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Debates about the Ontology of Art: What are We Doing Here?



Philosophers have placed some or all works of art in nearly every available ontological category, with some considering them to be physical objects, others abstract structures, imaginary entities, action types or tokens, and so on. How can we decide which among these views to accept? I argue that the rules of use for sortal terms like “painting” and “symphony” establish what ontological sorts of thing we are referring to with those terms, so that we must use a form of conceptual analysis in adjudicating these debates. This has several interesting consequences, including that revisionary answers are suspect, that adequate answers may require broadening our systems of categories, and that certain questions about the ontology of art – including the basic question “What is the ontological status of the work of art?”– are ill-formed and unanswerable.

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