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Art and Metaphysics

Michael Morris, University of Sussex

Michael Morris is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Sussex


Artists often think of themselves as engaged in a project of understanding things. Many of those who look at, listen to, or read works of art think that they emerge from the experience with their understanding enriched: that’s the point of it, they think. What do all these people think they understand through art? Everything: people, life, the world. Here’s an ambitious claim which I think they’re committed to: (A) One of the principal functions of representational art is to enable us to understand the world as it is in itself in a particular, distinctive way. My aim here is to explain and argue for that ambitious claim.



Michael Morris is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Sussex. He has worked on Plato, Wittgenstein, the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of language, the philosophy of art, and metaphysics, but is increasingly focussing on the relation between representation and reality. He has written four books: The Good and the True (Oxford, 1992); An Introduction to the Philosophy of Language (Cambridge, 2006); The Routledge GuideBook to Wittgenstein and the Tractatus (Routledge, 2008); and Real Likenesses: Representation in Paintings, Photographs, and Novels (Oxford, 2020).

The supplementary volume for the conference will be available from 3-13 July.


  • Helen Steward

    10th July 2020 at 5:22 pm

    I’m just wondering about your claim that everything about the way things present themselves in the work is as it is for a reason. Why wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect there be the equivalent of ‘spandrels’ in the artistic realm – i.e. things that are the unintended side effects of the actual reasoned decisions?

    1. Michael Morris

      11th July 2020 at 9:27 am

      Thank you, Helen! (You seem to have been actually chairing the session!) I think spandrels are fine: in the larger account of these things I include among things which are there for a reason things which the artist was happy to leave as they are – for which there will be a reason, I think. (I actually think much more of what we find in works of art falls into this kind of category than is usually acknowledged.)

  • Helen Steward

    10th July 2020 at 5:45 pm

    Thank you, Michael, for a terrific talk!

    1. Simon Kirchin

      10th July 2020 at 5:55 pm

      Perfectly timed thanks, Helen, as if in the real world of the lecture theatre!

    2. Michael Morris

      11th July 2020 at 9:28 am

      Thank you!

  • Brad Hooker

    10th July 2020 at 6:23 pm

    Wonderful lecture — both in content and in presentation. It was masterful.

    I was very taken both by the arguments you presented and by the inverted seeing-in theory of representational art you advocated. I guess I was taken by to such an extent that I would say I was persuaded. Nevertheless, there is a phenomenon that I thought would be hard to square with inverted seeing-in, namely the phenomenon of artists representing not the world as it is in itself but their fantasy of a possible world. Think of a novelist who constructs a character made up of this (real) person’s beauty and that (real) person’s wit and some other (real) person’s biography. Indeed, novelists often say that their characters are amalgamations of real people. And surely sometimes the fictional character has real person A’s eyes, real person B’s nose, real person C’s hair, real person D’s sense of humour, real person E’s ability to tell a story, real person F’s courage, etc.

    Or think of paintings of minotaurs or mermaids or flying horses. We wouldn’t want to deny that such paintings are representational art. Indeed, some such pairings are widely classified as very good instances of representational art.

    So, had we been at a normal Joint Session and there was time for questions from the floor, I’d have started with praise for the lecture and then asked about the role of imagination and fantasy in representational art, according to your theory.

    Congratulations on a sublimely wonderful lecture.

    1. Michael Morris

      11th July 2020 at 9:31 am

      Thank you so much for these kind words, Brad.

      On the main point, I think there’s a kind of ambiguity in ‘represent’: the artist may construct fantastic things (in that sense ‘represent’ them), and thereby reveal something about the real world (in that sense ‘represent’ the real world) – e.g., by showing the real world to have in it things which are in key ways like the fantastic things.

  • Genia Schönbaumsfeld

    10th July 2020 at 6:27 pm

    Hi Michael, loved your talk, and have two questions. I agree with much of what you say, but I was wondering why you want to talk about ‘seeing-in’ rather than about ‘seeing as’. Regarding your inversion thesis, it seems to me more natural to say that we can see the real sky as a Poussin sky, for example, rather than that we see the Poussin sky in the real sky. For the latter seems to suggest some kind of superimposition, which might lend ammunition to the view that you reject, namely, the projection view. My second question concerns the inversion thesis itself. One might want to say that what is great about the Poussin sky is that it captures a central way that a real sky can be, and thus gives us insight into how skies can be in themselves, as it were. So, it’s not that we go on to apply the Poussin sky to real skies, rather the Poussin sky itself already tells us something about real skies. Thanks, Genia.

    1. Michael Morris

      11th July 2020 at 9:34 am

      Thank you, Genia! I’m not sure about seeing-as. What initially inclined me to go for inverted seeing-in was that it seems to allow one to see a painting -in the world while recognizing that the world is not in fact painted, composed, etc.. But I’m happy to think more about that, and I know there’s lots about seeing-as that I don’t understand.

      On the second point, I was trying to give an analysis of that idea of capturing: I thought it was a matter of imposing a composition on the real world – roughly speaking.

  • Bill Wringe

    10th July 2020 at 6:58 pm

    Lovely talk! I have a question about how you see the relationship between representational and non-representational art.

