Tales of the ineffable: crafting concepts in aesthetic experience
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- Tolliver, J.T. Philos Stud (2012) 161: 153. doi:10.1007/s11098-012-9944-1
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Lehrer has argued that in having an aesthetic experience of an art work we come to have ineffable knowledge of what the art object is like. This knowledge is made possible by our ability to conceptualize the art object by means of a process Lehrer calls, “exemplarization”, that involves using an experience to craft a general representation of that very experience. I suggest that exemplar concepts function as vehicles of ineffable representation only if they have two features: (i) they are directly referential concepts; and (ii) they are what I call, “lucid concepts.”
The key elements here are:
It is important at this point to relate the understanding of the exemplarized sign to our knowledge of art. We noted at the outset that the content of a painting incorporates the exemplarized particular into a conception of the content of the painting. The particular, the exemplar, is a sensory experience that plays a functional role in the conception of the content so that we know what the content of the painting is like. Take, for example, a picture of the House of Seven Gables. One needs to experience the painting in order to know what the content of the painting is like. Of course, one knows something about the content of the painting from the description, and, if the description were more complete, one might be able to distinguish the painting from other paintings, especially those with a different subject matter altogether. Yet without seeing the painting, there is something one would not know about what the painting is like and, therefore, about what the content of the painting is like. Observing the painting results in exemplarizing the sensory experience so that we know something new about what the content is like. We know something new about the content of the painting, about the House of Seven Gables in the painting, in the same way that Mary knows something new about the color red when she observes the color red and knows what it is like when she experiences red. The exemplarization of the sensory experience of the painting yields knowledge of what the painting is like by enhancing the conception of the painting we might obtain from a description of the painting, no matter how complete. The person who sees the painting adds a sensory conception of the content, obtained from exemplarizing the particular, to the descriptive content of the painting and thereby obtains an enriched or enhanced conception of that content. In this case, the conception of a house is enhanced by a sensory concept to yield a new conception of the content of the painting, including knowledge of what it is like (Lehrer 2006, p. 8).
In having an experience of an art object we can come to have a special conception of it by means of the process of exemplarization;
It is sufficient to have an aesthetic experience of an art object that we exemplarize our experience of it;
In having an aesthetic experience of an art object we come to know something about what the art object is like;
The knowledge of an art object acquired in aesthetic experience of it goes beyond what could be acquired from even the most complete description of that object; it is ineffable knowledge.
What follows is, in the main, a discussion of (4) above. I will argue that (4) is plausible only on the assumption of two independent theses: (i) Exemplars are directly referential concepts; and (ii) Exemplars are what I call, “lucid concepts”.
2 What are exemplars?
Exemplarizing an experience of an art object results in a conception of the object, a conception that makes possible enhanced knowledge of the object. “Let us begin with the simple reflection that the direction of attention to some sensory exemplar, of a color, of blue, as we view Monochrome Blue by Yves Klein, a homogeneously colored vertical rectangular canvass at MOMA in San Francisco, is sufficient for us to know what the sensory exemplar is like” (Lehrer 2011, pp. 4–5). Following suggestions found in Hume, Reid, and Goodman, Lehrer offers that in exemplarization, “(…) we may take the conscious sensory experience, a particular blue experience, for example, as an exemplar that we use to stand for and refer to a plurality of objects” (Lehrer 2011, p. 6). Let’s call such a conception of a thing an “exemplar concept” of the object.1
If S exemplarizes an experience e, then S forms a conception C that applies to all and only experiences like e.
If S exemplarizes an experience e, then S uses e as a general representation that applies to all and only experiences that are like e.
If S has an experience e and S exemplarizes e, then S uses e as a general representation of what e is like.
If S has an experience e of type F and S exemplarizes e, then S uses e as a general representation of what it is like for e itself to be F.
If S has an experience e of type F and S exemplarizes e, then S uses e as a general representation of what it is like for an experience to be F.
(2a) differs from (2b) and (2c) in making no explicit reference to any property that e has or any predicate that is true of it. (2b) and (2c) are alike in specifying that exemplar concepts represent their constituent experiences as F. (2b) differs from (2c) in requiring that exemplar concepts include a singular representation of that experience, while (2c) implies only a general representation of the experiences that are F. While (2b) will figure prominently in the discussion to follow, I find no reason to choose between (2a–2c) as ways of rendering (2) more precise or specific, so I will presuppose a correspondingly broad understanding of exemplarization.
If S has an experience e and S exemplarizes e, then S has complete knowledge of what e is like.
If S has an experience e of type F and S exemplarizes e, then S has complete knowledge of what it is like for e itself to be F.
If S has an experience e of type F and S exemplarizes e, then S has complete knowledge of what it is like for an experience to be F.
As before, I think that we should understand the knowledge revealed by means of exemplarized experience rather broadly.
