Risatti and Craft After Heidegger’s Critique of Traditional Ontology Part 3

Wish you knew what was going on in this post? Part 1 and Part 2 will help.

III. Risatti’s Difficulty in Accomplishing the Post-Aesthetic Turn

As I have noted above, Risatti sets himself a substantial task in attempting to answer the question “What is a craft object?” He faces not only a significant ontological challenge, but must also make the question relevant to art historians and art critics. In other words, he must speak to them as viewers and students of art (and craft); he must speak to their experience of the work of art. Risatti’s first step towards this goal is to attempt to describe how works of craft can be meaningful to us, and in this endeavor his first step is to consider the maker of the craft object and the maker’s intention in creating it. Whether he does this because he is drawn to a Husserlian model of intentionality or whether an interest in a particular model of intended meaning draws him to Husserl is irrelevant. The result of Risatti’s first step is to place the craft-object over against the craftsperson-subject, the latter imbuing the former with intentional meaning drawn from a source Risatti does not elaborate. Presumably Risatti believes the meaning could come from any number of sources, but—in identifying the craftsperson with the meaning-giving subject—he essentially ensures that meaning must in some way relate to the intention of the maker.

In taking this step, Risatti has complicated his subsequent task: to describe how meaning reaches the viewer, and how the viewer can be open to that meaning. To accomplish this, Risatti calls upon Heidegger and Gadamer’s post-aesthetic conceptions of contemplation and understanding. In fact, I believe that Heidegger and Gadamer do provide the key Risatti is looking for in his attempt to characterize the meaningfulness of the work of craft. However, Risatti mischaracterizes the kind of meaning that Heidegger and Gadamer encounter in works of art, and thus cannot apply their theories successfully to his own model. Simply: the kind of meaning that Risatti has identified, an intentional meaning put into an object by a creating subject, is not the kind of meaning that Heidegger and Gadamer’s phenomenological approaches seek to encounter.

Risatti’s first mistake is that he misunderstands Heidegger’s concept of meditative thinking, conflating it with Kantian aesthetic contemplation. Risatti sees in Heidegger’s distinction between “calculative thinking” and “meditative thinking” essentially a distinction between a means-oriented and an intentional-meaning-oriented way of encountering things (262-5). He sees (rightfully so) calculative thinking as absorbed in what something can be used for, while meditative thinking gains access to the meaning in things “made with the intention to be contemplated” (265). Here he seems to smoothly transition from his Husserlian/Kantian model to a Heideggerian viewpoint. What Risatti misses is precisely the fact that Heidegger wishes, with contemplative thinking, to move beyond precisely the subject-object division that Husserlian intentionality presupposes as original in our encounter with things (cf. Dreyfus, “Heidegger’s Critique” 2). In fact, the later Heidegger renounced the term “philosophy” in favor of “thinking” precisely as a way of overcoming the philosophical tradition’s focus on the subject-object division (Thomson 11).

Thus, Heidegger’s “meditative thinking” is distinguished from Kant’s aesthetic contemplation precisely in that it seeks to go thinking” is distinguished from Kant’s aesthetic contemplation precisely in that it seeks to go beyond or more exactly before the Kantian description of a subject disinterestedly contemplating and object standing over against it. This is the entire goal of Heidegger’s description of Dasein’s fundamental transcendence: to show that we are, in our being-in-the-world, first in a world of things that we understand prior to any subjective contemplation of them or attempt to ascertain the meaning of them and bring it into our subjective sphere (Heidegger 162). In this sense, when I have above referred to Heidegger’s stance as “post-subjective”, I might perhaps more accurately have done so as “pre-subjective” insofar as while Heidegger comes after a long history of subjectivity in philosophy, he seeks to overcome that tradition by going behind and before it phenomenologically. Risatti sees that precisely this kind of overcoming of the tradition of aesthetic contemplation is in some way necessary, but he remains committed to his assertion that the meaning of the craft object is both a) intentional meaning from the maker, and b) meaning to be found in an object, thus presupposing a subject to both put the meaning there and find the meaning out.

