Responding to Clay Lord

Clay, you state “Knowing people prioritize core issue areas like education, job security, housing, public safety, and health and wellness, how do we show the important ways the arts intersect with their day-to-day lives?” and I wonder whether you feel that the arts are a “core issue”. It seems every effort you describe is an attempt to hitch the value of the arts to some other motivating force. Are you reluctant to credit the arts with value in themselves? As if the only reason people should care about the arts is that they serve some other need? Is that what you think about the arts?

My question is, if our “core values” don’t need to be bolstered by additional support but apparently can stand on their own, that they themselves don’t need to be justified, why is it we have ceded this ground for the arts themselves? Why are we concentrating on the merely subsidiary values the arts have? Value only in relation to other things in our lives for which we do NOT need similar justification? Because, while every data point you are articulating is true in some sense, these are never the reasons for art itself to exist.

No child ever picked up a paintbrush in the name of cognitive development. No patron of theater ever attended a show merely because the economy would benefit. The things you are describing are not specifically REASONS for art to even exist. The fact that art already has a place in people’s lives allows it to function in these various instrumental ways. We did not invent the arts to solve these other issues. Why, I wonder, do you think the arts are a part of human lives in the first place? Why does the world contain art rather than no art at all? As a means of benefiting the economy? What came first, the unquestioned value of art in human lives, or the value of the arts for some other purpose? When did we start needing to justify the arts? When did we begin questioning their value? In what sense are we right in doing so? In what sense does doing so miss the point?

Do you actually seek to justify the art in your own daily life? No one else I know does. I am a Beatles fan, a lover of Impressionist painting, a working ceramics artist, etc., etc., and it is never a question of being justified or not. In other words, why do you think the arts need to be justified, but benefiting the economy does not? Don’t you believe in the arts as a core value? Because others clearly do.

If there is art in your life, ask yourself why it is there. Is it only serving an outside purpose? Is that why you have art in your life? Or do we orient our lives in a way that positions art as something core to our sense of self, to who we think we are? Is our view on art any less inextricable from who we are than whether we are religious or not, politically conservative or liberal? Do we seek to prove the value of those things? The fact that there are opposing points of view does not seem to require that we ourselves need to hold such positions only because we are in some sense justified. The position itself justifies how we look out at the world. There are things we measure, and there are the measures themselves.

The gap seems to be between the people who think of the arts as a core value and those who do not, between something that measures the world and something that needs to be measured. Why do I get the sense that most of the arts field ‘leadership’ want to stand on the other side? Isn’t there something horrific in that? ‘Americans for the Arts‘ is an inspiring title for an organization. It gives me hope. Shouldn’t we be FULLY behind the arts rather than staking even some (much less all) of our chips on an anemic substitute that fits peoples lives merely in consequence of fulfilling other ends?

If we think that the arts only “intersect” with people’s day to day lives we have missed the point that the arts ARE how many people navigate the world. The arts guide us because they reflect who we are. Some of us, at least….. The arts don’t simply “intersect” with our lives because we would not be who we are without them. The arts are a form of bedrock that other things in our lives take their meaning from. The arts give our lives meaning and value. Where the arts are concerned meaning and value do not need to be imported from elsewhere….

It seems that most people for whom the arts matter prioritize the arts in roughly the same way that education, job security, public housing, etc., are prioritized. When we give examples only for why the arts matter some other way, for some extraneous benefit or impact they have, we are merely hitching our wagon to someone else’s. We hide the core value the arts have in a confusion of incidental relationships. The people who doubt the arts’ value will never be shown why the arts matter as they do to us. They will never learn to value the arts as a core value because we have already sold the arts as merely contingent on their own values. At most we may win isolated funding and policy battles but end up losing the real war to change the public’s hearts and minds.

When we give all our efforts into proving why the arts matter as something dependent on other priorities we undermine the idea that the arts themselves are a source of value, a measure for meaning in the world. Isn’t that a dangerous thing to do? Even suggesting it undercuts why art matters for some of us. How can we be Americans for the Arts and be for that?


This is my comment to extend the conversation on that article I wrote for the Arts Professional blog


I think both responses thus far highlight exactly what is at stake in this conversation: To what extent are we willing to let policy and funding decisions be driven by the WRONG idea of what art is? Does an agenda driven policy take precedence over the thing in question itself? Are we comfortable with that? Because it seems to me that in all the counting Arts Council England has proposed they have not really counted the cost of following through with this homogenizing intention. The point of my essay was an attempt to demonstrate that we will fail the arts themselves if we base our decisions only on a false impression of what art is and what art does.

If we can wean ourselves from the idea that the arts are merely consistent or somehow necessarily need to be consistent in some measurable way we might just be able to honor both what art is good at and what bean counting is good at. It seems a terrible mistake to treat art as if it were exclusively or essentially measurable for purposes of quality rather than a pluralistic way that humans manifest the diverse value and meaning of their lives. Art shows us what things matter, not for all people, but always for the artist and often for the community in which it gets shared. Art is fundamentally a measure in that sense, not a thing whose value is derived from or decided by having been or needing to be measured.

There is an ancient Greek Myth that shows the dangers of confusing our measures with something subject to measurement. In it Procrustes guarantees that the visitors to his inn would fit their beds perfectly. Normally we assume that the fit of a bed is measured by the size of the person, so the bed would either shrink or expand to make the fit perfect. But Procrustes turns the situation on its head and instead measures the fit by how well the people are measured *by* the bed. In other words, the people are stretched out if they are too small or chopped down if they are too long. Gruesome!