    So here are three questions
    1 Is there such a thing as non-representational art? (In particular is there non-representational painting)?
    2 Is there such a thing as *composition* in non-representational painting?
    3 Is the notion of composition univocal in its application to representational and non-representational painting?

    Intuitively, I think, we’d like the answer to all 3 questions to be ‘Yes’. But I think on your account the answer to 3 can’t be ‘Yes’ becuase of the way in which the notion of the picture’s content figures in your account of what composition is. So should we just accept this? Or should we answer no to 1 or 2?

    1. Hans Maes

      10th July 2020 at 8:44 pm

      I had, to some extent, the same question. Below is a quote from Kendall Walton (whom Michael briefly refers to) that seems particularly relevant to question no.1 raised by Bill. Walton argues that even absolute music is representational. Is Michael also willing to go that far? Or does he reject the idea that music is representational (and Walton’s take on this)?

      “The fact that it is representational comes out in many of the metaphors that we use in describing music, for instance, when we say that there is tension in the music, that one voice interrupts the other, or that the strings are overwhelming another part of the orchestra. I think that these metaphors reflect important features of our experience of the music, and if we didn’t hear the music in accordance with these metaphors then we wouldn’t hear it nearly in the appropriate way. But notice that the metaphors I just described have to do with features of the music itself rather than with characters that might be portrayed by the music. Literature or paintings are representational works which represent people, events, cities, landscapes, wars, i.e. things other than features of the painting itself or features of the words themselves. So, here is one quick way of seeing what the difference is in the case of music: we might think of music as something which has for its characters not people, or wars, or cities, or anything of the sort but features of the music itself, sounds, motifs, harmonies, rhythmic motifs, and so forth.
      Nevertheless, there can be fictions that can represent features of itself. Actually, Wollheim has a similar view about so called non-figurative art. He thinks that when you see one part of the canvas in front of another, that you are seeing representationally. And in my terms – not his terms – I could say that the painting represents one colour patch as being in front of the other. The one is not actually in front of the other, but they are seen as though this is true. And that would be one case in which you have fictional objects which are not people or things outside the work but features of the work itself. It is in that sense that you can say that music is representational.”

      1. Simon Kirchin

        10th July 2020 at 9:53 pm

        Thanks for this talk, Michael, and the live one in the comedy session. I asked about some forms of poetry in the latter, but I also had music going round my head (as it were), and had the same question as Hans, which follows on from Bill. And as we all know, some composers and performers sometimes intend for the music they compose and make to be representational, and often they don’t. So what do you think of these cases?

        1. Michael Morris

          11th July 2020 at 10:59 am

          Thanks Simon! My last attempt at a reply seems to have disappeared, so I’ll try again.

          This is to Bill and Hans too. I’m inclined to qualify Bill’s (1): I think supposedly non-representational art is either abstractly (generally or schematically) representational or quasi-representational or apparently representational. I’ve actually argued in a paper that pure or absolute music is generally representational, and though there are things about that paper I don’t much like now, I think I believe something like that core. The thing that I don’t yet know how to deal with is architecture: it seems clearly to be about composition, but is hard to understand as representational.

      2. mi

        11th July 2020 at 10:47 am

        Thank you, Hans! Comment below Simon’s.

    2. Michael Morris

      11th July 2020 at 11:00 am

      Thank you, Bill! Reply below Simon’s.

  • Rory Madden

    10th July 2020 at 8:09 pm

    Thanks for the enjoyable talk! Curious: can the proponent of thesis (A) give proper place to the self-expressive role of representational art? I can imagine many reacting: representational art (as opposed to, say, cartography) doesn’t principally function to represent the world *as it is in itself*; it functions to represent the world as it is to the distinctive sensibility of the individual artist. You may have addressed this kind of worry early in the talk but it would be interesting to hear more!

    1. Michael Morris

      11th July 2020 at 10:54 am

      Thank you, Rory. I think (A) allows room for a proper place to be given to self-expression for three reasons. First (a bit flippantly, but actually underneath I mean it), I think an artist aiming for self-expression is being a bit narcissistic, so I’m not sure I want to big that up. Secondly, I think the idea of expression suggests a wrong conception of the relation between work and individual sensibility – as if the artist’s response to the world is fully formed independently of the medium, and is then just ‘expressed’. But I think good painters are good because they’re good at painting, not because they’re good at seeing; and good composers are good because they’re good at composing, not because they’re good at feeling. And third, (A) does only say that understanding the world is *one* of the principal functions of representational art.

      That said, of course, representational art presents the world as it is in itself as it seems to the artist.

      1. Daniel Whiting

        11th July 2020 at 12:08 pm

        The original question was about the self-expression, but I wonder if there’s a more general issue here. Plausibly, much representational art in some way seeks to enable us to understand the world *as represented*. Indeed, at least according to some art-historical narratives, this is the central concern of modernist art. Many instances of such art still seem to qualify as representational.
        Importantly, this need not be put in terms of self-expression. The claim is not that the function of the relevant works is to enable us to understand the world *as represented **by the artist***.
        This way of putting the point seems to sidesteps your first two answers to the original question, and puts pressure on the third. I’d be interested to hear what you think about this—if you get the chance, of course!

