Man's Need for Art

To get to the heart of esthetics, we have to start at the beginning. What is the purpose of art? What is the human need that art attempts to satisfy? What is it in the nature of man that creates this need, and how important is it to our lives?

The Objectivists theory of esthetics starts in Epistemology. We've already discussed man's conceptual nature, and talked about the hierarchical theory of knowledge. The hierarchical theory of knowledge says that our conceptual knowledge is organized into various levels, with some levels more distant from perception, our grounding to reality. By having abstractions of abstractions, you wield more powerful concepts that encompass larger and larger parts of reality.

One of the side-effects of the hierarchical theory of knowledge is that the more abstract the concepts, the farther removed from reality they are. As we've seen earlier, this doesn't affect the objectivity of the concepts. The concepts still include all of the referents. So the objectivity is intact.

The issue is really about clarity. When you form abstractions, there are varying degrees of clarity involved. Without intentionally identifying the conceptual common denominator, forming a definition, and reviewing the referents of the concept, you may have a fuzzy understanding of it. Many people understand concepts in a vague way. When you start abstracting from abstractions, the vagueness is multiplied. Without a solid foundation, the higher you go the worse it gets.

Let's try looking at an example. Justice is a very complicated high level abstraction. Imagine trying to discuss justice without having a solid understanding of what morality is. Without explicit standards for moral judgment, you'd have to argue in very general terms, and would probably resort to emotional examples.

But even if you're careful about being clear at each level, the issue still exists. The concepts more distant from perception are harder to grasp in the same way. It becomes harder to point to anything as an example because the referents of the concepts are concepts themselves. Remember how concepts are formed by finding similarities among things that are different from others. To concretize a concept, you need only see examples that show these similarities/differences clearly. When you abstract to a higher level, you have so many more referents that you need in order to make all of these contrasts. Tying these concepts to the perceptual level can be difficult.

The real issue here is that your higher level concepts may lack the immediacy and clarity of your lower level concepts (those closest to perception). As we expand our knowledge and scope of understanding or activity, we come to rely on abstract principles more and more, and yet the concepts become more difficult to use and to keep clear.

This brings us to the basic human need that art is supposed to address. We need a way of taking our most complex abstraction, and bring them down to a more concrete level where we can really get a good grasp of them. This is especially true for our view of the world and our role in the world, two extremely abstract ideas that are critical to our lives. Art needs to be able to bring these abstract idea into focus and make them clear to us.

To recap, our conceptual form of awareness, and the hierarchical system of knowledge, are incredibly powerful tools of grasping the world. But they create their own challenges that we need to overcome in order to better utilize the tools. We need to be able to use abstract knowledge easily and with confidence. We need to take our abstract knowledge and strengthen its connection to reality by bringing it into a more concrete form.

This is the purpose of art.

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