A newer Protagoras.

Author:Williams, Robert
Position:Essay - Critical essay - Excerpt

In 1929, The Art Bulletin published a mock Platonic dialogue, "The New Protagoras," by the philosopher and historian of art theory A. Philip McMahon. With a text only five pages in length but outfitted with exactly one hundred learned footnotes, the dialogue is both playful and serious: it attempts to summarize current debates about the nature of art that bear most directly on the ways in which art history might define its aims and methods. Imbued with the pragmatism common to American thinkers of the author's generation and preoccupied with the implications of "scientific" aesthetics, it ends when Socrates appears and intones part of his famous speech about the nature of love from Plato's Symposium. Thus deferring to idealism without actually endorsing it, the text suggests that an idealistic aesthetics might serve as a necessary corrective to the excesses of science, and that the critical integration of those seemingly incompatible approaches might well be the specific challenge of a future art history.

We choose to read the appearance of Socrates allegorically, as a foreshadowing of the influx of great emigre scholars in the 1930s--the most influential espousing a neo-Kantian idealism--and an indication of the transformation they would work on the field. We understand the dialogue to document a pregnant moment in the development of art history, a moment when, at least in the United States, the discipline attained a new level of philosophical reflexivily. Its value as a point of departure--as a tool with which to anatomize the challenges now confronting us--rests on the figure of Protagoras, who, as a Sophist, can be taken to represent the fact that so much of the modern thought on which contemporary art history depends betrays a deep affinity with Sophistry.

SETTING The Blessed Isles

CHARACTERS Protagoras, Charmides, Eryximachus, Barbarian Stranger

ERYXIMACHUS We're pleased to see you, Protagoras. We've encountered newcomers to these Isles who have told us much about that new craft or science, practiced among the moderns, about which you were recently so curious.

PROTAGORAS Greetings, young friends! I'm afraid I don't immediately remember the object of my curiosity: What is this science you speak of?

CHARMIDES Why, Protagoras, not so long ago you questioned one of our colleagues at some length about a "science of beauty" proposed by certain modern thinkers. Naturally, you were much intrigued by the possibility of a rational explanation for the experience of the beautiful, even if in the end you judged that this modern pragmatist had not yet succeeded in refuting the foolishness of Plato. (1)

PROTAGORAS Yes, of course; now I begin to recall. It's so hard to keep a clear head in this place, don't you find? The conversation is both very present and very distant to me, and yet it was a recent conversation, indeed, it was. Tell me: The moderns cannot already have found a solution to their puzzle?

CHARMIDES How right you are about the bends of otherworldly time, Protagoras: for us shades, the conversation was as yesterday. And yet for the men and women of the world, two generations and more have passed since then. For the living a great deal has changed, even if little has changed here among the blessed.

ERYXIMACHUS In the meantime, in fact, many of the moderns seem to have abandoned their preoccupation with beauty.

PROTAGORAS Why, already Parmenides argued that we will never know what beauty is, as I believe I pointed out in that very conversation you mentioned.

ERYXIMACHUS It seems that the moderns have now sought to define their pursuit in a new way, devoting their attention more to the subject of illusion than to beauty. Indeed, their pursuit might well be described as a history or science of illusions, for it involves lengthy debates about the nature of illusion, the uses to which illusions have been put, and how illusion making has changed from one epoch to the next.

PROTAGORAS A science of illusions? How interesting! It suggests that the moderns have rediscovered something of our Sophistry, no?

CHARMIDES In fact, there is widespread dissatisfaction with Socrates and Plato among the moderns and a corresponding revival of interest in earlier teachers--among whom they number the Sophists, including yourself, Protagoras--and given the importance they attach to rigorous scientific methods in their search for knowledge, this development is truly remarkable. Many moderns believe that it reveals the profound inadequacy of the kind of rationalism on which they had come to rely; some go so far as to accuse Socrates and Plato of having deflected philosophy from its proper course!

PROTAGORAS How exciting! Tell me, who among the moderns has taken the lead in this development? Who is the modern champion of Sophistry?

