Preferred Citation: Cassedy, Steven. Flight from Eden: The Origins of Modern Literary Criticism and Theory. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1990 1990.

Chapter Ten— The Being of Artworks

Chapter Ten—
The Being of Artworks

Roman Ingarden, the Polish pupil of Edmund Husserl, starts off his bestknown work, The Literary Work of Art, begun in 1927 and first published in 1931, with an arresting observation:

We find ourselves before a strange fact. Almost every day we deal with literary works. We read them, we are moved by them, they charm us or displease us, we evaluate them, we pass various judgments on them, conduct discussions on them, we write articles on individual works, we concern ourselves with their history, they are often almost like an atmosphere in which we live—one would think as a result that we knew the objects of these activities universally and exhaustively. And yet, if someone puts the question to us what a literary work actually is, then we must admit with a certain astonishment that we have no correct and satisfactory answer.[1]

It's true. We read them all the time, these books and parts of books that are offered to us as artworks. We do other things to them, too. We love them, hate them, ban them, abridge them, make them into movies. We study them, analyze them, "deconstruct" them, criticize them, write term papers about them. And yet if we stop for a moment and try to figure out what the them in all these phrases is, to what real object in the world the grammatical direct object of all these verbs actually corresponds, we're baffled. Everyone will agree right off that it's not the bound and printed sheets of paper, the "book" in the physical sense. Any book can exist in many different editions, and even two different copies of the same edition may well look like two very different stacks of bound and printed paper, two very different "things."


So what is a literary artwork? The question is more complicated than it might at first appear. When we say that the literary artwork is not the same as the physical book, we are getting at the general problem of writing. What is it we read when we read anything ? we're asking. Where does the work exist if it's not the sheets of paper with little black markings on them? Is it the little black markings? Is it the understanding (whatever that means) of those markings that we derive when we read them, and if so, does that mean the work ultimately exists in the mind of the reader and nowhere else?

If we ever succeed in answering these general questions about writing, however, we're still left with another set of unavoidable questions. The original question was what a literary artwork is. What we want to know is not only what any piece of writing is but also just what it is that distinguishes a piece of writing we consider to be "art" from a piece of writing we don't. What makes Jane Eyre different from an insurance policy? As soon as we start to think about it, we realize that we can't very well talk about only literary works of art. We need to ask what makes any work of art different from any other thing. What makes the Pietà different from a piece of marble lying undisturbed in a quarry? What makes a famous painting different from the empty stretch of wall right next to where it hangs in a museum? All these questions ultimately concern the being of artworks, the peculiar manner of their existence, and so the field of inquiry that they belong to can be described as the ontology of artworks.

Ingarden was not the first person to ask these questions about literary artworks, although he was probably the first to give them the kind of detailed attention we find in The Literary Work of Art . Credit for the initial discoveries that made possible the modern tradition Ingarden was working in goes to a few thinkers living in the eighteenth century. To start asking pointed questions about the being or essence of artworks, in what space they exist, how they are different from ordinary things that resemble them, it was necessary to assert that artworks do enjoy a different status from that of ordinary objects, and the way to assert this was to insist that the type of perception of which artworks are the object is qualitatively different from the type we use for ordinary objects. The thinker who is responsible for this latter assertion is the same one who is responsible for the eventual application of the word aesthetic to the field of artistic beauty: Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten (1714–1762).

In chapter 8 I mentioned Descartes and his ideal of clarity and mathematical rigor. As it happens, the term clear was complemented by an-


other term in Descartes, distinct. Clear meant simply evident, apparent to the mind; distinct meant precise, clear in all possible details. Since something needs to be clear before it can be distinct, distinct is a subcategory of clear. The two terms corresponded for Descartes to two faculties: perception and reason. Something can be clear to sense perception (that is, it can be clearly, vividly perceived) without being distinct. But only reason can grasp what is distinct since distinct ideas tend to be abstract, that is, the sort of thing that mere sense perception cannot apprehend.

