Forrest Cameranesi: Geek of all Trades

On Rhetoric and the Arts

Rhetoric is traditionally defined as the art of persuasion, and with that characterization I don't have much disagreement. But to me it is the "art" part that is more defining than the "persuasion" part, and what chiefly differentiates it from the other of philosophy's main tools, logic. Both logic and rhetoric can be used in persuasive arguments, but whereas logic is more mathematical, concerning itself with the form and structure of the argument and appealing more impersonally to dispassionate thought, rhetoric as I would characterize it is more artistic, concerning itself with the style and presentation of the argument and appealing more personally to passions and feelings.

Strictly speaking this breaks with traditional characterizations of rhetoric from antiquity, which include "logos" (appeals to logic) as a "mode of argument" under the umbrella of rhetoric, and "invention" (the structuring of an argument) as a "canon" of rhetoric. But I lack any other term for the remaining parts of rhetoric besides what is already covered by logic, those parts that appeal to desire and character (the "pathos" and "ethos" modes of argument) via the arrangement, style, and delivery of the argument (three other of the five traditional "canons" of rhetoric, the fifth being "memory", which I consider merely a tool aiding delivery). And this use of the term is in keeping with contemporary colloquial use as well. So in these essays when I speak of rhetoric, I am speaking of the packaging and delivery of speech-acts, as differentiated from the contents and structure thereof, which I will cover more in my later essay on logic and mathematics.

I hold rhetoric, thus characterized, to be a sort of foundational branch of the arts more generally, much as logic is a foundational branch of mathematics. By "the arts" I mean a very broad field, including musical arts (broadly characterized as art in time), visual arts (broadly characterized as art in space), and performance arts (broadly characterized as art in time and space, including all of dance, theater, film, video, animation, and so on). I also include within that term all the linguistic arts, parallel to each of those non-linguistic arts, such as poetry (characterized as being about things like rhyme and meter, figuratively "music in words"), prose (characterized as being about vivid descriptions, figuratively "pictures in words"), and storytelling (figuratively "movies in words").

I even include things as abstract as design, as in the design of things like the interfaces people use and spaces people occupy, which I hold to be the non-linguistic parallel of rhetoric itself, being all about using style and presentation to draw people's attention in the direction the designer wants it drawn, to make some things seem obvious and intuitive while hiding other things away where they won't be noticed, and so guide people's behavior, just as rhetoric emphasizes some aspects of some parts of some ideas while deemphasizing others, and so guides people's feelings about those ideas.

Thus I hold the above characterization of rhetoric – as being about style, packaging, and presentation, meant to make an audience feel things in a way not strictly dependent of its contents – to also be the defining characterization of all the arts, broadly construed. So in this essay, I will begin with a discussion of rhetoric specifically, and then segue into a broader discussion of the arts more generally.

On Rhetoric

Being thus divorced from its contents, rhetoric characterized as above is not to be judged strictly on those contents, on whether the things being said are right or wrong (whatever manner thereof may apply, depending on the kind of things being said). Rather, "good rhetoric" is successful rhetoric, rhetoric that does what it was meant to do, that successfully packages its contents, whatever they may be, in such a way as to ensure their delivery into the minds of the audience. (This is analogous to how logical validity does not depend on or guarantee the truth of a logical argument's conclusion, only the relationship between the truth or falsity of that conclusion and the truth or falsity of the premises).

What it is meant to do, of course, can vary relative to who is judging it: the speaker may mean to do one thing by their rhetoric, the audience may mean for something else to be done to them by it, society at large may mean for rhetoric to be used for yet another purpose, and there may further be some universal standard by which to judge what any speaker should be using rhetoric to do. But whatever standard one is judging rhetoric by, the rhetoric is "good" inasmuch as it successfully does whatever it's supposed to do by that standard, which may or may not be to communicate truths.

