David Corfield
Aesthetic Theory and Artistic Practice

Included in The Philosophy of Enchantment, this manuscript is dated 1931. In it Collingwood discusses the relationship between a practice and its philosophy.

The first object of any inquiry is to find out the truth about something; and the first business of aesthetic theory is to discover the truth about art in general, that is to say, to answer the question ‘what is art?’ (p. 81)

He then points out a tension between those who believe this aesthetics should be normative and those who believe it should be descriptive.

When we have decided what art is, can we then go on to use this knowledge for the improvement of our practices as artists or our tastes as judges of art, or can we not? (81)

The difference really turns on this: a normative science assumes that the subject matter of its study is not realized, that there is a difference between what it ought to be and what it is; whereas a descriptive science assumes that its subject matter is already all it ought to be and what it is, that its proper nature is realized in the facts as they stand.

I will say at once that I do not think either of these conceptions can give us a satisfactory answer to our question. (83)

It was obvious to the Greeks that the philosophical sciences are normative. This was challenged by descriptive approaches to activities of the mind, then by realist metaphysical approaches.

Both the psychological view of philosophy, as the study of the thinking or acting mind, and the metaphysical view of philosophy, as the study of the ultimate nature of the real world, are compatible with the doctrine that the philosophical sciences have a purely theoretical interest, and are completely devoid of practical value. (86)

But advocates of the descriptive point to benefits of their work as that reflection may be beneficial and the clearing away of misleading false theories. (E.g., Vienna Circle and dismissal of ‘German Spirit’.)

But if bad ethics may lead to bad conduct, whatever the reason, the relation of ethics to conduct is not simply that of a description to the things described. Bad astronomy does not derange the movement of the stars. (88)

Why should bad theory be able to lead to bad practice, and yet good theory not be able to lead to good practice? Were it so, philosophy should certainly be avoided.

There follows a lengthy case study of the roots and demise of English naturalism, the idea that all beauty is to be drawn from nature.

We have travelled a long way from the conception of aesthetics as a normative science. But we have at any rate, I think, seen reason to abandon the idea of aesthetic, or any other philosophical science, as an ex posto facto generalized description of a group of facts existing independently of the being described. (108)

The business of aesthetic, then, is to determine the ideal of art, the goal towards which artistic production is directed. (109)

One can’t do art without realising that one is doing so.

…the knowledge that he is trying to write a poem implies the knowledge of what a poem is; or rather, since the poem is not yet written, of what a poem should be. This knowledge is a philosophy of art, and such a philosophy must therefore preside over the birth of every work of art–unless indeed there are works of art which the artist lets fall inadvertently, without suspecting it, as Monsieur Jourdain spoke prose. Setting aside these possible by-blows, every work of art is conceived through the agency of some theory, concerning the nature of art as such. No doubt the theory changes; continued experience in artistic work is very likely to change it; but because theories change as experience changes, it does not follow that the theory is a mere description of the experience. It would be truer to describe the experience as an attempt to put the theory into practice.

There is thus a reciprocal relation between aesthetic theory and artistic practice. To suppose that an aesthetic can be worked out in vacuo, apart from all experience of actual artistic work, and then used as a normative science laying down once for all a code of rules that art must obey if it is to be genuine art, is to suppose an absurdity. If that is all that is meant by the conception of aesthetic as a normative science, the conception is a chimera. But the conception of aesthetic as a descriptive science, following after the facts and merely noting their characteristic features, is no less chimerical. The true relation between aesthetic theory and artistic practice would seem, rather, to be of such a kind that neither can exist in isolation from the other. Art cannot exist without a theory of art, because unless the artist has such a theory in his own mind–unless, for example, he can set before himself the end of producing a picture as like nature as he is able to make it–he does not know what he is trying to do, and therefore is not trying to do anything. For this reason it is useless, and worse than useless, for professional philosophers to advise professional artists to leave aesthetic theory alone and get ahead with their own business, the making of pictures or what not, leaving philosophy to the philosophers. The advice is useless because the artists can never take it, and it is worse than useless because it shows the philosophers to be bad philosophers.

The theory of art cannot exist without art, not because it merely describes art, as entomology cannot exist without insects, but because it is an organic element within the process by which works of art come into being, and it cannot exist except as an element in that process. No doubt, a particular theory of art may be extracted from its place in such a process and isolated for expert scrutiny. It is right and necessary that this should be done; and here the artist is wrong if he tells the philosopher to keep his hands off aesthetic theory, because that is his business, not the philosopher’s, and the theory that serves him in the creation of his own works of art is thereby justified. The artist is wrong because a theory is a theory, and must stand or fall by its merits as such; and to say ‘my theory is justified by its fruits’ is to expose oneself to the retort ‘if your theory was a better theory, your pictures might be better pictures’.

But to separate the artist from the philosopher in this way, and set them at loggerheads, is to create trouble. Much of our difficulty over the whole problem of normative sciences is due to the fact that philosophy is supposed to be incarnate in certain eccentric, ridiculous, and vaguely disquieting persons called philosophers. It is these persons who, since they possess philosophy, possess the normative rights which belong to the philosophical sciences; and people who are interested in science, or morals, or art, naturally resent being ordered about and told how to conduct their own affairs by these shadowy figures. And it is equally natural that professional philosophers should hasten to reassure them by insisting that they personally make no such claim and, on the contrary, regard philosophy not as normative but merely as descriptive. Both parties are frighted by false fire. Art and philosophy may be professions, but they are more than that; they are universal human interests, and this is indeed the only reason why the professional artist or professional philosopher has an audience. He speaks, not to his fellow-professionals, but to the artist or the philosopher in all men.

The philosophy of art, then, may be a department of study to the professional philosopher, but to the artist it is a matter of life and death. The philosopher may neglect aesthetic, but the artist cannot; he must decide what art is, or he cannot pursue it. If he decides wrong, he will pursue it wrong. This is the purpose or function of aesthetic theory in its relation to artistic practice. The artist, as a rational being, must know what he is doing, or he cannot do it. In so far as he is an artist, his knowledge of what he is doing is his philosophy of art.


It seems to me therefore that the philosophy of art is not a system of thoughts which philosophers think about artists; it is a system of thoughts which artists think about themselves in so far as they are able to philosophize, and philosophers think about themselves in so far as they are interested in art. In either case, its purpose is the same. The mind, in its intellectual function, is trying to understand itself in its aesthetic function. The art about which we philosophize is not a ready-made fact, it is something which we are trying to do, and by understanding what we are trying to do we come to be able to do it better. The philosophy of art is therefore not a description of what aesthetic facts are, nor yet an attempt to force them into being what they are not: it is the attempt of art itself to understand itself and, through understanding itself, to become itself. That is why artists, even if they care little about philosophy in general, cannot help caring about the philosophy of art. For there is no escape from the dilemma: either an artist does not know what he is doing, or else he has a philosophy of art, an aesthetic theory expressing the principles by which he tries to guide his artistic practice.

Note that when Collingwood writes of the artist that “he can set before himself the end of producing a picture as like nature as he is able to make it”, he is alluding to his case study of the relation between art practice and theory from earlier in the essay, where British naturalism of the nineteenth century is seen to be based on a theory of art whose origin lies in eighteenth century philosophy. Collingwood believes this to be a false theory, as first made clear artistically by Cezanne. Note also that Collingwood should feel the need to depart from abstract argument to include the case study.

Exercise: with minimal changes make the above true for the philosophy of mathematics. Once done, we see how we should expect to find a philosophy of mathematics in each mathematician, even if it only functions implicitly. See Philosophy as Normative or Descriptive.

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