Seeking big answers
PhD student Rebecca Millsop uses philosophy to take on contentious questions about how we define art.
As a PhD student in philosophy, Rebecca Millsop is working on doctoral research that’s a little different than most at MIT.
“It’s thinking, writing, talking to people, doing some more thinking, and reading every once in a while,” she says with a laugh.
However, for her this process has been a highly fruitful one that has led her to successfully address a highly contentious question in philosophy: How do we define art?
To get at this question, she had to consider the three main existing definitions of art: the aesthetic (which relies completely on subjective viewer experience), institutional (where art is anything museums or galleries consider art), and historical (where current art is defined by those things considered art in the past). Each of these definitions excludes important examples of art, to the point where some philosophers decided maybe art just can’t be defined, an outcome Millsop found wholly unsatisfying.
“You have to consider that art is a very real part of our lives and societies, we have art institutions, we have funding for the arts, everyone has an idea of what it is,” she says. “[Works of art] are real things that interact with real people in the world, so we should care about coming up with satisfactory definitions, or at least theories.”
The starting point of Millsop’s quest came from an unlikely place: biology. Specifically, species pluralism, the theory that comes out of the fact that there are 20 different definitions of a species used by biologists in different contexts.