        1. Michael Morris

          11th July 2020 at 2:48 pm

          Thanks, Daniel! I’m not sure I trust art historians to get this right, but here are some thoughts.

          I think some representations can be about representations, and still be about the world as it is in itself (this is fine, I think – it’s just a matter of getting clear about the kind of independence that’s important for the idea of the world as it is in itself: basically a rejection of whatever dependence it is that an idealist relies on).

          As for modernism in particular. I think there are two, possibly related, phenomena in play. One is a self-conscious foregrounding of the medium. The other is a kind of cross-referencing (e.g., deliberate parodies and pastiches of previous works). The first doesn’t make the world which the work is revealing of anything but the world as it is in itself: if you insist on the non-distraction thesis, it simply emphasizes that the object created in the representation is medium-dependent. And the second can, I think, be accommodated by thinking more flexibly about the medium: I think we can extend our understanding of a medium so that it includes the tradition and genre someone may be working in – it becomes an essentially historical thing, rather than mere matter. In that case, this second kind of thing can be assimilated to the first, I think.

  • Murray Smith

    11th July 2020 at 9:07 am

    Thanks for the fascinating talk! I have two questions – a broad one and a more specific one.

    In your characterisation of ‘seeing-in,’ you put a lot of emphasis on the idea that what we see-in (a surface) is ‘real’ (around 23 mins). But in what sense ‘real’? Isn’t the kind of reality attributed to that which is depicted going to differ, in important ways, across the various theorists offering an account of seeing-in (in the broad sense you discussed)?

    Now the more specific and (I think) more important and interesting question. You set the talk up as if ‘inverted seeing-in’ is a kind of alternative to, improvement on, or competitor with (orthodox, non-inverted) seeing-in. But wouldn’t it make more sense to think of seeing-in and inverted seeing-in as complementary phenomena? In setting up inverted seeing-in, you glide quickly over how it is that we’ve had (eg) an experience of a ‘Poussin sky,’ such that that experience can then inform our experience of the sky itself (ie. the relevant bit of ‘the world in itself’). This happens arounds 27.30: ‘suppose that we already understand how we can encounter a person [or the sky] in a work of art…somehow or other.’ Wollheim (and co) are attempting to explain just that phenomenon! Theorists of seeing-in seem then to be offering us an account of a necessary prerequisite to inverted seeing-in; for a representation to reveal something about the world as it is, it has to be recognisable as a representation of the world in the first place. Is this on the right tracks, and if so, in your larger account, do you propose some alternative to (orthodox) seeing-in – as well as complementing it with the notion of inverted seeing-in?

    In fact there’s a connection between my two questions. In your account, the ‘realness’ of the depicted items in seeing-in accounts conflicts fatally with the non-distraction principle, and so leads you away from giving any role to orthodox seeing-in. But everything rides here on what’s meant by ‘real,’ and this is why the differences on this score among theorists of depiction really matter. Many, Wollheim included, intended a conception of ‘reality’ modest enough that it would not conflict with the non-distraction principle. Even if you think Wollheim and co were all mistaken on this score, if the paragraph above is on the right tracks, you still need something playing the role of ‘seeing in’ – consistent with the non-distraction principle, and enabling inverted seeing-in to come into being further downstream. Don’t you?!

    Thanks again for the very stimulating talk.

    1. Michael Morris

      11th July 2020 at 11:11 am

      Thank you, Murray!

      I think ‘real’ is tricky: a rubber duck is not a real duck, but it’s not an unreal thing.

      In the first chapter of my recent book, Real Likenesses: Representation in Paintings, Photographs, and Novels, I argue that pretty well all the main accounts of representation in painting (Gombrich and co, Wollheim, Walton, resemblance theories) fall foul of the non-distraction thesis – and I think pretty clearly because what they try to find in a portrait (e.g.) is a real person.

      In the second chapter I try to work out an alternative: rubber ducks provide a clue – but I also want to say that a rubber duck is a duck, in a way. The problem in my view is not about the existence of the thing, but about its being in any way a duck.

  • Bill Brewer

    11th July 2020 at 9:19 am

    Wonderful talk, thank you, Michael,
    I think I get the basic idea, but could you give us a worked example of how seeing a painted person in a real person, say, contributes to understanding the latter as she is in herself. The fact that everything about the composition of the former (painted person) is as it is for a reason is supposed to illuminate the actual nature of the latter. But wouldn’t it normally be mistaken to suppose that the reasons for the latter (real person) being as she is in the various ways in which she may resemble the former are the same as the reasons for the artist’s composition of the former as she is in the painting? So how dos the (inverted) seeing in help?

    1. Michael Morris

      11th July 2020 at 12:01 pm

      Thank you, Bill!

      What you’re pushing for here is a fuller account of the idea of grasp which is really only laid down for future use at the end of the talk/paper. There’s obviously much more to be done here, and you’re right that a fully worked-out example would help – but a fully-worked out example would take a couple of pages of text, and a couple of days to write!

