Skip to content

Indiscernible crux

In an episode of ‘The Philosopher’s Zone‘ called ‘Is it art?’ Alan Saunders talks to Arthur C. Danto about his theory of indiscernables. If you have two identical objects, but one of them is a work of art, and the other is an ordinary something-or-other, how can you tell which is which? He talks of an Andy Warhol show he’d seen, and begins by talking about a photo of Warhol in front of some duplicated shipping cartons:

You couldn’t have told from the photograph that these were anything except shipping cartons. Because until 1964 nobody saw them as anything else. And what Warhol had done had been to duplicate them. Now, my interest in this show – you’ve got two objects which are to all outward appearances indiscernable, but one is a piece of avant garde art and the other is just a utilitarian container. And I thought, well that raises the question of what is art in a very different form than had ever been raised before…What Warhol did was to put it in a different way: how, if you have two objects which look exactly alike (are, as I’ve put it, indiscernable), one being a work of art and the other one not. What’s the difference?

This idea of indiscernables struck me as similar some other ideas…

This is a quote from the end of ‘The Courtier and the Heretic’ by Matthew Stewart (speaking of the continental rationalistic reactions to the scientific revolution):

All begin with the conviction that there is some vital aspect of experience which escapes modern thought. All maintain that the purpose of life begins where modernity ends. All claim to discover the special and elusive meaning of existence through an analysis of the putative failures of modern thought. And all remain indissolubly attached to precisely that which they oppose. (311, Stewart)

And this is a quote from Simon Critchley’s ‘A Very Short Introduction to Continental Philosophy’ where he is describing the feeling one might have at a hypothetical end of science where everything has been explained, “…not an explanatory gap that might be closed by producing a better, more comprehensive theory, but more of a felt gap.” (6, Critchley)

A few other ideas along these lines that I don’t have quotes for offhand are: Aristotle and Kant’s ideas that there is a difference between someone just going through the motions, and someone performing an identical act out of earnest, appearance and reality, and another example being how to tell if someone is conscious or a zombie.

These examples seem to point to what could be a decent definition of philosophy. Danto says:

…I thought that it had the character of any classical philosophical question where you’ve got two things that can’t be told apart but are momentously different. Like in the beginning of Descartes’ Meditations Descartes says: well, what better evidence can I have than what the senses provide me with. And then he says: well, that would be true if only I knew I were sensing, because as a matter of fact, I’ve dreamt that I was having certain experiences and the dreams were very vivid and I would’ve had no idea that there was nothing in front of me, nothing being perceived until I woke up and realized that I’d been dreaming…

This brings up another idea: how do we account for the ability to have such a felt gap epistemologically? My theory is that philosophy is this: the intuition of a “felt gap”, and the elucidation of this. If it were more than just a “felt gap” then it would be empirically testable. So, some exception must be found between what was previously indistinguishable. This could be called a philosophical instinct of sorts.