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R. G. Collingwood's Theory of Art as Expression and Fantasia
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2008-12-29 08:28:23
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“The business of this book [The Principles of Art] is to answer the question: What is art?

A question of this kind has to be answered in two stages. First we must make sure that the key word (in this case ‘art’) is a word which we know how to apply where it ought to be applied and refuse where it ought to be refused. It would not be much use beginning to argue about the correct definition of a general term whose instances we could not recognize when we saw them. Our first business, then, is to bring ourselves into a position in which we can say with confidence ‘this and this are art; that and that are not art’….

Secondly, we must proceed to a definition of the term ‘art’. This comes second, and not first, because no one can even try to define a term until he has settled in his own mind a definite usage of it: no one can define a term in common use until he satisfied himself that his personal usage of it harmonizes with the common usage. Definition necessarily means defining one thing in terms of something else; therefore, in order to define any given thing, one must have in one’s head not only a clear idea of the thing to be defined, but an equally clear idea of all the other things by reference to which one defines it. People often go wrong over this. They think that in order to construct a definition or (what is the same thing) a ‘theory’ of something, it is enough to have a clear idea of that one thing. That is absurd. Having a clear idea of the thing enables them to recognize it when they see it, just as having a clear idea of a certain house enables them to recognize it when they are there; but defining the thing is like explaining where the house is or  pointing out its position on the map; you must know its relations to other things as well, and if your ideas of these other things are vague, your definition will be worthless….

…We disimagine, if I may use the word, a great deal which actually we see and hear. The street noises at a concert, the noises made by our breathing and shuffling neighbors, and even some of the noises made by the performers, are thus sht out of the picture unless by their loudness or in some other way they are too obtrusive to be ignored. At the theater, we are strangely able to ignore the silhouettes of the people sitting in front of us, and a good many things that happen on the stage. Looking at a picture, we do not notice the shadows that fall on it or, unless it is excessive, the light reflected from its varnish.

All this is commonplace. And the conclusion has already been stated by Shakespeare’s Theseus ‘the best in this kind [‘works of art’, as things actually perceived by the senses—R.G.C.] are but shadows, and the worst are no worse if imagination amend them.’ The music to which we listen is not the heard sound, but that sound as amended in various ways by the listener’s imagination, and so with the other arts.

But this does not go nearly far enough. Reflection will show that the imagination with which we listen to music is something more, and more complex, than any inward ear; the imagination with which we look at paintings is something more than ‘the mind’s eye’….

       --R.G. Collingwood (The Principles of Art)

R. G. Collingwood (1889-1943) was a multitalented intellectual: both an archeologist and a philosophy professor at Oxford University. Besides his influential The Principles of Art, (1938) he is best known for his philosophy of history. What is less known is that both his aesthetics and his philosophy of history were influenced to a large extent by the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico whom Collingwood greatly admired and even translated into English, especially his concept of “fantasia” (imagination) which encompasses both the aesthetic sensibility and the history of man.

That having been said, what distinguishes Collingwood’s theory of art are two claims, that: 1) the work of art is a purely imaginary object which exists only and truly in the artist’s mind, and 2) that the work of art is an expression of the artist’s emotion. Let’s look at those two extraordinary claims.

That works of art are imaginary entities seems to go against common sense and even the evidence of the senses; after all museums are full of works of art in various media, some of them are in our streets as monuments, architecture, sculptures, songs, films, etc. How can anyone claim that these are not the works of art? Collingwood would urge us to consider a symphony. Unless we attend a live performance at the concert hall we need a medium to listen to the symphony. That medium could be a radio, a TV, a CD, but we would not say that the work is identical with the sounds we hear via those media, for the work of art that is a symphony transcends any specific performances (even that of the concert hall) which might be given. This also applies to works of literature such as novels. I may have a copy of Crime and Punishment on my book shelves, but the novel is not my individual copy of it.