      But I didn’t at all think it would work in virtue of the reasons for the bits of the work of art being as they are resembling the reasons for the bits of the relevant thing in the real world being as they are – since very often there are no such reasons in the latter case. Rather, the general idea was that seeing a painting (e.g.) -in the real world would enable one to see the things in the real world as if they were composed, with their bits being as they are for a reason (an artistic reason), and what that does is at the very least enable and encourage one to linger with them, and let the things reveal themselves as they are.

      Much more to be done here, I know! The paper really offers no more than a path to pursue.

      1. Bill Brewer

        11th July 2020 at 1:45 pm

        Thanks again, Michael,
        This reply seems in danger of making the contribution of seeing the painting in the real person to understanding the latter as she is in herself too instrumental. It just leads one to attend to the real person a little longer and thereby learn (by perfectly ordinary means) a bit more about her than one might have done otherwise.
        I take it that the more ambitious, and surely intended, reading, of (A) is that the role of the painting is to contribute, or at least suggest, specific content to our understanding of the real person.
        That’s why my initial thought was to consider the reasons for specific features of the artistic composition. The painter decided to give the sitter very narrow lips in the painting order to suggest the sitter’s apparent disdain. Thus(?), seeing that painting in a real person brings us to recognize a characteristic disdain in the real person. If that’s not the idea, can you say a bit more about the mechanism for the contribution of specific content to our understanding of the real person when we see the painting in them?

        1. Michael Morris

          11th July 2020 at 3:50 pm

          Thanks again, Bill. You’re right that my reply doesn’t itself get much beyond the instrumental. On the other hand, I’m reluctant to adopt the kind of thing you offer here, because (i) it’s not really about composition (which I think is key), and (ii) it makes grasping too much like expressing true propositions. I don’t have anything clever to say beyond that at this point: I do think I need to describe some cases in real detail.

          Joseph Raz’s excellent questions below are chasing the same issues, I think.

          1. Bill Brewer

            11th July 2020 at 4:14 pm

            Agreed, thanks, Michael,
            I look forward to discussing these excellent issues further.
            All the very best, Bill

          2. Michael Morris

            11th July 2020 at 6:52 pm

            Will be great!

  • Stephen Cartwright

    11th July 2020 at 9:51 am

    Thank you very much for your interesting talk. I agree that loosely representational art is about understanding the world as it is in itself. However, the sense of understanding involve here is elusive. If I see a wonderful film, such as Ozu’s Tokyo Story, or read a discomforting book, such as Beckett’s The Unnamable, I feel as if I have gained some kind of insight. If I try to put into words this imagined insight, I realise that I am falling well short of what this insight might be. The story of the film is simple – doting and aged parents visit their grown-up children in far away Tokyo, but the children treat them badly. This is interesting but not very. Yet I am almost in tears at the final scene of a boat leaving a harbour. Yet how can I possibly see this work of art in the world? I cannot apply the art to the world as I can Newton’s laws of motion. Applying it, and so seeing-in, seem thus way too elusive for me. So is it really understanding (or grasp) that we achieve? In Beckett’s punishing book, there is moreover no resolution, only chaos and despair about words and the impossibility of meaning. So, is it understanding that I achieve through appreciating art or is it something quite unique and very different?

    1. Michael Morris

      11th July 2020 at 1:13 pm

      Thank you, Stephen. These examples are good to think about. At the very least they show that I need to do more to develop an account of what grasping is. (It may also be that there are other things we’re looking to art for – but that’s allowed for in the formulation of (A), I think.)

      What I would say is that I wouldn’t expect what grasping achieves to be translatable by a few summarizing phrases. And I don’t think invertedly seeing an artistic representation -in the real world is much like applying a scientific theory to the world. But yes, lots more needs to be done.

  • Daniel Whiting

    11th July 2020 at 11:57 am

    I’ll add my thanks for such an engaging and interesting talk (under such unusual circumstances).
    One question I had was asked by Rory Madden above. I look forward to hearing the answer to it.
    A more general concern I had about the view you present here is that it is over-intellectualist. Here’s one way to bring out the point. You suggest that, at least in the case of good works of art, we can ask how each feature contributes to the whole—which here means, I think, that we can ask how the way in which the medium is configured determines its content. But you associate this with the idea that, for each feature, we can ask why it is there—which here means, I think, that we can ask what the artist’s reason is for configuring the medium in that way. No doubt there are cases in which the answer to the first question serves as the answer to the second—the artist’s reason is that such-and-such configuration of the medium contributes such-and-such to the content. But, plausibly, there are also cases in which the feature contributes to the whole even if the artist did not introduce that feature for that or any other reason.
    In short, the reason why the work has the content it does and the reason why the artist did what they did can come apart (radically, I’m inclined to add).
    Perhaps this is just pressing the point that Helen Steward raised concerning spandrels. In that case, don’t think your answer to that question speaks to it. My suggestion is that the contribution certain feature makes to the whole might not be something the artist considers at all, hence, not something they ‘leave’ for a reason.
    More importantly, perhaps, it’s not clear to me why you need to place so much weight on the artist’s (motivating) reasons in order to defend (A) and (ND).