By squeezing the arts into a Procrustean bed of consistency and fitting perfectly to our measures we end up with a mean sort of butchery. The arts are no longer themselves, but a hack job of lopped limbs, attenuated appendages, and in general of violated values. By pushing the arts into an unnatural idealization the concern has to be how much damage we are willing to inflict for the horrific purpose of making things fit perfectly and consistently. That is the question. Do we let art decide for itself what it should be or do we impose an unnatural and ill fitting constraint? Do we strap the arts into a framework that satisfies specifically non-artistic values, force a conformity that exists only in conformity obsessed minds? Do we sacrifice all that art can be merely to satisfy a diminished version that is neat and tidy, but itself merely a butchered example of what art does and what it should aim for?

If Arts Council England wants to impose a quality metric for the arts, they have a bureaucratic right to do so. Unfortunately. What they do not have is a right to speak for what things count as quality in the arts, or by extension what the arts themselves are or should be. If they want to take on the role of Procrustes let them be honest about it. But don’t let them tell you that what they are imposing is really what counts as the arts. They lose that privilege and all credibility as soon as they intellectually chop off unwanted parts and stretch out the ones they wish to keep. If anything inconsistent survives, by their own admission, that was not their intention. It has been erased. Do we stand for that?

In the ancient Greek myth Procrustes escapes punishment only until Theseus arrives and subjects him to his own tortures. Arts Council England is imposing a false measure for the arts, but they themselves can be measured too. We can condemn this policy decision precisely because it does not fit with reality. It is merely wishful thinking backed by bureaucratic muscle. We can stretch Arts Council England to fit with the reality of art. Do we need a Theseus to sort this out?

Dear Arts Council England, part 1: The culture of counting

(This is the uncondensed version of an essay I wrote for Arts Professional UK. The limited space available there for my ideas painted only a partial glimpse of the argument I intend to make, but it was a sacrifice worth making. The published version is more concise and readable, certainly. For anyone interested, this bloated version is the first of several objections I have (See also ‘Dear Arts Council England, part 2‘) concerning the agenda of Arts Council England to systematize quality in the arts.)


Arts Council England has committed to a ‘quality metrics’ scheme that will become mandatory for England’s largest arts organizations. Many consider this a good idea. The aim is to measure perceptions of quality, and one can see why getting a handle on ideas of quality should matter for arts organizations, artists, and the public themselves. But being able to discuss ideas of quality does not require that everyone is on the same page. What this new policy suggests is that it is somehow appropriate, even necessary, to “develop a ‘meaningful measure’ of artistic quality that yields consistent and comparable findings across different art forms and types of organisation.”

As Simon Mellor, the deputy chief executive for arts and culture at Arts Council England, puts it, “At the very least, I am confident that in the future we will all be better able to talk about the quality of the work we help create in a more consistent and confident way.” Unfortunately ‘consistent’ quality for the arts is itself a fiction. But it IS a fiction that seems to matter to people.

There is a fascination with the idea that quality in art ought to be consistent. “Who, precisely, is this supposed to matter to?” therefor seems an important question to address. Abi Gilmore, Senior Lecturer in Arts Management and Cultural Policy at the University of Manchester suggests that quality metrics will “reinforce art forms which are already prioritised by funding,” and that in researching the developmental stages of the ‘Impact and insight toolkit‘ they “found that using metrics shores up institutional tastes and values in a way that excludes the potential creation of public value through richer understanding of arts experience.” In other words, by assuming quality in the arts is subject merely to consistent standards the diversity and potential for exploration are themselves significantly erased.

But the folks invested in this idealization have more at stake than simply a fictional account of art. They see the world in a particular way, and this does not always align with the way that art (and indeed most of our lives) gets conducted. The expectation is for things to actually BE consistent and to be understood confidently. It is, I think, symptomatic of a larger and more complicated issue for society.

One particular failure is that we are conditioned to justify the things we feel matter, and this itself is an attitude that needs to be examined. Not that there are moments in our lives where being justified isn’t of the utmost importance. Merely that being justified is not the whole of the story. It isn’t simply an issue of choosing appropriate metrics, but a misunderstanding of the nature and role of value.

Broader than simply quantification, our real problem seems to be the need to compulsively ‘justify’ anything and everything. Why else would being ‘consistent’ or ‘confident’ matter? We have the spurious idea that we can only be confident if we are justified, and we can only be justified if there is a consistent and objective support for our judgments. This is a myth we ought to be well rid of.

For instance, one underlying question seems to be “Are the arts justified?” and we make this out as an empirical issue that we can either prove or disprove from the evidence. In other words, we are looking for evidence. This is all the opening the quantifiers of the world need. Witness the tragic attempts to find the value of the arts in their instrumental benefits to society, to the economy, and to things like cognitive development. Not that these things can’t and in some cases shouldn’t be measured. It is just that these are not the reasons for art to exist. No child ever picked up a paintbrush to benefit the economy…..

The problem as I see it is that we are addicted to the idea of justifying, as though the simple act of being able to measure something were itself significant. It turns every potential value into an empirical question. And quantifying the arts is simply a symptom of this larger urge. What we fail to understand is that value is not only that which gets measured. Rather, value also resides in that which we use as measures.

