Letter to Posterity: a passion for philosophy led me to my first career, and a passion for art led me to a second, as a critic.

Author:Danto, Arthur Coleman

Philosophers acquired their designation in ancient times, in consequence of a becoming modesty. Socrates is said to have turned aside a characterization of himself as a wise man, preferring to be known instead as someone who loved wisdom--hence the term philo-sophia. I don't know whether, aside from etymology, wisdom especially figures in the concept of philosophy, at least among philosophers themselves, few of whom, in my fairly wide acquaintanceship, especially covet the epithet "wise," or even count wisdom as something they especially love. Philosophers love cleverness, acuity, fertility in inventing novel arguments, and ingenuity in finding surprising counterexamples. At least since the professionalization of the discipline in the 20th century, these have been what philosophers particularly admire in other philosophers. What is great about philosophers is that they will entertain any position, however outrageous, as long as one can defend it. My theory of the end of art drove people in the art world up the wall, but the philosophers were entirely open: "Okay, so art is over. What are the arguments?" They make up in openness what they lack in wisdom. For the most part philosophy is an intellectual sport.

Never, in my entire experience, have I encountered a philosopher I thought of as wise. Years ago, though, I met the great art historian Rudolf Wittkower, whom I regarded as a genuinely wise man. By comparison with Rudy, whom I adopted as a model human being, most philosophers I knew seemed shallow, vain, silly, and what Nietzsche spoke of as human, all too human. My principle of conduct has since been imitatio Rudy, but I am only too aware how far short I fall in putting this into practice. I knew that I would be doing right if I could treat others the way Rudy would have treated them, and I think I knew in a general way what Rudy would have done in most given circumstances. But as Socrates knew as well as anyone, since he introduced the concept into philosophical discourse, the will is weak, and knowing the good does not mean doing the good, as he at one time believed. We are, in many conditions of existence, akratic, to use the technical term for the morally weak will. Like Socrates, I suppose I could say that I loved wisdom, since I after all knew who was wise and who was not, and that I wanted to behave like the former and not the latter. But actual wisdom is something that escapes me.

I am exceedingly grateful that, without being wise, I possessed enough of the traits philosophers cherish to have had a successful philosophical career. Having a philosophical mind would qualify one as a perfect misfit if there were no such thing as the discipline of philosophy, and I think that explains why I was considered a terrible student in my early years. No one knows that one is a philosopher at, say, 16 years of age, and certainly one's teachers in high school have no way of knowing it either. The artist Vitaly Komar explained to me once what he admired in philosophers: they will claim that two things that appear exactly the same are entirely different, and that two things apparently entirely different are entirely the same. My success as a philosopher of art, to take an example, consisted in arguing that Andy Warhol's Brillo Box was a work of art while its lookalike in the stockroom of the supermarket was a mere real thing, though the two are to all intents and purposes indistinguishable. I later claimed that all philosophical problems have this form, as for example two actions, one done because it is a matter of duty and the other done just because one feels like doing it, can be outwardly identical, though only the former and never the latter, according to Kant, has any moral value whatever.


The other thing for which I am grateful to philosophy is that, at least in the world in which I first sought to make a name for myself, one was required to write clearly, concisely, and logically. Wittgenstein said that whatever can be said can be said clearly, and that became something of a mantra for my generation. At one time, the British journal Analysis sponsored regular competitions: some senior philosopher propounded a problem, which one was required to solve in 600 words or less, the winner receiving as a prize a year's subscription to the magazine. Here is an example of the kind of problem, propounded by J. L. Austin, that engaged Analysis's subscribers: "What kind of 'if' is the 'if' in 'I can if I choose?'" (Hint: it cannot be the truth-conditional "if" of material...

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