Explanation Explained by René Magritte

“Magritte said that one could not provide a valid explanation of something until one had explained that explanation.”

— Bernard Noël

SOURCE: Noël, Bernard. Magritte (New York: Crown, 1977), p. 52.

The workings of the mind are not yet fully known, and unlike some misguided people we refuse to believe they are. But what we do know for sure, as Descartes would say — and this is all the artist needs to go on — is that the mind is capable of imagining effects which it cannot explain.

It is important to emphasize that nothing is ever really “explained” in any area. In fact, what the explanation inevitably boils down to is a misleading paraphrase of the thing “to be explained”. The “explanation” of an apple on a table only ends in a review of the notions of botany, gravity, carpentry; the “explanation” of the earth turning round the sun can only be a list of astronomical calculations, etc.

The words “therefore”, “if”, “because”, etc., which are used in the language of explanation, are not explanatory terms, but merely “ways” of saying: “You can see that this more or less tallies with that” and no more. The functioning of the mind is perhaps knowable down to the last detail. Only when it is known will we be able to talk properly about “explaining” — that is, when we have explained “the explanation”.

SOURCE: “Battle of Wits” (1950, published 1971), in René Magritte: Selected Writings, edited by Kathleen Rooney and Eric Plattner, translated by Jo Levy with six pieces translated by Adam Elgar, preface by Sandra Zalman (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), pp. 128-132.  This quote: p. 131.

Note also Magritte’s remarks on philosophy (Descartes, Berkeley) and culture in a difficult social environment. He comments also on artistic technique, expression, and rebellion, on reception, misconstrual, and snobbery, and on the philistine notion that art is to be merely instrumentally socially functional. Magritte frequently commented discouragingly on attempts to ‘explain’ his art.

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Max Beckmann on Painting, the Intellect, the Senses, Individuality, & the Abstract

Reflexivity & Situatedness Study Guide

Magritte Study Guide: Links & References

Surrealism: Selected Links


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Addition 23 November 2023

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