Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

Difference Between Artworks & Scientific Models


Photograph of Eric Winsberg

What follows is a guest post by Eric Winsberg. Eric is Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Florida. His principal interests are in the philosophy of science and the philosophy of physics. He is especially interested  in the role of computer simulations in the physical sciences, in issues in the philosophy of climate science and their application in science policy and ethics, and in the foundations of statistical physics and the direction of time. He is the author of Science in the Age of Computer Simulation, which appeared in the fall of 2010 with the University of Chicago Press. He is also working on co-editing a book with Harvard University Press on the direction of time, and another on the Conceptual Foundations of Climate Models. These days, when he is not teaching or writing philosophy, he is probably lifting weights, stand up paddle-boarding, or working on perfecting his pizza making.

What is the Difference Between an Art Object and a Scientific Model?

Too many things to list, of course–if we are talking about their function, their standards of evaluation, or a myriad of other things. But what if we are talking about their ontological status? None. None much difference.

Or so I argued at an Editor Meets Critics session at the American Society for Aesthetics that Christy invited me to last fall to discuss his book Art and Abstract Objects. One of the topics that gets a lot of attention in the book is what Christy calls the “paradox of standards.” It goes something like this:

I.  There are such things as art-abstracta.

    (compare the Mona Lisa to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony)

II. Abstracta are non-spaciotemporal, and causally inert.

III. An artwork must be created.

The paradox is designed to convince us that there is a special metaphysical problem about the ontological status of art abstracta—art objects such as symphonies and novels—because they appear to need to be understood both as abstract entities and be conceived of as creatable. I’m not convinced.

The view I argued for is that art objects are no different than scientific models in this regard (or, for that matter, from things like promises, plans, and even sentences), and that none of these pose any metaphysical puzzles. To see why, consider an influential view of models and theories in philosophy of science, that I will loosely attribute to Bas van Fraassen: 

To propose or accept a theory (a family of models) is:

  • To display it
  • And claim that it has certain virtues (empirical adequacy, fruitfulness, etc.)

But all representations are intentional entities, which means that they all have to be the result of a creative act as much so as art objects. The creative act that the scientist engages in is to display her model (by picking it out using words, equations, diagrams, etc.) and to attribute various virtues to it. But the model (qua abstract entity) that she picks out is causally inert and non-spaciotemporal. How can this be? We are confusing ourselves with an equivocation when we say that the model is the product of a creative act and an abstract entity. The same issue arises with sentences. Did I create the last sentence before this one? I (with the help of my computer, your computer, and the intertubes) created the sentence token, but I only picked out the sentence type.   

So why does it seem like there is a special problem of art abstracta in aesthetics? Both in science and in art, there are concrete models and abstract models, on the one hand, and concrete art objects and abstract art objects on the other. But that just means that in each discipline, there are models (or art objects) where the primary focus is on the concrete entity and models (or art objects) where the primary focus in on the abstract entity. We usually speak of scientists proposing models and artists creating art objects. But that’s only because we in science, the canonical sort of scientific model is one where the focus in on the abstract object (say, the simple harmonic oscillator model, SHO) and in art, the canonical sort of art object is one where we focus on the concrete object (say, the Mona Lisa). In fact, we have no real trouble hearing, on the other hand, that Beethoven proposed that the orchestra play “ta-ta-ta-tum” or that Watson and Crick created a wire and tin double helix model of DNA. But of course, there could be no SHO without concrete tokens of equations or words or thoughts picking out that model. And even the Mona Lisa can be thought of both as the piece of poplar with oils on it, or as the abstract image that the former instantiates. I conjecture that the ordinary language of science is to speak of proposing a model, and the ordinary language of art is to speak of creating an artwork, only because the canonical sort of art object is a painting like the Mona Lisa and the canonical sort of scientific model is an abstract one like the SHO. If there were more concrete models like W&C’s  DNA we might be more used to talking about creating scientific models, and we might have had a paradox of standards in philosophy of science. If we placed as much value on Beethoven’s original hand-written scores as we do on Da Vinci’s wood and oil, we would probably never have had a paradox of standards in aesthetics.

In sum, there is no special metaphysical puzzle about abstract art objects.   In lots of realms of discourse we use language that equivocates between an abstract entity and the physical bits of stuff that pick it out:  models, sentences, plans, promises, and art objects. All of these come in type/token, abstract/concrete diads. And while there may be various reasons to raise philosophical puzzles about the existence of abstract objects, there are no special puzzles of this sort in aesthetics. (Or so I claim!). Now, of course, there are lots of principled reasons why many philosophers (sometimes including myself!) are skeptical about the existence of abstract entities. So there might be reason to develop a framework where talk of abstracta can be eliminated. But none of those, I would argue, are special to art or aesthetics. The value and legitimacy of talking about art abtracta in aesthetics rises and falls with the value and legitimacy of talking about sentence meanings in philosophy of language and abstract models in the philosophy of science.

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