    1. Michael Morris

      11th July 2020 at 2:41 pm

      Thank you, Daniel! I’m taking your key point to be summarized in the last sentence of your penultimate paragraph. (Do come back if that means I’ve missed what you thought was key!)

      Here’s what I think is going on. I’m not sure if this is an elaboration or an amendment of what’s in the paper/talk. – not sure I mind which.

      I think that the artist thinks that every feature of the work is OK as it is, and that’s why she leaves it as it is. This doesn’t mean that she goes through each feature in turn (what would that even mean?) and decides of it that it’s OK, and then, having run through the lot (!), certifies them all as OK. Rather, she thinks that nothing is not-OK, because nothing sticks out, and in virtue of that thinks that everything is OK. (I’m assuming bivalence for OK, but we can complicate the story otherwise.)

      If everything is OK, there’ll be a reason why it’s OK. I think it’ll be because of the way it fits with everything else to form the whole. I think this is pretty much what the artist will think is the reason for any feature she considers being OK.

      We can then look, and see what each feature contributes to the whole, and that will be the reason why, if it’s OK as it is, it is OK as it is. The artist need not – and really plausibly cannot – have done this for every feature. And even for features which she has considered, we may find out things about what they’re doing which the artist hasn’t thought of.

      I don’t know if that’s enough to deal with your worries here.

  • Joseph Raz

    11th July 2020 at 2:44 pm

    You begin your positive account with the observation that it is a common experience to see art in the world (the text accompanying a special mode of understanding slide). You follow by insightful observations about the way that may constitute an understanding. That, it seems to me, shows that some art provides a mode of understanding the world to some people. But that could be an observation of a contingent matter, sometimes it does sometimes not.
    To show that seeing art in the world vindicates your thesis you have to provide an analysis of failure: some work is never or rarely found in the world, some people never see art in the world etc. Is that a failing in the work or in the person, when is it in the work and when is it in the person? And could it be that seeing art in the world leads, in a particular case, to a false/faulty understanding (a misunderstanding) of the world?
    What is your answer to these questions? Do you deny that an answer is needed to vindicate your thesis?

    1. Michael Morris

      11th July 2020 at 3:13 pm

      Thank you very much, Joseph: these are extremely helpful questions. I agree that I need to give some account of different kinds of failure – though I don’t have such an account readily to hand. I think there are some cases where a work itself fails to compose the world, so to speak, in any significant way. And I think there are plenty of cases where people are unable to see a composed work -in the world – often because they don’t really understand the work itself: they don’t see its composition, for example. I don’t think there are easy rules here, but I’d want to describe a few cases in some detail.

      And yes, I think, there are cases where seeing a work -in the world can lead to a faulty or false understanding of the world (Riefenstahl is the cliche example). This latter kind of case is particularly tricky for me, because I want to say that it’s not just a matter of the falsity of certain propositions which one might think the work expresses, even if the work does in some way depend on some false propositions and encourage one to accept some false propositions.

      So the positive bit of the paper is really just the beginning of a path, rather than a finished theory. These questions are really helpful in suggesting how to go on. Thank you so much.

  • Ulrike Heuer

    11th July 2020 at 4:19 pm

    Many thanks the wonderful talk. When you explain how art is a way of understanding the world, you introduce composition and inverted ‘seeing in’. Regarding some of your examples (Poussin and Kertesz, for instance), I think I understand what this means, because we can quite literally see a Poussin in the sky, or a Kertesz scene. But with different artworks, I’m much less sure that I understand the idea. Can we see Munch’s ‘Scream’ or Goya’s ‘Dog’ in our own experiences of anxiety and depression? If so, then it must be ‘seeing’ in a different sense. Or can we see Friedrich’s ‘Monk by the sea’ in our world? Presumably not by finding a similarly composed view of the sea. It is not about that (or is it?). And yet all these artworks are representational, and they seem to help us understand our world in some way. I wonder if you could say more about this.

    1. Michael Morris

      12th July 2020 at 9:47 am

      Thank you very much for this, Ulrike. It’s a wonderful question.

      Presumably it’s possible to see all of these paintings -in the world in a quite straightforward way: the Munch in a landscape, or in someone’s stance, or in the position of people in the background; the Goya in various kinds of urban and non-urban shape, and in people and animals being apparently overwhelmed by their environments; and the Friedrich in certain land- and seascapes. And, interestingly, it may be easier to see those paintings -in the world if you’re in a certain kind of psychological condition yourself (this perhaps picks up something Joseph Raz was asking about).

      But your thought was that these paintings all seem to be ‘about’ something to do with the meaning of life which that kind of inverted seeing-in doesn’t very obviously bring out. I’m not sure quite what to do about that, but I might be able to bring in here a thought I had in a paper about music. The idea I had was that sad (e.g.) music is sad, not in virtue of any sad feelings it might express, but in virtue of having as its focus something like the sadness of things (as in Virgil’s ‘sunt lacrimae rerum’): my thought was that music might in this way be representational, though what it represented would be something general, rather than any particular thing.