How does attention directed towards the experience of an art object, achieved by means of the exemplar concept of it, give us knowledge of the art object itself? In the first instance, the exemplar concept is a conception of an experience. The exemplar concept of an art object is a conception of the content of the experience of that art object. Since the experience of the blue painting is a representation of the fact that the painting is blue, the exemplar concept is a conception of a representation of the painting as blue. The experience represents the painting as blue just so—in an ever so particular way. In conceiving of the content of the experience, the exemplar concept is a conception of just that way of representing the painting as blue. Is the exemplar concept true of the experience? Is it an accurate representation of the subject’s way of experiencing the painting? Yes, says Lehrer. “The exemplar used as a term of reference is true of things to which it refers, as a predicate is true of the things to which it refers” (Lehrer 2011, p. 9). So, the exemplar concept is true of the exemplarized experience.
Of course an experience of the painting as blue need not be veridical, and one would have thought that the exemplar concept would not be true of the painting if the experience whose content it represents were not veridical. Yet while the painting may not be blue, the exemplarized experience might be responsible for its looking blue. Since the exemplar concept is true of the experience, our awareness of the content of the exemplar concept is a means for being aware of just that special way the painting looks to the subject of the experience. If we are suitably broad in our understanding of “looks” here, i.e., if we include not just how the paint is visually represented, but how the experience is a vehicle for emotional, intellectual, and evaluative response to the painting, then we might say that the experience is responsible for what the painting is like for the subject. So, since the exemplar concept is an accurate representation of the exemplarized experience, of what it is like, it can provide awareness of, and knowledge of, what the painting is like for the subject of the experience. Of course not every take one might have on the painting by attending to the content of one’s exemplar concept of it will be correct. One might, for example, think that all of Yves Klein’s paintings look just like this one.
3 Ineffable knowing
What can we say about the ineffable? The conceptual primitives of a theory have a kind of ineffability, at least within the theory. For example, in a modal logic the box can be a primitive undefined expression in the natural deduction scheme into which it is introduced. Normally, the box will be introduced by a metalinguistic expression that serves to display an instance: \( \square \). Introduced primitives have two features relevant to understanding ineffability: (i) They are introduced by exhibit; (ii) No collection of other elements of the theory has the same meaning or function (save by stipulated definitional equivalence for purposes of simplification). From the standpoint of the object language, the box is rather ineffable.
Consider another example: the relationship between a particular and a universal in a Russellian atomic fact. Facts are primitives of the Russellian system of Logical Atomism (Russell 1918). While an atomic fact has one or more particulars plus a property or relation as constituents, the fact is not a construct out of these things. A construction requires a constructing relation, so if facts are constructed out of particulars and universals then each fact must include a relation on its constituent particulars and universals that serves to unite them in the fact. Introducing such a constructing relation brings trouble, for we now need some theory of how the constructing relation is related to its relata. Better to take the union of particulars and universals in facts as a primitive, which is equivalent to introducing facts as a primitive of the ontology of Logical Atomism. So, within the theory, the relationship between particulars and universals remains an impenetrable mystery. These examples exhibit two features of the ineffable: (i) Something meaningful is introduced as a new subject matter of thought or talk by exhibition or display; (ii) If the introducing mechanism succeeds in giving the displayed individual the meaning or function intended, then, for anyone who understands the introducing mechanism, there is knowledge of what the introduced item means or does.
If some thing x is exhibited to subject of experience S, then S is in a position to exemplarize x.
If we plug into (4) our prior understanding of exemplarization, we can understand the exhibition of particulars as placing a subject in the position to use an exhibited particular as a general representation of a class of particulars that connotes itself, i.e., says that it itself is a member of the class it represents. Given the role Lehrer assigns to exemplarization as the fundamental means for coming to know what something is like, exhibition becomes the fundamental means by which such knowledge acquires its content.
The explanation here is based on a comparison between the knowledge that one has of a thing if one has had an experience of it and the knowledge acquired by Mary in the famous example deployed in the Knowledge Argument against materialism. We saw another statement of the same explanation in the quote at the beginning of this essay. “We know something new about the content of the painting, about the House of Seven Gables in the painting, in the same way that Mary knows something new about the color red when she observes the color red and knows what it is like when she experiences red.” Just as Mary acquires new knowledge about the color red when released from her monochromatic room and experiences that color for the first time, so seeing House of Seven Gables for the first time brings with it new knowledge of the painting. Exemplarization has this power to reveal new knowledge to Mary because it exhibits or displays an instance of the content of her conception of her experience. The exhibition conveys knowledge that could not be represented before, but not because her materialist theory is false, i.e., fails to represent or misrepresents some property of her mental life, rather Lehrer’s suggestion seems to be that some things cannot be represented in a way that fully conveys what they are like until they are experienced.