This begs the question: How are we to understand the essence or the being of a work of art? Collingwood suggests as an answer that the work exists in the artist’s mind as an imaginary object and it is therefore not identical with any of its physical manifestations in which it incarnates itself, so to speak. As necessary as those manifestations are for its perception, they remain the means the artist employs to get others to experience the work. Let us not forget that Beethoven was completely deaf when he composed his ninth symphony; which means that the symphony was mainly in his mind and there was no need for him to hear it physically before putting final notes on paper or picking up the baton and conducting an orchestra. The work is in the artist’s imagination, albeit he needs physical manifestations to make it present to the audience’s imagination as well. This means that communication is not a defining feature of the artwork, it is incidental to it. Obviously this is a radical deviation from Tolstoy’s theory of art as communication which we have already examined.

Which leads to another question: why is communication incidental to the work of art? In Collingwood’s view, this is because artistic creation is essentially a process of self-acknowledgment. Back to the ancient Socratic injunction: Know thyself. Or as Vico puts it: man makes history, but equally true is that history makes man; via history man gets to know himself.

Yes, emotion is important to the creation of a work of art, as Tolstoy also thought, but Collingwood account of what emotion is quite different from Tolstoy’s. It is basically a Vichian account rooted in the poetics of fantasia. Often we are not sure which emotion grips us. We may be aware of feeling something, but we need to go through a process, which most of the times is linguistic, allowing us to understand what that emotion is. Animals too have powerful emotions, but they lack the language by which they can explain them to themselves. Which is to say, if I am in a car accident, I may be initially aware of being in a state of emotional turmoil, but it is only with the expression of my emotion (swearing at the other driver who may have caused the incident) that I become fully aware that I am angry. The linguistic outburst is needed to discover what I feel.

In Collingwood’s opinion artists proceed in a similar fashion. Becoming aware that they are in the grip of an emotion, they give form to it via the work of art they create. So what is the difference between my venting of emotions by swearing at the other driver who caused the accident and the artist? To be sure, cultural philistines of many persuasions see no difference: everything that man makes is art, they proclaim; we are all artists in as much as we make things; which in effect means that nothing is art. Collingwood would answer that the difference is that artists explore carefully the particularity of their emotion, taking pain to understand it as a particular specific instance it is. In other words, artists are more interested than most of us in deciphering their emotions. This emphasis on emotions may tempt us to characterize Collingwood’s theory as proto-Romantic one, but as hinted above, it goes further back to Vico’s description of emotions as being primary in the forging of man’s cultural world, at least at its origins; that language itself came about via powerful emotions and that in point of fact before man could speak he sang impelled by powerful emotions.

Perhaps it is now clearer why Collingwood does not believe that physical entities or events, which we usually identify as works of art, are really the works of art or, as he puts, “art proper.” That is not to deny that those physical manifestations are crucial for the audience’s experience of art. But, as far as Collingwood is concerned, the primary goal of art is not communication per se but rather, it is a process by means of which the artist expresses his own emotions for himself. The communication of that emotion to others is secondary.

Finally, Collingwood, not unlike Heidegger, differentiates artistic creation proper from other forms of making or producing things. The difference lies in the role of individuality. Crafts aim at making things that fit a general description (a sofa, a suit, a pair of shoes, a pencil), the artist aims at creating an individual thing, this very novel or poem, and no other. Collingwood insists, throughout his book, on the unique character of the artworld and in fact seems to imply that when that uniqueness is blurred, then we may be dealing not with art but with pseudo-art.

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Sand2008-12-29 09:02:52
There is again, in this exposition, the proposition that art is concerned only with emotion which is, if one has any experience with art at all, a pitifully absurd view of an extensive discipline which contains, to be sure, emotional elements but these elements are extensively far beyond emotional concerns. And along with this misconception is that art is only significant only as it can be reduced to language, a concept which again attempts to impoverish art as an extensive medium of communication and divorce humanity from animal life in general. The revealed contempt for creatures other than human because they do not possess human linguistic sophistication goes all the way back to the original Biblical statement the it was the word which created the universe rather than the other way around. That human anger or delight or fear or hatred does not exist unless it can be expressed in language is a special sickness of philosophers in general whose expertise relies in language rather than a full spectrum of expression which is available to artists with other means of expression. For if all must be filtered through language then there is small if any reason for other than linguistic arts to exist and that is obviously a gross misappreciation of these other expressive disciplines. Art, like science, is an alternate method for exploration of the universe through other means and has myriad directions, effects, and results not covered by verbal language alone and emotion is only one of its components.