For this reason, some philosophers such as Plato were vehemently opposed to rhetoric, seeing it as manipulative sophistry without regard for truth, in contrast with the logical, rational dialectic that he and his teacher Socrates advocated. His student Aristotle, on the other hand, had a less negative opinion of rhetoric, viewing it as neither inherently good nor bad but as useful toward either end, and holding that because many people sadly do not think in perfectly rational ways, rhetorical appeals to emotion and character and such are often necessary to get such people to accept truths that they might otherwise irrationally reject.

I side much more with Aristotle's view on this matter, viewing logic and rhetoric as complimentary to each other, not in competition. I like to use an analogy of prescribing someone medicine: the actual medicinal content is most important of course, but you stand a much better chance of getting someone to actually swallow that content if it's not packaged in a big, jagged, bitter pill, but rather a small, smooth, sweet-tasting pill. In this analogy, the medicinal content of the pill is the logical, rational content of a speech-act, while the size, texture, and flavor of the pill is the rhetorical packaging and delivery of the speech-act. It is of course important that the "medicine" (logic) be right, but it's just as important that the "pill" (rhetoric) be such that people will actually swallow it.

On the Types of Rhetoric

Aristotle divided rhetoric into three types:

  • Forensic rhetoric, concerned with arguing whether or not wrongdoing has occurred, in the past.
  • Deliberative rhetoric, concerned with arguing whether or not some course of action would bring about good ends, in the future.
  • And epideictic rhetoric, concerned with ceremonial commemoration or declamation, praise or blame, in the present.

As should be clear from the definition of those categories, Aristotle thought of rhetoric as being entirely about political, moral, or otherwise normative argument: arguing that something is, was, or will be, in some way good or bad. The Sophists, on the other hand, who were the target of Plato's condemnation of rhetoric, held that rhetoric could be used to persuade anyone on any topic, not merely normative persuasion in a political context; notably, they held that it could be used to convince people that something was or was not true.

Today, neo-Aristotelians continue to consider rhetoric to be something within the domain of politics, while neo-Sophists continue to consider it to be something that can be applied to any topic of discourse. Though of course I disagree with the Sophists that rhetorical persuasion is all there is to truth, I agree in this matter that rhetoric is something that can be applied, for better or worse, to any topic of discourse.

But I still think that something much like Aristotle's tripartite division can be retained, reframed in a way accounting for that broader applicability of rhetoric, in terms of the directions of fit discussed in my previous essay on language:

  • Descriptive rhetoric is concerned with conveying descriptive truth or reality, which is to say, opinions with an idea-to-world direction of fit. This concords roughly with Aristotle's forensic rhetoric concerning the past, because most of our concern about reality is usually with the past up to the present, the truth or reality of the future being highly uncertain. But we can and do nevertheless discuss predictions of the future, and this modified category of rhetoric I propose would concern the conveyance of them as well, merely in the capacity of describing the future, not prescribing it as Aristotle's deliberative rhetoric would do.
  • Prescriptive rhetoric is concerned with conveying prescriptive good or morality, which is to say, opinions with a world-to-idea direction of fit. This concords roughly with Aristotle's deliberative rhetoric concerning the future, because most of our concern about morality is usually with the present on into the future, the goodness or morality of the unchangeable past being of less concern. But we can and do nevertheless pass moral judgements on things that have already happened, and this modified category of rhetoric I propose would concern the conveyance of them as well.
  • Ceremonial rhetoric is concerned with the performance of ceremonial acts, like those described near the beginning of the predecing essay on language, which have a dual direction of fit, the performance of the ceremonial speech-act changing social facts about the world by the very performance of the act itself. This concords roughly with Aristotle's epideictic rhetoric, inasmuch as both of them are concerned with ceremonial performances. But unlike that, this form of rhetoric concerns ceremonies with more than just commending and declaiming functions.