Only some things function for us as empiricalInstrumental value IS something empirical. But it is not everything. We simply need to do a better job of understanding the variety of roles and fundamental plurality that values have in our lives. There are not only things that get measured but the things doing the measuring. The measure functions as a measure without itself needing to be measured, because its role is specifically NOT empirical. It is not in question.

We need to make peace with that before we can truly understand the dangers of overzealous quantification, of our seeming insatiable need to justify and prove, and of the drive to expunge inconsistency from any proper account of value. So what I am proposing is that we face our need to be justified head on and ask with humility whether systematizing quality is a reasonable quest or a blind obsession. Are we even justified in this pursuit? Should we be?

If we can place better limits on what counts as empirical we can start to acknowledge that some things are excluded in practice if not in principle. Some things count for us AS the measures, and need to be respected as such. The arts, in fact, are a way that we measure value. The arts are not simply a thing subject to measurement and in need of justificatory ‘proof’. Rather, the arts are themselves one source of value within people’s lives. We step from the value of the arts out into the world with little more cause than that the arts matter to us. And importantly, we each do this according to our own lights. We don’t even do it consistently ourselves, so how can we ever hope to achieve a secure or universally acceptable footing for broad ideas of quality?

In our justification obsessed society it is difficult to accept the occasional groundlessness of value. We resist as though finding consistency were the same as finding the ‘real truth’. But the search for ‘ultimate’ grounds is a miscarriage of our efforts. We simply need to make peace with the reality that human values don’t always rest on justification. We can’t expect that anything and everything will find some eventual ultimate justification. The arts don’t matter because of some instrumental benefit or impact or that there is consensus in any form. The arts matter because they matter to us. Simply that. This is the case entirely independent of whether quality is somehow deemed to be consistent or that there is confidence in our ability to asses it.

Culture is constructed on the premise that these things matter. In all their plurality and multifariousness. In all their mystery. We behave as if they mattered. And it is not a question of us being deceived or not, mistaken or not, but that in our acting this way we give the only grounds possible: A way of life that includes the value of the arts, in whatever form it takes, at its center. Which is not to say that we don’t occasionally get into trouble or that justifying is never important. I am not making excuses, merely pointing out the fact.

And we need to embrace that not everyone shares a similar appreciation. How more obvious does it need to be? But this should not be a cause for alarm. Disagreement can seem confusing, as if there were some flaw exposed. Not all our values align, so we often DO look for justifications with some warrant. But if the only value that counted were objective value that everyone agreed on, a consistent and confident view of quality, we would be stuck with an impoverished and inhuman life. Is THAT the point of our attempts to quantify the arts? Our attempts to find justification? A uniform consensus? I ask again, in what sense are we justified in aiming at that?

Looking for quantification and proof is, in this case, the hopeful attempt to place an ultimate and independently verifiable source of value at the center of our lives. Something secure. And we can understand the appeal. But we should still see the difference between aspiration and reality, between fairy tales and truth. That consistency fixated quest in itself mistakes the nature of a human life. We don’t care about all things because we are justified. We are justified, if at all, because this is what we care about. Caring about consistency is merely one among many things that motivate us….

And yes, there are ample situations where we SHOULD expect more than shifting sands beneath our feet. How could anyone argue otherwise? But our current blindness is the result of expecting we ONLY ought to accept justification. We have not adequately learned the difference. Our obsession tends to put those blinders on, and that is the handicap we need to dismantle before honest work can be done that has a better appreciation of the diverse roles values play in our lives. To understand the arts more fully and how quality works we need to assume the plurality rather than dismiss it in a withering attempt at quantification and consistency.

Arts Council England can do a better job simply by accepting that quality is worth talking about but that we can talk profitably in our disagreements as well as our agreement. Unless we can be shown alternative points of view, unless we can grow in what we understand, change our minds, a human life becomes hidebound and caged. Art should free us from these dangers rather than seek to trap us there, and Arts Council England should be leading this liberating charge rather than seeking its defeat.

Dear Arts Council England, part 2: The idea of consistent quality

(This is the second essay in my argument against the policy proposal of Arts Council England aimed at systematizing quality within the arts.)


Arts Council England has expressed the intention of instituting a quality metrics based approach in gathering data on peer and audience responses to the arts. The plan is in fact moving forward.

“This toolkit can be used to deepen your understanding of how well your intentions for your work align with the experiences of your peers and your audiences.”

On the face of it, who could argue with this statement? Shouldn’t we strive for a deeper more thorough understanding of the alignment between the intentions behind art and the experiences of artist peers and art audiences? Doesn’t this just make sense? Isn’t this the right sort of thing for us to aim at?

Well, if we are matching intentions to experiences, it is a further question whether the intention behind this endeavor itself aligns with the experience of all concerned. Simply assuming that this form of data collection is appropriate or somehow necessary does express an intention. Unfortunately it has some opposition that we can’t just sweep under the rug without hypocrisy. We risk subverting the very question of why alignment matters. Why should we implement a policy purporting to measure an alignment between artistic intentions and experience that itself potentially fails to align with experiences?

