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Art, Icons, and Idols


Metaphysics, a subdiscipline of philosophy, is concerned with understanding what is real. The ancient philosopher Plato famously used the metaphor of “carving” when describing the discipline - “to carve nature at its joints” - like a butcher separating out the brisket, loin, and flank into discrete units. One goal would be to list all and only the types of things that exist. I’ll start us off: trees, couches, clocks, and babies.


You might think, “wow, do they really pay these people to list this stuff?!” Not quite. And it gets more complicated. Would you include on your list “corporations”, or “love”, or the game “tag”? What about “seconds”, or “miles”? Are these “real” things out in the world that go on our list of “things that exist” and what kinds of things are they? Or, to be even more annoying, upon inspection you might wonder whether our initial list of trees, couches, clocks, and babies count as carving the world at its joints. Aren’t each of these made up of component, smaller parts such as protons, neutrons, and electrons?


Another wrinkle, relevant to our topic for this week’s podcast, is what to do with our concepts that seem to refer to actually-existing-things, but also seem mind-dependent. Consider the differences among the concepts of art, icons, and idols. We can spend all day wondering what counts as art - so we won’t right now! - but what of icons and idols, as it pertains to a religious setting?


What is an icon?

What is an idol?


Let’s try these on for size: an icon is a piece of religious art that is used in some kind of worship/devotion ritual, say a painting of Jesus, and an idol is also a piece of religious art, or can be more abstract, that is used as an object of worship, think of the golden calf from the post-Exodus incident with the Israelites.


But even equipped with these definitions, and you could surely quibble with them, does it make sense to ask whether icons and idols are “real” things out there in the world? The fact that depending on how we think and act toward a given item changes it from an icon into an idol should give us pause.


These are mind-dependent in an interesting way - the moment I begin worshipping something that is not God, that thing becomes an idol. It wasn’t an idol before my wanton-worshipping-self showed up, but now it is.


Before you write this off as pointless verbal gymnastics, there is something insightful and instructive for us in how metaphysics can guide our ethics. How we carve the world up at its joints can have practical application for how we act.


Suppose you have a concern about idolatry in your religious community. Armed with a concept of an idol as “any humanoid looking statuette that purports to be an image of God in some way”, your crusade to eliminate idolatry may not be successful - for idols are distinguished by whether a mind worships it in a certain way, not so much on its physical properties/appearance. You might end up discarding quite a bit of meaningful and valuable iconography in your quest to eliminate idolatry.


We also make the needed the shift from being hyper-focused on the externalities of certain behaviors in our places of worship, and concerning ourselves with the inner life, of ourselves first and those we care for.

If you are interested in how to think about religious art, iconography, and idols within religious communities, then you’ll likely enjoy this week’s episode “Art, Idols, and Icons”. You can watch on Youtube or listen on your favorite podcatcher.


Stay Curious!