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Journal of Philosophy, Inc.

Mr. Beck's "Judgments of Meaning in Art"

Author(s): M. Whitcomb Hess
Source: The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 41, No. 19 (Sep. 14, 1944), pp. 513-516
Published by: Journal of Philosophy, Inc.
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Accessed: 28-11-2015 06:49 UTC

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object,but upon the experienceof it,whichis preciselythe criterion

that the theory of the satisfied imagination entails. As to the
correctnessof interpretinggothicarchitectureas a processby which
we are led fromthe materialto the immaterial,the same criterion
holds; and, so far, I am not yet prepared to alter my inexpert
judgment,because I am not preparedto renouncethe principlethat
the estheticobject is the experiencedobject, nor am I prepared
to renounce the principle that the object comes into being as a
result of the antecedentprocess.
Anotherissue that my criticraises calls for comment:the very
serious and importantissue of the relevanceof my insistenceupon
the necessityof the medium. If my insistencewere merely,as he
his criticismwould be legitimateand
suggests,an after-thought,
devastating. I fear, however,his criticismrests upon a fundato whichhe himselfgives the clue when
mental misunderstanding,
he distinguishesbetweenthe scientificand the philosophicapproach
to esthetics. His criticism is valid from the point of view of
scientificesthetics,not fromthat of philosophicesthetics. He is,
in essence, requesting a detailed analysis of the "middle-sized"
principles of the various arts, rather than an analysis of the
kind of analestheticprocess. In shorthe is askingfor a different
ysis fromthat whichI intendedto make,and hence is asking forbook.
what is quite legitimatefromhis point of view-a different
The theoryof the satisfiedimaginationmakes the mediumcrucial
forunderstandingthe art process,but the mediumcan be ultimately
understoodonly as it refersto the finalfact,the unique workof art
itself. Both Mr. Thurstonand I would agree, I think,that principles are truly determinateonly as they are seen with reference
to the individual work of art. The decisive role of the medium
becomesclearlyapparentin practicalcriticism. Practical criticism,
however,has a differentintentand uses different
a philosophyof art.


Mr. Beck's notion that art is "a sensuous presentationof connotations without denotations" seems to me to be founded on a
double confusion:first,that art is a formof communicationin the
same categoryas thatof our everydayusual verbal one; and, second,
that separation of the denotativeand connotativeaspects of language is a functionalpossibility,that is, whenwords are considered

This JOURNAL, Vol. XLI (1944), pp. 169-178.

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In or out of art, how is it possible to talk of connotational

systemsas separable fromdenotational? Denotation and connotation are merelycharactersof language termswhich have meaning
only when what the symbolintends in a specificinstance may be
applied to all such instances; for if what the sign signifiesin one
place is not also signifiedin another,under the same circumstances,
the user is obviously confusinghis hearers or readers either intentionallyor unintentionally. Further,the extensionand intension (or denotationand connotation,respectively) of terms porexhibitedin
trayed by language are factorsof the truth-situation
poetry,the art of language, but are not factorsin otherart fields
except by analogy with poetry's use of words.
Does Mr. Beck really believe that any work of art can be "the
locus of the phenomenonof meaningwithoutcommittingthe artist
to anythingspecificabout the real world, moral or physical,subjective or objective," as he declares in general for all art? Is it
out of orderto ask whetherthe art object,if it meantonlymeaning,
would not still mean something? And to ask again, if that something is not prettyimportantnot only to the philosopherbut to
the artist? 2
But if what is meant is meaninghow can it mean just half of
verbal meaning-the connotational half-unless Mr. Beck has
seriouslyconfusedthe relation of connotationto denotationwith
the relation of meaning to the meant? Because the thing meant
is the meaning, he assumes evidently that one of the terms is
superfluous,the denotationalor the meant.
Further,he assumes with equal illogic that the subject-matter
of all the arts is essentiallythe same-all the same kind of representationof language-likeconnotationwithout denotation; for
his use of an examplefromthe fieldof music to show that program
music is denotativeand thus a reductionof "the pure esthesis" of
absolute music betrays his failure to distinguishamong the arts
as sharply divided in purpose. The real trouble with program
music is that it is not denotativeenough of what music's special
subject-matteris-the universal as opposed, for example, to the
ofpoetry. SorenKierkegaard,thatprofoundpsychosubject-matter
philosopherof the last centurywhose work is only now comingto
Americanrecognition,gives an excellentdefinitionof the purpose
of music in the openingchaptersof his firstpublishedwork of importance: Either/Or (Vol. I, p. 77). This is what Kierkegaard
says of music: " [Music] is far more abstractthan language, and
2 Cf. Fra Lippo Lippi's attitudetowardnatureand art in Browningl's
poem. The artist, he says, interpretsnature: "Art was given for that;
God uses us to help each otherso, Lendingour mindsout."