On the Modes of Rhetoric

But there is a different sense in which all types of rhetoric must concern a certain kind of fit between the world and an idea, in that all rhetoric is meant to convey some ideas about the world from the speaker to the audience. That may be the world as it is, for descriptive opinions, or the world as it ought to be, for prescriptive opinions; and that may be either the audience's capacity to believe, to apprehend truth, or the audience's capacity to intend, to apprehend goodness, as I distinguish in my later essays on the mind and on the will. But in any case, toward any such end, the speaker must convey to the audience:

  • The speaker's "fit to the world": their expertise on the subject matter. Emphasizing this is the essence of the "ethos" mode of persuasion. As a "speaker-to-world" fit, so to speak, this may superficially seem like it is entirely about descriptive truth, with an idea-to-world direction of fit, but the subject matter about which the speaker conveys their expertise may just as well be a prescriptive one, with a world-to-idea direction of fit.
  • The speaker's "fit to the (audience's) mind": their sympathy with the perspective of the audience, being on their side, trying to help them, rather than being against them, attacking them. Emphasizing this is the essence of the "pathos" mode of persuasion. As a "speaker-to-mind" fit, so to speak, this may superficially seem like it is entirely about prescriptive good, with a world-to-idea direction of fit, showing the audience that the speaker is normatively acceptable, but it can be just as important to convey a factual understandability (with an idea-to-world fit), that the speaker understands the perspective from which the audience sees the world, and can translate a view of the the subject matter in question to that audience's perspective.
  • The speaker's ability to feed their expertise on the world sympathetically into the audience's mind at an appropriate pace for the audience to digest it. This has much in common with the showmanship that is most important in the ceremonial or epideictic type of rhetoric, because it requires the speaker to convey the subject in an entertaining manner, as in, one that keep's the audience's attention, leaving them neither bored nor overwhelmed.

Contrary to the Sophists, and concurring with Plato and his portrayal of Socrates, I think it is very important that the speaker actually be all of these things they are conveying to their audience. They really should actually know the topic they are talking about. They really should care to actually help their audience by conveying it to them. And they really should have the patience to pace it out in the way that most effectively bridges that gap between the two. But unlike Plato and his portrayal of Socrates, and concurring with Aristotle, I think it is also important that the speaker demonstrate such expertise, sympathy, and patience to their audience.

The Triple Constraint of Audiences

Conversely, part and parcel of doing just that is not counting on one's audience to do likewise. A speaker must be very clear, to get through to those parts of the audience who lack the expertise to understand dense or technical language. A speaker must be unambiguous, so that those parts of the audience who are not sympathetic to the speaker have no room to misinterpret what they say. And a speaker must be as concise as reasonably possible, to avoid boring away an impatient audience who won't listen to a lengthy explanation no matter how clear and unambiguous it is.

Jim Pryor memorably phrased this advice, in the context of philosophy writing specifically, as a suggestion to assume one's audience to be "stupid, lazy, and mean": "stupid" in that they won't just understand what you're trying to say, "lazy" in that they don't really care what you're trying to say and so won't put any effort into trying to understand, and "mean" in that they don't like what you're trying to say so when they inevitably misunderstand you it will be in the worst possible way.

But in my experience, it is only possible to reach at best two of those three segments. Like the famous project management triangle concisely summed up as "good, fast, cheap: pick any two", it seems impossible to reach an audience that is simultaneously ignorant, apathetic, and hostile.

  • It may be possible to reach an ignorant and apathetic audience if they are sufficiently charitable in their interpretation, so long as you are clear and concise.
  • It may be possible to reach an apathetic and hostile audience if they are sufficiently knowledgable to permit your use of concise unambiguous jargon.
  • And it may be possible to reach an ignorant and hostile audience if they are sufficiently patient to read through your lengthy clarifications and disambiguations.

But if your audience doesn't get it, doesn't like it, and doesn't even care about it, then it may be impossible to reach them even in principle.