The situation is this: We have a policy proposing a toolkit for collecting judgments as a way of measuring quality in the arts.  As Simon Mellor, the deputy chief executive for arts and culture at Arts Council England, puts it:

“At its heart, the Quality Metrics system is about enabling arts and cultural organisations to enter a structured conversation with audience members and peers about the quality of the work they are presenting. It allows them to capture valuable data that they can use to understand how their intentions for the work are aligning with the experiences of their audiences and peers and, hopefully, to use that information to plan future programmes and improve the quality of their work. It will also enable those organisations to provide more evidence to current and future funders about the quality of their work.


At the very least, I am confident that in the future we will all be better able to talk about the quality of the work we help create in a more consistent and confident way.”

The agenda, then, “at the very least”, is to talk about quality in the arts “in a more consistent and confident way.” The fundamental object in the crosshairs of this policy is a notion of quality within the arts.

On a case by case basis I believe this is one conversation worth pursuing. There are institutional needs of arts organizations that this would only benefit. But does this intention sufficiently honor all the experiences of actual people within the whole of the arts? People to whom this is supposed to matter and of whom it is supposed to reflect? Is the necessary question behind quality in the arts simply a matter of being consistent or even confident? Who, precisely, is this supposed to matter to?

The impression one gets from this phrasing of the policy is that the arts are some unified thing that can be sorted for consistency and only be properly understood with better degrees of confidence. Is this the experience of all artists and all audiences? From one performance or work to the next? From one moment in an artist’s exploration to whatever comes after? Across the wide and ever expanding vistas of the human creative imagination? The fracturing of our goals and the diverse paths we take in their pursuit? Is that presumed underlying uniformity of consistent quality and confidence the way things really stand and we simply are figuring out the quantified metrical means of getting there? Or is it a bald invention and we are attempting merely to shoehorn the actual untamed things in question to a one-size-fits-all prescription?

Because the intention to talk consistently and confidently about things artistic really does not square with the plurality and multiplicity of the subjects in question. Some things, surely yes, but it is beyond hubris to claim such an agenda speaks for all arts. Not from my experience. The constraining intention behind this policy decision does not align with the experience of the people who at least sometimes judge the quality of what they are doing precisely by how much it subverts the ideas of quality that precede it. Art can be fluid and fluctuating and also stagnant and eternal. It can be bold and also reserved. Demonstrative and taciturn. Tell art it is this one thing only and it will do the exact opposite the very next chance it gets. Where, precisely, does ‘consistency’ and ‘confidence’ live in that, I want to ask.

Art is many things, not all of which add up to anything approaching ‘consistent’. Art can be wild and unpredictable. And that seems like a good  thing, often. Good for Art, that is. Not a disability that needs to be ‘cured’, a dangerous beast that requires domestication. The intention to make issues surrounding art consistent and confident is ultimately disagreeable to art itself. Is there a cost to making art so intellectually tractable?

From within the arts, far from an ideal of consistent quality, you get a picture of disparity. Folks doing different things differently. And unless you account for this diverging/corrupting/transcending attitude within the arts itself you will never appreciate that quality is NOT a consistent thing. You will not appreciate that confidence is sometimes negligible and more often irrelevant for what art is capable of and frequently attempts. Not only is the horizon of art unknown, it is yet to be explored. You can’t pin art down like a bug under a microscope because art has not finished inventing itself. On the frontier of artistic creation the very idea of quality may not properly exist. We just don’t yet know what it will be.

And this is a story that is constantly unfolding. We cannot afford to be either too confident or too consistent. We might just forget that the script has not yet been fully written or how wide and truly diverse the subject matter is. Quality in art is not something written once and for all time. Believing otherwise we might lose sight of the human fact that surprise and discovery often matter more than the assurances of confidence and consistency, and that it is often the job of art to remind us of this. To keep us guessing. Surely the intention to hem serendipity and discord into the tiny cage of quantifiable conformity is the last thing any art based decision should attempt? It simply does NOT align with experience.

As the philosopher Julian Baggini puts it, “Clarity of thought often replaces vague confusion with bewildering complexity. Better understanding just leads to a better class of headache.” Understanding the arts and the idea of quality doesn’t call for a number-crunching white wash towards consistency and confidence. No. What we need is simply a better class of headache. The bewildering complexity of things human beings do under the banner of Art can be respected. It can be respected for the breadth of terrain it explores and the inconsistency it delivers. It can be respected for the lack of confidence with which it enters the world and the lack of confidence in the home it finds there. It can be respected for its own fragility and tentativeness. No excuses needed. We do not need to apologize for a lack of consistency or a lack of confidence…..

There is a reason bean counting number crunchers have so much authority in the arts, and mainly it is for the good. The arts are a business and need to function as such. But it is also important to not let that world view overreach itself. We need to be careful in not putting the cart before the horse. In many ways the arts are the exact opposite of what the counters are, and see, and value.

The ever impish and ironical Oscar Wilde understood this predicament:

“When Bankers get together for dinner, they discuss Art. When Artists get together for dinner, they discuss Money.”

There is a mutual interest, in other words, but neither does it mean a banker thinks of art as an artist does, values it for the same things in the same way, and equally true of artists’ attitude towards money, but especially that this does not mean they should be left in charge of one another’s concerns. A ‘dinner table’ acquaintance is insufficient for the real work that needs to be done. Whatever insight the other has is small potatoes in the bigger picture.