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thereforedoes not express the individual but the general in all

its generality,and yet it expresses the general not in reflective
abstraction,but in the immediateconcrete." Thus Beethoven's
"Fury Over a Lost Penny" illustratesnot the follyof art's being
denotativebut the absurdityof music's particularizinganything
but the generalwhichis its special function.
And what of the art of narrationas shown in a novel, for instance? Mr. Beck disposes of the denotationof the words here as
"opaque" when the fact is that it is just the opposite. The
novelist,of course,takes his good wherehe findsit-only too often
in the vicinityof the cash-register-butthe denotationis always
in the realm of potentialityif it is not in that of acuality. Are the
eventsin that recentbest-seller(I hastento say I have not read it),
A Tree Growsin Brooklyn,to be held connotationalprimarilyand
the content "relatively opaque in the denotational dimension"?
From what the criticssay, I do not thinkso. They call it "an avid
reportingof the seamy side of life." The writer seems indeed
strongly"committed" to something"specific in the real world"
as it appears to her, whateverwe may think about the novel and
others like it with their "hand-and-foot-in-Belial's-gripe"
to the reading public which demands such books-and even may
demand themin the name of art. It must be obvious even to the
lover of "art for art's sake" that the product (as well in other
arts as in those using words) ceases to be merely"art for art's
sake" the momentthe enjoyerbecomesa part of the wholepicture,
as he does when the object's intensionor connotation(to resortto
the language analogy) is really the artist's concern. But the
whole point of my criticismis that the language analogy can not
be pressed. Of course the art-objectcan not have (unless the art
is itself that of language) extensionin the way that words have,
extension; nor can it have the intensionthat belongs peculiarly
to the verbal symbol. Intensionis not related to extensionin the
way that a masterpieceof sculpture,for example, is related to
copies of it, but in the way that the idea is related to its instances.
Thus the meaningcould not do withoutwhat is meant-as a great
workof art may stand alone in splendid isolationand uniqueness.
The fieldof poetryis the true one to show art's specificreference to the real world as well as to clear up the confusionbetween
meaning and the meant as Mr. Beck has presented it. Why?
Simply because poetry is the art of language and, as such, is a
mirror of the straight communicationof meaning by means of
verbal symbols.
But forsome reason or otherMr. Beck does not considerpoetry
at all in his account of judgmentsof meaning in art. Would he

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maintain that here the meaning and the meant are separable?
Poetry is composed of judgments of meaning in verbal symbols,
and also is an art form. The words' intensionand extensionare
the same as in wordsused in everydayspeech-with this difference:
in poetrythese aspects appear as two levels of cognitioncoalesced
into one, for it is the art's unique functionto re-presentconceptual
plus existentialcontextsas language exhibits those contexts. In
otherwords,poetryis the "imitation" of our verbal communication,
its representationof language as the best of all possible communicables.
In poetry as in every other art the material and the idea are
differentiatedin terms of one another; but nowhere except in
poetryis the materialalready the formalvehicleof the idea. This
fact makes poetry the springboardfor a better understandingof
the problemof meaninginside and outside the art field. It is not
possible to go deeply into the language of poetryhere; 3 but it is
enough to say that the best poetryemploysthe commonestwords
in use as symbolsof the ideas attached by the world at large to
objects. My suggestionto Mr. Beck is that he try to apply his
definitionof art as "a sensuous presentationof connotationswithout denotations" literallyto any poem he may care to choose.



Mrs. Hess statesthat I hold art to be a "form of communication

in the same categoryas that of our everydayusual verbal one."
Nothing could be furtherfrontthe truth; if it were the case I
should not have inquiredinto the semanticproblemin art. On the
basis of her remarkstowardsthe end of her note,it is quite obvious
that her theoryholds poetry,at least, to be much more like our
ordinarycommunicationthan I have assertedor implied.
Her ground for attributingsuch a view to me is no doubt the
fact that I use "denotation" and "connotation"' in describing
non-verbalarts. "Connotation" and "denotation" are used analogically. By analogy to logical usage, denotationis the reference
of a symbolto substantiveswhichare not in the symbolicmedium,
and connotationis its intrinsic referenceor relevance to other
symbolsin the medium. I agree that extensionand intensionare
"factors in the truthsituationof poetry," but I can not agree to
the suppositionshe makes that theyare factorsin otherfieldsonly
by analogy with poetry's use of words. Such a supposition in3I have discussedthe language of poetryin an articleto be printedin
the Philosophical Review in the near future.

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