The question is—how does experience add to her knowledge? The answer is by using the new sensory experiences to represent what is contained in the experience. That way of conceiving or representing her experience is not available until she has the experience. She cannot exemplarize an experience she does not have (Lehrer 2011, p. 8).
It is important to note at this point that Lehrer’s response to the Knowledge Argument is importantly different than the phenomenal concept strategy adopted by many B-Type materialists. Those materialists accept the existence of an explanatory gap between descriptive resources of Mary’s physical/functional theory of her mind and the knowledge she acquires when she sees red for the first time, but they explain that explanatory gap as just old wine in new bottles. Mary acquires a new concept of what it is like to experience red, a phenomenal concept of this experience. This concept expresses the same property as some part of Mary’s prior theory, but expresses it in a new way. Some call it a new “mode of presentation” of the same reducing property expressed in her prior physical/functional theory. The position expressed above is different. Mary’s theory contains no representation of what her experience of red is like, at least none that represents it in its full particularity, none that represents it just so. Her experience is a physical/functional state, but no description can represent that state just so. So, Mary’s prior theory is not so much false as incomplete, and necessarily so, for no descriptive theory, materialist nor immaterialist, will do.
Why cannot a verbal description give us the same conception? What role does the exemplarized exemplar play in conception and representation that explains why the knowledge of what the experience is like is in some way ineffable? The answer is ready in the role of the exemplar in exemplarized conception or representation. The exemplar represents what the experience is like by exhibiting what it is like. The word “blue” cannot exhibit to us what the experience of blue is like in the way that experience exhibits what the experience is like. The role of referring to an experience by exhibiting what the experience is like makes the experience part of the concept or representation that cannot be filled by a word. A word might refer to the same objects but it cannot refer to them by showing us what they are like (Lehrer 2011, pp. 7–8).
4 Exhibition and direct reference
An exemplar concept’s intentional relation to its objects, i.e., itself and other experiences, is not mediated by any conceptualization of the mode or manner of similarity between this experience and any other experience to which it applies. No theory, description, sense, or cluster of notions need play a role in mediating the reference of the exemplar concept. Lehrer claims that our cognitive architecture normally includes an ability to conceptualize an experience as of a sort on the basis of an exhibition of an experience of just that sort. Here Lehrer is contrasting his account of exemplarization with Goodman’s related account of exemplification:
This claim concerning representation by exemplarization rests on an ability that I conjecture is innate. The innateness of it may help to explain how we obtain knowledge of what colors are like from the sensory experience of them by explaining why we generalize in the way that we do. We are constructed in such a way that we generalize from sensory experiences in a specific way without tutelage. This sort of generalization enables us to re-identify what we experience and recognize repeated instances of the sensory experience. (Lehrer 2006, p. 5).
Like proper names on a direct reference account, exemplars are symbols that connote nothing about their referents beyond what is on display in the experience. An exemplar concept is a conception of the distinctive content of a particular experience. It is a representation of the intentionality of the experience just so. This representation of the experience just so is accomplished by using the experience to form a concept of every experience relevantly similar to this experience, the experience thus exemplarized. Since everything is relevantly similar to itself, the exemplar concept applies to the exemplarized experience. The subject needs no prior notion of what the exemplarized experience is like to become aware of what it is like by means of the exemplar concept of that experience. The subject needs no access to any other conception of the relevant respects of similarity and difference that this experience bears to other experiences beyond what is made available by his awareness of the content of the exemplar concept. By means of an exemplar concept a person can conceive of the particular blueness of a blue painting, International Klein Blue for example, even though the person may have no prior concepts of what properties make this blue similar to and different from other shades of blue or other colors generally.
In Goodman’s account, the conceptualization incorporates a predicate. The particular is an instance of the predicate and exemplifies the property designated by the predicate. I am suggesting that the reference to a predicate or, for that matter, a property, which may occur, is not essential to the conceptualization of the particular. The individual quality experienced, I propose, becomes a vehicle of representation without reference to a predicate or even a property. The exemplar of experience becomes referential in exemplarization, and it refers to experiences. It is an experience that is exemplarized and, thus, used to refer to a plurality of experiences which it stands for (Lehrer 2011, p. 8).
Descriptions are not directly referential. Since the conceptual constituents of descriptions do not exhibit their referents (unless the description is built from exemplar concepts), they must, along with logical form and context, determine properties that make up a satisfaction condition that any referent of the description must fulfill. Reference is mediated by this satisfaction condition. Exemplar concepts are directly referring. In being directly referring, exemplar concepts display the first characteristic of the ineffable: they are introduced as new subject matter (and vehicle) of thought or talk by mechanisms that exhibit them.
