21 July 2011


In her "Courtship" post, two days ago, Julie Heywood quoted the following from Michael Podro:

What is required, someone might answer today, for the alien spectator to have a serious involvement with the art of a culture which he did not share, is a preparedness to learn — a preparedness to exercise a sensitivity which his own immediate culture did not demand or make possible, so that he felt his own beliefs and imagination under pressure. Other people’s beliefs do not have to be genuine alternatives for us, that is, they do not have to be part of a way of life or belief system that we may really adopt, for us to be exercised and involved by them or by the art embedded in them.

I said at the time that I was going to steal that paragraph for use in a lecture today. I duly did so: it was printed on a postcard (with, of course, full attribution) which I gave to each person in the audience they entered, before I began.

One woman, as she left, paused before me with shining eyes and intellectual excitement written across her face. “I don't know what your lecture was about”, she said, “but this... [waving the postcard] ... I thought: oh, yes!”

1 comment:

Julie Heyward said...

[What was your lecture about?]

Podro endnotes the paragraph you've so enjoyed with the following:

8. I take this notion of a genuine alternative here from Bernard Williams, 'The Truth of Relativism', Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society (1974-5), N.S., Vol LXXV, pp 215-28. Reprinted in B. Williams, Moral Luck, Cambridge, 1981. For recent discussions of scientific trans-cultural understanding see Bryan R. Wilson, ed., Rationality, Oxford, 1970. Of particular relevance here is Alasdair MacIntyre, 'The Idea of a Social Science', originally published in Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume, XLI, 1967. This is a response to P. Winch, Idea of a Social Science, London, 1958, relevant sections of which are published in this anthology. The problem of the trans-cultural intelligibility of art is not precisely equivalent to that of the trans-cultural criteria of rationality, but in two respects they converge: firstly in that those who approach an alien culture must retain their own sense of art or rationality, and secondly that they must be prepared to learn. But here the case of art may seem to have a further problem; for while we may be able to stipulate minimum features for rationality (see Steven Lijes, 'Some Problems about Rationality' in Wilson, op. cit., pp. 208ff.), can we stipulate such conditions for art? For the assumptions which were in fact made by our writers, and to which I shall adhere, see Chap. I, p.15.
For earlier and more general discussion of historical relativism see Maurice Mandelbaum, The Problem of Historical Knowledge: An Answer to Relativism (1938), new ed., New York, 1967. On the problem of relativism and the understanding of art, see Richard Wollheim, Art and its Objects, second ed., Cambridge, 1980, pp 87ff., and Supplementary Essay IV, pp. 185ff., and E.D. Hirsch Jr, Validity in Interpretation, New Haven and London, 1976, and The Aims of Interpretation, Chicago and London, 1976, Chap. III.