In the past, the main goal of aesthetics has been to formulate a definition of art. A definition is a statement of the necessary and sufficient properties of what is being defined. This statement has to prove its purpose of giving a true or false claim about the nature, or essence of art and what characterizes it from anything else. Many theorists sustain that unless we know what art is, we cannot begin to respond to it adequately or to say why one work is better than the other. Morris Weitz, in his essay “The Role of Theory in Aesthetics” wants to plead for the rejection of this problem. He argues that a true definition of art, consisting of its necessary and sufficient properties is not possible. That a definition only closes the concept of art when in its very use, this concept demands to remain open.
To explain Weitz’s approach to aesthetics, I will first mention Wittgenstein’s approach to language found in Philosophical Investigations, given that many critics including Weitz, have explored Wittgenstein’s refusal to theorize and construct definitions of philosophical entities. In his work, Wittgenstein raises an illustrative question, What is a game? The traditional theoretical answer would be in terms of some exhaustive set of properties common to all games.
To this Wittgenstein gives us a list of board games, card games, ball games, and asks if there is something common to them all. Despite the assumption that there must be something common to them or else they would not be called “games,” if we look and see weather there is something common to them all, weather there are any necessary and sufficient properties to “game” will not find it. All we may find are similarities and relationships between different games. If one asks what a game is, we usually pick out sample games and describe them. Weitz, just like Wittgenstein, points out the difference between describing and defining. He writes:
“Knowing what a game is is not knowing some real definition or theory but being able to recognize and explain games and to decide which among imaginary and new examples would or would not be called ‘games.” (pp.31)
The Wittgensteinian problem about the nature of games is just like the problem about the nature of art to Weitz. If we look and see what it is that we call art, we will also find no common properties, only similarities. Knowing what art is has nothing to do with being able to define it, but rather with being able to describe it, recognize it and explain it in virtue of those similarities. While a definition would close a concept, the characteristic of description is its open texture. We can correctly describe something as art by virtue of its similarities, but no exhaustive definition can be given.
To further explore Weitz’s idea of an open concept, I will refer to the example he uses when mentioning Joyce’s novel Finnegan’s Wake. Weitz asks, is Finnegan’s Wake a novel? The traditional way, in search for a definition that would permit us to answer yes or no, would construct this as a factual problem concerning necessary and sufficient properties. The new way, which avoids a definition, would have to decide weather the work is similar in certain respects to other works already called “novels.” As long as Finnegan’s Wake shares some, but not every similarity to other novels, then the concept of art can be extended to cover the new case. So this work is like recognized novels A and B in some respects, but not like them in others.
But then, neither was B in some respects like A when a decision to extend the concept was made. Finnegan’s Wake standing as N+1 is similar to A and B in some respects, but not in others so the problem is not factual but rather one of decision making whether the verdict has to do with expanding the conditions as to apply to the new concept. So following Wittgenstein, Weitz notices how an exhaustive definition is not possible, and how it would only close a concept that should remain open. “Art itself is an open concept” (pp.32) he writes. Searching for a definition of what cannot be defined is like trying to squeeze what is an open concept into an honorific formula for a closed concept.
Another important difference that will help us understand the distinction of a formula and what lies behind it, is that between descriptions of art and artistic evaluations. When we say that X is a work of art, we use art as an evaluative (good, mediocre etc.) and descriptive (blue, soft etc.) concept. When X is a work of art is understood as descriptive, what we give are not necessary and sufficient conditions, but rather bundles of properties most of which are present (although they need not to) when we describe things as works of art. Cases where normal conditions are denied are also capable of being true in certain circumstances. So we can have “X is a work of art and exists only in the mind.” “X …and was made by accident when he spilled paint into the canvas.” Etc.
Obviously, if none of the conditions were present for recognizing something as a work of art in virtue of similarities, we would not describe it as one. But none of these is either necessary or sufficient.
Now, the problem with the evaluative notion of art is that instead of describing it praises. Although we may use art to praise, Weitz stresses that what cannot be maintained is that theories of evaluative use are real definitions of art. They are only definitions of chosen criteria which a critic personally decides to use in favor of a work. These honorific definitions only make Weitz’s argument stronger, because they prove, through their debates over the reasons for changing the criteria of a definition, that the concept of art remains open. Weitz writes:
“If we take aesthetic theories literally, as we have seen, they all fail; but if we reconstrue them, in terms of their function and point…we shall see that aesthetic theory is far from worthless.” (pp35)
There is a certain kind of pluralism in Weitz’s argument, which is inclusive of the different aesthetic theories, yet does not accept one exhaustive definition of art. So Weitz, diving into a pool of Wittgensteinian objects, all related transitively through a series of similarities, comes out of it as a non-essentialist about the concept of art. He argues against a definition because he finds it problematic in its practicality, empirical validity and lack of inclusiveness to new art works.
Weitz, by pointing that what we do when we say, X is art, is give a description, also mentions that evaluative properties are used to give legitimacy to a work arbitrarily considered to be art. This arbitrariness and the debates going on between different philosophers who evaluate and try to define art are a strong proof to Weitz’s argument. Definitions change because there is no exhaustive definition of art, and once we understand this problem, all we can do is leave the concept open, describe art, and understand what a work is by virtue of its transitive similarities to other works.