CHARMIDES That is no easy question to answer. Many acknowledge their indebtedness to a certain Frederick, a barbarian philosopher from beyond the mountains to the north, apparently well versed in the ways of us Greeks. He seems to have been the first of the moderns to ridicule Socrates and his followers, but the import and value of his thought are much contested, and, in any event, there are many others. (2)

ERYXIMACHUS Long before Frederick, in fact, the natural scientists had abandoned Socrates and Plato; that is to say, even those who exercise the greatest rigor in their distinctions between true and false find fault with the dialectics of Socrates and Plato. (3)

PROTAGORAS Why, I almost begin to feel sorry for my old rival and his disciple! Tell me more about the science of illusions.

CHARMIDES Well, from what we've heard, it takes many forms, and its practitioners disagree as to which is the best. Some seem to approach it more as a science of artifacts than of illusions.

PROTAGORAS Of objects that create illusions, then, such as painted pictures?

CHARMIDES That sort of object of course, but also those that do not, such as buildings and furnishings, as well as all kinds of vessels, utensils, and fabrics.

ERYXIMACHUS Among the moderns, even paintings do not always create illusions in the manner that was common among us.

PROTAGORAS So I've heard. I can't help wondering, though, what makes such objects deserving of study? I mean, what would one want to know about utensils apart from how to make them or how to use them?

ERYXIMACHUS From what we gather, the ability to tell where and when an object was made and what is noteworthy about it is a highly valued skill among the moderns. Not only that, but how to care for the object and repair it, as well as how much money to expect if one wishes to sell it--this, too, is considered useful knowledge.

PROTAGORAS No doubt it is useful--for the steward of a great household, the caretaker of a temple, the merchant of woven carpets, or the metalsmith or cabinetmaker or carpet maker himself. But why would you or I wish to know how every sort of old object is made, or what they are worth? What is the real source of their interest? Is it their expensive materials? Their beauty?

CHARMIDES This seems to be precisely the point of disagreement among the moderns. Many attribute beauty to these objects and take pleasure in the contemplation of them; many spend large sums of money collecting them, and those who can't afford to do so spend their leisure hours visiting great storehouses where such artifacts are carefully displayed. If you ask these people what it is about these objects that they find so fascinating, most of them, apparently, will say, "Beauty." Others, including many of the most sophisticated practitioners of this science of illusions, say that however beautiful such objects may be, their real interest must lie in something else. The term "beauty" is problematic not only because is it imprecise but also, they say, because it is often used to include some things and exclude others in order to serve ulterior aims. In short, they maintain that the concept of beauty is insufficient to describe the interest of artifacts.

PROTAGORAS And what do they offer in its place?

CHARMIDES Well, some of them maintain that the artifacts, in effect, speak, that they have "meaning."

PROTAGORAS How does a clay vessel or a chair or a carpet have meaning--unless, of course, it is adorned with writing or pictures?

CHARMIDES What is even more baffling than the idea of a meaningful chair, at least to me, is that some of those very people who most vigorously deny the usefulness of the term "beauty" nevertheless persist in gathering beautiful things around themselves, and not only that, but they array themselves in the finest clothes and treat themselves to the most exquisite meals, cultivating beauty in every aspect of their lives.

PROTAGORAS An inconsistency, to be sure, but very likely harmless. Tell me, though, for I am curious: How does a utensil or garment have meaning?

CHARMIDES I'm not sure I can explain it. Frankly, I suspect that the extension of the idea of meaning to bowls and shoes is simply a fig leaf for a deep and continuing attraction to beautiful and finely crafted artifacts.

ERYXIMACHUS The difficulty of this issue has even led some of the moderns to propose that the only sensible solution is to set it aside entirely and reckon the value of such objects simply in terms of the prices paid for them.

PROTAGORAS Ah, now I remember! This argument was propounded by the stranger in that conversation you recalled to me: he held that a history of prices might result in a more accurate history than the kind prevalent in his day. (4)

ERYXIMACHUS Yes, it is an idea that passes in and out of fashion, and that even now seems to enjoy some limited favor, but one that does not satisfy me at all.

PROTAGORAS Why, to me it sounded promising, then and now!

CHARMIDES I, too, am skeptical, Protagoras: it seems to me to reduce all forms of desire to a single common denominator.

PROTAGORAS Perhaps--as you yourself have just suggested, Charmides--all the many ways devised for...

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