The difference and similarity between Philosophers and Artists

I think quite often most folks are interested in a self-perception of being this and not being that. (“Dammit, Jim! I’m a doctor, not a bricklayer!”). We hand out degrees and certifications to draw the line. We have baptisms and rites of passage. We have Black Belts of carpentry and Fifth Degree potato harvesters. We are supporters of the team in red. We follow Lebron Wittgenstein on twitter. We vote for the Chartreuse Party. We are members of the Sisterhood of Purple Flowers. We read cyberzombie nonfiction. We grew up in tight-knit neighborhoods. Our parents taught us to speak Klingon. We are believers in the Church of Coltraine…..

Identity is simply one of those things that are important to most if not all humans. Not infants. Small children, perhaps. Adults definitely…. And the simple truth is we are what we do. Even if we have to fake it till we make it…..

Me? I’m not a Philosopher, but I often play one on TV, er,… this blog (I think I’m entitled to deny it despite 3 years of graduate study and the taint of a close brush with a PhD). Sometimes I am an artist. At least, quite often my students and my customers think I am. So perhaps I’m in a position to notice certain similarities between Philosophers and Artists, or how they fit together, chocolate and peanut butter. Maybe the comparison will be illuminating, like bringing a match to some tinder. And maybe the differences will also be instructive, like noticing the distinction between an ice cream cone and a lump of clay…..

What motivates Philosophers? They want to know things. They want their grubby mental fingers on the truth. And the way they seem to get to it usually involves some grand notion of the larger truth that they then need to fit all the smaller pieces into. They’ve got their eyes on the big picture, the big questions, and they test it out by moving from the universal to the particular. “What is Time?” not “What time is it?”….. (Wittgenstein help me please!)

Artists also want to know things. But it usually happens in much the opposite way for them. They KNOW a bit about the truth. Truth is beauty, and they know this one example of beauty above all other things that can be known. They have their eyes on something particular, a way of expressing an idea, or a sensitivity, or some specific insight into what it means to be beautiful. And from this small knowledge they become its greatest advocates. They trumpet “THIS is what beauty looks like”, and they search for every corner of the world where it applies. They move outward from this small truth to find how widely it holds up. “Wood firing? Ceramic vessels: Check! But perhaps not painted canvas or wood furniture….” Artists hold their truth in front of them and brandish it at the world. They follow it into the nooks and crannies to see where it will lead them. They try to move from the particular to the universal.

And its not that one way of doing things is necessarily right and the other wrong. Both teach us things. And both can be misused. The world turns out to hold a place for true general things and true particulars. But we can also overgeneralize and we can be wrongly dismissive of real variation and diversity. The world seems bent on contradicting our most cherished beliefs and spoiling our simple truths….

Our imagination works in both directions, and it turns out that Philosophers and Artists are equally creative in imagining possibilities and inventing new realities. It only gets tricky navigating between the two, between too much and too little. Sometimes our questions are hilariously confused and sometimes our ideas are outrageously inappropriate. Sometimes it is simply more important to ask certain questions than that specific answers are held up by our efforts. [Just think how absurd some contemporary art seems…. Just think how ridiculous some (most) contemporary philosophy seems….]

So, where does this leave us? As human beings we seem to want to know things, like “The meaning of life”, and we go through the process of living armed with the provisional answers that help point us in particular directions. Its not as if the question had a right answer or that only one answer would suffice. We change our minds and we turn ourselves about and face different directions all the time. And yet we continue to wonder. The answer, it seems, is not always as important as living the question. And rather than being stuck with only one or several questions we need to keep looking for better questions. Sometimes a brilliant answer to the wrong question is less important than a poor answer to the right question. The question, after all, is where we are pointing….

And so too with our simple truths. We navigate this world with an evolving sense of which things matter, which things are beautiful, and which things are good. And the world is infinitely more full of these things than our limited experience can access or our feeble understanding can grasp. The trick is to keep our eyes on these these small truths we know but to not settle only for them. Yes Thai food is fabulous, but so too is Mexican. The small truths are not the whole story. They are part of the story. An important part, if ever there was. But still only a part…..


Peace all!

Make beauty real!


About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
This entry was posted in Art, metacognition, Wittgenstein. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The difference and similarity between Philosophers and Artists

  1. June Perry says:

    Enjoyed your post very much. What iI see with artists and philosophers is their intense curiosity and the willingness to explore it through thought, reasoning, research and effort.
    Truth is so subjective and as you state, it can change over time and from place to place. We, as citizens of the world all too often relate to each other through our differences, the truths we hold or don’t, rather than attempting to find where we agree, therefore maintaining a physical and spiritual separation. Some truths may never be known in our limited consciousness; but thank goodness we keep at least keep trying, to whatever degree we can and are willing.

    • Exactly!

      This is so much why I see curiosity as one of the most important human natural resources, and am so discouraged when our education system ends up only teaching to the test, etc…. Strife in the world can almost always be pinned on an issue of intolerance where people’s own sense of identity has diminished the core sense of humanity in others. Instead of cherishing and exploring our differences we end up allowing them to divide us…..

      Thanks for reading! And thanks for chiming in!

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