Highways to the Center of Reality

N T Wright The Arts

I don't always agree with N. T. Wright, but on this he seems to me to be spot on. There have been lots of debates about whether there are “other ways of knowing” besides the sciences. For me, the arts are clues that we do other things with reality besides know, and an indication that humans find ways to point to the mysterious and give voice to the ineffable.


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  • John MacDonald

    “The heart has reasons that reason knows nothing of.” – Blaise Pascal

  • It’s all a question of what “knowledge” is, isn’t it?

    Even if the arts are not categorically “another way of knowing”, this doesn’t preclude them being “another thing we do with reality besides know.” The arts can help us feel emotion more deeply, empathize with the experiences of other’s stories, and tell our own stories in ways that captivate and invite reflection.

    This still does not mean that we gain new knowledge from the arts, in the same sense that we gain new knowledge from the sciences.

    I can’t help but wonder if this is an argument against a straw man. One of the strongest voices against the arts as “new knowledge” is Jerry Coyne, over at


    But despite this opinion, Coyne is clearly a great lover of the arts, and frequently submits posts solely devoted to music. Just because someone doesn’t see the arts as a source of “new knowledge” doesn’t mean that they don’t value the arts highly.

    • Yes, that is an important point, although I do think that the rejection of the arts as a “way of knowing” can, at times, be part of a broader approach to things which elevates the allegedly objective and denigrates the subjective. And I am not completely opposed to that, given the clear progress that has resulted from scientific inquiry, for instance. But ultimately the only thing we are completely certain about is our own existence as subjects, and so the focus on that particular narrow definition of “knowledge” is not beyond critique.

      • “Progress” is good comparative term. If the arts are a means to knowledge about our own existence, is there clear “progress” in this self-knowledge that can be credited to the arts over the centuries (as we credit the progress in our knowledge of the universe to science)?

        • What a great question! I suppose the follow-up question is what “progress” means in that context, and whether it is separable from other kinds of progress. Is the development of new instruments, and ways of making instruments, including electronic ones, a musical development or a technological one? It seems to me that it is both – and that artistic development is illustrative of the fact that development in human cultures is not easily compartmentalized into “scientific,” “technological,” “cultural,” “aesthetic,” “educational” and other categories.

          We can certainly trace change in music itself over time. But this seems to circle around to the very question of what “progress” means and whether we can evaluate it objectively in any meaningful sense. Bruckner’s symphonies are different from Baroque music, and Bartok is different again, and then so is Beyonce. What would musical or other artistic “progress” mean? I can talk about the way Romantic-era music connects with my soul in a way that earlier music does not, but is that “progress”?

          • Yes, defining progress is difficult in the arts. Defining progress in science is not so hard. There are clearly scientific theories that explain the universe far better than ancient notions. Scientific notions can largely be disproven over time. But you can’t disprove a Gregorian chant, even if you have a preference for modern rap.

            New technologies can be developed for use in both the arts and the sciences, of course.

          • Perhaps the arts remind us that there are important aspects of life that do not relate to proving and disproving?

          • I would agree to that but would add “or progressing”. In science, for example, Einstein’s theory of relativity marks a progression of understanding from Newton’s Principia. I’m not sure that the same could be said of current art as opposed to older forms of art. Current art certainly borrows from older art, but this doesn’t necessarily make it better, fuller, richer, or even more complex than older art.

            I wonder if art might be valued more in the way that physical activity is valued. That is, for it’s beneficial effect on humanity, rather than for providing us with new information. I do think it’s important to defend the arts against political attempts to remove them from educational curriculum. Here’s a compendium of studies on the value of arts in education:


          • Is it perhaps telling or maybe symbolic that we find it so difficult to pin down precisely whether education in the arts has particular kinds of benefits in other areas?

          • Well, putting it that way makes one question the value. I don’t know of anything that I “know” from the arts (except knowledge “about” the arts like notes and words), but I am a frequenter of plays, museums, concerts, and films. I do think such experiences bring me joy and a fuller life.