Baumgarten followed a similar scheme, dividing knowledge into two "cognitive faculties." The inferior faculty is sensible knowledge, that is, knowledge that derives from the senses. The higher faculty is thought, or knowledge proper, which serves as the basis for scientific understanding. Since the inferior faculty is based on the senses, hence on feeling, Baumgarten used the term aesthetics (from a Greek word meaning "to feel") for the discipline that would investigate it. Logic was the field that treated the higher faculty. Baumgarten believed that fine art and poetry were the objects of sensible knowledge, and so they were naturally included under the science of aesthetics.[2]

Art objects were thus set off from at least certain other kinds of objects, in this case because the mode of perception directed toward them is different from that directed toward other objects. This line of thinking found its most thorough and forceful exposition in Kant. Kant had divided knowledge into three areas, which he treated in his three critiques. Ordinary scientific understanding, or theoretical knowledge, the faculty by which we apprehend and structure experience in the natural world, was the subject of Kant's first critique, the Critique of Pure Reason (1781, 1787). Then there is the power to know moral laws, the ability to decide that certain things are right and others wrong. It is practical in the sense that it has to do with freedom to act (praxis means "action"), and so the critique devoted to this type of knowledge is called the Critique of Practical Reason (1788). Finally, there is the faculty that allows us to make judgments of taste, that is, to judge that a thing is beautiful or sublime. It is the subject of Kant's third critique, the Critique of Judgment (1790).

Kant's treatises were called critiques because their purpose was to delineate clearly the jurisdiction of each area of knowledge by examining critically the untested assumptions that surround it. The idea was to establish through deductive proof the existence of certain a priori principles, that is, principles that preexist our use of them and that cannot


be objects of ordinary knowledge. A priori principles are universal and necessary. How can something as subjective as a judgment of taste possess universality and necessity? The answer, Kant says, is that our faculty of judgment, when it makes judgments of taste, is directed toward the subjective conditions of its own employment. This subjective factor is a priori because it is something that can be presupposed in everyone.

The essential point for our purposes here is that Kant set off something called judgment as a unique faculty with its own set of a priori principles, its own necessity and universality, and its own objects. If one faculty is different in its operation from the other, then the objects of one will certainly differ accordingly from the objects of the other. Thus objects of beauty take on their own mode of being, one that is distinct from the mode of being of ordinary objects.

Still, Kant was hardly elaborating anything we might call an ontology of artworks. The emphasis was in the wrong place for that, as it must be in an idealist philosophy. Kant was interested in delineating the faculty and demonstrating how it determined the object. He was not interested in the object and its ontology; for that we have to wait until the early twentieth century and the advent of Husserlian phenomenology. Husserl did not himself develop an ontology of art. In fact, he had almost nothing to say about art during his entire career. But he did inaugurate a new tradition in aesthetics. Husserl's first major work, the Logical Investigations, was published in two volumes in 1900 and 1901, and eight years later the first work in phenomenological aesthetics appeared. It was by one Waldemar Conrad, and it was called "Der ästhetische Gegenstand: Eine phänomenologische Studie" (The aesthetic object: A phenomenological study). Both author and article are now quite forgotten, except by the odd enthusiast of the history of phenomenology.[3]

I don't plan to discuss the Logical Investigations in any detail. The essential thing is what Conrad saw in them as preparing the way for his own work. Presuppositionless was a catchword of Husserlian phenomenology since Husserl was interested in arriving at the essence of thought by "bracketing" away all the presuppositions that constitute what he called the "natural attitude." By "natural attitude" he meant simply the naive attitude we bring to bear on our everyday encounters with our surroundings. Conrad decided that it might be clever to take the presuppositionless method and apply it to aesthetics. The idea was to describe the work of art presuppositionlessly, that is, in its pure immanence and without any of the naive notions that characterize ordinary perception.