Emanuel Paparella2008-12-29 15:02:54
Perhaps it was a gorilla after all who painted the caves of Lascaux some 15,000 years ago, but if it was it must have been a unique kind of gorilla who possessed what both Vico and Collingwood call “fantasia” (predating full fledged reason) and a powerful emotion to get to know and express oneself on the wall of a cave. He most probably had language too; which is to say, he was not merely concerned with survival and creaturely bodily functions, comforts and pleasures; in that sense he was by far superior to the “naked ape” that is the modern cultural philistine with no inkling of the link between self-knowledge and fantasia. For those readers who wish to explore Vico’s concept of fantasia see one of my initial articles in Ovi at:


also at the following scholarly site (The Global Spiral) where I published a weekly column on Vico's philosophy:

Sand2008-12-29 15:25:39
This game that language oriented philosophers play by taking a word and deciding that only their definition applies is an arrogance worth considering. If nothing utilitarian can be viewed as art it immediately tosses out all those gothic cathedrals that function as auditoriums for faith based philosophers. It disqualifies Corbusier’s cathedral at Ronchamps, Gehry’s Bilbao museum and the one for Guggenheim in New York by Frank Lloyd Wright . It rejects the Chrysler Building, the Brooklyn Bridge, The Golden Gate Bridge, many of the extremely beautiful suits of armor, the wonderful woven Japanese packaging for eggs, the graceful flying machines from the early Wright constructions to the faster than sound war machines that are wonders of metallic sculpture. Sorry. I can’t go along with that. Philosophical foolishness can just go so far.

Emanuel Paparella2008-12-29 16:19:56
I am afraid that the cart has been put before the horse: it is not the gothic cathedral which instrumentally serves faith, rather it is faith that imagines and produces the Gothic cathedral or great works of art to express that faith to oneself and other, a faith in transcendent non material reality, the realities ridiculed and rejected by the materialist and logical positivist and assorted atheists and agnostics. But the ape, and the emperor, remain naked! I suggest you read seriously Vico and Collingwood before precipitously consigning them to your metaphorical pyre.

Sand2008-12-29 17:11:54
Hey! Paparella! Stop burning things up! I never had anything to do with burning. That's your idea!

I didn't say anything about what served what. I just asked if these useful cathedrals were art. Are they or not?

Emanuel Paparella2008-12-29 18:27:46
Comparatively speaking, Medieval times spent more treasure and work on Gothic cathedral than we moderns have spent to go to the moon and the whole space program. What a waste of money on mere useless cathedral! Isn't there where you are really going? If not, I'd like to hear it.

Emanuel Paparella2008-12-29 18:31:57
P.S. I forgot the initial address: Hey! Sand!

Sand2008-12-29 18:32:26
What are you trying to avoid saying? I didn't ask about finance, I asked if the cathedral was art. Are you determined not to answer? Is this another one of your dumb ploys?

Emanuel Paparella2008-12-29 18:47:46
Hey! Sand. In case you are too dumb to have grasped it yet, to go around pontificating about art, or any other subject, without having read the most scholarly and authoritative books on it, is the metaphorical equivalent of reinventing the wheel or burning those books. The barbarian of old was more honest, he burned them physically because he frankly acknowledged he did not understand and did not want to understand them, not because he thought he had a superior stance. The modern cultural philistine thinks he knows more and can judge with his own reason because he has push button technology that allows him to send instant meaningless and bizarre messages. Bizarre indeed.

Sand2008-12-29 18:59:28
Well, Mr. P. it's obvious I have you stymied. You refuse openly to answer my simple and obvious question because all you can do is pontificate about read this or that or somebody is too magnificent to be criticized or analyzed. You are totally revealed as a phony again. No sense in pursuing this further.

bohdan2008-12-29 20:26:29
I thought Art Carney's interpretation of "Ed Norton" a work of art.

Art's Art.

And after all is said and done, Art is merely an interpretation of creation in one's mind for both, the creator and the audience.

After all, aren't we are all our Creator's work of Art, good or bad?

Emanuel Paparella2008-12-29 23:07:35
That we are, and it intimates Beauty, Truth and Goodness, but not to the post-moern nihilist who unfortunately has robbed art of those three transcendental qualities and therefor is happy with art that denies the transcendent and no longer refers to beauty, goodness and truth. We do live in interesting times.

