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The propositional theory of knowledge holds that one must have justified true

belief in the content of a proposition in order to have knowledge. This appears


reasonable under normal circumstances, but seems not to work at all in the case
of art. It seems odd, in fact, to hold that in order to show that one has learned
from a work of fiction, one must show that the work has propositional content of a
general or philosophical nature, or that it provides experience that cannot be
gained in any other way. If we can learn from art, we must be able to do so in a
manner that diverges from the traditional notion of justified true belief, but that
still holds some sort of legitimate ground.

What kind of justification is needed to ground these potential knowledge claims


that art provides? First of all, we must be at least somewhat aware of what the
new knowledge consists of. Moreover, one's engagement with the artwork should
provide at least some degree of justification (e.g., I feel pity for Anna Karenina
because she is in an unfortunate set of circumstances that she feels she has no
control over. I am justified in my emotional response to her if I can see that she is
in a truly pitiable situation). It is important to distinguish learning from art from
merely being affected or influenced by it, or even from being challenged by it.
Accounts of knowledge provided by art should be able to identify clearly what it is
about the artwork itself, qua artwork, which prompts knowledge. A cognitivist
account in particular will require first that the content of the work be specifiable
(what is it we learn?); second, that the demands for justification be respected;
and third, that these accounts appeal directly to aesthetic experience (Freeland
1997).

5. Art and Moral Knowledge

It would seem that there is indeed something about the content of an artwork that
can be said to be knowledge-producing. But how can that be so? The artist
himself or herself is not the ultimate authority here, since his/her knowledge or
expertise is not necessarily directly transferred into the artwork. Furthermore,
even if it were capable of being transferred clearly, it is not always the case that
observers will interpret the meaning or significance of a work of art in any
standard way. What the artist knows and how others experience his/her art are
not directly related enough to justify epistemic legitimacy. It also seems
unjustified to assume that there are intrinsic features of an artwork that are
always clearly identifiable. So the knowledge we gain from art has more to do
with the relationship between the art object and the consumer than anything else.

Another way we might argue for the possibility of gaining knowledge from art is
by rejecting the justified true belief account of knowledge. There might be more
than one way to know, in other words, and more than one way to learn. One of
the most common alternative suggestions concerning the knowledge that art
elicits is that it is moral knowledge that we gain. These arguments are based
primarily of the presumption that art, and literature especially, can provide
experiential and emotional stimulation, and that moral knowledge is not simply
propositional in nature. It has been objected, however, that such stimulation is
not equal to the propositional content that more traditional forms of knowledge
can provide.

Eileen John (2001) identifies two arguments for the claim that moral knowledge
can be gained from art. The first argument stresses the capacity of art to give us
examples of, and exercise in, certain morally pertinent activities. Thus, we come
across circumstances and situations in art and literature that we might not
otherwise come across in our daily lives. If we simulate our own reactions to the
situations the work presents us with, we have an idea of how we might respond
or how we would feel (see especially Kendall Walton's theory of Make-Believe
and Simulation Theory). On this view, works of art can provide us with simulated
or "off-line" emotional responses that could not be achieved otherwise.

The second argument is based on the assumption that we can acquire specific
substantive moral knowledge from art. That is, works of art are taken to possess
the ability to give us imaginative and epistemic access to certain kinds of
experiences relevant to moral knowledge and judgment. Not only can we
respond emotionally to particular moral situations presented through artworks;
we cannot help but find ourselves morally outraged or saddened by the plights of
certain fictional characters.

6. Additional Objections

Noël Carroll (2002) lays out three additional objections to the suggestion that art
can provide knowledge. The first objection he calls the "banality argument": the
idea that “the significant truths that many claim art and literature may afford—that
is, general truths about life, usually of an implied nature (as opposed to what is
'true in the fiction')—are in the main, trivial." Compared to the knowledge we are
able to obtain from propositional statements and arguments, the kind of things
works of literature are can point out are so obvious as to be useless. Carroll
continues by stating that "art and knowledge are not sources of moral knowledge,
but, at best, occasions for activating antecedently possessed knowledge." The
best it seems that art and literature can do is to point out things we already know
and believe.

The second objection Carroll outlines against the notion that we can learn from
art is what he calls the "no-evidence argument." This focuses on the fact that not
only is anything we gain from art and literature banal, but for any knowledge to
be legitimate, it needs to be warranted and must be supported by evidence. Few
artworks, however, supply any evidence at all in defense of a particular view. One
of the reasons interpretations seem to legitimately vary so widely is precisely due
to this lack of solid evidence. Moreover, fiction is not a reliable source of
evidence when it comes to literature and other arts.

Carroll calls the third objection the "no-argument argument." As he explains, “it
maintains that even if artworks contained or implied general truths, neither the
artworks themselves nor the critical discourse that surrounds them engages in
argument, analysis, and debate in defense of the alleged truths." If artworks do
indeed suggest any sort of knowledge, Carroll points out, it can only be
suggested or implied but never argued for or defended. Furthermore, the critical
discourse that surrounds artworks is not generally focused on arguing for or
against any of the claims made in the artwork itself.

7. Conclusion

The fact that we do respond to works of art, and that we commonly believe we
can and do learn from such works, is not enough to justify that learning actually
occurs. However, it is enough to make us examine our presuppositions about
what constitutes knowledge, and perhaps may lead us to reconceive knowledge
in such a way that we may eventually come to understand how it can be gained
non-propositionally.