On the Arts

As detailed at the start of this essay, I hold that art is defined simply by its being presented to an audience to provoke some reaction, not by any specific qualities of its contents. A painting or a song or a film doesn't have to be anything like beautiful just in order for it to be art in the first place: it just has to be presented to an audience as a work of art.

Figuratively speaking, putting a frame around something is what makes it art. The art of photography, for example, is largely (though of course not entirely) about putting not-quite-figurative frames around images that often (thought not always) were not so much created as found and selected as worthy of presentation to an audience.

A photograph of a stunning vista from a nature trail depicts something that the photographer had no hand in creating: it is only the framing of the vista within the lens, the depth of focus being a third dimension of that frame (how far out from the viewer is framed), and the film speed and exposure time being a fourth dimension (how much time is framed), that turns the found view into a work of art. Placing a literal picture frame on a stand around that same vista, and directing people up the nature trail to it, would also qualify as an art installation.

Further still in the extremes, works such as Marcel Duchamp's Fountain (an ordinary urinal, signed with a fictitious name and placed in an art gallery) and John Cage's 4'33" (a piece of music consisting of three movements of no notes at all) are still, on my account, technically works of art, because they are presented to an audience with the aim to provoke some kind of a reaction in them.

On the Quality of Art

But just being a work of art is not all it takes to be good art. And here is where the connection to rhetoric comes in. Just as good rhetoric, rhetoric that excels at being rhetoric, is rhetoric that is successful in doing what it was meant to do, in making its audience feel some intended way about the things being said, so too any kind of art in general is good only inasmuch as it succeeds in doing whatever it was meant to do, provoking whatever reaction in its audience it was meant to provoke.

This intended reaction can again vary with who is judging the art: the artist may mean to provoke one reaction, different audiences may mean to have different reactions provoked in them, different societies may mean for art to serve some particular purpose or another, and there maybe be some universal standard by which to judge what any art should do. But whatever the art is meant to do by whichever standard it is being judged, it is only good art, by that standard, if it succeeds at doing that. (Though it is nevertheless still art, even if it fails at that; it is merely bad art instead, in that case).

So an artist may mean some art piece to shock or offend the audience, and if it succeeds at that, then it is good art to the artist; but if the audience does not mean themselves to be shocked or offended, but were simply minding their own business when something caught their attention and then turned out to be something horrible they wished they hadn't experienced, then it can simultaneously be bad art to the audience. Whether there is any such thing as universally good art depends on whether there is anything that art universally ought to be doing, any reaction that art universally ought to be provoking.

There are many different things that art can be meant to do. It can be meant simply to engage, to be something interesting that catches people's attention and makes them stop to consider it, with no particular further reaction or another meant beyond that simple engagement, though further reactions may nevertheless occur. It can further be meant to amuse, to provoke a pleased reaction in the audience.

Some philosophies of art consider works of whatever media that are simply meant to engage and amuse with no further purpose to be not art at all, but merely entertainment. But while I am fine to apply the label "entertainment" to works meant to engage and amuse, which not all art might be meant to do, I hold that entertainment thus categorized is still a subset of art as I characterize it.

Even art works that are meant to do more than merely engage and amuse often do still intend to amuse or at least to engage, and so are still themselves entertainment even though they might also belong to some other, nominally loftier category of art as well. I dispute that there is some hard line between art and entertainment, with entertainment somehow more base than art; entertaining, engaging and amusing, is just one of many things art can do, and it is a fine thing for art to do.

But art can also be meant to do other things, that are in some sense more noble than mere entertainment. Art can also be meant to inspire, as in to convey attitudes towards ideas (which is to say, opinions, as defined in my previous essay on language), and in that respect art, of any medium, is most like rhetoric as traditionally defined, as being about persuasion.

(Conversely, rhetoric as I define it might not always be strictly about persuasion per se; the same concerns for arrangement, style, and delivery, appealing to emotion and character, might instead be used to tell a joke, or cheer someone up, or tell someone off, or otherwise do something, to provoke some reaction, other than to persuade someone of some opinion).

