Repeatable artworks like musical works have presented theorists in the ontology of art with a puzzle. They seem in some respects like eternal, immutable objects and in others like created, historical objects. Creationists have embraced the latter appearances and attempted to compel Platonists to follow them. I examine in detail each argument in a cumulative case for Creationism, showing how the Platonist can respond. The conclusion is that the debate between Platonists and Creationists is a stalemate. In order for progress to be made in the first-order debate, second-order progress on the metaontology of art needs to come first.
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I cast this discussion as about the ontology of musical works here, but I take everything I say in what follows to be applicable to other kinds of repeatable artworks as well, things like photographs, novels, or video games as well as musical works. Much of the relevant literature has tended to be about musical works, for whatever reason, and it is easier on the verbiage to focus the case on one art kind.
There’s an obvious way we sometimes use the term “object” on which anything that exists is an object. Everything that’s anything is a thing, so to speak. But sometimes we use the term “object” to distinguish a more limited class of things in our ontology in order to contrast them with things that lack a certain particularity or thisness. When I say Creationists hold that stories are objects, I use the term “object” in this second way. Creationists typically hold that stories are particular things, not properties, events, states of affairs, norms, or other things we might think of as non-objects when drawing the sort of contrast just mentioned. See Rettler and Bailey (2017) for more discussion on the category of object and more ways of drawing object/non-object distinctions.
When I speak of works being created by composers here, I mean to use ‘composer’ in the broadest possible sense to include anyone who makes up a musical work, so that folk and pop songs count as having composers too (even if they’re co-written by cultural groups, or by collections of writers, artists, and producers). I’ll stipulate here that in order to create something, one must act in such a way as to directly bring that thing into being, and not merely as a logical or ontological consequence of something else one brings into being. I want to rule out this kind of case: Lucy directly brings into being a statue of a ladybug, and as a consequence there comes to be the singleton set of the the ladybug statue. Lucy created the ladybug statue, but she didn’t create the singleton of the ladybug statue. I don’t want to rule out the possibility of unintended creation, however. It isn’t necessary that one intend to bring an object into existence to create that object, but objects that merely follow logically or ontologically (rather than etiologically or in some other more substantive way) from one’s actions won’t count as being created.
The Creationist holds that when a composer composes a musical work, they thereby create some new object, and that object is the musical work. There are varying possible species of Creationism. Some Creationists like Levinson (1990), Evnine (2016) and Friedell (2018) take musical works to be abstract. There are differences amongst their views about the complexity of the works. Other Creationists, like Caplan and Matheson (2006, 2008) take musical works to be concrete.
I’ll say that to discover some object o is to become acquainted with o when (1) one was not acquainted with o at any prior time, (2) o’s existence predates one’s acquaintance with o, and (3) one’s acquaintance with o is not causally explained by the fact that anyone else is acquainted with o.
This is, of course, a stipulative definition of ‘Platonism’, one that contrasts with, for example, Kania (2017, Sect. 2.1), who defines Platonism as “the view that musical works are abstract objects,” and contrasts Simple Platonism (“works are eternal existents, existing in neither space nor time”) with Complex Platonism (“musical works come to exist in time as the result of human action”). While on my definitional schema, Levinson comes out as a Discoverist but not a Platonist, on Kania’s, Levinson comes out as a Complex Platonist, not a Simple Platonist. These are clearly merely terminological differences, but it’s important to be clear on them. This importance comes to light, for example, when we notice that Kania claims that Platonism “respects more of our pre-theoretic intuitions about musical works than any of the other theories.” Kania (2017, 2.1) This claim may seem to be especially germane to the topic at hand, but since Kania’s notion of Platonism doesn’t rule out Creationism, the relevant contrast class of theories doesn’t include all and only the Creationist theories. His point seems to be that identifying musical works with abstracta respects more of our pre-theoretic intuitions. It’s not clear exactly why Kania makes this claim in absence of a discussion of what kind of abstracta (e.g. created or eternal) he has in mind, though. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for helping me to identify the differences between my discussion and Kania’s and to relate my terminology to Kania’s.
It’s worth noting that Creationism and Platonism aren’t the only possible views to hold in this neighborhood. They are complex ontological theses that hold contradictory answers to questions about what musical works are and what composers are doing. However, they are natural views to hold and the most popular views represented in the literature, so they are the only views I discuss here.
Rohrbaugh himself doesn’t press the point about creation. He’s interested in arguing for the thesis that certain artworks are historical individuals, particular objects that come into existence at a point in time, depend for their existence on other objects or events, and can cease to exist. It’s easy to see how his argument can be extended to the case for Creationism, however, and the idea that musical works are historical in Rohrbaugh’s sense is still inconsistent with Platonism about musical works. For an extension of Rohrbaugh’s thesis about artworks as historical individuals, see Magnus (2012).
By asserting that eternal objects don’t come into existence, all I mean to rule out is that they have a beginning. I take it that both temporal and eternal objects exist in time, but eternal objects exist at every time while temporal objects do not (having a beginning and possibly an ending).
This view of musical works is endorsed by (at least) Wolterstorff (1980, 88). In discussing temporal flexibility, Dodd (2007, 91) agrees that the type/token version of Platonism “has no choice but to say that Bruckner’s [unfinished] Ninth Symphony could not have differed with respect to its intrinsic properties: had he done what we would describe as ‘completing the work’, he would, in fact, have composed a work distinct from the work that exists actually.” It seems that Dodd’s view is like the view described, then, at least insofar as Dodd denies the temporality of musical works. However, it’s not clear from this passage whether Dodd feels compelled to say (like Wolterstorff) that musical work is a phase sortal.
This argument is very similar to the main argument of Hazlett (2012). He gives a condensed version as follows,
if there are repeatable artworks, they are abstract objects; no abstract object has any accidental intrinsic properties; would-be repeatable artworks have at least one accidental intrinsic property; therefore, there are no repeatable artworks. (Hazlett 2012, 162)
For a more recent and more circumspect discussion of the role of historical origins in the individuation of a musical work, see Moore (2012).
One might think the Platonist has the upper hand after all, however, since for multiple features they appear to have better explanations than Creationism. For example, it’s quite plausible that the Platonist turns out to be in the best situation to account for both the repeatability and temporal flexibility of musical works. Unfortunately, litigating the fine details of this comparison would be time-consuming and likely fruitless. I won’t pursue that project here.
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Thanks to Timothy Juvshik, David Friedell, Phillip Bricker, Amie Thomasson, Ned Markosian and to two anonymous reviewers from this journal for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.
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Grafton-Cardwell, P. Debugging the case for creationism. Philos Stud 177, 3509–3527 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-019-01380-3