Sand2008-12-30 04:44:29
Paparella, this discussion lays out very clearly that all the speculative literature you claim makes you competent to decide what is and is not art merely turns you into a pompous vituperative blow hard when I requested a simple answer as to whether Gothic cathedrals are or are not art. Either you don't know or are just using this platform to blast out snotty nonsense. It seems most likely both is the case.

Emanuel Paparella2008-12-30 06:02:32
Your boorish mode of discussion is no surprise any longer, but if you don't whether Gothic cathedral are art or not, then you are either an ignoramus or a cultural philistine. I already mentioned where you are going with your question; it is certainly not in search of truth.

Sand2008-12-30 07:20:07
Further stupid vituperation does not fill the requirement of a simple yes or no. It is becoming very obvious you simply do not know.

Sand2008-12-30 08:24:13
What you have clearly demonstrated, Paparella, in your several essays on what various thinkers believe about the nature of art is that art, like many other commonly used generalities, means different things to different people and these various suppositions have changed, not only from culture to culture and from era to era but also from individual to individual. Some words, like art, like truth, like love and hate and perfection and faith and reality are mere fuzzy clouds of moths buzzing around a general source of light and each thinker grabs one or two or a handful of these confused and confusing creatures and claims in a loud voice that this is it, the eternal truth about the subject and demands everybody conform to his limited definition. This is the nonsense promulgated by many philosophers and even more theologists who demand that the world conform to their limited grasp. But the world keeps changing and these fuzzy minded etymological dictators are soon left behind in a world that continually moves into new and interesting and more useful areas. The petty tyrants are soon left behind where their autocratic screams grow fainter and finally disappear into the past.

Emanuel Paparella2008-12-30 14:11:57
To the bonfire all philosophers who have reflected on the nature of art. Who needs philosophers in a culturally philistine world.

By the way, I know what a philosopher is, but what is a theologist?

Sand2008-12-30 15:16:41
There are lots of things you don't know, Paparella and one of them is how to stop fires to burn books and then attribute them to others. The other, as you have demonstrated again, is whether or not Gothic cathedrals are art.

Emanuel Paparella2008-12-30 16:00:08
Yes, but what is a theologist?

Sand2008-12-30 16:14:14
See http://www.thefreedictionary.com/theologist

Sand2008-12-30 17:13:34
And finally, do you or do you not classify Gothic cathedrals as art? A simple yes or no. Or, in the absence of an answer, must I conclude that you don't know?

Emanuel Paparella2008-12-30 17:58:46
Your search - See http://www.thefreedictionary.com/theologist - did not match any documents.

Which means that such a word does not exist except in your mind and that of the visiting voices. Surely they can answer for you the "deep" question as to whether or not the Gothic cathedral are works of art. Meanwhile I remain curious about "theologists."

Sand2008-12-30 18:04:46
I placed http://www.thefreedictionary.com/theologist

into Google and got to the site immediately so, either you are lying again or are inept with a computer which matches well with your other talents.

Sand2008-12-30 18:08:44
Again you are exhibiting your profound stupidity by pretending to be clever and not answering my simple question. Whatever I think has nothing to do with it. Do you think that Gothic cathedrals are art. I'm waiting for your simple direct answer.

Emanuel Paparella2008-12-30 20:16:31
I placed what you sent as a reply into the computer address box and got this as a reply:

Your search - I placed http://www.thefreedictionary.com/theologist - did not match any documents.


Make sure all words are spelled correctly.
Try different keywords.
Try more general keywords.
Try fewer keywords.

So, either you are lying again or are trying to be devious and cute, or are plain stupid which matches your other talents. Theologist does not exist. The word is spelled "theologian."

Sand2008-12-31 07:35:00
These are several of the many sources for the word "theologist"






I am not further interested in aiding your crippled computer skills to permit your intense focus on unjustified vituperation.

Sand2008-12-31 08:21:08
I still have not had your answer, one only you can give. Do you think Gothic cathedrals are art?