Those opinions that art might mean to convey may be descriptive or prescriptive in nature, intending to make people feel either that something is true (or false), or that something is good (or bad). This can be construed as art being used to educate, either in the descriptive sense that word commonly connotes today, as conveying facts about reality, or in a prescriptive sense now found slightly archaic, as conveying moral norms.

Art can also be meant to educate in a less paternalistic fashion by conveying not statements, either about facts or norms, but rather questions about either, intriguing its audience by prompting them to wonder what is actually real, or actually moral; or more still, about what is possible, or what is permissible, exploring other worlds and ways of life, exotic other options of what could be real or could be moral. That, I think, is perhaps the most noble of purposes for which art can be meant.


One of the most important questions in the philosophy of art is whether the quality of art can be judged by any universal standards or only relatively. I reject both of the more extreme types of view on that topic, that hold respectively either that there is no such thing as universal quality to art, or else that some specific kind of art held in high status by some culture is the one universally good kind of art and everything else is bad art for its failure to comply with that standard. I hold instead that art can only be judged universally inasmuch as the art itself can be considered a kind of action, a communicative action, a speech-act really, but in a broader variety of media than merely literal speech.

What that art is meant to do is thus fundamentally important in how it can be judged. I hold that art meant merely to entertain can only be judged by its success at being a pleasurable experience for many people, for I hold that people being pleased is a universally good thing, as I will argue in my later essay on purpose. Conversely, I hold that art meant specifically to be displeasing, like something meant just to shock and offend, not merely as a side-effect or a means to some other good end but just as an end in itself, is intrinsically bad art, even if it is good at doing what it sets out to do, because I hold it is universally bad for people to be displeased.

But what any person finds pleasurable is still a relative matter, and so art as entertainment retains always a degree of relativity in its judgement. However, art meant to educate can be judged by the same universal standards that the opinions it means to convey can be judged (which I will elaborate upon in later essays on knowledge and justice), and so in that sense some art can be more strictly judged as being universally good or bad art.

For instance, a story with a universally bad moral can for that reason be judged a universally bad story, even if it excels in technical aspects at conveying that moral successfully; just like art that means solely to shock and offend might be judged bad art by the standard that being shocked and offended is bad, even if that shocking offensive art is technically proficient at being shocking and offensive.

It is important to note, however, that this does not mean that every work of art that in any way depicts something universally bad or universally false is therefore universally bad art. It may actually be universally good art if it depicts such things so as to raise the question of whether they are (or could be) good or bad, true or false, and prompt the audience to try to figure out what is real or what is moral, what is possible and what is permissible.

The art may also be presenting bad or false things merely for their engagement or amusement value, as entertainment, without meaning to make any claims or raise any questions at all, only to present some interesting or pleasing possibility, which can only be relatively good or bad art to the extent that each member of the audience finds it interesting or pleasing. It is only if the art means to depict bad things as good, or false things as true, that it thereby becomes universally bad art, regardless of its technical proficiency at delivering that wrong message.

Circling back again to rhetoric, as the archetypical medium, for illustration: an argument that successfully persuades someone to believe something false or to intend something bad is thereby universally bad rhetoric, even if the speaker meant his words to do so and so would relatively consider his rhetoric good for its success, because by universal standards false things are not to be believed and bad things are not to be intended and so rhetoric is not meant, by those standards, to persuade people to do so, and in succeeding at doing what it is not meant to do, that rhetoric thereby fails at doing what it is meant to do, and is thereby bad rhetoric.

This is analogous to how a logical argument, despite being logically valid and so "good" inasmuch as technical proficiency at logic goes, can still be an unsound and so overall bad argument if its valid inferences are from false premises or to a false conclusion. I would suggest the terminology of "proficient" and "beneficent" to describe these analogues of "valid" and "sound" (or equivalently, as will be explored in my later essay on logic and mathematics, of abstract or logical versus concrete or empirical existence).

