Arthur Danto, 1924-2013

One of the leading philosophers of his generation has died

November 14, 2013

Arthur Danto was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on 1 January 1924, a date he thought may have explained his “indefensible optimism”, since each new year also marked a new page in his own life.

He was brought up in Detroit, served in the Italian and North African campaigns during the Second World War and then studied art and art history at Wayne State University, graduating in 1948. He followed this with a year at the Sorbonne, where he was taught by the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

Professor Danto continued this shift to philosophy with an MA and then a PhD at Columbia University in New York; he started to teach there in 1951. However, throughout the 1950s, he combined academic work with a successful career as a printmaker. He eventually took on a full-time role at Columbia, becoming a full professor in 1966 and Johnsonian professor emeritus of philosophy when he retired in 1992.

Notably wide-ranging in his interests, Professor Danto articulated a complete philosophical system, based on the central notion that humans are “beings that represent the world”, in four linked volumes: Analytical Philosophy of History (1965), Analytical Philosophy of Knowledge (1968), Analytical Philosophy of Action (1973) and The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: A Philosophy of Art (1981). He also worked for many years as the art critic of The Nation magazine; a great enthusiast for Pop Art, he returned several times to the question of why “Andy Warhol’s shipping cartons, exhibited in great stacks” counted as art, while “the ordinary shipping cartons of the supermarket” did not.

“Arthur approached both artworks and people with a spirit of passionate generosity,” recalled Martha Nussbaum, Ernst Freund distinguished service professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago. “His views were challenging, and his standards rigorous, but there was such love in everything he did. Because of his unfocused eye, I always thought of him as Wotan – but a Wotan with a difference. If [Richard Wagner’s] Ring were rewritten with Arthur Danto in the lead role, it would be redemption by love from the start, not only at the tragic ending.”

In his Letter to Posterity, published last year, Professor Danto commented on his “strong likeness to Socrates, that legendarily ugly man” and stated that his “philosophy of life” was “to keep living until I drop”.

He died of heart failure on 25 October and is survived by his wife, Barbara Westman, and two daughters.

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