Emanuel Paparella2008-12-31 23:40:28
If I am the only one who can give an answer to that question, then one can only conclude that the one who is asking the question is merely being an inquisitorial clever by half interrogator hiding the instruments of torture (metaphorically speaking)to be utilized in case the answer is not the correct one; for indeed he already knows the answer which in fact a fifth grader and even a freshman student at a school of industrial design could easily supply complete with an explanation. Given the previous track record, I dare say that one can safely assume that the “interrogator” has another ulterior agenda in mind which has nothing to do with the search for truth and understanding and knowledge and much to do with the bashing and smearing of religion and personal vituperations in which he is a msster. On the other hand if you should have been so unfortunate as to never have visited a Gothic cathedral or at the very least looked at an illustration of one, no, not for religious ethical reasons, God forbid, but for mere aesthetic cultural ones, then I suggest you do so at your earliest sometimes before the angel of death comes knocking, and the answer to you question, barring some lamentable chronic form of invincible ignorance and cultural philistinism will become quite apparent to you,.

Sand2009-01-01 00:56:59
You keep insisting that I should know the answer to how I rate Gothic cathedrals. Of course I do. But that was not the question and I doubt you don't know that as you cannot be quite that stupid. I am still asking. Do you consider Gothic cathedrals art? What's the point of all that diverse insulting chatter with no clear simple answer?

Sand2009-01-01 01:13:36
Hmmm... Maybe you ARE that stupid.

Emanuel Paparella2009-01-01 05:27:46
Let me tell you what is REALLY stupid: is to proclaim others' contribution stupid and unintelligible and still keep on reading them in order to bash nd denigrate them with one's foul and vituperative mouth. You ought to make a new year resolution to amend your boorish ways.

Sand2009-01-01 06:47:19
It's a new year, Paparella. We all know I'm a boor, love to refer to anal insults, despise your eternal squirm to avoid giving a simple answer to a simple question. Let's start the years right lan announce to the world that you are reforming and becoming a good Christian and forgive me my trespasses. And clearly state that you either consider Gothic cathedrals art or not. Good will to all men and all that stuff.

Sand2009-01-01 06:50:48
I apologize to Ian, whomever he might be, for placing him in my comment instead of "and" which belongs in his place.

Emanuel Paparella2009-01-01 16:10:19
You need to tell the visiting voices that they have it all confused in their mind: forgiving the traspasses of boors and slanderers does not mean to assent to their disrespect for the simple truth. That is indeed is the sword that divides and not to understand that is to be condemned to a caricature like picture of what Christianity is all about. I can assure that is not masochism or sadism or self-loathing as you seem to project and fantasize.

Sand2009-01-01 17:25:17
The answer, Paparella, the answer!!!!!!!!!! Are Gothic cathedrals art or not??????????

No more bullshit about boors or burning books or naked emperors or inventing the wheel or standing on the shoulders of giants. Just the simple answer about Gothic churches. Stop being so unChristian and give me the straight answer.

Emanuel Paparella2009-01-01 23:09:15
Is the Hagia Sophia in Instanbul, now a museum, art or not? Would St. Peter's basilica, as designed by Michelangelo, remain art were it to be converted to a museum on a full time basis? If you can answer that question, then you have the answer to your anxious spasmodic question that keeps you awake and in great suspense at night. Actually, had you read, reflected and learned something from the forwarded dozen or so postings on views on art by various experts there would have been no need for the question and you would have spared yourself all that stressing suspense and anxiety. Be patient, control your anxiety and suspense and stay tuned for the next postings where I synthesize those views and draw some tentative conclusions; then you'll have material for some more shallow caricatures, bashing and even a gotya or two and/or a last silly line or two, and will sleep more soundly at night.

Sand2009-01-02 00:09:20
Yes or no, Paparella. A simple yes or no.

Sand2009-01-02 08:23:41
I appreciate your concern about my sleep, Paparella, but be reassured I have no doubts as to whether Gothic churches are art or not or whether a cathedral is used as a museum or a place of worship determines its place in art. For someone who claims to be a scholar you have presented very strong evidence that you have very little understanding of what you read and no discernible ability to come to your own conclusions from presented data and opinions. You have presented a few points of view as to the nature of art and clearly indicated that these frequently conflicting viewpoints have done nothing for you to obtain a personal viewpoint from which you can state your opinion as to what qualifies as art and what does not. My simple request for your view on the matter of whether Gothic cathedrals are art has consistently evoked only totally evasive replies which is an obvious confession on your part that all your perusal of other people's opinions has given you no clue as to what standards to accept. It is a sad exposure of your total intellectual confusion and cowardice. From our previous conversations you have more or less confessed you have no ability to internally evaluate and debate various viewpoints and thereby arrive at a personal viewpoint that you feel is substantial. Your intellectual cowardice is monumental and truly unfortunate in one who considers himself an educator.

