By Jon Cogburn
In his wonderful textbook, Philosophies of Art: A Contemporary Introduction, and canonical book on the aesthetics of horror, The Philosophy of Horror: or, Paradoxes of the Heart, one finds Noël Carroll over and over again making an argument that goes like this.
- Preliminary - Present in the most charitable possible manner a putative theory of X as Y, for example art as (alternatively) expression, representation, form, or that which gives rise to aesthetic experience.
- First step - Show that to the extent the theory on offer provides sufficient conditions for X, it fails to provide necessary conditions for X. That is, describe some xs that are clearly not instances of Y.
- Second step - Argue that at best theories of X as Y articulate good-making features of Xs, but that such theories are not theories of X because what we want are classificatory theories that give necessary and sufficient conditions, not commendatory theories that articulate good-making features.
Two paragraphs of his discussion of H.P. Lovecraft's theory of horror compress the two-step (albeit in reversed order) in a particularly elegant fashion:
Earlier it was noted that Lovecraft not only locates what is positively compelling in the genre in virtue of provoking cosmic fear; he also takes cosmic fear to be definitory of the genre of supernatural horror. In other words, he both classifies and commends works of horror by means of the same standard. Thus any candidate for the class of supernatural horor will not be included in that class if it fails to perform the commendable service of engendering cosmic fear.
But surely there are many horror stories that fall short of raising cosmic fear - a felling that is bound up with a world view and that borders on a religious experience. Indeed, many horror stories seem oblivious to the grand (philosophical?) project of engendering cosmic awe. Perusing my bookshelf, I come upon Crabs on the Rampage by Guy N. Smith (author of The Origin of the Crabs, Crabs' Moon and so on). It is, I submit, undeniably an example of horror, but it neither evokes cosmic fear nor awe. The crabs themselves provoke what we call art-horror, but art-horror need not be the emotional confirmation of one world view (one that is coeval with relgion) nor the denial of another (that of materialistic sophistication) (Carroll 1990, 164)
In the same chapter Carroll makes this kind of argument also against Freudian and Marxist theories of horror.
One response would be to respond to Carroll that in light of the failure of analysis the best we can come up with are commendatory theories. This is an attractive view, because it retrospectively makes sense of what analysis is good for. Presenting and debating commendatory theories as if they were classificatory gives us insight into the properties that ground our use of important terms like "art," even if we can't define those terms. The insight primarily concerns how the objects in consideration succeed or fail at instantiating the predicate. In the art textbook, Carroll comes close to hitting on this in his discussion of "Wittgensteinian" theories of art of the sort we associate with Morris Weitz.
I think something stronger can be said though. Let's say that a condition Y is genetically necessary for an X practice if, and only if, instances of X that do not instantiate Y would not be instances of X if no X's were Y. The intuition I'm trying to articulate here is that non-Y X's are in a sense parasitic on X's that are Y. Consider non-representational painting. Assume that Danto's ingenious interpretations of them in terms of representational content fails. It is still the case that they only make sense as paintings if we group them together in a category that includes canonical representational paintings. One could, and should, make similar claims about our best theories of form, expression, and aesthetic experience (and Carroll's book is brilliant at articulating these).
Art is a particularly good example of this. As I argued in THIS POST, modernism can be fruitfully typified by artistic awareness of criticism. This leads to canonical responses where artists self consciously either flout the conditions upheld by the critique or passive aggressively follow them, albeit in ways unintended by the critic. It is no accident that the best counterexamples in Carroll's books are either hyper-modernist (there is no difference between postmodernism and modernism on my account) or bad art. On the latter, bad art couldn't exist (at least qua art) without good art, because it is an attempt to instantiate good art. On the former, the manner in which canonical modern works themselves engage with and in criticis always to some extent makes them a commentary on previous works. If none of the previous works had the goodmaking features articulated by the theories that Carroll criticizes, the practice also couldn't exist.
I would be very interested if understanding classical analysis as specifying genetically necessary conditions makes sense of S knows that P type epistemology. As a good (as opposed to bad) Heideggerian I think that propositional knowledge is parasitic on non-linguistic behavioral sensitivity to modal (alethic and deontic) reality. This is analogous with what's going on in modern art with respect to form, expression, representation, and experience. But most epistemology concerns propositional knowledge itself, so the proper analogue might be with respect to theories of modernism. But most such theories are not going to see modern art as intrinsically parasitical in the way I do. So I'm not sure this would help. Still, it would be interesting if one could argue that various inconsistent epistemological theories are providing genetically necessary conditions for knowledge, which itself is unanalyzable in the sense suggested by Plato at the beginning of Western Philosophy.