The art of responsible thinking†

March 31, 2022

The art of responsible thinking†

Image: Wang Ximeng (王希孟) |

John Stackhouse

† Originally published in John G. Stackhouse Jnr, Need to Know: Vocation as the heart of Christian epistemology (Oxford University Press, 2014), pp109-111. Reprinted with permission.


Truth-seekers have many resources at their disposal—experience, experts, reason, revelation, science, tradition. One that is often overlooked is art. John Stackhouse explores the value and limits of art in the responsible search for knowledge.


Art-making is a means of both exploring and expressing what is, what is not, and what might be. And it is good for the responsible thinker to consider what is with reference to the information, opinion, and provocation rendered by art, even as it is good for her also to ponder what is not, by contrast, and what might be, by warning or encouragement.

An important confusion, alas, often arises in discussions of works of art as windows onto the world. Literature, for instance, is often commended to students as a way of experiencing other places and times, and to interact with a wide range of other people in circumstances quite like or quite unlike one’s own. So far, so good—so long as we recall that literature provides us with a particular author’s rendering of his or her subject, not of the subject—or manifold constituent subjects—thus rendered.

One does not, then, encounter a young, frustrated physician’s wife in Madame Bovary, but a thirty-five-year-old male writer’s depiction of such a person. I put it this way indeed to evoke doubt about taking at face value any thirty-five-year-old man’s extended account of a young woman’s romantic history. Madame Bovary was, of course, denounced as pornographic, and among the crimes of pornography is that it doesn’t tell the truth about the way women and men actually are. We then need good reasons to believe that Madame Bovary tells us anything about the world other than Gustave Flaubert’s mind at the time—if even that is portrayed for us in a reliable way in the novel, a contention over which much hermeneutical ink has been spilled.

Likewise, Charles Dickens does not simply show us what industrial London was like, but, like any artist, creates a fictional world that more or less conveys his vision and message to the reader. Because it is fiction, it is not necessarily any more accurate a rendering of an actual place and society than J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

What good, then, is art to the thinking person—as opposed to the one seeking escape, or amusement, or thrills, and so on?

Every account of the world we have is, indeed, an account. It is a rendering, a depiction, a combination of information and interpretation. All interpretation is, in the basic sense, a work of art, or artifice, of ‘making’, because it is not the thing itself, the referent, but a constructed thing, a reference. When we are conferring over something that confuses us, we ask each other for an interpretation and say ‘What do you make of that?’ So immediately we see that art is not some utterly separate category to thinking (!), but that inescapably, terms and concepts in epistemology overlap with or even are simply borrowed from the world of art.

Rage, the Flower Thrower by Banksy

Image: Flickr user littletinyfish, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

For art forms are languages, literally media of expression. Some are more clear and direct while others have a superior capacity for subtlety, profundity, or ambiguity. Rock music, for example, expresses certain ranges of experience, emotion, and concern much more powerfully than would, say, chamber music (and vice versa), while a symphony orchestra takes us places that a bluegrass band, however gifted, simply could not (and vice versa). Acrylic paint, oils, watercolours, pastels, pen and ink—each is a language (or perhaps a dialect) via which one can do, say, transmit, evoke some things better and others things not so well. What is made via these media, then, deserves our consideration (at least sometimes) as particular. Peculiar expressions of human interest.

Moreover, as C. S. Lewis averred, everything is real. The question is, a real what?[1] So when we encounter a work of art, we don’t properly pose the question ‘Is this real or not?’ but ‘In what respects is this real?’ In what modes and to what extent does the world that this art projects (in Nicholas Wolterstorff’s locution) correspond with the actual world?[2] What parts or ‘sides’ of it do that corresponding? And what does it tell us about what might be real—in some alternative place or time, under other circumstances, in the future, or whatever.

To be clear, the value of a work of art does not reside entirely in its depiction of reality. Indeed, art serves many valid purposes and representing reality is not even its primary purpose.[3] What I am arguing for in this discussion is its genuine value, sometimes controverted but usually ignored, as an aid to reflective thought. (One has to page through a lot of discussions of epistemology to find art even mentioned as a relevant resource.) Art suggests, and suggestions are helpful in a way that sheer facts, or widely agreed interpretations, or highly constructed arguments, are not. The way forward in thinking often relies heavily on ‘what if’ and ‘maybe’, along with what is self-evident or incontrovertible. Indeed, many intellectual breakthroughs have occurred in the realm of the symbolic, the narratival, the ‘thought-experimental’, even the visionary—and then hard evidence and disciplined reasoning comes along later to construct, test, and validate such insights. (August Kekulé’s daydream that prompted his conceptualisation of the benzene molecule comes immediately to mind.)

Art, moreover, enriches our thinking in a range of ways. It adds (back) all our senses to our consideration and thus gives us more to work with metaphorically and thus conceptually: smells, textures, shapes, tastes, weights, colours, and more. Metaphors therefore arise to expand our list of options, clarify our comprehension of problems, and open our imaginations to innovations. Art combines into new units and conversations what had been distinct, even distant, in our minds heretofore. One cannot, and therefore does not, imagine that a solution could lie in that direction, in that combination of elements; then an artist shows one a chimera, a juxtaposition, a marriage, an amalgam. ‘This could be like that; these could be combined with those after all.’

Art at once exaggerates and reduces as it frames, focuses, fabricates, and fixes into form. It positions us in unusual angles of vision, heightens our awareness, removes what Coleridge called ‘the film of familiarity’ from our perception, opens up new landscapes, spotlights relations, poses alternatives, introduces possibilities. From Aesop’s fables to Jesus’ parables, from Blade Runner’s dystopian Los Angeles to Frank Lloyd Wright’s fabulous mile-high Illinois Tower, from the dreamscapes of Hieronymus Bosch to those of Salvador Dali, from Noh masks to Picasso portraits, art nudges us, gestures to us, even dashes ice water across our faces so that we exclaim, ‘Wow, I never saw that before. It’s not all there is to the matter of course, but still, there is something here I simply must consider…’ Art reminds and it surprises, it cajoles and it berates, it seduces and it shocks, it disturbs and it assures, it unites and it divides—all so that we apprehend and interpret the world differently and better. And that is a set of tasks obviously helpful to the project of responsible thinking.


Dr John Stackhouse is an award-winning scholar, teacher, and public communicator. He serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies and Dean of Faculty Development at Crandall University, New Brunswick.



[1] C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer (Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1963), p80.

[2] Nicholas Wolterstorff, ‘The Action of World-Projection’. Art in Action (Eerdmans, 1980), pp122-155.

[3] Dorothy Sayers remarks that ‘the true work of art … is something new; it is not primarily the copy or representation of anything’. A truly Christian aesthetic, she avers, rests foundationally on the idea that human beings, in the image of God, are to create (what is new), not merely manufacture (what is already present). See ‘Towards a Christian Esthetic’ [sic], in Dorothy L. Sayers, The Whimsical Christian (Collins Books, 1987 [1969]), pp73-91; the quotation is on p83. See also Arthur C. Danto, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: A Philosophy of Art (Harvard University Press, 1981).

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