History of the ontology of art

Document Type

Encyclopedia entry

Source Publication

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Publication Date

Summer 7-1-2013


Stanford University




Questions central to the ontology of art include the following: what sort(s) of things are works of art? Do all works of art belong to any one basic ontological category? Do all or only some works have multiple instances? Do works have (material) parts or constituents, and if so, what is their relation to the work as a whole? How are particular works of art individuated? Are they created or discovered? Can they be destroyed?

Explicit and extensive treatments of these topics written prior to the 19th century have yet to be found. This does not mean, however, that there is nothing relevant to these ontological questions in early writings on beauty, the arts, and related matters. For example, Aristotle's claims about the functions and elements of tragedy (see Gerald Else 1957) can be mined for ideas about the nature of literary works more generally. And what can be made of the hint, in Metaphysics Eta, 6, that the unity of The Iliad is a matter of a set of words made “one” by being connected together?

Rather than attempting to make conjectures about such difficult exegetical topics, this entry focuses primarily on contributions made by authors who explicitly address themselves at length to some of the aforementioned questions pertaining to the ontology of works of art, either in general or with reference to such major art forms as music, literature, painting, architecture, and sculpture.

One further note about the scope of this entry is in order. Instructive surveys of the subfield of aesthetics known as the ontology of art are fairly plentiful; see Nicholas Wolterstorff (1992), Gregory Currie (1998, 2010), Joseph Margolis (1998), Stephen Davies (2003a), Amie Thomasson (2004, 2006b), Guy Rohrbaugh (2005), Theodore Gracyk (2009), Robert Stecker (2010), and Carl Matheson and Ben Caplan (2011). Surveys of the history of the field have not, however, been forthcoming, and the comments on this topic that crop up in the literature are sketchy and sometimes quite misleading. One shortcoming has been a marked tendency to focus on contributions from the last two decades of the 20th century, the one salient exception being due attention paid to works by Roman Ingarden (e.g, 1931, 1962, and see the entry on Ingarden). The present entry has been designed with this shortcoming in mind. A schematic mapping of questions and positions is provided and reference is made to neglected, earlier contributions to the ontology of art.

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Recommended Citation

Livingston, P. (2013). History of the ontology of art. In E. N. Zalta (ed.), Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University. Retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2013/entries/art-ontology-history/