Cafe van Moll, Present and taking part in the discussion: Jan, Jos, Jacob, Mark, Marta, Peter, Stephen, Teije and Wouter.
This is the story of the meeting:
The theme was brought in by Jacob who wanted to talk about a work of art he had seen in the Tate Britain by Michael Craig-Martin. It was called “An Oak Tree” and was made in 1973. Below you will see a picture of it.
It is difficult to decide what exactly constitutes the work of art. Is it the printed conversation, between “Q:” and “A:” (bottom left), or is it the oak tree in the form of the glass of water sat upon a bathroom shelf suspended on the museum wall? (top) Should we include the information (bottom right) Or is it perhaps all that and more? Is it also the process of thought you begin as you wonder about this strange and frustrating work of art and the circular conversations you have with others about it?
The conversation accompanying the oak tree in the form of a glass of water was read out by Stephen (Q) and Jan (A). It goes like this:
Semantics and representation
Giving in to the trivially true
Does it then come down to naming things after all? Is it merely a problem of rigid designators clashing? No, this is clearly not what “A:” says. It is and oak tree and he gives us no hint that oak trees are for drinking and glasses of water are for sitting under during the summer months. He is not asking us to swap names. Nevertheless, whoever has been confronted with the work of art and has given it serious consideration, will have added a rigid designator to their conception of oak trees and glasses of water. So that whenever such a person sees either he will be contaminated by his obsession with this work of art. But that will only be a temporary problem; his obsession will fade over time.
If that is true, then why are we here talking about it? Why are we using this work of art as a thing to talk about? We do so because it reveals to us something of the problem of being. Being, is being-in-relation-to. What things are in themselves is inaccessible to us. All we have access to is what things are to us: being-as-finding. Things are what we know or think about them. What is a glass of water to us? What do we really know about things? What do we know about glasses of water? Let’s put it this way. When one of us says “I know Wouter”, then what does such a sentence mean? I don’t really know Wouter. I have met him a number of times, became happily drunk with him and enjoyed his company. I know he can cook well. I know something of his appearance and the way he usually behaves in public space. But that is all. What is this thing we call Wouter? He is in fact mostly unknown to me, mostly unknowable even to himself. The set of relationships I entertain when saying “I Know Wouter” is really very tenuous and fragile, small in number and says very little about him, just enough to be useful in conversation. Were we to talk of Wouter more often we would gradually build up a fuller picture; but that takes time. The same is true when I say “I know what a glass of water is…” I may know how for instance glasses are made; I may know the symbols we use to represent water in chemistry class. I may have heard fascinating things about water’s properties, I may be grateful for its soothing and thirst-quenching effect when it enters my body through my mouth. Does all this constitute knowing? I suppose it must. At the same time it seems experientially rather poor. This is why it flies in the face of everything I believe I know when “A:” calls what I see as a glass of water, an oak tree and I cannot even contradict him with anything more than a frustrated “no it isn’t. I know oak trees and they do not look like that or behave like that!” We are back at the general’s argument.
So what would it mean for this thing that looks like a glass of water to in fact be an oak tree? It means nothing much at all. I can still use it as a glass of water. So [being something] means [me knowing how to use this thing because I know how it behaves and what effects it is capable of in my environment.] I know what something is when I build a set of more or less coherent relations with it. I cash this knowledge in when I use it for whatever purpose I can. I can thus be happy that it is an oak tree and use not only its appearance but even its properties in the way I would a glass of water. It has stopped mattering whether it is a glass of water or an oak tree. I have been reduced to silence about it and just get on with my life.
Except that I can’t. Something is still bugging me. Let’s try another approach. What is the difference between the statement: “this is a glass of water” when pointing at a glass of water and the statement “this is an oak tree” when pointing at something that looks like a glass of water? They are both simple predicative statements. I command the one thing to be an entity labelled by a noun and I command the other thing to be an entity labelled by a noun. Nouns name entities. Entities are things we have commanded to be entities. The only difference between the two statements is that the rigid designator “glass of water” feels right when the statement fits with what is being pointed at and in the other statement this fit is missing. That is the psychological problem coming round again. But as I cannot find a mistake in “A:’s” logic, I am brought into a state of confusion and all I can do is say “Well, I’ll take your word for it.”