      So suppose one thought about what the world would have to look like for, say, what provokes terrifying anxiety to be visible in it: perhaps the Munch, e.g., might be a painting of that. When we look at the painting, we then have an idea of what kind of look of the world we might invertedly see it -in.

      Not sure if this will really work, and I’m not sure how precisely it uses the idea of inverted seeing-in (whether it’s somehow non-literal, e.g.), but maybe it’s a start.

      Anyway: lovely question – thank you so much.

  • Barbara M. Sattler

    11th July 2020 at 7:19 pm

    Thanks a lot for your talk, that was very stimulating.
    I was wondering about the idea that representational art is about the world as it is in itself, i.e. as it is independently of any relation to our thoughts and our representations of it. But can’t society, or our human relationships, be an object of representational art? And are those objects really independent of our thoughts and representations? Even the Rodin statue that you showed – it does not simply seem to be about two human beings, but about their relation in a way that is hard to conceive to be independent of human thoughts.
    And in how far can what you have said about representational art also be applied to non-representational art?

    1. Michael Morris

      12th July 2020 at 10:38 am

      Thank you very much for this, Barbara.

      Yes, I think that representational art can be about society, and about human thoughts, and there’s obviously some sense in which those things involve, and so depend on, thought and representation. Nevertheless, there still seems to be some sense in which what we’re interested in is those things as they are altogether independently of thought and representation.

      I think the best way to deal with this is to say that the independence in question is the absence of a certain kind of dependence. It’s then not all that easy to say what kind of dependence it is I want to say is absent. The best I have so far is something like this: idealists think that the nature of the world is somehow dependent on thought and representation, or is somehow limited by what can be thought or represented. So the idealists are using – or at least claiming that there is – a certain kind of dependence of world upon thought and representation. I think the independence we want is just the absence of that – whatever it is.

      As for your second question, I think it’s pretty much what Bill Wringe, Hans Maes, and Simon Kirchin were pressing above. Have a look and see if you think my reply to them works.

      Thanks again.

  • Dave Lucas

    12th July 2020 at 8:08 am

    Michael Morris, thx for an excellent lecture. I think you are really on to something. I found your lecture deeply inspirational, so much so that I have basically written a little paper inspired by it.
    I have taken some time to really think about what you have said and to form my own views.
    What I’m about to say would not be possible without the excellent background you have laid.
    Very rough, but here it is. Would love your views:

    Art from a Philosophy of Science Perspective
    My primary interest in philosophy is the Philosophy of Science (PoS). So, I asked myself the question, “What is Art from a Philosophy of Science perspective?”
    I think there are 3 key ideas from a PoS perspective. Namely:
    • Modelling
    • Mechanistic Analysis
    • Teleological Analysis
    I think all of these apply to art.
    Let’s explore.
    Within PoS we have the concept of modelling. Scientists create models all the time and use them to understand the world or a particular part of the world better.
    Axel Gelfert has written an excellent paper on modelling called, “Probing Possibilities: Toy Models, Minimal Models, and Exploratory Models”. I will use this paper as a reference.
    In this paper he states:
    “Scientific models, according to one important line of philosophical analysis, aim at representing real-world target systems, even if they only ever do so imperfectly. Even where an underlying theory is available, a full description of a target is often out of reach, so simplified models need to be derived using abstraction and idealization.”

    So, in essence we use a model to understand the world better.

    He further states that due to the practical limitations of model building, scientists typically use 3 types of models. Namely:

    • Toy Models – Like a simulacra. A model that captures reality, but does not exactly conform to it. Like a virtual world, or simulation that may be like reality in some ways and differ in others.
    • Minimal Models – A model which captures the essential essence of a system.
    • Exploratory Models – A model which simulates a reality, for the purposes of understanding its underlying mechanistic operation.

    I would argue that there is one additional model which should be added to the list. Namely, an Analogical model. Or what Einstein called a Thought Experiment.

    Analogical Model – A model which captures the essence of a system by means of an analogy.

    To quote Einstein:

    “…a paradox upon which I had already hit at the age of sixteen: If I pursue a beam of light with the velocity c (velocity of light in a vacuum), I should observe such a beam of light as an electromagnetic field at rest though spatially oscillating. There seems to be no such thing, however, neither on the basis of experience nor according to Maxwell’s equations. From the very beginning it appeared to me intuitively clear that, judged from the standpoint of such an observer, everything would have to happen according to the same laws as for an observer who, relative to the earth, was at rest. For how should the first observer know or be able to determine, that he is in a state of fast uniform motion? One sees in this paradox the germ of the special relativity theory is already contained.”

    I would further argue, that art is indeed a form of Analogical Model of reality. As it embodies the concepts of representing reality in the form of analogy.

    Let’s explore this concept further by examining art from a mechanistic point of view.

    Mechanistic Analysis of Art:

    A mechanistic view seeks to understand the physical operation of a system. If we expand this concept to the world of abstract ideas, then it can eb understood to also understand the knowledge structure of a system. Which is essentially what we aim to do when building a physical or mental model of a system.

