Tuesday, July 27, 2010


Margolis, Joseph.  The Cultural Space of the Arts and the Infelicities of Reductionism. New York: Columbia UP, 2010.

In this book, the indefatigable Joseph Margolis combines his lifelong interest in works of art as cultural objects with his theory of persons themselves as cultural objects into a polemic against both reductionism in the philosophy of mind and what he calls "piecemeal reductionism" in recent aesthetics. What he means by this is that much prominent work in recent aesthetics, from the philosophies of painting developed by Arthur Danto, Richard Wollheim, and Kendall Walton to the theories of literary interpretation put forth by such as Noël Carroll, Jerrold Levinson, and Robert Stecker, is tacitly based on a philosophy of mind that reduces the intentionality and intentional behavior of persons to purely physical properties, or extensionality, although the aestheticians do not attempt to defend such general reductionism, and thus, according to Margolis, put forth their views in aesthetics without adequate metaphysical foundations altogether.

The book is thus divided into two parts, an attack upon "the infelicities of reductionism" in general (the prologue "First Words" and the "Interlude" of chapter 3), which for Margolis is paradigmatically exemplified in the work of Daniel Dennett, and a critique of various of the positions of the "piecemeal reductionists" in aesthetics (chapters 1-2 and 4-5, separated by the "Interlude" on "Reductionism in the Philosophy of Mind"). I think that Margolis's critique of reductionism in the philosophy of mind should be taken seriously. But I do not find Margolis's attempt to impute the positions in recent and contemporary aesthetics that he discusses to reductionist, physicalist, or extensionalist assumptions in the philosophy of mind very convincing, and indeed in several cases it seems to me that Margolis almost willfully misreads positions about the cultural and historically-situated character of artworks that are actually quite close to his own. This is not to say that Margolis does not have valuable criticisms to make of some of the aesthetic theories he considers, especially Walton's theory that what we do with works of art is to play games of "make-believe" with them. But it is to say that these theories do not obviously depend upon general reductionism in the philosophy of mind, and that the success of Margolis's criticisms does not depend on the success of his general critique of such reductionism. . . .

Read the rest here: http://ndpr.nd.edu/review.cfm?id=20670.

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