Whether Conrad succeeded in doing this is not important. What is important is his focus on works of art, or aesthetic objects, as different from ordinary objects. They are ideal objects in the Husserlian sense, Conrad says, which we can constitute through fantasy but which have no actual attributes of existence, as objects in nature do.[4] Conrad then goes on to investigate three different types of art: music, verbal art (Wortkunst ), and spatial art (Raumkunst ). In each case he makes some preliminary remarks about the art form, gives a general analysis followed by a detailed analysis, and then discusses the difference between art objects of the type in question and objects in nature that are similar.

At the end of his long article he states his conclusions. He talks about the essence (Wesen ) of aesthetic objects as opposed to two other types of object: objects of nature and geometric objects. The heart of the matter seems to lie in the concept of dependence (Abhängigkeit ). Objects in nature are composed of a number of properties that exist in a relation of "lawful dependence" on each other. Objects in nature possess the character of "reality." Geometric objects, though not "real" like objects in nature, are similar to objects of nature in that their qualities, too, are dependent on each other. Aesthetic objects, however, are purely ideal objects and possess no character of reality. They have "intentional objectivity," that is, an objectivity that arises as the result of an intention of their creator. Their constituent properties exist in a relation not clearly defined by Conrad but clearly different from the relation of dependence we find among the constituent properties of objects of nature and geometric objects. Aesthetic objects are "realizable." This appears to mean that they have to be realized through an act of mind since they possess no character of reality. They belong not to actual space but to their own space and thus can be called objects without being things.[5]

Conrad's exposition is rudimentary and not very compelling. He never succeeds in giving a particularly sharp definition of aesthetic objects or, for that matter, in providing a truly phenomenological analysis of artworks. But he certainly pointed the discussion in the right direction and cleared the way for more sophisticated phenomenological discussions a few years later. These belong above all to Ingarden, whose formulations in The Literary Work of Art and later works show a true debt to the man he credits with being the first to work in the area of phenomenological aesthetics.[6]

Ingarden solved the problem of distinguishing between art objects and real objects partly by relying on Husserl and partly by departing from him. To begin with, Ingarden believed strongly in the objective


reality of the world, something that put him in direct opposition to the idealism of Husserlian phenomenology. His longest work, The Controversy over the Existence of the World (Der Streit um die Existenz der Welt ), is devoted to exploring this position. Art objects are what Ingarden calls purely intentional objects. The term is derived in part from Husserl, for whom all acts of consciousness are "intentional," which means that they are directed by the intention of the subject toward some object (whether or not that object is "real"). But Ingarden diverges from Husserl on the issue of intentional objects. For Ingarden, an intentional object is anything (real, imagined, created, ideal, abstract, concrete) that becomes the target of an intentional act of consciousness. Because of his belief in the objective reality of the world, however, he conceives of two types of intentional object. First there are also intentional objects . These are objects that are "ontically autonomous" (seinsautonom, or autonomous with respect to being), which is another way of saying that they are real, that they exist independently of the perceiving consciousness. They are "also" intentional because they become the object of someone's intentional act of consciousness by chance. Then there are purely intentional objects . These are objects that are "ontically heteronomous" (seinsheteronom), which means that they depend (heteronomous is the opposite of autonomous and thus means "dependent") for their existence precisely on the intentional act of consciousness whose object they are. Purely intentional objects can be further divided into two types: originally purely intentional objects, which exist in consciousness in the pure state in which they are conceived, and derived purely intentional objects, which must be constituted through the mediation of "meaning units" (a generic term that comprises words and any other media for the expression of meaning). Literary artworks are thus derived purely intentional objects . They are not ontically autonomous, which means that they do not exist apart from the intentional acts of consciousness that create them or those by which a perceiver experiences them, and they exist only by means of the words that make them up.[7]