This Culture Counting policy has been adopted from real concerns, but concerns that nonetheless are only tangential to art itself. They are political and business/financial concerns, assuredly, just not specifically artistic ones. The intention owes a debt to the culture of counting that is willing to reduce things into manageable terms. This works so well so often in so many facets of our lives. But no matter how persuasive this is in some respects it is not a guarantee that the world only conforms to that way of examining it.

In fact, you could make the case that art is engaged in precisely the opposite endeavor, that of exploring differences, highlighting nuance, making us more sensitive to the places where things fall apart. When we take aim at the world as a function of counting, things have to line up just so to be amenable. When we take aim at the world as a function of creation, it is at least sometimes the case that we trade out instances of ‘lining up’ consistently for the extravagance of imagining something different. While counting aims at continuous features, art and other creative acts aim more precisely at fracturing continuity, or breaking it just enough to extend the boundaries in unexpected and disharmonious directions.

There is another issue that haunts this policy proposal: How far do we really need to invest in the idea of alignment? We perceive misunderstanding as a problem, as a burden of failure, but a serious question is whether art necessarily marches in time with its audience.

If we have to look back this far, one only need be reminded of the public and critical reception of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in 1913 to recognize that the intentions of an artist and the experiences the performance inspires cannot always be aligned, should not always align, if only for the fact that an artist’s job is sometimes to exceed the expectations of an audience and even of its peers. This means it is occasionally the proper job of a serious artist to educate, to sometimes lead into the unknown rather than follow the familiar.

The Rite of Spring is one of the most recorded pieces of music, now, but consulting its initial audiences would have only paved the way for the dust bin of forgotten history. The failure of alignment, temporary or otherwise, is not always a failure of Art. Not only is this disconnect excusable but a thing we can actively strive towards….. Sometimes in life as in art, the greater the challenge the greater the advance.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it,

The other terror that scares us from self trust is our consistency; a reverence for our past act or word because the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint them.

But why should you keep your head over your shoulder? Why drag about this monstrous corpse of your memory, lest you contradict somewhat you have stated in this or that public place? Suppose you should contradict yourself; what then?

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Out upon your guarded lips! Sew them up with packthread, do. Else if you would be a man speak what you think today in words as hard as cannon balls, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said today. Ah, then, exclaim the aged ladies, you shall be sure to be misunderstood! Misunderstood! It is a right fool’s word. Is it so bad then to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood….

So, yes, we should aim for a world where the values of art are in open discussion. That part is right and laudable. But it does not mean we are left only grasping at timid and poverty stricken agreements rather than fruitful and blazing disagreements. And it does not mean that the conversation will bear immediate fruit. Misunderstanding is essential to human discourse. It is how we grow. Sometimes it takes generations of bias to be depleted for new understanding to flourish. We need humility  and patience to see the other sides and beyond ourselves, not confidence. We need to embrace the plurality, not whittle it down to the merely consistent.

The better class of headache Julian Baggini urges us toward should include not only that consistency is neither implicated nor required, but also that it is normal and appropriate to have differing and contradictory opinions. Alignment is a pernicious obstacle to the flowering of creativity. The future that Simon Mellor paints and this policy aspires to is one in which ‘art’ is understood, as at the dinner table of bankers, but it is no longer art at all.


There goes philosophy

This is a comment I left for Hans Sluga’s blog post on yet another University shuttering the doors of its (in this case graduate) philosophy department:


I feel conflicted. While I agree that “Philosophy and the humanities in general need to rethink where they are and what they are doing”, I also wonder if we are exacting that as the price of being surrounded by an agenda which finds value almost entirely in what can be justified and how it can be justified. Philosophy could be doing so much better, should be doing so much better than the “insider business” it occupies itself with, but doing better is itself doing better philosophy. You can’t have better philosophy without DOING philosophy. So in a sense, asking whether philosophy or for that matter any of the arts and humanities are ‘justified’ is merely a commitment to the idea that these are things that need to be measured in some sense.

And of course there are plenty of valid reasons for wanting to measure them! But the mistake seems to be that we defer all reputable value to merely that which can be justified, to that which we can measure. What it fails to capture is that in addition to things in our lives that are open questions, that need to have their values established, we also have things that act AS the measures. And while sometimes it makes sense to subject even those things to doubt and testing, what we are seemingly blind to is that the role of a measure and the role of measurable things are distinct. Not necessarily as exemplified by the things under scrutiny, but in how-they-function-in-our-lives. What is the cost of failing to adequately recognize the difference?

What I’m getting at is that when we doubt the value of things like philosophy, things like the humanities, things like the arts, we forget that these are also things which have a proper place at the center of ways that (some) people interact with the world. They are part of our meaning-making. They are often in important ways how-we-come-to-measure-value-in-the-world. That is, they sometimes ARE our measures. And at least occasionally when you try to measure the measure things get confusing if not downright messy.

We are doing what Procrustes did, in other words. Rather than respecting the value that things have in themselves as part of our lives, we subject those measures to often violent and catastrophic alterations. To measure a thing something else has to hold fast, remain aloof from the actual testing and doubts. What happens if the thing that was in other circumstances removed from the game of doubt and inquiry is suddenly on the receiving end?

Normally we measure how well a bed fits by whether IT is too long or too short for US. We are the measure of the bed. In Procrustes’ world the bed is what measures US, and his guests were themselves either stretched out or amputated to make them fit. It is a question whether this sort of maiming is always necessary or merely a consequence of the lengths we go to subject anything and everything to being ‘justified’.

