Article/Publication Details

P.F. Strawson and Stephen Davies on the Ontology of Art

(Original title: P.F. Strawson and Stephen Davies on the Ontology of Art)
Organon F, 2009, vol. 16, No 4, pp. 615-631.
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Abstract

P.F. Strawson’s Individuals (1959) contains a condensed version of an ontology of art. According to this ontology, musical and literary compositions are similar to types. They are abstract entities, instantiated in the performances of the piece of music or the copies of the literary work. Musical and literary compositions are “well-entrenched”, Strawson says – we cannot eliminate these abstractions, or perhaps we have no need to do so. Strawson’s ontology of art forms an integral part of what he calls his “descriptive metaphysics”, and his resistance to the elimination of types and type-like entities is one example of his reservations against “revisionary metaphysics”.

Nowadays, Strawson’s name is seldom mentioned in connection with the philosophy of art. Yet the general view of the ontology of art advocated in Individuals is still probably the one most widely held in analytical aesthetics today. Thus, for example, Stephen Davies adopts the same general position as Strawson in his article “Ontology of Art” (2003), the best informed contemporary overview of the complex of problems surrounding the mode of existence of works of art. Unlike Strawson, Davies also adduces explicit reasons why concepts of musical and literary compositions cannot be successfully eliminated.

Critically reviewing Strawson’s and Davies’ standpoints and arguments, I maintain that concepts of artworks can in fact be successfully eliminated, and that the bracketing of such notions leads to a better theoretical perspective on musical and literary communication. Throughout the paper, I speak for an open-minded approach to conceptual revision.

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