Ingarden's descriptive analysis makes the literary artwork into a structure consisting of several different strata. There is a stratum of individual words, a stratum of words combined into meaningful units, a stratum of represented objects, and a stratum of something Ingarden calls schematized aspects. The idea is that the reader confronts various levels on which meaning is established, from the level of individual words to the more complicated levels where the reader constitutes and fills in whole states of being as they exist in the world of the literary work. Hence the


literary work exists in large part as a function of the reader's ability to make it real, to "concretize" it. A derived purely intentional object does not have independent existence and thus depends on the intentional acts of consciousness that make it real. This notion is what leads Ingarden to his crucial distinction between literary artwork and aesthetic object. The literary artwork is the thing that is constituted by the author. The aesthetic object is a kind of essential core of the literary artwork, and it depends for its existence on the constituting acts of both the author and the perceiver-reader.

I don't mean to insist on the details of Ingarden's aesthetics. I mention as many of them as I do for two reasons. The first is to show how far Ingarden went in probing the question of the existence of artworks and providing a set of terms designed to allow us to distinguish art objects from other kinds of objects. He has not had the last word on these issues, but he must be given credit for focusing serious attention on them. After all, how many writers before Ingarden's time would have thought of Investigations into the Ontology of Art as a title for a book?[8] The second reason is that relatively few American students of literature are familiar with Ingarden's books firsthand. The Literary Work of Art was not published in English translation until 1973, and before then only shorter writings by Ingarden were available in English. But everybody knows the work of René Wellek, the grandfather of comparative literature in the United States, who taught whole generations of scholars at Yale before Paul de Man and others like him came along to establish the powerful deconstructionist empire that eclipsed Wellek. Wellek, as it happens, is probably more responsible than anyone else for introducing Ingarden to the English-speaking world.

In 1942 Wellek published an article in the Southern Review called "The Mode of Existence of a Literary Work of Art," in which he promised to help clarify what a literary work of art is and how it exists. In a footnote to the title of his essay he acknowledged first the Prague Linguistic Circle and then "the logical theories of Edmund Husserl and his Polish pupil Roman Ingarden" as sources for his ideas.[9] The literary work of art in Wellek's view is a "system of norms" (p. 745). A norm, in the sense that Wellek has in mind, is a sort of ideal goal we have an obligation to strive to fulfill. The term has its origin in ethics, although Wellek is careful to point out that his norms are not ethical. His notion is that a work of art implicitly contains a set of goals and that in any experience of the work the perceiver is in a sense obligated to realize these goals. "The structure of a work of art has the character of a 'duty


which I have to realize,' " Wellek says (p. 747). In other words, the content of the norms may not be ethical, but our interaction with them is since the nature of that interaction is defined in terms of ethical concepts like duty and obligation.

Wellek doesn't do much to help us conceptualize what the norms in a work are, but that isn't his purpose. His aim is to show that the act of perceiving an artwork is an act of recovery, or attempted recovery, by which we seek to fulfill the norms that inhere in that work. How do those norms exist? To answer that question, Wellek basically adopts the stratum analysis of Ingarden (although he doesn't mention Ingarden by name here), referring to "the sound-structure of a literary work of art," "the units of meaning based on the sentence patterns," and the "world of objects to which the meaning refers" (p. 746). In the next-to-last paragraph of his essay Wellek gives this definition: "The work of art, then, appears as an object of knowledge sui generis which has a special ontological status. It is neither real (like a statue) nor mental (like the experience of light or pain) nor ideal (like a triangle). It is a system of norms of ideal concepts which are intersubjective. They must be assumed to exist in collective ideology, changing with it, accessible only through individual mental experiences, based on the sound structure of its sentences" (p. 753).

Not many people would have paid much attention to an article hidden away in a literary journal if Wellek had let the matter rest there. But in 1949 he and Austin Warren published their Theory of Literature, a highly influential work that became a fundamental textbook for literary studies in the United States for more than a generation, and they included in it almost word for word Wellek's 1942 article. In the book it forms the bulk of a chapter called "The Analysis of the Literary Work of Art," so the ontological question is not highlighted in this title as it was in that of the journal article. But in one of the few departures from the article, Wellek names Ingarden in the text and devotes a full page to Husserl, phenomenology, and Ingarden's theory of the stratified structure of literary artworks.[10] And so it was that the question of aesthetic ontology passed into the mainstream of literary studies in American universities. I hesitate to say that this is the dominant theme of Wellek and Warren's book, but there is no doubt that it is featured prominently.

