“Abstracts of Papers to be Read at the Forty-Second Annual Meeting of
the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association,” The
Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 39, No. 25 (December 3, 1942), 677-678.
A nearly effortless peek into her demanding theory of art. I added
“Building and Weaving” to render the original title more concrete to the
visitor in a hurry.
June 10, 2008
Building and Weaving:
Esthetic and Technical Metaphors as an Index to the Essential Unity of
the Arts [Abstract]
The thesis on which this study is based is that all art is in essence a
semantic, giving formal expression to our understanding of human
sentience. That art somehow “conveys feelings” is a vague but widely
accepted belief, which has given rise to extravagant claims to
“translations” of artistic messages from one medium to another. Program
music, color symphonies, etc., are the result. As great art they are
certainly failures. The reason is that without any methodical
investigation of how the arts are related to each other, certain obvious
abstractions—“tones” from music, “colors” from painting, etc.—are made
to serve as the terms that are supposed to correspond each to each.
The people who know best what are the basic concepts of a subject are
those who use them. If there are common general concepts
embodied in the several arts, we should find them in terms which
painters, musicians, poets, etc., use in common.
Our most spontaneous method of expressing generalizations is the use of
metaphor. Therefore I undertook to examine the metaphors which various
arts borrowed from each other (e.g., “chromatic” in music, “high tone”
and “low tone” in painting) as an approach to the abstractable “lowest
terms” of art.
The surprising result was that not conscious metaphor, but the
unconscious metaphor of etymological changes—the ambiguous past meanings
of words now perfectly fixed and literal—held the key to the basic unity
of the arts.
There are two predominant classes of words in the language of the
studio: terms for qualities and terms for technical skills. Both have
significant etymologies. We may therefore speak of esthetic and
technical metaphors, respectively.
Names of qualities, such as “bright,” “dull,” “clear,” have shifted
their applications from one sensory field to another. Names of colors
have shifted from one meaning to another. In every case, their
abstractable root-meaning is determined by some affective property
which must be common to the things they may denote.
Besides these qualitative terms, there are technical metaphors—most of
them no longer regarded as metaphorical at all. They go back, in the
main, to two primitive activities: building and weaving.
Building is naturally the prototype of all construction. Its
terminology, its basic concepts of gravity and balance, run through all
An inordinate amount of technical jargon goes back etymologically to the
art of weaving. The reason is probably that weaving was the first craft
to yield sheer pattern, design seen in its own right without functional
Conclusion: All the arts are essentially craftsmanship for the purpose
of achieving qualitative results. The measure of artistic quality is
its kinship with affective qualities. Relationship of different sensory
fields does not of itself imply the translatability of the arts, but
merely their basic unity of purpose and technique.