On Beauty

This notion of the beliefs or intentions that art can inspire being an important factor in the judgement of the art segues into another central topic of the philosophy of art: beauty. Philosophers of art, and aesthetics as that is sometimes distinguished from it, question what the nature of beauty is, and whether it is inseparable from art, as in whether un-beautiful things can be art, and whether beautiful things are thereby automatically art.

I have already answered above that I hold art fully capable of being un-beautiful, and I likewise hold that beauty does not only apply to works of art, but to any experience at all, even ones not put forth by some artist for the purpose of provoking a reaction, but just happened upon in the world. The same beautiful vista that might be captured by a photographer and turned into photographic art was already beautiful before it was made into art. Just as art does not need to be beautiful in order to be art, beautiful things do not need to be art in order to be beautiful.

As to the nature of beauty, I hold that beauty is, broadly speaking, the experience of apprehending something that seems, in some way or another, right. This rightness may be either of a descriptive or a prescriptive nature: the feeling of apprehending some truth, or of apprehending some good.

Scientific knowledge of many kinds, for example, can be beautiful in its descriptive rightness, in the apprehension of truth. Scholars of all varieties find beauty in understanding some set of rules or patterns that explain some wide variety of previously perplexing phenomena. The concrete phenomena themselves may not be beautiful, and the rules or patterns themselves may not be beautiful in the raw abstract, but finding some abstract rules or patterns to explain the concrete phenomena can be a thing of beauty, because you've found something that is right, in the sense of true, or at least something that seems so.

Or in a work of art, the telling of some truth may be beautiful even if the truth itself is about something bad: someone else, the artist, communicating publicly, to the audience, that some bad thing they have experience of is a real and true phenomenon can be cathartic and validating and in its own way beautiful for its depiction of the truth.

Beauty as a feeling of prescriptive rightness may be found in some lofty moral triumph of good over evil; it can be beautiful in a sense to see justice prevail. But it may also be something as simple and relative as apprehending something to be in some way desirable. Flowers and fruits and other healthy, vibrant flora may be beautiful because they, on at least a subconscious level, signal bountiful food, which is desirable. Huge open vistas may be beautiful because they signal a lack of predators or competitors, and hence freedom and relative abundance of resources.

Other people may be beautiful because their features signal that they are in good health, and so safe company, reliable companions, or possibly potential sexual partners. All manner of things can be beautiful to us just because they seem, on an emotional level, to signal some kind of simple, primitive good to us as animals.

The common factor in all of these diverse kinds of beauty, be it in understanding broad natural laws or honest tellings of personal struggle, in a great triumph of justice or a pretty bed of flowers, is that they are all experiences of something seeming right, either in the sense of "true", or in the sense of "good".

Beyond these concrete forms of beauty, there are also more abstract aspects to beauty, to be found in the form or structure of a phenomenon (be it natural or a work of art) rather than in its relation to reality or morality, though this abstract sense of beauty also factors into the concrete kinds discussed above. This is beauty as in elegance, which is to say, the intersection of a phenomenon being interestingly complex, but also comprehensibly simple. Complexity draws one's attention into the phenomenon, seeking to understand it; and if that complexity is found to emerge from an underlying simplicity, beauty can be experienced in the successful comprehension of that complexity by way of the underlying simplicity.

That is to say, symmetries and other patterns, that allow us to reduce a complex phenomenon to many instances and variations of simpler phenomena, are inherently beautiful in an abstract way detached entirely from whether the phenomena are concretely real or moral. This is the kind of beauty to be found in abstract, non-representational art, and also in places besides art such as in mathematical structures.

The tension here between interesting complexity and comprehensible simplicity is, I think, what underlies the distinction many artists, audiences, and philosophers have made between what they call "high art" and "low art".

