I first encountered Arthur Danto’s philosophy as an undergraduate in Jerusalem in the early 1970s, in a course on analytic aesthetics, where we also studied the texts of Monroe Beardsley, Nelson Goodman, Richard Wollheim, George Dickie, and Joseph Margolis. Each of these philosophers has a distinctive voice, and it was not Danto’s but Nelson Goodman’s that initially won my heart and inspired my philosophical ambitions. So inseparable was his red-covered Languages of Art from my person that friends jokingly described it, with reference to Chairman Mao’s current eminence, as my little red book of cultural revolution. Goodman’s austerely uncompromising nominalism, his lean, hard-fisted logical style, his confident, even arrogant tone of conviction all appealed to me as a young Israeli shaped by that culture’s military virtues. The infatuation did not survive my doctoral studies in Oxford, and my unqualified zeal for analytic philosophy did not survive my encounter with pragmatism in the early 1990s. Now, after more than thirty years of engagement with analytic aesthetics (both from the inside and from the critical perspective of the pragmatist aesthetics I advocate), I regard Danto as having its most alluringly potent oeuvre. This paper is, in part, an effort to explain why.
Several factors contribute to Danto’s greatness and collectively conspire to take him beyond those other prominent analytic aestheticians of his generation whose conceptual and argumentative skills seem every bit as impressive and who are likewise capable of systematic philosophy. First is his lovingly intimate engagement with the visual arts, though this is something that Wollheim and Goodman certainly shared. Another factor is Danto’s superior literary style – artfully belle-lettrist but never artificial, colorful and free-flowing without sacrificing logical form, bold but not bullying in its argumentation, imaginative but not eccentric, sophisticated and complex yet easy to follow, professional but not pedantic, precise enough to satisfy the philosophical expert but sufficiently flexible and broadly comprehensible to convey its message to any intellectual interested in the arts. There is also the vibrant passion that pervades Danto’s aesthetic imagination, a passion as richly inflected with the erotic as the philosophical, fusing his sensuous and intellectual perceptions to make his arguments intriguingly compelling even when their logical architecture seems slim and shadowy in pure conceptual terms.