A number of professional philosophers on the American scene have written about aesthetic ontology in the twentieth century without necessarily calling it that. Stephen Pepper, in The Work of Art (1955), attempts to define what a work of art is and how it is different from an


ordinary object. George Dickie, in Art and the Aesthetic (1974), gives what he calls an "institutional definition" of artworks, one that locates the peculiar being of artworks in the act by which a certain community (which he calls "the artworld") confers on an object the status of artwork. Nelson Goodman, one of the most distinguished figures in American philosophy, wrote a book called Ways of Worldmaking (1978) in which he put a new twist on the standard question of aesthetic ontology by asking "When is art?" instead of "What is art?" And Arthur Danto, in The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: A Philosophy of Art (1981), approaches the problem of how to distinguish artworks from other things that represent but that are not artworks.[11]

Ontological questions in aesthetics have apparently been attractive to the "academy," as professional philosophers call it, in America. The line I have just mentioned, however, appears not to have had much impact on specifically literary studies. There is Wellek and his progeny on the one hand, and, on the other, there is a line that has been even more influential in recent years, one that also must claim succession, at least to a certain disputable extent, from Husserl and phenomenology. I'm referring to Heidegger and his various disciples and followers. I have no intention of giving a lengthy summary or analysis of Heidegger and his theories of poetry here. His disciples lovingly say that his theories resist paraphrase and description, anyway, because the master's writing operates on some preconscious realm of experience in the reader. His detractors say that there is nothing so very complicated in his theories and that he was simply a second-rate philosopher who wrote in a "poetic," "difficult" prose. Disciples and detractors can fight this one out for themselves. All I want to do is show something obvious, namely the connection in Heidegger's thought between poetry and being.

The central text by Heidegger on the subject is his essay "The Origin of the Work of Art," first written in 1935.[12] Heidegger's idea about artworks is that art has to do with truth. But Heidegger has redefined truth so that, instead of referring to the agreement between a thing and its concept, it now has to do with a kind of openness, or "unconcealedness of being."[13] Truth is a "mode of being of existence [Dasein ] ," says Heidegger in Being and Time .[14] But Dasein, which is sometimes translated as "existence" and sometimes left untranslated, is Heidegger's expression for man as a creature that understands Being. Truth, defined as openness, is more a relation between man (Dasein ) and Being than a metaphysical essence or an epistemological norm of some sort.

This brings us to Heidegger's definition of art. "All art is, as the


letting-happen of the advent of the truth of being as such [des Seienden als eines solchen ], in essence poetry."[15] The uninitiated reader may well not know what this statement means, but that doesn't really matter for my purposes. What matters is the very end of the sentence, where Heidegger uses the word poetry, because the simple sentence, without most of what comes between the subject and the predicate, reads, "All art is in essence poetry." What is poetry? First we need to know what language is. Just as he has redefined truth, Heidegger has also redefined language. Language is not simply a means of communication, of transmitting messages. It is something that "brings being as being [das Seiende als ein Seiendes —both these beings are used as nouns] first of all into the open."[16] Later, in the 1950s, Heidegger devoted much of his writing to language and poetry. At that time he grew fond of calling language the "house of Being" and using all sorts of mystical phrases to describe the way in which language brings about an opening, an unconcealing, an illumination of Being and world.[17]

Art, truth, language, and poetry are all related since all have to do with this notion of unconcealment/opening/lighting-up that Heidegger likes so much. Heidegger explicitly makes this connection in "The Origin of the Work of Art," where he says first that "language is poetry in the essential sense," then that "the essence of art is poetry," and finally that "the essence of poetry is the founding of truth."[18] Poetry is intimately related to truth since both have to do with unconcealment. And when we remember that the unconcealment associated with all these things—art, truth, language, and poetry—is the unconcealment of being and that language is the "house of Being," we can easily see the ontological thrust of Heidegger's theories of art. We can also see their essentialist, theological thrust. Many of Heidegger's commentators have pointed to the underlying theological structure of his thought: recall John Macquarrie's view that Heidegger's system is really just Christian theology dressed up in twentieth-century existentialist garb, with "Being" filling in for "God."