5 The guarantee of truth and the lucidity requirement
Every token of the same type of exemplar concept must incorporate the same experience (or more precisely, must incorporate an exact duplicate of the ur-experience from which the exemplar concept was formed). Consider then an experience of a patch of red. It is unique red: neither yellowish nor bluish, call it ur. An exemplarization of that experience, call it E(ur), is a conceptualization of that color and of the features that make it different from every other color, i.e., it is a conceptualization of being red and of being neither yellowish nor bluish. Consider an experience of a patch of red, call it yr, that is slightly yellowish. The exemplar concept of ur, E(ur), does not apply to yr. E(ur) is not true of yr. What prevents an application of E(ur) to an experience of a yellowish patch of red? The subject, call him S, has an exemplar concept that includes a duplicate of ur. (This is necessary for a deployment of a concept in S to count as a deployment of an exemplar concept of ur.) This concept, a token of E(ur), has an application condition that excludes yr, an application condition that is on display during any genuine consideration of whether E(ur) applies to a given experience. The reason yr fails to meet that application condition is likewise on display during any genuine consideration of the application of E(ur), because yr is on display. Yet S might fail to notice the presence of the relevant element of ur that contributes to the content determining properties of E(ur) and thus fail to notice the failure of the relevant application condition of E(ur) to apply to yr. Likewise, while noticing the relevant properties of ur, he may fail to notice the reason that yr fails to meet E(ur)’s application condition. Why then is not a falsidical application of E(ur) possible? What guarantees the loop of truth?
The exemplar used as a term of reference is true of things to which it refers, as a predicate is true of the things to which it refers. Since it refers to itself in being used to show us what it refers to, it is true of itself. The loop of reference of the exemplar back onto itself is at the same time a truth loop. That may explain how we know what the experience is like when we experience what it is like. We know what it is like by exemplarizing it. We use it to refer to a plurality of particulars as an exhibit of what they are like in distinction from others. As an exhibit of what the plurality is like, it is at the same time an instance of that plurality. As a referring exemplar, it has instances and instantiates itself. Showing us what the instances are like, it shows us what it is like as one of the instances. As it is like itself in the most direct way, exemplarization yields conception and knowledge of what the exemplar is like in a loop of truth (Lehrer 2011, p. 9).
Features of an experience that S fails to notice cannot be part of the application conditions for an exemplar concept that includes that experience, i.e., the application conditions for an exemplar concept cannot outstrip a user’s ability to exemplarize them; or.
Disqualifying features of a target that S fails to notice are irrelevant to the applicability of an exemplar concept to that target, i.e., yr falls under S’s unique red exemplar concept even though it is not unique red.
The second alternative is death to exemplar concept theory. Exemplar concepts should meet a condition of token-indifference: an exemplar concept formed from any experience in the compliance class of an exemplar concept should be synonymous with any other, in the strongest possible sense of synonymy. Alternative (ii) above rules out the possibility of token-indifference for an exemplar concept and its compliance class. Therefore, exemplar concept theory must embrace the first alternative. I submit that the conditions required for reliable application of exemplar concepts to experiences in general are also what enable the reliable application of exemplar concepts to their constituent experiences.
Let’s call the principle contained in the first alternative above The Principle of Introspective Lucidity for Concepts: the application conditions for an exemplar concept cannot outstrip a user’s ability to exemplarize them. Let’s call any concept whose application conditions conform to Introspective Lucidity a Lucid Concept.
Exemplar concepts must be lucid concepts. This is necessary to explain the epistemic characteristics of application of exemplar concepts to the exemplarized experiences that are their representational vehicle. Exemplar concepts are directly referring concepts. This is necessary to explain the role of exhibition in grasping their meaning. The combination of being directly referring and lucid explains the ineffability of knowledge conveyed by means of exemplar concepts. Mary’s physical/functional theory of what it is like to experience red cannot convey, prior to her experience of red, what she comes to know by means of her exemplar concept of red. No predicate in her physical/functional theory is either directly referring, or lucid. Therefore, no predicate in her physical/functional theory can have the same content as her exemplar concept of her experience of red. Since, if materialism true, her experience is some material state, there is some physical/functional property that both her prior scientific description of her state and her exemplar concept express. But her physical/functional description of her experience of red cannot capture all that is true of her experience. Mary’s experience is the subject matter of the true, but ineffable, content of Mary’s exemplar conception of her experience of red. Likewise, a member of the audience to Yves Klein’s Monochromatic Blue learns something about the painting by means of their viewing it that is not mediated by any prior concept of International Klein Blue and cannot be conveyed by any description of the paint no matter how detailed and accurate. The thesis of the ineffability of what-it’s-likeness and art objects is as plausible, no more—no less, as the combined theses of directly referential exemplar concepts and the lucidity of exemplar concepts.
Professor Lehrer does not make use of this form of words himself. His standard term for the product of exemplarization is “exemplar”.