Suppose John asks Mary to show him a piece of art, and she shows him the Mona Lisa. In doing so, Mary seems to be claiming that the Mona Lisa is a piece of art—i.e., that the Mona Lisa has (or instantiates) some property denoted by the word "art".

But does it? It seems to me that the word "art" denotes a class of thing, and that whether or not something is a member of that class is a matter of opinion. Is Mary just assigning a predicate to a subject without necessarily claiming that the subject actually has the property in question?

I see how it might be that the set of properties that the Mona Lisa does have is such that, in the opinions of most people, it qualifies as a member of the class denoted by the word "art". So does the degree to which something "is" art or not depend on the degree to which it instantiates some largely vague set of properties?

Otherwise, if nothing is art (if "art" is not a property that any thing has), then how can we say that there really is any such thing?

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    Welcome to the field of social ontology and the question in which way social facts exist! :)
    – DBK
    Oct 27, 2012 at 23:30
  • I would argue that everything is art, it simply depends upon how you look at it.
    – OMGtechy
    Oct 29, 2012 at 2:38
  • Depends what you mean by art. Your meaning of art would probably be closest to the Greek "techne" (see Book A of the Metaphysics). Any craft would fall under art, for instance. However, you'll notice that art is more of a verb than a noun. A painting would be the product of art. So in a general sense, any product of purposeful human activity where purpose was to produce that thing is the product of art. It may just not be good art. This is therefore not a "social fact" or a property. Note that some properties are transcendental. In any case, there's no reason to slip lazily into relativism. Jul 18, 2013 at 17:37

2 Answers 2


You seem to throw together two interesting, but distinct topics:

  • The question about the existence of social facts.
  • The question about what kind of semantics one should adopt when understanding how everyday concepts work (or the more narrow question about which semantics works best in the case of social facts).

1) The existence of social facts

If you believe that there actually are "brute facts" out there in the world, which would also exist if there were no human beings (say, a mountain), then a very basic way to phrase the puzzle is: There seem to be things which wouldn't exist without human beings recognizing them as such; at the same time, they are not subjective in the sense that if you wouldn't believe in them, they would therefore cease to exist. Such things are five-dollar bills, driver's licenses, being married to someone, etc. In John Searle's parlance they are epistemically objective (they are not a matter of individual preference or opinion), but may be ontologically subjective (they depend for their existence on being agreed upon). I may suggest that Mona Lisa is one if these things.

There is a whole field dedicated to this question called social ontology.

You may want to read John Searle's The Construction of Social Reality as an easy introductory text.

2) The semantics of concepts

Aristotle codified a view which became the major (only?) theory of concepts: Concepts are categories characterized by a set of properties which are shared by their members. The set of properties set both the necessary and sufficient conditions to include or exclude some item from the category.

This view led in the 20th century to extensional or intensional semantics, in their set-theoretic approaches.

This view was first (as far as I know) challenged as a model of how to think about ordinary language by Ludwig Wittgenstein. He observed that concepts are vague in their application and that a better analogy - he never construed a theoretical model - might be family resemblance:

I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than "family resemblances"; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and criss-cross in the same way. […] For instance the kinds of number form a family in the same way. Why do we call something a "number"? Well, perhaps because it has a direct relationship with several things that have hitherto been called number; and this can be said to give it an indirect relationship to other things we call the same name. And we extend our concept of number as in spinning a thread we twist fibre on fibre. And the strength of the thread does not reside in the fact that some one fibre runs through its whole length, but in the overlapping of many fibres. (Philosophical Investigations, §67)

I can give the concept 'number' rigid limits ... that is, use the word "number" for a rigidly limited concept, but I can also use it so that the extension of the concept is not closed by a frontier. And this is how we do use the word "game". For how is the concept of a game bounded? What still counts as a game and what no longer does? Can you give the boundary? No. You can draw one; for none has so far been drawn. (But that never troubled you before when you used the word "game".) (Philosophical Investigations, §68)

Basically, even very basic and well-defined concepts like bachelor as "unmarried man" admit counterexamples, i.e. cases where conditions given by the definition do not readily include or exclude some items (think of the pope, a newborn male baby, etc.).

Wittgenstein's remarks eventually led on to new models in cognitive semantics, which departed from definition-based approaches, e.g. the pioneering work of Eleanor Rosch (who wrote her under-grad thesis on Wittgenstein) on a graded notion of categories; see Prototype theory.

You may want to read the book Women, Fire and Dangerous Things by another great cognitive linguist, Georg Lakoff, as an introductory text.

As to your question, you may want to read some work by Morris Weitz, who applied Wittgenstein's definition-less approach to the very case of art:

Weitz argued against the traditional essentialist methodology and proposed using Wittgenstein's family resemblance argument as an alternate method for identifying art objects. Weitz proposed that in asking "what is art?" aestheticians were really asking the wrong question altogether. The question he believed needed to be fundamentally addressed instead was "what kind of concept is 'art'?" Weitz used this question to propel both his defense of Wittgensteinian family resemblances, as well as his defense of art as an 'open concept.' (WP:Morris_Weitz)

  • @smlaurie77: Thanks, take your time :)
    – DBK
    Oct 29, 2012 at 9:46

So does the degree to which something "is" art or not depend on the degree to which it instantiates some largely vague set of properties?

Yes. And the same is true of almost every noun you can think of. How do you decide what is or is not a tree?

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    I concur. Since Socrates the idea on how concepts work has been framed in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions (i.e. the application of defined rules). As far I know, it was only with Wittgenstein that this very idea was shattered in mainstream philosophy thanks to his proposal that concepts simply do not work in this way. (I am not really a fan of Wittgenstein, but this is his one contribution that I'd remember him for.)
    – DBK
    Oct 27, 2012 at 22:33
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    @smlaurie77: Are you sure that two people can never reasonably disagree about whether a certain plant is a tree or not? For example, is the difference between a tree and a shrub so clear-cut that there cannot be ever a plant where people disagree whether it's a tree or a scrub? But anyway, even if for trees it should be unambiguous, think of the following simple question: Is Pluto a planet?
    – celtschk
    Oct 28, 2012 at 7:02
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    @smlaurie77: Simple: You wrote: "I can be right or wrong about whether something is or is not a tree." Which implies that there can be no reasonable doubt whatsoever whether something is a tree or not. Yes, the concept of art is more vague than the concept of tree. But that's only a difference in degree, not a fundamental difference, as you imply by "... are two totally different things." And apparently "planet" is quite a vague concept, judging from the fate of Pluto.
    – celtschk
    Oct 28, 2012 at 17:10
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    @smlaurie77: trees & the mona lisa are not as different as you claim. I can ask is that a tree, and I can ask is that a painting. I can ask is that a beautiful tree, and I can ask is that a beautiful painting. Jan 7, 2013 at 23:40

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