Beistegui’s Work and Idea

Miguel Beistegui The Work and the Idea Parrhesia No. 11, 2011.

This book attempts to show that it is through the recognition of what I call the hypersensible, and the work of metaphor, that art comes into its own, and is able to twist free of metaphysical aesthetics, rooted in the ontology of identity and governed by the laws of imitation.  By “hypersensible” I mean a dimension that escapes the classical distinction and the space that stretches between the sensible and the supersensible, matter and form, or the image and the original.  In a nutshell, the hypersensible designates the excess of the sensible within the sensible, and the genuine matter of art. …

I came across this after my partner and I visited a local, widely recommend, art gallery. We both enjoyed the tea and cake, but both thought ‘wasn’t it just a craft shop’. Like many things, the distinction between art and craft is something I know in the concrete, but which is difficult to explain in the abstract.

Beistegui seems to support my view that the art lies in the innovation. A commercial artist who develops and then exploits a style becomes a craftsperson, which is presumably why they often move onto to something else even when their customers want more of the old stuff. In painting, the first is often recognisably more ‘arty’ than the rest. Apparently this was first noticed in literature, but I find it more obvious in pictorial art.

 What if, far from directing us towards the eidetic core, the identity, or the full presence of the thing, the work of art were the presentation of that aspect of a thing by which it escapes from itself and joins another, that force or power by which it becomes something else? …

That is, ‘what if’ the art represents the becoming of the thing? For me, it does this best when it ‘is’, at the same time, the becoming of a new style, and not just an application of an established one.

 Insofar as it would not be oriented towards a pre-given original, such a presentation would amount to more than just a shining—a manifestation and a falsification—of truth.  It would amount to a creation and an invention.

But there also seems some significance to ‘rationality’ and perception:

 It is the gift and the training that allows one to see the work differently.  What does difference mean in this context?  It means an ability to see nature according to its differences, not its identities, and to see differences not as species of a common genus, but as free differences.  It signals, in what amounts to a different sense of vision, the ability to see two (or more) things at once, in a vision that is no longer convergent and monoscopic, that is, oriented towards the practical goals of life and the theoretical contemplation of things in their essence, but divergent and stereoscopic.

I conjecture that it is the struggle to represent a recognised difference within the confines of an existing style that leads to a new style, so when we see an emergent style we are ‘tipped off’ that there was something interesting in the subject, which prompted that struggle. Whereas in further works there may be no such struggling artistry, and – I suspect – it may even be that the new subjects could just have well have been rendered in the old style, so that the relationship between subject and style (in the context of the artist’s inner life) may not be significant: the ‘work of art’ may in this aspect signify nothing.

 Rather, he means that we should take seriously the possibility of a knowledge of nature that is essentially and irreducibly poetic, or aesthetic.  And metaphor, not the symbolic, is the operation by which this type of knowledge takes place.  It breaks with the transcendence of analogy and introduces the immanence of differential univocity in the aesthetic.  It also breaks with the logic of mimesis that remained in place throughout the history of aesthetics, and its transformation in Kant, Schopenhauer, and Hegel.

It seems to me that we can lean on the distinction between art and craft and on the nature of art to shed some light on more pressing issues. Indeed, it seems to me that this is what many artists intend (albeit metaphorically).

An analogy to Knowledge

Classically, we know something when we are certain that some definite statement corresponds to at least partial reality: that is, that we have a good analogue for the truth. Thus knowing is like a craft, and so classical knowers are like crafts-folk who represent something of reality but not the potential for art. Classical knowers perhaps know what they can know, but not what could be known by others.

In modern logic, it is recognised that some realities, such as ‘atoms’, are not wholly classically knowable: their essence has something beyond what be captured by analogy. Instead reality provides a base for metaphors. An advance beyond the craft approach to knowledge, then, is to recognize when it would be a mistake to take any statement as an analogy, and to recognize it as a metaphor, or perhaps as an uncertain or imperfect analogy.


If theories and models are never certain, precise, analogies, but metaphors, then – in addition to the type of updating with experience exemplified by classical logic and Baye’s rule – it is appropriate to update the ‘style’ or ‘frame’ for our knowledge with experience, as it feeds imagination.

For example, we might have a model of the solar system based on the notion that the earth is the centre of the universe which is completely redeveloped when we decide that the sun is the centre, and re-developed again when we decide that the speed of light cannot be neglected. These changes are qualitatively different those made to the models within existing frameworks due to improved observational accuracy, for example.

When ‘sophisticated mathematics’ was blamed for the financial crash of 2007/8, it seems to me the problem was not so much in the mathematics, as in the belief that the models were analogues, whereas they are necessarily metaphors.

It is sometimes argued that it is ‘pragmatic’ to ignore the uncertainties in any situation and to proceed ‘to the best of one’s beliefs’. This is implicit in classical decision theory and the notion of ‘rationality’. This may be pragmatic in the short-term, but misses out the artistic potential, which may prove to be a missed opportunity or even a threat. In the longer run the continual production of craft can miss opportunities and get increasingly tangential to our concerns: a sustainable craft shop needs some relationship to artists, to renew the craft.


Mathematics has its detractors, but I think that if mathematicians sometimes misrepresent their products as reliable analogies to some reality then it may be because if they didn’t they would soon go out of business: clients expect certainty, and often turn to those who offer it in preference to those who are more honest. More commonly, perhaps, clients simply don’t appreciate the issues.

Mathematics can be an analogy only in so far as it is an analogy to someone’s understanding of reality, not to reality itself. But only very simple realities have analogies: almost anything of interest only has metaphors (at least in my experience). Thus if the mathematics is a genuine analogy to someone’s understanding of reality, then that understanding must be very narrow: too narrow to be relied upon long-term, and possibly too narrow for the intended use.

There needs to be some comprehension of reality that exceeds the classically pragmatic as that of the artist exceeds the craftsperson, and this broader view needs to frame the narrower one in much the same way as craft needs to be informed by some art. (Are these metaphors or analogies?)

Dave Marsay

Comments, please.

%d bloggers like this: