Joseph Margolis


On his book The Arts and the Definition of the Human: Toward a Philosophical Anthropology

Cover Interview of January 10, 2010

A close-up

In the Prologue to my book, I offer a summary of my theory of the human self and explain the conceptual linkage between the definition of the human and the theory of what it is to engage the arts in ways that depend on visual perception and on understanding what we read.  In the Epilogue, I try to locate the book’s contribution, within its niche in the history of Western philosophy. 

My thought is that “modern” modern philosophy really “begins” with Immanuel Kant’s introduction of his “transcendental” question—here applied to our perceiving paintings and understanding literature.  This proved to be a transformative moment in Western philosophy.  Kant’s question, “How is ______ possible?” (for instance, scientific knowledge or moral judgment; and now, here, the perception of paintings and the understanding of literature) proves to be surprisingly complex, stubborn, but inescapable.  This is a question on which the whole of philosophy, and in a sense every form of rational inquiry, depends.

And yet, Kant’s own application of his transcendental question proved to be inadequately examined (by Kant himself) and, ultimately, indefensible in the form he originally advanced.  It had to be corrected in a deep way, and was, magisterially, though problematically, by the so-called Idealist tradition that culminates in the work of Hegel, roughly signifying the historicizing and cultural penetration of all our inquiries.  This, at any rate, is how I read matters.

The inseparable contributions of Kant and Hegel, interpreted in endlessly inventive ways, provide the largest, most instructive philosophical vision within which all of the most promising questions of current philosophy make their useful contribution.  The analysis I offer fits congruently within the most central tradition of philosophical speculation that modern Western thought has as yet produced.  The book is a short one; the issue I raise requires a fresh beginning and a clear sense of the philosophical world to which my argument and analysis rightly belong.