Attempting art: an essay on intention-dependence

Dissertation, Mcgill University (2017)
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Attempting art: an essay on intention-dependenceIt is a truism among philosophers that art is intention-dependent—that is to say, art-making is an activity that depends in some way on the maker's intentions. Not much thought has been given to just what this entails, however. For instance, most philosophers of art assume that intention-dependence entails concept-dependence—i.e. possessing a concept of art is necessary for art-making, so that what prospective artists must intend is to make art. And yet, a mounting body of anthropological and art-historical evidence and philosophical argument suggests that not only is such a criterion unsatisfied by most of the art-historical canon, but it also rests on a false premise: concepts of 'art' are not shared between cultures, nor even in the same culture across time. My dissertation aims to rectify this error by first exploring what our commitment to art's intention-dependence actually entails, and then showing that, properly understood, intention-dependence sets a number of important constraints on theories of art with respect to explanatory desiderata such as the success- and failure-conditions of art-attempts, the cross-cultural identification of art, and the reference of 'art' and art-kind terms. I begin by situating art's intention-dependence in the philosophical literature on intentional action, arguing that, properly conceived, intention-dependence is a weak criterion which can be satisfied either directly or indirectly. It therefore does not necessarily entail concept-dependence. I then use this distinction to motivate a new treatment of the success- and failure-conditions for art-attempts, arguing that the extant model's emphasis on compliance with 'the manner intended' is far too restrictive to capture actual artistic practices. I go on to show that Ruth Millikan's model of linguistic conventions supplies an independently plausible explanation of art's concept-independent origins in terms of the development of a system of indirectly intention-dependent conventions called an 'artworld'. I argue that this account of artworld development supplies us with the tools we need to distinguish art-kinds from other artifactual kinds. Finally, I turn my attention to methodological issues, arguing that even though 'art' is a social kind with its roots in arbitrary and historically-contingent networks of conventions, the philosophy of art is not merely an exercise in bare conceptual analysis. In fact, there is now a great deal of evidence to show that the ways we think about 'art' are inconsistent, incomplete, imperialistic, and largely unprincipled. Yet I argue that this does not mean that the artworld data have no bearing on theories of art. Instead, I argue that our best reflective understanding of our artworld practices sets the constraints on the reference of 'art' and art-kind terms. I argue that we have no privileged epistemic access to the ontology of social kinds; our only privilege lies in our ability to determine the proper subject of our inquiries.

Author's Profile

Michel-Antoine Xhignesse
Capilano University


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