    In terms of art we can understand the following:

    Art is an analogical representation of reality through a particular medium. It consists of the following components:

    We have a medium:

    Art is expressed through a medium. Examples include words, visual painting, photography, sounds & music etc…

    Each medium is only capable of representing certain dimensions of meaning. It therefore effectively acts a filter of reality.

    For instances,

    Painting – 2 dimensions, colours, lines, shapes, static. Constrained by what the brush can produce. Limited to a single point of view.
    Photography – 2 dimensions, colours, lines, shapes, static. Constrained by the ability to find a scene that reflects the desired meaning. Limited to a single point of view.
    Film – 2 or 3 dimensions, colours, lines, shapes, movement, dialogue, music. Constrained by the ability to create a scene which reflects the desired meaning. Limited to filmmakers perspective, so you can’t actually step into the reality and explore your way, like a holodeck.
    Music – sound, rhythm, harmony, melody, lyrics & poetry. Constrained to audio domain.
    Poetry – words, rhythm, rhyme. Constrained to words.
    Comedy – words, narrative, patterns, breaking patterns.
    Stories – words, narrative


    Each of these constraints gives the message of the art in that medium a particular character. And limits what it can represent.

    For Instances,

    Painting – Can represent a picture of a scene or idea
    Photography – Can represent a picture of a scene
    Film – Can represent a moving Visual, Auditory (Sometimes Kinaesthetic) moving image of a created scene
    Music – Can represent sounds and the mental states evoked by those sounds. And words, and the emotional state evoked by those words
    Poetry – Can represent words and the emotional state evoked by those words
    Comedy – Can represent words, and the deeper insights evoked by those words
    Stories – Can represent words and the experiences of the characters and lessons they learnt from those experiences

    The above list is by no means exhaustive, but I think it captures the essential elements and is a start.

    Art also has a fundamental structure which is dictated by its medium and the practices of artists. This structure performs the purpose of making practicing “good art” easier. As it helps an artist to understand what works well, and what the rules of good art are, and to know when these rules are being deliberately broken.

    Examples of fundamental structures of art are:

    Music Theory – The rules of scales, modes, chords, harmony, rhythm and melody.
    Visual Arts – The rules of colour. Harmonies of colour, colour schemes and colour wheels.
    Visual Arts – The principles of Gestalt and the rules of composition
    Visual Arts – Mathematical principles like perspective, proportion, ratios (e.g. Golden Ratio), planar symmetries and fractal dimensions
    Poetry – The rules of lines, stanza, meter and rhyme
    Comedy – The rules of jokes structure

    There are many more, and artists often invent their own rules.

    Artists often deliberately break the rules of their craft, to create dramatic effect. One famous historical example of this is impressionism. For example, Franz Liszt changes the established rules of harmony during his time, to create new forms of music, which were the beginnings of musical impressionism.

    Further art by its very nature embodies the idea of foreground and background. Or what I propose could be called primary information and contextual information.

    Foreground – The primary message of the art
    Background – The context of the primary message

    If a painting has a man walking on a path, it conveys a very different meaning to a painting of a man walking on water.

    Examples of foreground and background in art include,

    Painting, Photography – Foreground: Subject. Background: Scene
    Film – Foreground: Dialogue, Lead Actor/s. Background: Scene, Background Music, Background Sound Effects
    Music – Foreground: Melody, Lyrics, Lead Instrument. Background: Harmony, Background Instruments, Sound Effects
    Poetry – Foreground: Primary Message. Background: Deeper Meaning, Rhythm and Rhyme
    Comedy – Foreground: Setup and Punchline. Background: The narrative of the joke
    Stories – Foreground: Character Experiences and development. Background: The environment in which the story takes place

    There are many more examples of this in the arts.

    The balance between foreground and background is essential in the arts in order to ensure that the consumer of the art is able to intelligibly distinguish between message and context. And many of the rules of art are put in place to ensure that this balance is right. In particular the rules of composition in visual arts and the rule of frequency usage in music.

    Finally the medium of a particular form of art constrains the relationships between its elements. In other words, they constrain the way the artistic story can be told. This in effect constrains the analogical expressiveness of the art form, in other words what analogies will work within the medium and what analogies won’t work.

    Examples of structural constraints include,

    Painting & Photography – All elements need to be present in the scene at the same time. All interactions need to be represented visually.
    Film – All presently interacting elements need to be present in the scene at the same time. However unlike static visual arts, interactions can be based on past scenes. All interactions need to take place sequentially (in general. There are clever plot twist techniques used, but each scene must be sequential).
    Music – All elements have to operate sequentially.
    Poetry – Constrained by the readers ability to see the deeper meaning. Can have multiple meanings which can constrain precision. Therefore elements may be poorly defined or misunderstood.
    Stories – Same as film. Constrained by the listener’s imagination. The listener might for instance imagine a character’s appearance incorrectly. Therefore elements may be poorly defined or misunderstood.

    Let’s now perform a Teleological analysis of art.

    Teleology of Art:

    Teleology is about understanding the purpose of something.

    So, what is the purpose of art from a PoS perspective.

    I think one way of answering this question is from a psychological perspective. I am of the view that the reason we can relate to art is rooted in the way the human unconscious mind works. Specifically I am referring to Dreams.

