Dates: 1924-

Nationality: American

Joseph Zalman Margolis (born on May 16, 1924 in Newark, New Jersey) is an American philosopher. A radical historicist, he has published many books critical of the central assumptions of Western philosophy, and has elaborated a robust form of relativism. His own investigations into “ourselves” have proceeded with a focus on a consideration of the arts as an expression of human being. In What, After All, Is a Work of Art? (1999) and Selves and Other Texts (2001), he elaborated upon his earlier work on the ontological similarity between human persons and artworks. The latter – defined as “physically embodied, culturally emergent entities” – he treats as examples of “human utterance.” Margolis argues that the cultural world is a semantically and semiotically dense domain, filled with self-interpreting texts, acts and artifacts.

Wikipedia contributors, ‘Joseph Margolis’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 12 October 2010, 06:55 UTC, <>

What, After All, Is a Work of Art? directs our attention toward historicity, the inherent historied nature of thinking, and the artifactual, culturally emergent nature of both art and human selves. While these are familiar themes in Margolis’s well-known studies of art and culture, they are largely neglected in English-language aesthetics and even philosophy in general.

Margolis brings these primary themes to bear on a number of strategically selected issues: the modernism/postmodernism dispute; the treatment of modernist and “post-historical” painting in Clement Greenberg and Arthur Danto; the coherence of relativism in interpreting art and the relevance of cultural relativity; the difference between artworks and persons as culturally constituted entities in contrast to natural entities and with regard to the logic of interpretation; the import of film on the theory of the relationship between understanding ourselves and understanding art, with special attention to the views of Walter Benjamin; and the propriety of the analogy between artworks and selves, as cultural entities, by way of treating the arts (also history, action, and language) as a form of human “utterance.”

Although the argument is largely focused on certain particularly strenuous puzzles in the philosophy of art, the validity of Margolis’s claims are more far reaching. If, through incorporating the reality of physical and biological nature, the emergence of art and human selves cannot rest satisfactorily on exemplars selected from nature alone, then certain fashionable views of science, of canons of understanding, conceptual resources, logic, rationality, and the like may well have to yield ground to ampler models that have been largely marginalized or overridden. In particular, the admission of historicity, the nerve of Margolis’s argument, invites a decisive conceptual reorientation.


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