In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Art and Knowledge

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Surveys
  • Anthologies
  • Historical Contributions
  • The Propositional Thesis
  • The Exemplification Thesis
  • Other Cognitivist Theses
  • Continental Philosophy on Art and Knowledge
  • Anticognitivist Perspectives
  • Literature and Knowledge
  • Cognitive Value and Aesthetic Value of Art
  • Visual Art and Knowledge
  • Music and Knowledge
  • Film and Knowledge
  • Conceptual Art and Knowledge
  • Art and Moral Knowledge

Philosophy Art and Knowledge
James O. Young
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 January 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0198


A long-standing debate in philosophy of art concerns the question of whether art is a source of knowledge. The debate can be traced back to Plato 1941 and Aristotle 1987 (cited under Historical Contributions). Some philosophers have maintained that artworks are valuable solely as a source of pleasure or pleasing emotions. These philosophers include formalists, who believe that audience members value the experience of artistic form as a source of intellectual pleasure or aesthetic emotion. Other philosophers have maintained that works of art have content, and that audience members can acquire knowledge by experiencing (viewing, hearing, or reading) these works. Philosophers who believe that a work of art can be a source of knowledge differ about the ways in which art makes knowledge possible. In this article, those who defend the view that art is a source of knowledge will be called cognitivists. Those who maintain that art is not a source of knowledge, or not a significant source of knowledge, will be called anticognitivists.

Introductory Surveys

In recent years, debates about whether art is a source of knowledge have been common in aesthetics. Introductory texts and reference works generally contain material on the debate between cognitivists and anticognitivists. Hursthouse 1992 is a good source for the ancient Greek background to cognitivism. Gaut 2003 also provides coverage of Plato and Aristotle. Lamarque and Olsen 1998 provides the best survey of the full history of cognitivism. Novitz 1998 is one of the few sources to address a figure within the tradition of Continental philosophy. Lamarque 2006 and Gaut 2006 are two halves of a debate, with Gaut defending the cognitive value of art and Lamarque expressing skepticism. John 2005 and Gibson 2008 are general introductions.

  • Gaut, Berys. “Art and Knowledge.” In The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics. Edited by Jerrold Levinson, 436–450. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

    A good overview of the literature on art and knowledge, beginning with a discussion of Plato and Aristotle and continuing on to contemporary debates. The otherwise excellent bibliography is now a few years out of date.

  • Gaut, Berys. “Art and Cognition.” In Contemporary Debates in Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art. Edited by Matthew Kieran, 115–126. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006.

    Argues that representative arts, and literature in particular, are evaluated for their capacity to contribute to knowledge.

  • Gibson, John. “Cognitivism and the Arts.” Philosophy Compass 3.4 (2008): 573–589.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1747-9991.2008.00144.x

    Overlooks some recently published material, but provides a good discussion of literature as a source of knowledge.

  • Hursthouse, Rosalind. “Truth and Representation.” In Philosophical Aesthetics. Edited by Oswald Hanfling, 239–296. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992.

    Provides a good discussion of the views of Plato and Aristotle, and a useful discussion of cognitivism as applied to works of literature.

  • John, Eileen. “Art and Knowledge.” In The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics. 2d ed. Edited by Berys Gaut and Dominic McIver Lopes, 417–429. London: Routledge, 2005.

    Provides a good overview of the contemporary literature on art and knowledge as well as suggestions for further reading.

  • Lamarque, Peter. “Cognitive Values in the Arts: Marking the Boundaries.” In Contemporary Debates in Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art. Edited by Matthew Kieran, 127–142. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006.

    Presents the counterpoint to Gaut’s essay from the same volume, arguing that, in evaluating works of literature, we are not concerned with their capacity to contribute to knowledge. The pair of essays is accompanied by a good list of additional readings.

  • Lamarque, Peter, and Stein Haugom Olsen. “Truth.” In Encyclopedia of Aesthetics. Vol. 4. Edited by Michael Kelly, 406–415. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

    Provides a useful historical overview of writing on art as a source of knowledge. Includes discussions of ancient Greek writing (Plato and Aristotle), medieval thought, and early modern and contemporary writing. Available online.

  • Novitz, David. “Epistemology and Aesthetics.” In Encyclopedia of Aesthetics. Vol. 2. Edited by Michael Kelly, 120–123. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

    This rather dated article focuses on literature as a source of knowledge. Useful since it introduces the ideas of Gadamer 1975 (cited under Continental Philosophy on Art and Knowledge), a source neglected in other introductory surveys of art and knowledge. Available online.

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