    When we dream, our unconscious mind creates, in my view, an analogical model of reality. Dreams portray real-life events or simulated real-life events. These events are analogous to reality and have a particular meaning relative to the dreamer.

    For instance, in dream dictionaries, dreams of flight of indicate freedom or the need to be free. This particular meaning, is however relative to the individual dream. As, the dreamer may just really wish they could fly.

    When the dreamer takes time to interpret their dreams, by analysing the scene, the actors and the events. And then linking them to their life experience, they are able to identify the analogies at play. They are then able to gain a deeper perspective on their life.

    I would like to propose that art works in much the same way.

    We have an artist, who forms a particular view of reality. They then express this view in the form of an analogy through the medium of the artform. The consumer of the art, is then expected to interpret the art, buy discovering the analogy and linking it to some form of reality.

    One interesting dimension mentioned in the discussion was pure fantasy such as unicorns. Or my personal favourite, Superman.

    Again these are analogies of reality. Superman represents personal power to me, so I feel strong when I watch Superman be strong.

    And in fact, that was the original purpose of the creation of the Superman character in the first place.

    And I think that is the purpose of all art. To create deep unconscious change, by forcing the unconscious mind to engage with art, and to therefore see the world differently.

    Therefore, I propose that ultimately art is most powerful when it is a medium of change.


    It appears that the philosophy of science has much to add to our understanding of art. I also believe that art is a mechanism for directly communicating with the unconscious mind of the consumer of the art. Art is therefore one of the most powerful change mechanisms we have in society.

    Art can be understood technically from a PoS perspective, but ultimately it is about the artist creating and the consumer interpreting.

    And that is why, in my view, every human should create and consume art.

    1. Michael Morris

      12th July 2020 at 11:09 am

      Thank you very much for this deep and thoughtful post, Dave. There’s a lot here to assimilate, and too much, I think, for me to comment on in any detail.

      I would say, though, that what you seem to want art for is something which it looks as if other things could in principle achieve – and that means that it can’t be a *principal* function of art, as I defined that term.

      Also – and I think this is probably not a coincidence – it looks as if your conception of the relation between the artist’s vision and the medium is not compatible with my non-distraction thesis.

      But thank you very much for taking the time and trouble to put this up for us all to think about.

      1. Dave Lucas

        12th July 2020 at 2:13 pm

        Hi Michael,

        Thx for your reply :-).

  • Dave Lucas

    12th July 2020 at 8:15 am

    Michael Morris, thx for an excellent lecture. I think you are really on to something. I found your lecture deeply inspirational, so much so that I have basically written a little paper inspired by it.

    I have taken some time to really think about what you have said and to form my own views.

    What I’m about to say would not be possible without the excellent background you have laid.

    Very rough, but here it is:

    Art from a Philosophy of Science Perspective


    1. Dave Lucas

      12th July 2020 at 8:16 am

      Oops… Did not show the first comment, so though it was too long. So reposted in pdf format with a link.

  • John Hyman

    12th July 2020 at 3:09 pm

    Thanks for a fascinating talk! I’m sure you’re right in saying that works of art can enable us to see or understand the world (or parts of the world) in distinctive ways—e.g. see a Poussin sky in the real sky (or see the sky as Poussinesque), or see a Kertesz composition in a view of the street from our bedroom window (or see the view of the street as Kerteszesque).
    But does this always contribute to the value of a work of art qua work of art? It certainly can be nice when it happens. For example, I remember being delighted to see Caravaggesque loaves of bread when I travelled in Italy for the first time. But I doubt whether the tendency to produce this kind of experience contributes to the value of Caravaggio’s painting.
    Do you disagree? Or do you perhaps think that there are both trivial cases where it doesn’t contribute and significant where it does? If so, what is special about the significant cases? And are the Poussin and Kertesz cases trivial or significant?

    1. Michael Morris

      12th July 2020 at 5:13 pm

      Thank you very much, John!

      I think a particular person seeing a Poussin in a sky or a Caravaggio in a loaf of bread doesn’t contribute to the value of a work, but the work’s capacity to enable people to do that kind of thing does – or at least can.

      There are whole loads of issues here which I’m only just beginning on (in real life, as well as in the paper/talk). One is the worry about works which get one to see the world somehow wrong (I mentioned the obvious case of Riefenstahl in my reply to Joseph Raz). Another is an issue of depth: clearly some ways of seeing works of art -in the world provide a deeper understanding than others do. Ulrike Heuer’s question above raises some interesting issues there. I am, though, a bit inclined to think of some apparently trivial cases as deeper than others might: so I think, for example, that the Poussin sky and the Caravaggio bread are examples of quite a deep kind of understanding of the world – they’re parts of whole conceptions which can just light the world up. And here I’m disinclined to think that the value which this kind of understanding provides needs to be measured in terms of other values – moral values, for example.

      So I think that these things are indeed relevant to the value of the works of art – as indeed I suppose I must, since I’m saying that this is a way of spelling out one of the principal functions of representational art.

  • Michael Morris

    12th July 2020 at 7:18 pm

    Thank you to everyone here for these incredibly helpful comments. Keep well!