  • Those who prefer so-called "high art" are those with enough experience with the kinds of patterns used in their preferred media that they are able to comprehend more complex phenomena than those less experienced, but simultaneously find simpler phenomena correspondingly uninteresting.
  • Those who prefer so-called "low art" (so called by the "high art" aficionados, not by themselves) instead find more complex phenomena incomprehensible, but are simultaneously more capable of taking interest in simpler phenomena.

Unlike the attitudes evinced in the traditional naming of these categories, I do not think that "high art", a taste for complex phenomena, is in any way inherently better than "low art", a taste for simple phenomena. In each case, the aficionados of one are capable of appreciating something that the other group cannot, while incapable of appreciating something that the other group can.

In my opinion, if any manner of taste was truly to be called universally superior, it would be a broader taste, capable of comprehending complex phenomena and so appreciating "high art", while still remaining capable of finding simple phenomena interesting and so appreciating "low art". In that way, audiences with such taste would be best capable of deriving the most enjoyment from the widest assortment of phenomena, both natural and artistic.

On Comedy and Tragedy

A sort of mirror image of beauty, I hold, is drama, by which I mean an umbrella category encompassing both comedy and tragedy. The common factor to comedy and tragedy, and what I hold makes drama like a mirror image of beauty, is that while beauty is about experiences of something seeming in some way right, comedy and tragedy are both experiences of something seeming in some way wrong.

The distinguishing difference between comedy and tragedy is how they approach that wrongness: comedy approaches it frivolously, with levity, making light of whatever is wrong; while tragedy approaches it seriously, with gravity, taking the wrong thing to be a weighty matter. This wrongness can be of either a descriptive or prescriptive kind, just like the rightness of beauty can be.

I think this is best illustrated in the wide varieties of comedy, ranging from slapstick (where people experiencing physical violence is treated lightly instead of as a matter of grievous injury) and roasts or other jokes explicitly at someone's expense (that are treated as an acceptable transgressions of social norms), which are both making light of prescriptively bad things; to jokes that hinge on setting up and then subverting expectations (where something that was thought to true turns out to be false), including postmodern comedy that violates medium conventions such as breaking the fourth wall, and even things like puns where the wrongness is just the use of the wrong word in place of the expected one.

All comedy hinges on something being, in some way or another, wrong, and yet treated as not a big deal. Tragedy, on the other hand, depicts something being in some way wrong, and makes a big deal out of it being wrong. Both of them are, for that wrongness that they depend on, in some way un-beautiful. Yet both can nevertheless be, in the end, beautiful in their own way. Comedy, in making light of bad things, shows them as not so bad, and so correspondingly good, at least relatively speaking, and thereby beautiful in a way. And tragedy, in treating bad things as weighty matters, can speak hard truths about bad experiences that people can really have, and so, for that truth, also be beautiful in a way.

On Creativity

The last topic I want to address on my philosophy of art is creativity. Creativity seems to be popularly held to be some kind of non-deterministic, random process of some kind of magical, metaphysically free will – a topic I will address at length in a later essay on the will – but I hold that that is not the case at all. I hold that there really isn't a clear distinction between invention and discovery of ideas, but rather neither invention nor discovery in the senses we use those terms to discuss concrete objects can apply to abstract ideas.

On the one hand, if we supposed that ideas were simply invented in the way that concrete objects are, that would imply that each idea did not exist at one point in the past, and then came into existence when instantiated. So, for example, the idea that 2+2=4 would not have existed, and so could not have been true, until someone thought of it, and then only after someone did think of it, would it have existed, and been true.

On the other hand, if we supposed that ideas were simply discovered in the way that concrete objects are, that would imply that ideas already existed in some accessible way completely unrelated to the possibility of them being instantiated. So, for example, for it to be discovered that 2+2=4, there must have already existed the ideas of "two", "four", "addition", and "equality", and the relationships between them, somewhere "out there" in some kind of strange realm of abstract objects. (I will discuss the problems with this in my next essay on logic and mathematics).