Essentially, what Heidegger and Gadamer seek to do (in terms of the work of art) is to overcome the entire history of aesthetics (for a detailed account of Heidegger’s post-aesthetic thinking, see Iain Thompson’s Heidegger, Art, and Postmodernity, especially chapters 1-3). What I mean by this is that they seel to overcome aesthetics as the discipline which presupposes a subject which has “aesthetic experiences” and from those experiences determines a meaning for itself. Rather, Heidegger (and Gadamer follows him in this) seeks to understand things (note that we do not say objects) as meaning-full (Heidegger 158-64). In other words, our absorption into the world does not lead to us “reading meaning into” things (either as creators or as viewers), but rather we encounter a meaning that is really there in things themselves (Heidegger 173). The meaningfulness of things is what allows us encounter them as meaningful, not our subjective intentionality. Heidegger has a long argument about his own conception of (pre-subjective) intentionality, which we need not go into here (cf. Dreyfus, “Heidegger’s Critique” and Heidegger, Basic Problems). It will suffice to say that Heidegger’s “meditative thinking” is certainly not akin to Kantian aesthetic contemplation, and thus that Risatti has not yet really made the move he needs to: the move away from a subject-object account of craft to a post-aesthetic description of craft.

Likewise, Risatti’s appropriation of Gadamer’s notions of “games” and “fore-understanding” (8-10, 304). Risatti interprets Gadamer’s “games” and “fore-understanding” in terms of concrete categories of thought that we bring to bear on objects we encounter: objects of craft, in this case. He ignores the way in which Gadamer’s description of the game also relates to Gadamer’s way of following Heidegger’s movement beyond subjects and objects. As Gadamer says, in the game way are swept up in something—as we are in understanding—a situation that is prior to our individual subjectivity (“Beautiful” 22-24). Our interaction in playing the game indeed involves our following rules, but we follow these rules in a way that does not involve our confronting them or the game or other players as objects which we mist discern the meaning from. Rather, things are meaningful in the context of the game. Likewise, our “fore-understanding” is precisely a pre-subjective understanding that has not yet grasped objects and does not need to because it is part of Dasein’s absorption in the world (Truth and Method 235).

Both Heidegger and Gadamer’s ways of thinking about intentionality, understanding, and the meaning of art (and things in general) do indeed help Risatti’s argument for taking seriously works of craft. As Risatti cites from Gadamer: “We cannot understand [the work of art] without wanting to understand, that is, without wanting to let something be said” (ctd. in Risatti 304). Gadamer’s clarification shows precisely this: that it is not a matter of intent to find meaning, but of being open to the meaning that is there. The meaning that we might intentionally discover in the craft object might well (through prior transcendence) be the meaning of the maker. It could as well be the meaning we as subjects put into it. It could as well come from other subjects. However, the meaning that is there in the work of craft before it stands before us as an object of craft is the meaning that is in the work of craft and we are open to it before we ever objectify and thematicize it as viewing subjects. It is this meaning that Heidegger and Gadamer seek to remain open to, and which Risatti cannot be open to in his account of the craft object.

This post will be continued in Part 4, which is where I will actually come to conclusions. So that’s the one to read.–Raino Isto


Howard Risatti, A Theory of Craft: Function and Aesthetic Expression, University of North Carolina: Chapel Hill, 2007.

Martin Heidegger, Basic Problems of Phenomenology, trans. Albert Hofstadter, Indiana , Bloomington: 1982.

Hans Georg-Gadamer, “The Relevance of the Beautiful”, The Relevance of the Beautiful and Other Essays, trans. Nicholas Walker, Campbridge: New York: 1993.

Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, Crossroad Publishing Company, New York: 1986.

Iain D. Thomson, Heidegger, Art, and Postmodernity, Cambridge, New York: 2011.

Hubert Dreyfus, “Heidegger’s Critique of Husserl’s (and Searle’s) Account of Intentionality”, Social Research, Vol. 60, No. 1, Spring 1993.

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