, but to us as subjectswho are at the same time both external to the text and internal to the act of reading it.


And this is just where the translucency of spirit coincides with the metaphors of texts.  It is a fascinating fact about our humanness, apparently, that reading texts this way has a power that reading texts in other ways lacks.  For Danto, this is the power of spirit, whose effects are creative and transformational -- ontologically generative, in fact – through a kind of “rebirth”[24] that awaits anyone who fully masters the interpretive cultural skills at our human disposal. Again: “it is in the realm of spirit that we exist as human beings.”




                     But what does this really mean, in more specific terms?  It means, first of all, that the spiritual realm – whatever else one wants to say about it – is not a realm apart from the physical.  As humans, we live as intentional beings and not just as neurological cogs; but this does not mean that our intentions are mysteriously non-physical events.  The philosopher Donald Davidson made a similar point about intentions:[25] the fact that an intentional description cannot be reduced to a physical description does not mean that the two cannot pick out the same event.  At the discrete moment one’s hand is raised – either as an unintended reflex or as an intentional signal – the empirical difference between the two kinds of events would be indiscernible. What matters is the larger context in which they occur.  And in the case of intentional conduct (i.e., action), though not in the case of mere reflex, that difference lies in the intentional representations that constitute the motivational psychology of the agent.


                     This also appears to suggest that much unproductive theological discussion – where references to “spirit” are supposed to be housed – can be put to rest (at least for philosophers).  In speaking about God, theologians have sometimes depended upon the distinction between “transcendence” and “immanence”; Danto turns “transcendence” into an historicist category. What is transcendent to the Brillo box on the store – its status as an art object, which it lacks on the check-out counter -- is really immanent to the historical process by which Andy Warhol came along and moved it to his exhibition space.[26]  “Transcendence,” in other words, is a relative term, and from time to time, we as humans experience such remarkable expansion (if we are “fully” human and not incapacitated by depression, etc).  Insofar as a certain self-representation takes, this amount to a spiritual transfiguration of our commonplace existence, on a par with the ontological transfiguration of ordinary objects into artworks, and this in turn amounts to a kind of narrative reading of our own lives, parallel to the absorption one experiences in the throes of a good novel.  This is of course why scriptures are important to religious communities, because without the narratives that scriptures and their attendant ritual practices invoke in the believer, no such religious experience would ever occur.


I have suggested that the category to understand this might be “spiritual autonomy.”  This places the entire matter within the context of action theory, which Danto was instrumental in pushing back in the 1970s but has lost much of its interest because it failed to serve the foundationalist purposes Danto was then (but is no longer) attracted to.[27] I suspect that its adherents have given up too quickly on action theory.  This, however, will require a separate discussion…   





[1] Personal correspondence, 8/1/04.

[2] Arthur C. Danto, What Philosophy Is (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), 2.

[3] After Philosophy: End or Transformation? edited by Kenneth Baynes, James Bohman and Thomas McCarthy (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1987).

[4] (Or as an analytically trained philosopher might put it, we can reach beyond  the “object language” to the “metalanguage,” but never between language itself.)

[5] Arthur C. Danto, "Philosophy as/and/of Literature," in Post-Analytic Philosophy, ed. John Rajchman and Cornel West (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), 71.

[6] Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979).

[7] "After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, 'I refute it thus.'" (Boswell's Life of Johnson, Hill edn., Oxford Univ. Press, 1971, Vol. 1, p. 471).

[8] Arthur C. Danto, Connections to the World (New York: Harper & Row, 1989), 13.

[9] Arthur C. Danto, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1981).

[10] “More than thirty years after their first exhibition at Stable Gallery (in 1964) in New York, Warhol's Brillo Boxes continue to unsettle museum visitors through their deadpan replication of American commercial culture.  As part of Warhol's first sculptural project, the Brillo Boxes comment on the commercial framework behind the pristine spaces of the art gallery and art museum, while rubbing the nose of high culture in the mundane is order of the supermarket stockroom.”  http://www.oberlin.edu/allenart/collection/warhol.html


[11] Arthur C. Danto, The Abuse of Beauty (Chicago: Open Court, 2003), xviii.

[12] Arthur Danto, "The Artworld," in Philosophy Looks at the Arts, ed. Joseph Margolis (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987), 156-67.

[13] Danto, Connections to the World, ch 4.

[14] I.e., Richard Rorty

[15] Danto, Connections, 153.

[16] Danto, "Philosophy as/and/of Literature," 69.

[17] Danto, "Philosophy as/and/of Literature," 74.

[18] See Appendix at the end of this paper.

[19] Danto, "Philosophy as/and/of Literature," 78.

[20] Alexander Nehamas, Nietzsche: Life as Literature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985).

[21] Danto, "Philosophy as/and/of Literature," 81.

[22] J.-K. Huysmans, Against Nature (Au Rebours), translated by Robert Baldick (New York: Penguin, 1959).

[23] Cp. J. L. Austin.

[24] Danto, The Abuse of Beauty, 12.

[25] Donald Davidson, "Actions, Reasons, and Causes," The Journal of Philosophy 60 (1963 1963), reprinted in Essays on Actions and Events (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), 3-19.

[26] This is not precisely what happened, but Warhol’s replication of the box amounts to virtually the same thing, in Danto’s view.

[27] Arthur C. Danto, "Basic Actions and Basic Concepts," 1979, in The Body/Body Problem (Berkeley CA: University of California Press, 1999), 45-62.




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