Jean-Paul RIOPELLE, L'hommage à Rosa Luxemburg, 1992 (détail) [ * ]

Radical Changes in Aesthetics


The changes that are currently taking place principally in the theory of art and the theory of interpretation and criticism reflect a deeper change in the arts themselves and, even more broadly, a change in philosophy and science in general. I should say that they were marked by the following features:

  1. a preference for ontologies of flux over ontologies of invariance;
  2. the replacement of assuredly rigorous methodologies by open-ended critical and explanatory practices opposed to a priori constraints on relevance and validity;
  3. the denial that we can legitimate any form of objectivity or epistemic neutrality suited to the sciences or critical disciplines that is not an artifact of our habitual practices or that claims cognitive access to an order of reality not itself constituted in accord with the categories of human understanding;
  4. the admission that human selves--human agents, human cognizers--are themselves emergent and similarly constituted by the enabling processes of history and enculturation;
  5. the further admission that human thinking is profoundly historicized, formed under the conditions of changing history and subject, through its own exercise, to further variable and divergent transformation; and
  6. the recognition that a bivalent logic is not likely to be best placed to service the rigor and objectivity of truth-claims in accord with (i) - (v) and that it must be replaced or supplemented by some accommodation of relativism.

These are very strenuous changes--in effect, reversals of the organizing themes of the principal canonical practices in interpretive criticism, the explanatory work of the sciences, normative moral judgment, and similarly large forms of inquiry.

The changes I've mentioned are not, of course, simply victorious replacements for the presuppositions of past canons. It is nevertheless startling to grasp the extent to which the strong practices of the past--along the lines of empiricism and the unity of science, Francophone structuralism, Husserlian phenomenology, romantic hermeneutics, in particular: in effect, strong forms of objectivism, despite demurrers--have had to yield ground to the upstart concessions collected under (i) - (v). It is probably true that conservative convictions will react against the perceived threat of unrestricted license that that tally seems to promise. But there can be little doubt that pretensions of neutrality, resistance to historicity, apodictic certainties, the reliability of modal invariences, confidence in a legible and independent world are now no longer unquestionably dominant--and can no longer expect to recover the sense of unchallenged fixity that prevailed through a good part of the first half of the twentieth century. Small wonder, therefore, that theories of art, critical interpretation, and cultural history should, within the usual span of philosophical aesthetics, accord more and more compliantly with conceptual changes that are now fairly strongly entrenched in the most admired sciences.

These changes signify an impending transformation in our conceptual bearings for the beginning of the next millennium. It is too early to tell how shallow or how radical these will be. They constitute what is probably a permanent breach in the confident expectations of the dominant philosophies of the first half of the century, but they also cannot expect to drive out altogether the theorizing tendencies that have flourished in the name of epistemic neutrality, the invariance of an independent world, the relatively constant forms of rationality and methodological rigor. On the one hand, theorists are attracted to the prospects of an open-ended, relatively informal sense of rigor and stability that may be possible under the altered conditions mentioned; on the other hand, many commentators now recommend scuttling all forms of metaphysics, epistemology, and the like.

If we dub the older canon modernism, meaning by that the presumption of an accessible form of neutrality and objectivity in one or another domain or all domains of established inquiry or the convergence between our historicized inquiries and the regulative requirements of such a stance, then modernism is well on its way to being replaced and the contest that now occupies us ( and probably will even more pointedly in the next century) pits postmodernism and historicism against one another. By postmodernism (philosophically speaking, not "architecturally" or in similar ways) is meant the repudiation of second-order inquiries (concerned with the nature of truth and reality and methodology and the like) and the presumption that first-order inquiry can proceed successfully without such encumbrances. By historicism (the new historicism" as it may be called, to distinguish it from the "new history" of the Annalistes and their successors) is meant the recovery of second-order inquiry under the general condition of admitting the historicity of thinking. Postmodernism, usually associated with the views of Richard Rorty and (more narrowly) the pronouncements of Jean-François Lyotard (in The Postmodern Condition), is both incoherent and conceptually irresponsible: its incoherence lies with the fact that first-order inquiries (say, truth claims in science and interpretation) implicate, as such, second-order theories about the nature of reality and knowledge. Postmodernism is correct (but rather belated) in repudiating transcendentalism, cognitive privilege, certain neutrality; but it arbitrarily replaces the need for a reflexive critique with one or another labile form of ethnocentric loyalty. Historicism (in the sense intended) is not a term in general currency, but its general project is the recovery of the successors of the classical or canonical philosophical questions under the terms of historicity. It would not be wrong to see in this the converging benefits of pragmatism (in the American sense) and poststructuralism (in the French). In any case, the familiar objectivist views in criticism and interpretation and history--the forms of modernism --associated with the work of such theorists as Monroe Beardsley, E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Roman Ingarden, Roman Jakobson, Michael Riffaterre, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Fernand Braudel, Arthur Danto, Jürgen Habermas, Paul Ricoeur, are pretty well on their way out. Experiments with the possibilities of rigor under "historicist" or "pragmatist" or "poststructuralist" inspiration look back to the work of such commentators as Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Harold Bloom, Stanley Fish, Stephen Greenblatt, Christopher Norris--though not with any assurance of recovering second-order inquiries.

There you have the agon: the prospects pro and con regarding the reconstitution of a sense or rigor and objectivity under the conditions of historicity. One of the most strategic quarrels of this changing scene concerns the viability of relativism, its reconciliation with a bivalent logic, the compatibility of relativism and realism, and the reconstituted relationship between logic and rhetoric. Generally speaking, the new historicism is opposed to both the Aristotelian and Kantian traditions. It is attracted to the executive themes in Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Dewey, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, the Frankfurt Critical school, Gadamer, except that (as is well known) nearly all of these theorists yield somewhere in the direction of invariance, modal necessity, teleologism, totalizing, and the like. Seen in these terms, the problems for aesthetics, the philosophy of art, the theory of criticism and interpretation and cultural history center on the prospects of recovering a sense of objectivity and rigor compatible with the disciplined informality that appears to be coming into its own.

The forgoing summary regarding the arts corresponds to a fuller account offered in Joseph Margolis, Interpretation Radical But Not Unruly: The New Puzzle of the Arts and History (University of California Press, 1995). The general argument for the whole of Western philosophy is offered in Joseph Margolis, Historied Thought, Constructed World: Conceptual Primer at the Turn of the Millennium (University of California Press, 1995).

Joseph Margolis
Temple University
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19122

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