          • arcseconds

            Perhaps rather than comparing art with science, a better analogy would be comparing art with nature — a venerable analogy, of course.

            We could then liken the production of artworks to the production of natural phenomena: living things being an obviously fecund area, but different kinds of rocks and other geological phenomena, or meterological or astronomical phenomena would also work.

            It would be odd to say that the evolution of a new species or the formation of a novel mineral is producing new knowledge, but it’s certainly producing a new opportunity for knowledge, because once the biologists or the mineralologists get to it we have new knowledge.

            And the same is true for art, and we see the analogy of science is actually the disciplines that study art: art theory, criticism and history.

            On reading a decent analysis of a work of art, we know more about the artwork than we did before. This is (or at least can be) knowledge in the ordinary sense of knowledge, and these subjects progress in exactly the same sense as science progresses.

            The other thing I’d say is that of course we can see science as being a pragmatic tool for getting us flat-screen TVs and cellphones, but for those of us who are really keen on science, that often strikes us as missing the point. ‘What’s in it for us?’ whether asked of science or art is the question of a blinkered ignoramus. Valuing science purely instrumentally is like valuing anything purely instrumentally, which is not giving a damn about the thing itself but only what it can do for you.

            But what exactly is the worth of ‘knowledge for its own sake’? It strikes me that knowing about the structure and function of cytochrome P-450 contributes to my life in a way that’s not all that different from knowing the structure of the first eight preludes and fugues of Das Wohltemperiete Klavier thoroughly. I’d almost be inclined to say that I have an aesthetic response to both.

            Moreover, while knowing all the details of some beetle or rock is fine and good, science is at its most interesting when it changes our perspective. Finding out that we’re not the centre of a small universe but living on a rock orbiting a perfectly ordinary star is a good example, but there are plenty of others.

            And art can change our perspective just as radically. John Cage taught us to find music in the sounds of everyday life (most infamously with 4’33”). 1984 teaches us something about the way governments structure narrative and society for their own ends… and that is also knowledge in a pretty ordinary sense of the word.

          • And perhaps literary fiction is the place where one can most easily make the case for the arts providing knowledge. Surely we understand society better as a result of George Orwell writing 1984, don’t we?

          • arcseconds

            Yes, that was precisely my point in the last sentence.

          • Great point about valuing science “for it’s own sake” rather than “what’s in it for us”.

            It seems to me that the real danger of losing the arts in education comes from certain politicians and sometimes (sadly) parents, who call for the ousting of arts from public education in favor of those subjects that they think will lead to jobs (which is how they value sciences).

          • arcseconds

            That attitude will eventually (and has already) distorted the sciences, too.

            Generally speaking scientists themselves are quite appreciative of the arts, and are often actually self-effacing about this (“I’m just a scientist”, said apparently non-ironically). And of course most scientists appreciate the value of pure research. Unfortunately, the funding game means they often have to play up (or even make up) the immediate practical value of the research, which contributes to the discourse where we’re only interested in the immediate practical benefit of science.

            (It’s even worse than that, of course, because we pretend we can predict where the practical benefits are going to come from and ‘back winners’. The really big discoveries, even in terms of practical value, were seldom made because someone already knew what they were looking for and were able to convince a funding committee of the profitability over the next decade, or whatever.)

          • Case in point: the pharmaceutical industry.

          • arcseconds


            Nationalize the research, make the results patent-free, allow private companies to manufacture the drugs as cheaply as they can while maintaining stringent quality, ban drug advertising.

            Problem solved!

            (I acknowledge it may not be that simple, but at least that way we don’t have information hiding and perverse incentives (or at least considerably reduced incentives). It would also allow research into alternatives (I mean things like diet changes, not homeopathy(*)) on an even playing field. )

            (*) although the use of placebos should totally be on the cards. From what I’ve read they still work even though you’re told it’s a placebo.