In the first part of this book I briefly mentioned postmodernism, a trend that has shown up in a number of different fields including, in the 1970s and 1980s, literary theory. I said that there is a theory of language associated with postmodernism, which can be found in its most characteristic form in Jacques Derrida's notion of language as a play of "differences," a "tissue" of signs in which any sort of concrete meaning is always around the next corner. For many figures associated with postmodernism, the reason for the instability of meaning in language is


that language is "enmeshed" or "entwined" in history. Every individual utterance is determined by the network of its own unique historical context, hence it is improper to speak of fixed, absolute, stable meanings. The context changes at every moment, the reader or listener can never replicate the context of the speaker or writer, and so meaning, bound always to a context that is fleeting and irreproducible, is always elusive. It's a style of thinking that easily moves between postmodern critics of despair like Paul de Man, who focus only on the text in order to pick it apart and show that it never does anything but refer back to itself, and socially progressive critics for whom the idea of the inextricable "entrapment" of the literary text in history fits in well with the idea that everything in the world, especially art, is political (history, of course, is political through and through).

Views like these are generally not ontological per se, and most postmodernist critics and theorists have not treated the subject of the mode of being of texts. But the underlying assumptions of this view really come from a Heideggerian ontology, and that's why Heidegger is often seen as a precursor to theories as apparently diverse as the ones I have mentioned. The whole reason Heidegger abandoned traditional notions of truth and language was that he mistrusted any conception of human existence as something that could be isolated from its "world" (postmodernists would say "context"). Traditional dualistic theories of knowledge envisioned a situation in which there was a conscious subject and a cognized world of things. It was merely a question of using the apparatus of the mind to order the impressions the subject received from the world of things. Heidegger wished to see the subject as inseparable from the world and, consequently, inseparable from the notions of being (or Being) and existence that inevitably become part of human existence. Human existence, or Dasein, is thus enmeshed in its "world" and is necessarily ontological (I am using the term ontological in a general sense; Heidegger has his own specialized meaning for it).

It would be simplistic to say that all the latest postmodern, deconstructionist, and leftist theories "come from" Heidegger the way Waldemar Conrad's theory "comes from" Husserl That seems to be what Allan Bloom thinks in his funny but extravagant pronouncement on comparative literature in America, in which he refers to Derrida, Foucault, and Barthes as the Parisian Heideggerians.[19] There is no doubt that Heidegger played an enormous role in these developments in modern criticism, if only because of his place both in the lineage that includes Derrida and in the historical-contextual theories of social-activist critics.


And if one sign of the role he played was the downfall of American higher education, as Bloom thinks, another, less catastrophic sign is the presence of ontology. The theories I'm referring to are not ontological in the same sense that Ingarden's are, that is, their authors are not specifically concerned with something called the mode of being of literary aesthetic objects. Still, there is no disputing that the idea of being plays a role here, and even if it's tied up with political and historical categories, the sort of ontological investigation we saw in Heidegger, Ingarden, and others was a necessary precursor of this kind of criticism.

Once again, of course, the poets appear to have beaten the professionals to the draw. In ontology there is a much clearer connection between at least some of the poets I've discussed and the theories that came later, for, as we'll see in the next chapter, some of the theories were drawn up with these very poets in mind.


Chapter Ten— The Being of Artworks

Preferred Citation: Cassedy, Steven. Flight from Eden: The Origins of Modern Literary Criticism and Theory. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1990 1990.