There may be very good reasons why philosophy is unsustainable in academia. I think it would be tragic if we lost philosophy, the humanities, and the arts from things people studied. But another question is what human life would actually BE without these things? I’m not saying that people don’t do very well already in their absence. Forms of life abound that are largely untouched by deep thoughts, literature, and museums. What I’m asking is what life would look like where the ideals and practices we know under those names were simply gone from the world.

The point I’m making, in this round about way, is that when we start questioning everything, as if everything either stood or fell on its ability to be justified, what we are ignoring is that underneath all our practices is simply a form of life where many such things are just what we do. They ARE us. And they are not present in our lives by reason of or because we are necessarily justified in doing them.

We are often so occupied with the foreground of deciding where things fit in our lives that we entirely miss the background that our life HAS a place for many things. It is something that goes unnoticed by us, is unquestioned, and yet without which none of our foreground concerns would even make sense. I take that as at least part of the concern Wittgenstein had in On Certainty (and of course elsewhere).

Sorry this is such a long ramble down that road and maybe only tangential to your own concerns in raising these issues. Not many people seem to be worried by our Procrustean temptations, much less willing to talk about them. I suggest them here because I firmly believe that avoiding the issue gets us ever deeper into confusions that not only hamstring the practice of philosophy but tangle things up in our daily lives with senseless amputations and other violent tortures.

Justice Potter Stewart: “I know it when I see it”

“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [“hard-core pornography”], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.” -Justice Potter Stewart, 1964

I think interpreting Stewart’s words as mere ‘gut feeling’ is a discredit to how we see what we see. If gut feelings are merely personal characteristics then in this case it is entirely out of place.

For example, we know the color blue when we see it, and no one would call that a ‘gut feeling’. Knowing ‘blue’ depends on what we have learned, and yet it is difficult to explain what blue is. “It’s that”, we can say, pointing to something blue, we can name blue things, but not necessarily say how we make that determination. We can compare it with other colors, give it a place in a system of concepts and practices, but it may go no farther than that. In the end we may be left with only “This is what we call ‘blue'”, nothing more. (Compare with ‘pornography’)

As Wittgenstein says, we learn to play the game, often without having been explicitly instructed what the rules are (On Certainty, 95). An important consideration.

We do not use concepts only at the point where things are fully explained.

Have you ever heard of the illusion of explanatory depth? Examples are things like knowing how to use a zipper and yet not being able to explain how zippers work. Another one is that most folks have ridden bicycles at one time or another, or at least seen them ridden by others, and yet when asked to draw what one looks like many people invariable get the relation of parts wrong.

Our ability to effectively navigate the world does not depend on our ability to have it explained, much less the condition of it already being explained for us. And it is not our ‘gut’ alone that makes up the difference in the unexplained. This is why understanding Wittgenstein is so crucial.

“I want you to remember that words have those meanings which we have given them; and we give them meanings by explanations. I may have given a definition of a word and used the word accordingly, or those who taught me the use of the word may have given me the explanation. Or else we might, by the explanation of a word, mean the explanation which, on being asked, we are ready to give. That is, if we ARE ready to give any explanation; in most cases we aren’t. Many words in this sense then don’t have a strict meaning. But this is not a defect. To think it is would be like saying that the light of my reading lamp is no real light at all because it has no sharp boundary.” The Blue and Brown Books, p. 27

We simply don’t always explicitly understand the ‘why’ or ‘what’ of things we are familiar with. Or need to. As Wittgenstein also notes, at the end of the day it often comes down to simply “This is what we do.” And “I know it when I see it” is precisely another expression of that. The need for necessary explanations has been eliminated, postponed, or at least cordoned off.

And if knowing it when we see it is mere gut feeling, then so too is using zippers, knowing what a bike is, recognizing the taste of coffee, knowing which colors are what, and in fact much (if not most) of what we are familiar with in our lives. And that is of course nonsense. We just don’t operate against a background where everything either IS fully explained or even necessarily CAN be explained. We need to learn to see this as not always being a defect and not always a reliance on personal gut feelings or instinct. It is simply how human life gets on. Understand that.

The conclusion, then, is that it is NOT ‘gut feeling’ which alone stands familiar on the other side of a fully explained world. This too needs to be fully recognized and accepted.

The role of measures

Today is the anniversary of Wittgenstein’s death. Somehow that seems important to me, in the wake of having just been told I’ve got cancer. Wittgenstein died from prostate cancer, but he worked on his ideas until the last days of his life. I will take that as inspiration. In the time that is left me there is something I still have to do. This one theme that occupies my thoughts and is seemingly given to me alone to hash out. I apologize if I repeat myself…..


You hold in your hand a ruler, or a yardstick, and approach a length of wood. Placing the measure alongside the board you read off “9 3/4 inches”. You approach something else and take its measurement. And so on and so forth. This, among other things, is how we learn to measure. This is what we call ‘measuring’.

So the picture we have of measuring is often simply putting ourselves in the position to take a reading, and it seems everything around us is equally subject to finding its measurement. But say one of the objects you make the comparison with is another ruler or yardstick. Can we measure the length of a yardstick with a ruler? Is that called ‘measuring’?

The problem is that measuring has two parts, and it almost seems as though we were blind to one of them. We obsess with getting our results, but somehow it often appears that we lose touch with what it is to measure and what does the measuring. The thing to be measured is an empirical question, results to be determined, and yet the measure itself stands outside that. The role of measures, rather, is something else. And not respecting the measure for a measure at least sometimes has unfortunate consequences.

