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Thomson-Jones, Katherine, , . Inseparable insight: Reconciling cognitivism and formalism in aesthetics
2005, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 63 (4):375-384.
Added by: Chris Blake-Turner, Contributed by: Christy Mag Uidhir

Abstract: A thesis that is rarely stated but often assumed in art criticism and aesthetics concerns the inseparability of form and content in art. The thesis of inseparability states that (1) it is impossible to have the same content in two different forms; and (2) it is impossible to have the same form in two different contents. 1 Clearly, the thesis needs elucidation in terms of a plausible account of the distinction between form and content. It also needs to be considered whether the inseparability of form and content motivates a theory of art or, less ambitiously, identifies an important criterion in an account of art. 2 The inseparability thesis is traditionally associated with formalism, which, as a general theory of art, has been widely condemned. Nevertheless, formalism is currently making a comeback in particular philosophies of the arts – notably, philosophy of music and philosophy of film.3 Sophisticated formalism in relation to both music and film allows for the aesthetic relevance of other features of the work besides form while recommending a structural focus for aesthetic appreciation. If the assumption that formalism is no longer relevant to our under- standing of the arts involves a major oversight, then the inseparability thesis cannot be ignored just because of its traditional association with formalism. But even if one persisted in this oversight, it does not warrant ignoring the importance of the inseparability thesis for the thesis bears no necessary relation to any theory of art, including a formalist one. In what follows, I consider whether the inseparability thesis is compatible with aesthetic cognitivism, the view that art is valuable in part because it can give us nontrivial knowledge. Ultimately, I argue that the two are compatible because there are ways of learning from art that depend on the inseparability of form and con- tent. Given the long and tangled history of the debate over the possibility and value of learning from art, it is supremely important to recognize, finally, such compatibility. Against defenders of aesthetic cognitivism, skeptics and critics have regularly resorted to brandishing the inseparability thesis, defiantly claiming that you cannot expect to learn about the world from art if you cannot ‘get to’ a work’s content unaffected by style and medium. Here the assumption is that the kind of aesthetic transformation that grounds the inseparability of form and con- tent precludes either the practicality or the aesthetic significance of looking to art for real-life insight in the form of facts, principles, or new perspectives. If the compatibility I defend is really there, however, we can expect insight through such transformation. As we shall see, art serves as a primary means for gaining insight of a rare and valuable kind. In what follows, I begin by outlining the preliminaries of the contemporary debate between aesthetic cognitivists and aesthetic anti-cognitivists.4 Then I employ three strategies for elucidating the thesis of inseparability: I identify a particular account of form and content as the one invoked by the thesis, I show that the thesis does not motivate a theory of art in order to circumvent standard criticisms against the thesis as a necessary and sufficient condition of art status, and I explore the ways inseparability influences our understanding of representational art. Armed with a proper understanding of inseparability, I then consider its relation to the debate over aesthetic cognitivism. This involves laying out the assumption that inseparability precludes the aesthetic relevance of learning from art. Finally, I challenge this assumption by outlining two kinds of insight that depend on inseparability. The point is not that such insight can only be gained from art but that it is most readily and relevantly gained from art because of the aesthetic value of inseparability.

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