It seems that we are prone to call it "invention" when it is the first known instance of someone having an idea, or if it’s a relatively non-obvious idea; and we are prone to call it "discovery" when it is a later known instance of someone having an idea, or if it’s a relatively obvious idea. But I think there really is no difference between them when it comes to abstract ideas; the distinction between creation and discovery applies only to concrete objects.

When it comes to abstract ideas, I find it most useful to think in terms of a figurative space of all possible ideas, what in mathematics is called a configuration space or phase space, where any idea that anyone might "invent", any act of abstract "creation" (prior to the act of realizing the idea in some concrete medium), is really just the identification of some idea in that space of possibilities. It would be possible in principle to set out on a deterministic process of mechanically identifying every possible idea, though as that space of possibilities is likely infinite this process would likely never finish identifying all of them.

Watching the output of such a process would not feel like watching a creative genius, though, even though the process would be continually spitting out new, previously unidentified ideas. But neither would watching the output of a process that generates (or picks from out of the possibility space) new ideas completely at random, however. That, I hold, is because it is not the determinism or randomness of the process of invention or discovery that makes it "creative" in a way that would be called such by audiences watching its output. Rather, it is a specific feature of the process, which requires that the process be at least partly deterministic, that grants the appearance of creativity.

That feature is that the invented or discovered idea must be recognizably similar to previously known ideas, and yet also noticeably different from them. That alone is only the bare minimum of creativity, however: something that is just like something else with a slight twist will be rightly called only a variation on a previous theme and not especially creative. However, something that is completely unlike any prior work will seem so random, out of context, and therefore unapproachable, that audiences will be unable to appreciate it. The kind of new ideas that seem really creative are the ones that make apparent the structure of the space of possibilities, connecting and re-contextualizing previously known ideas.

If two genres of some medium are well-known, for example, with many variations on the same theme, and then a new work of art is made in that medium that blends elements of both genres in a way that shows them both to be the ends of a longer spectrum of genres, then that will be seen as very creative. It will also open up the potential of still further creativity later, as other works located along that same line in the space of possibilities can then have the context of that spectrum to anchor them, to give them purpose in filling in the unexplored regions in the middle of that spectrum and beyond its known ends.

If one such spectrum of possibilities is already known, and a new work can bridge between it and ideas that lie off of it in such a way as to expand the spectrum into a new dimension, suddenly even more structure in the space of possibilities is made apparent, and even more opportunity for further creativity is opened up. In relating already known ideas to each other across a space of previously unexplored ideas, new works can give further context and significance to existing ones and draw context and significance from them, and it is that process of connection and contextualization, not mere nondeterministic randomness, that constitutes creativity.

This begins to segue now more into the realm of logic and mathematics than rhetoric and the arts, as we are now talking about the structure and content of ideas rather than their style and delivery. But mathematics and the arts, though very distinct in the way elaborated upon at the start of this essay, also dovetail into each other in many other ways. For every branch of the arts, there is some branch of mathematics that is applicable to its realization.

Geometry and other spatial branches of mathematics have obvious applicability to the visual arts. The mathematics of cyclical functions, patterns that repeat over time, underlies harmonics, which has obvious applicability to the musical arts. In medieval education curricula, that study of mathematical harmonics was even taught under the label of simply "music", one of the four subjects of the quadrivium, alongside arithmetic, the aforementioned geometry, and what they called "astronomy", which was really the study of the mathematics of dynamics, which does have its applications in literal astronomy of course, but also has obvious applications in performance arts like animation where it is necessary to realistically depict motion in space over time.

The distinction between these mathematical subjects and their corresponding artistic subjects is just the distinction in focus on either the style of the delivery of the work, which is artistic in nature, or on the structure of the contents of the work, which is mathematical in nature.


Continue to the next essay, On Logic and Mathematics.