For instance, the myth of Procrustes tells the tale of travelers visiting Procrustes’ inn and being guaranteed that the bed for overnight stays would fit them. Normally we measure the fit of the bed by how well we, the person, can comfortably lie in it. The person measures the bed. But Procrustes had another idea. His bed was one size, and it was used to measure the guests instead. The myth dramatizes this upending of normal practice by having Procrustes stretching out too short travelers and lopping off the excess of too tall ones. A grisly solution!

In other words, it matters what gets used as the measure.

Sometimes it makes sense to measure measures. We have needs that are external to particular measures and it makes sense to subject them to some relevant comparison. In today’s world it seems almost everything can be measured in some way. In fact, we are typically so overwhelmed with consequences that things often only seem justified if they can be measured for the right value. Does the Philosophy department deserve more funding or less? Are the arts worth supporting with tax dollars? The question is, is our rush to measure necessarily the right way to look at a thing, or are we continuously and blithely jumping into Procrustes’ bed, mistaking the measure for the thing measured.

In getting my head around this issue I am focused on measures specifically, but Wittgenstein noticed this difference in perhaps more general terms. He talked a great bit about ‘hinges’ in On Certainty, but in general his discussion there seems to be an attempt to show the difference between what things operate empirically for us, and those which do not. His beef with Moore that sets off the notes compiled as the book is specifically an objection that the things Moore claims to ‘know’ are in fact no such thing. They are not the sorts of things we subject to doubt, and we do not test them for proof. They are things we have set aside from the stream of empirical questioning.

Nor are they things we simply see, as if reading them straight off from the world. Rather, they are placed in our lives in positions about which the rest flows. Just as hinges hold fast so that the door may rotate about, such things operate as the still points removed from the trials of empirical indecision. And they do so not from the necessity of their own nature as much as that they are placed there through the practices and history of our patterns of life.

In other words, we often choose how to measure the world rather than the world necessarily dictating its own terms. And it has to be said that the measures are not one thing either. If measuring is a practice it has practical purposes. Or, it is simply what we do. There are different uses and a variety of ways they get applied in our lives, and from the outside some of them may seem to not make much sense.

I remember being struck by Wittgenstein’s observation in the early part of Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics:

How should we get into conflict with truth, if our foot rules were made of very soft rubber instead of wood and steel? – “Well, we shouldn’t get to know the correct measurement of the table.” – You mean: we should not get, or could not be sure of getting, that measurement which we get with our rigid rulers. So if you had measured the table with the elastic rulers and said it measured five feet by our usual way of measuring, you would be wrong; but if you say that it measured five feet by your way of measuring, that is correct. – “But surely that isn’t measuring at all!” – It is similar to our measuring and capable, in certain circumstances, of fulfilling ‘practical purposes’. (A shopkeeper might use it to treat different customers differently.) [RFM I §5b]

In other words, as Wittgenstein might entreat us, we measure as part of the lives we lead, because of the specific forms of life we are involved in. It is THAT which we ought to more properly acknowledge.


What is the difference between loving someone because of their endearing qualities and appreciating a person’s qualities because we love them? What thing measures what? How often do we find that qualities which would be a turn off in others are especially appealing in those we love? We simply see them differently.

What is the difference between holding that a box is strong and therefor will contain these things, and determining that a box is strong because it can contain these things? The boundary of what we take as empirical seems to depend on the difference between what we accept and what we feel needs testing, proof, or justification. We go throughout our daily life not subjecting every possible thing to every possible doubt. Some things simply hold fast and are not questioned unless exceptional circumstances impress that need on us.

You walk into a room and there are several people sitting and standing around a table looking at playing cards. There are two observations. That something is a game, and the kind of game it is. That people are playing is not doubted, but it is a mystery whether there are two players or four, for instance, what rules are being enforced, the objectives, and what winning moves, if any, there are.

That something is being played as a game is often beyond doubt, that it IS a game, but the specifics can still be determined. We don’t test that it is a game. That stands before us as accepted. That is the necessary starting point. If we doubted that there might not be much to hold onto. And yet the nature of the game is in doubt. Our empirical investigations only begin after we have framed the question properly, anchoring our questions in what we already accept.

But there are grey areas. You walk into a contemporary gallery and see a pile of clothes on the floor. Did someone leave their laundry out by mistake? Is it Art? Or simply bad art? It might even be ‘good’ art…..

The point is that when we learn what things are, what roles they have in our lives, some aspects are left in question and others are removed from doubts and from testing, and indeed from justifications too.


