New Bearings in Esthetics and Art Criticism

A Study in Semantics and Evaluation

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IS
PROBLEMS IN MEANING
vary with the knowledge, the interests and the purposes of the definer?" 17 Of course many philosophers will deny the implications in these questions on the basis of absolutist convictions. Reason or intuitive insight, they will say, can reveal true or essential qualities. Thus arises a non-verbal, philosophical argument which will be mentioned later on in this book. At this stage of our discussion we may merely observe the interesting connectedness between verbal and ontological problems.
And in the third place, finally, both the foregoing explanation that most wordsand certainly the crucial terms of esthetics and criticismacquire varied meanings from being involved in different contexts, and the illustration by means of the triangular diagram of the indirectness of the relation between words and their referents should make it apparent that, for semantic reasons, real definitions can have no intelligible meaning. Denial of this conclusion is the result partly of insufficient understanding of semantics, partly of erring metaphysics. But whatever the reason may be, writings upon esthetics and upon art and literary criticism offer the depressing spectacle of authors attempting to teach what a poem or a picture, what art or beauty is, to reveal, that is to say, its ontological nature. Thus J. C. Ransom urges that the intent of the critic (or a portion of it) "is to read and remark the poem knowingly; that is, with an esthetician's understanding of what a poem generically '187'18
But if real definitions are a major source of semantic confusion in esthetics and criticism, another sort of definition offers a major solution for our problem. I refer to definitions which have been called "volitional," "intentional," "nomi-
17.  J. R. Reid, A Theory of Value (New York, 1938), pp. 6-7.
18.  "Criticism as Pure Speculation," The Intent of the Critic (Princeton, 1941), p. 94. D. A. Stauffer, ed. That the concluding "is" in Mr. Ransom's statement refers to some ontological Essence or Reality may fairly be deduced from the whole tenor of his critical writings.