Ok then, another tack. What is the difference between the statement “this is an oak tree,” when pointing at a glass of water and the statement “this is beautiful” when pointing at that same glass of water? Well, the first we have already covered. We name an entity an oak tree which does not appear to fit with our expectation of what oak trees look like. And in the second statement we qualify this entity by calling it beautiful. The word beautiful does not work like a name, it works like an adjective. We cannot say: “this is a beautiful” it makes no sense. However we can say “this is a beauty”. But even then we use the noun beauty in an adjectival way. But if you think we have thereby explained the difference between the two statements, then think again. In essence we have still commanded something to be something. And the interesting thing is that this something is this quality as it relates to me. You might not find it beautiful. And this gets us to a knotty problem because it shows that something can be something and at the same time not be that same thing! Moreover it is possible for something to be something in a different medium. Whose presence is present on Mark’s Facebook page? Can we say: “Here is Mark!” when we get to that page? Whether we can or not, we certainly do. At the same time we know what we mean by that; we mean: we understand the nature of Mark’s presence on Facebook, it is a virtual presence that unfolds itself when we look at the pictures he has posted, read the comments he has left behind, receive the response we expect when we leave him a message, etc. In fact that is really all I can say about “knowing Wouter..” I know some stuff about him and can identify him in space and talk to him. So the difference between Wouter next to me and Mark on Facebook is a difference that is not easy to describe. We call the one real and the other virtual but if Wouter were a perfect hologram, able to entertain me in conversation I would be perfectly happy to believe that it is him in the flesh. Everything would fit and I would be happily unaware of his being different. The oak tree does not fit as a glass of water, but I just have to accept the possibility that it is an oak tree, just as I may accept that the hologram that is indistinguishable from Wouter is in fact him. When I call something beautiful I too am naming it, accept that I when I name it beautiful it is also an entity with a different name. But we have just admitted that this is true of everything we name. When I name Wouter, Wouter, I name something about which I know very little. I am sure Wouter is much more than what I know of him. On this basis I give him many more names: man, architect, cellist etc. The label beautiful qualifies an object but I could also use any noun as an adjective. We could say: “That is a very glass-of-watery kind of oak tree!” So there is no real difference between the statements: “this is a glass of water”, “this is an oak tree” and “this is beautiful” except that we have learnt to differentiate them into various expectations.
And what actually is the difference between an oak tree and a glass of water? There are lots of course. We do not even need to list them. But what is interesting is that they become less and less important as we move down the scale to the level of protons, ions and bosons or indeed if we move up the scale to the level of galaxies and the universe. At the atomic level the difference is combinatorial. At the scale of the universe it is squashed into insignificance.
One of the most worrying problems in philosophy is possibility of solipsism, the belief that you are the only person really alive, and that all the rest have been put there to give your life a context. It is a foolish belief, and truly damaging should you take it seriously. However it cannot be disproved. It is always possible to doubt the nature of your environment even if you cannot doubt yourself thinking about it and thus you being yourself. What being you means, is extremely problematic. But we won’t go into that now. Similar to solipsism, Michael Craig Martin’s work is fascinating because it cannot be refuted. All you can do is make an irrational decision. You tell yourself solipsism is wrong and that Michael Craig Martin is talking rubbish. In other words you are forced to be a little mad in order to avoid a greater madness. But in fact I am on the point of not just giving in, but feeling completely happy at this glass of water being in fact an oak tree. It is making the world a more interesting place; it is enriching my experience of things. I am enjoying myself.
After this we felt we had exhausted the topic. We paid for our beer and left. Oh by the way, this story is not the story of the meeting. The meeting had all these ingredients but not quite in this order or with this level of detail.
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