I just poked my nose back into Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics, and one consistent theme is that calculations, like 12 x 12, are not empirical. That is, they are not experiments we simply determine values for. So many things can have the appearance of being empirical, and this impresses itself on us. But that impression may have more to do with our obsession with ‘results’, and the unfortunate lack of awareness we seem to have for what is other than empirical…… Consider,

If 2 and 2 apples add up to only 3 apples, i.e. if there are 3 apples there
after I have put down two and again two, I don’t say: “So after all 2 +
2 are not always 4”; but “Somehow one must have gone”. [RFM I

Severin Schroeder explains this as well as I ever could, so I give you his words from the essay, Mathematics and Forms of Life, in the Nordic Wittgenstein Review Special Issue 2015 • Wittgenstein and Forms of Life

That is to say, when on the basis of my experience with nuts and
apples etc. I put forward the sum ‘2 + 2 = 4’ it is not presented as
an empirical generalisation, but as a rule or norm of representation,
which means that it is made immune from empirical falsification.
We will insist on it even where experience seems to contradict it: in
that case we declare our experience as inaccurate. We say that
something else must have happened that we didn’t see.
However, even though no conflicting experience can falsify a
mathematical proposition, repeated conflicting experiences can
undermine its usefulness. If putting together pairs of apples
frequently resulted in more or fewer than 4 apples, we would have
to say that our arithmetic was not applicable to apples; as, in fact, it
is not applicable to drops of water (one and one make one) or
measures of different liquids (one quart of alcohol and one quart of
water yield only 1.8 quarts of vodka).


Schroeder’s example of the drops of water reminds me of what I have been thinking about heap paradoxes. For instance, a $20 bill cut in quarters is not 4 parts of $5 each. We do not treat money as divisible in that way. There is a difference between treating something as subject to experiment, testing, manipulation, etc., and treating it as a measure in itself. We can count the money, yes, but each bill is an indivisible measure of value in its own right.

And similarly with heaps and bald people. Those are determinations we make as easily as we identify something as a game (my example above). We don’t need to prove that a person is bald, merely see them as such. A heap is a heap without the need for testing. Call it a ‘norm of representation’ rather than an empirical question determined by counting grains or hairs. The two roles are, in this case, distinct.

In our daily life we remove certain things from the uncertainties. We could change the way we behaved and put ‘bald’ and ‘heap’ back among the testable things. That is of course possible, but this difference is only ever an example of the contingency of cultural practices. What WE do with certain things in our daily life.

We could, for instance, also officially accept parts of $ bills as legitimate currency (In Medieval England cut pennies [farthings] were accepted practice to make change).

John Cut.jpg

Life could play out in those different ways. It could be other than it is in important ways. Which is why Wittgenstein so often resorted to testing our assumptions by imagining a different form of life. The still points we assume could get overturned and some other variable things stiffen and form new references.

From On Certainty:

94. But I did not get my picture of the world by satisfying myself of its correctness; nor do I have it because I am satisfied of its correctness. No: it is the inherited background against which I distinguish between true and false.

95. The propositions describing this world-picture might be part of a kind of mythology. And their role is like that of rules of a game; and the game can be learned purely practically, without learning any explicit rules.

96. It might be imagined that some propositions, of the form of empirical propositions, were hardened and functioned as channels for such empirical propositions as were not hardened but fluid; and that this relation altered with time, in that fluid propositions hardened, and hard ones became fluid.

97. The mythology may change back into a state of flux, the river-bed of thoughts may shift. But I distinguish between the movement of the waters on the river-bed and the shift of the bed itself; though there is not a sharp division of the one from the other.

98. But if someone were to say “So logic too is an empirical science” he would be wrong. Yet this is right: the same proposition may get treated at one time as something to test by experience, at another as a rule of testing.

99. And the bank of that river consists partly of hard rock, subject to no alteration or only to an imperceptible one, partly of sand, which now in one place now in another gets washed away, or deposited.


Last observation. Another way of looking at these differences is that some can be identified as ‘deliberative’ in nature while others are more ‘automatic’. An interesting parallel can be drawn to the work of Danial Kahneman, who perhaps unsurprisingly studied Wittgenstein in grad school. In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman distinguishes between two types of mental approach to things, and these seem to roughly (not precisely) illuminate part of that difference Wittgenstein was intent on shewing us. Kahneman identifies them as follows:

  • System 1: Fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, unconscious. Examples (in order of complexity) of things system 1 can do:
    • see that an object is at a greater distance than another
    • localize the source of a specific sound
    • complete the phrase “war and …”
    • display disgust when seeing a gruesome image
    • solve 2+2=?
    • read a text on a billboard
    • drive a car on an empty road
    • come up with a good chess move (if you’re a chess master)
    • understand simple sentences
    • connect the description ‘quiet and structured person with an eye for details’ to a specific job
  • System 2: Slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, conscious. Examples of things system 2 can do:
    • brace yourself before the start of a sprint
    • point your attention towards the clowns at the circus
    • point your attention towards someone at a loud party
    • look out for the woman with the grey hair
    • dig into your memory to recognize a sound
    • sustain a higher than normal walking rate
    • determine the appropriateness of a behavior in a social setting
    • count the number of A’s in a certain text
    • give someone your phone number
    • park into a tight parking space
    • determine the price/quality ratio of two washing machines
    • determine the validity of a complex logical reasoning
    • solve 17*14

Kahneman is, of course, mostly interested in how we get into trouble by treating slow deliberative issues with fast thinking, and Wittgenstein was simply pointing out the difference in roles, regardless of speed and duration, i.e. not an interest in mental states or mental processes (his frequent example of 12 x 12 being non-empirical, that is, not an experiment, points to an important difference in their motives). But it is interesting to consider the flip-side of Kahneman’s concern, that we can mistakenly be deliberative when an issue is more properly non-empirical. That was Moore’s problem. It is our pernicious temptation to jump into Procrustes’ bed. And it seems to plague us throughout our lives, and without our understanding what the issue actually is…..

Food for thought, I hope.