Emanuel Paparella2009-01-02 13:21:19
Is that what the visiting night voices have suggested to you lately? You should know by now that every time you follow their advise to solve issues with aspersions and cowardly personal attacks you look like a fool and less and less credible.

Emanuel Paparella2009-01-02 13:58:36
Today's lead article on art may suggest a possible answer to your anxious question. But before you jump on your horse,sword in hand, for more personal attacks, be patient and wait until the summarizing article comes out and don't believe the visiting voices if they tell you they have seen it and is worthless; they have not seen it.

Emanuel Paparella2009-01-02 14:13:56
P.S. Much of today second rate culturally philistine journalism consists in reducing complex issues to a few second's discussion with the solution found in a simple yes or no. O tempora, o mores!

Sand2009-01-02 14:27:11
Still no answer. Why bother with an entire article when a simple yes or no would work wonders?

Emanuel Paparella2009-01-02 18:45:54
Point well proven, thank you.

Sand2009-01-03 07:09:14
No need to crow over your inability to answer a simple question.

Emanuel Paparella2009-01-03 13:45:46
In other words, why not join the contemporary philistines who solve issues by yer or no? Thanks, but no thanks. And now I wager that Mr. S. will want to post the last word or juvenile line to this. Be my guest.

Sand2009-01-03 17:21:47
Right on! Since you promised me the last word here it is. I asked you a simple question. "Do you consider Gothic cathedrals art?" You have fully indicated that you cannot say yes or no to that because you have not the faintest idea as to whether they are or not. Thank you for giving me the last word.

Emanuel Paparella2009-01-03 22:26:18
That last all important word on the issue will make you sleep better tonight, no doubt. But be careful of those visiting voices.

Sand2009-01-04 08:07:04
Well, Paparella, I see your word is not to be trusted even slightly. Not even as to the last word.

Emanuel Paparella2009-01-04 10:28:07
That is what is all about? Having the last word in a juvenile rethorical food fight in a third grade cafeteria? Grow up, it's about time. Besides, stop the belly aching, you got your last word on the issue. In fact you got the last word right from the beginning of my contributions when I realized that you were wholly incapable of arriving at a fair minded assessment of them.

Sand2009-01-04 10:49:51
But Paparella! Who is being juvenile? You generously donated the last word to me and yet you keep defiling your gift.
It seems Christianity has not improved your integrity.

Emanuel Paparella2009-01-05 06:35:11
That way you were gifted once again with an opportunity to cast aspersion on Christianity which lo and behold now is what I need for my integrity. Which way do you want it? Ah, the wonderful devious ways of rationalism!

Sand2009-01-05 08:44:42
It's not I who cast aspersions on Christianity for its tolerance and understanding of opposition but you who are refusing to behave as a good Christian with your vitriolic responses.

Emanuel Paparella2009-01-05 09:56:36
Indeed, anyone who refuses to submit uncomplainingly to a slandering bully is not a good Christian. How convenient for the bully.

Sand2009-01-05 10:44:38
Who am I to argue with Jesus Christ?

Emanuel Paparella2009-01-05 19:27:45
Indeed Jesus Christ was not a good Christian when he lost his cool and lashed out at the temple vendors. On the other hand had he gone along with that kind of corruption he might have spared himself a crucifixion. So the shallow caricaturist can have his famed chocolate cake and eat it took; condemn Christians for not being Christian enough (that is, turn the other cheek to his abuses) and at the same time go around condemnig Christianity for being a religion of losers and masochists. How clever, by half.

Sand2009-01-05 20:02:51
If I needed any proof of your mental illness it pops out in your insane horror of chocolate cake. Chocopsychosis, obviously.

Emanuel Paparella2009-01-05 22:22:23
The horror of chocolate cakes may be quite justified if a blue bottle fly (to which you have compared yourself recently)has been feasting on it. For it feast indiscriminately on many nutrients, not unlike the modern cultural philistine.

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