David Corfield
The Principles of Art

The Principles of Art, Oxford University Press 1938

For I do not think of aesthetic theory as an attempt to investigate and expound eternal verities concerning the nature of an eternal object called Art, but as an attempt to reach, by thinking, the solution of certain problems arising out of the situation in which artists find themselves here and now. Everything written in this book has been written in the belief that is has a practical bearing, direct or indirect, upon the condition of art in England in 1937, and in the hope that artists primarily, and secondarily persons whose interest in art is lively and sympathetic, will find something of use to them. (p. vi)


We can now return to the distinction between language and symbolism. A symbol is language and yet not language. A mathematical or logical or any other kind of symbol is invented to serve a purpose purely scientific; it is supposed to have no emotional expressiveness whatever. But when once a particular symbolism has been taken into use and mastered, it reacquires the emotional expressiveness of language proper. Every mathematician knows this. At the same time, the emotions which mathematicians find expressed in their symbols are not emotions in general, they are the peculiar emotions belonging to mathematical thinking.

The same applies to technical terms. These are invented solely to serve the purpose of a particular scientific theory; but as they begin to pass current in the scientist’s speech or writing they express to him and to those who understand him the peculiar emotions which that theory yields. Often, when invented by a man of literary ability, thay are chosen from the first with an eye to expressing these emotions as directly and obviously as possible. Thus, a logician may use a term like ‘atomic propositions’ as part of his technical vocabulary. The word ‘atomic’ is a technical term, that is a word borrowed from elsewhere and turned into a symbol by undergoing precise definition in terms of the theory. Sentences in which it occurs can be subjected to homolingual translation. But, as we find it occurring in the logician’s discourse, it is full of emotional expressiveness. It conveys to the reader, and is meant to convey, a warning and a threat, a hope and a promise. ‘Do not try to analyse these; renounce the dream of analysing to infinity; that way delusion lies, and the ridicule of people like myself. Walk boldy, trusting in the solida simplicitas of these propositions; if you use them confidently as bricks out of which to build your logical constructions, they will never betray you.’

Symbolism is thus intellectualized language: language, because it expresses emotions; intellectualized, because adapted to the expression of intellectual emotions. Language in its original imaginative form may be said to have expressiveness, but no meaning. About such language we cannot distinguish between what the speaker says and what he means. You may say that he means precisely what he says; or you may say that he means nothing, he is only speaking (where speaking, of course, means not only making vocal noises, but expressing emotion). Language in its intellectualized form has both expressiveness and meaning. As language, it expressed a certain emotion. As symbolism, it refers beyond that emotion to the thought whose emotional charge it is. This is the familiar distinction between ‘what we say’ and ‘what we mean’. ‘What we say’ is what we immediately express: the eager or reluctant or triumphant or regretful utterance in which these emotions and the gestures or sounds that express them are inseparable parts of a single experience. ‘What we mean’ is the intellectual activity upon which these are the emotional charge, and towards which the words expressing the emotion are the finger-post, pointing for ourselves in the direction from which we have come, and for another in the direction to which he must go if he wishes to ‘understand what we say’, that is, to reconstruct for himself and in himself the intellectual experience which has led us to say what we did.

The progressive intellectualization of language, its progressive conversion by the work of grammar and logic into a scientific symbolism, thus represents not a progressive drying-up of emotion, but its progressive articulation and specialization. We are not getting away from an emotional atmosphere into a dry, rational atmosphere; we are acquiring new emotions and new means of expressing them. (pp. 268-269)


Poetry then, in so far as it is the poetry of a thinking man and addressed to a thinking audience, may be described as expressing the intellectual emotion attendant upon thinking in a certain way: philosophy, the intellectual emotion attendant upon trying to think better. (p. 297)

The result would seem to be that the distinction between philosophical writing (and what I say applies equally to historical and scientific writing) and poetical or artistic writing is either wholly illusory, or else it applies only between bad philosophical writing and good poetic, or bad poetic and good philosophical, or bad philosophical and bad poetic. Good philosophy and good poetry are not two different kinds of writing, but one; each is simply good writing. In so far as each is good, each converges, as regards style and literary form, with the other; and in the limiting case where each was as good as it ought to be, the distinction would disappear.

…There can be no such thing as inartistic writing, unless that means merely bad writing. And there can be no such thing as artistic writing; there is only writing.

To put things in terms of practice: we have got into the habit of thinking that a writer must belong to one of two classes. Either he is a ‘pure’ writer, concerned to write as well as he can, in which case he is a literary man; or he is an ‘applied’ writer (to adapt the old distinction between pure and applied science), concerned to express certain definite thoughts, and anxious to write only well enough to make his thoughts clear, and no better. This distinction must go. Each of these ideals, if there is to be any future for literature, must fertilize the other. The scientist and historian and philosopher must go to school with the man of letters, and study to write as well as writing can be done. The literary man must go to school with the scientist and his likes, and study to expound a subject instead of merely exhibiting a style. Subject without style is barbarism; style without substance is dilettantism. Art is the two together. (pp. 298-299)


The condition of a corrupt consciousness is not only an example of untruth, it is an example of evil. The detailed tracing of particular evils to this source by psycho-analysts is one of the most remarkable and valuable lines of investigation initiated by modern science, bearing the same relation to the general principles of mental hygiene laid down by Spinoza that the detailed inquiries of relativistic physics bear to the project for a ‘universal science’ of mathematical physics as laid down by Descartes. (p. 220)


If we look candidly at the history of art, or even the little of it that we happen to know, we shall see that collaboration between artists has always been the rule. I refer especially to that kind of collaboration in which one artist grafts his own work upon that of another, or (if you wish to be abusive) plagiarizes another’s for incorporation in his own. A new code of artistic morality grew up in the nineteenth century, according to which plagiarism was a crime. I will not ask how much that had to do, whether as cause or as effect, with the artistic barrenness and mediocrity of the age (though it is obvious, I think, that a man who can be annoyed with another for stealing his ideas must be pretty poor in ideas, as well as much less concerned for the intrinsic value of what ideas he has than for his own reputation); I will only say that this fooling about personal property must cease. Let painters and writers and musicians steal with both hands whatever they can use, wherever they can find it. And if any one objects to having his own precious ideas borrowed by others, the remedy is easy. He can keep them to himself by not publishing; and the public will probably have cause to thank him. (pp. 319-320)

Revised on November 27, 2009 17:03:53 by David Corfield (81.154.250.179)