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Aesthetics & the Sciences of Mind

John Greenbank asks if science can ultimately tell us anything about artistic experience.

The nature of beauty is one of the most enduring and controversial themes in Western philosophy, and along with the nature of art, is one of the two fundamental issues in aesthetics. Along with goodness, truth, and justice, beauty has traditionally been counted among the ultimate values. What would life be like if we could not respond to the beauty of sea and landscape, enjoy mind-transporting novels, admire great architecture and paintings, or be uplifted by the sound of words and music? Beauty was a primary theme among ancient Hellenistic and Medieval philosophers, and was central to Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century thought, as represented in treatments by such diverse thinkers as Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Hume and Burke in Britain, and by Baumgarten, Kant, Hegel and Schopenhauer in Germany.

Alexander Baumgarten (1714-1762) thought that the senses had their own rules and their own perfection, differing from logical rules and the knowledge generated by logical thought-processing. The rules of perception were to be studied by a science of perception, which Baumgarten called aesthetics, from the Greek for ‘to sense/perceive’. In 1739 he claimed in §533 of his Metaphysica that, “The science of this sensible knowledge and speaking is AESTHETICS (the logic of the lower cognitive faculty, the philosophy of the graces and the muses, a lower doctrine of knowledge, the art of thinking beautifully, the art of analogy to reason)” (my translation). This formulation leaves us with a mix of unassociated references: to science, logic, a ‘lower cognitive faculty’, philosophy, and to the ‘art of thinking beautifully’. ‘Logic’, in the tradition to which Baumgarten (and Kant) belonged, does not refer to a formal discipline, but to how a given mental faculty is to be exercised in the most efficient way – thus there can be a logic of sensibility. Such a logic must incorporate the findings of psychology, which for Baumgarten was a discipline that investigates the depths of the soul, that is, the source of our representations or experience. Baumgarten seems thence to adopt the traditional idea of beauty as ‘unity in variety’. Kant, who greatly respected Baumgarten, failed to disentangle these aspects.

Our sense of a breathtaking encounter is not like a process of rational thought, but is one of a significant disclosure, a sudden breaking-in to our awareness. We are inspired variously by feelings of devotion, gratitude, identification, admiration, joy, even of love. All such experience exemplifies Kant’s idea of imaginative ‘play’, perhaps to be interpreted as the human creative drive or creative response to the world. Even the more mundane aspects of our experience – form and balance, symmetry and completeness – are also component parts of aestheticism. And yet as a species we seem to take all this experience for granted; all as normal as breathing and sleeping.

Art Under Science

But now our aesthetic sensibilities are being brought under close ‘scientific’ scrutiny. Psychoanalysts, particularly Freud and Jung, delved into our deepest desires, and in doing so exposed unexpected psychological mechanisms and motives. However, these findings are being extended and transformed by cognitive science and neurology. Can its empirical findings be meaningfully related to aesthetic awareness? When science gets so involved, have aestheticians reason to feel uneasy? Philosophical thinking about aesthetics has been tied to the idea that philosophy’s business is primarily to analyse concepts. This approach contrasts with the methods of psychologists, sociologists, and even evolutionary theorists. How far should philosophers be responsive to the results of these studies? Should philosophers’ views on aesthetic values, interpretation, imagination, and the emotions of art, change in the light of scientific understanding? Aesthetics & the Sciences of Mind (2014) asks, “Are the traditional methods of philosophical aesthetics adequate, or should we supplement – even replace – them with some of the methods employed by the natural and social sciences?”

Aesthetics and science have progressed as separate fields of study for at least three centuries, but there is an apparent danger that academic ambition (hubris?) is currently inspired to bring everything into conformity with scientific methods. Neuroscience might be able to help to answer whether music and ballet are to be understood as providing essentially different types of aesthetic responses from, say, painting and sculpture, or whether the senses of hearing, seeing and touch provide aesthetically equivalent experiences. But does a scientifically experimentable entity such as a mirror neurone, or its activity, meaningfully match to anything described as ‘aesthetic’?

For there to be any meaningful relationship between aesthetics and the sciences of mind, all terms and categories used in comparing ideas between them must be at least congruent – they must mean the same thing in both domains. Congruency also requires that any new knowledge found must be consistent with whatever old knowledge we want to retain. Scientific enquiry contrasts with that of philosophical discourse. In philosophy, reason or reflection alone is used for deriving the truth or falsity of propositions. Whilst language, letters, words, truths, numbers, logic, and mathematics, all exist only in the mind, the primary source of scientific evidence is the senses.

Music is perhaps the most universal art form. We can appreciate melody, rhythm, harmonic texture and dynamic contrast as separate but correlated attributes of a single experience. Together they function as a complex language – the foundational ‘song without words’. From both a performer’s and a listener’s perspective, understanding of that language can certainly be deepened by increasing familiarity. After attending a concert we can discuss our experience with other listeners, sharing with them quite specific aspects of the performance, down even to the effect of individual passages. For this to be possible each person’s understanding must be first hand, at the level of personal disclosure; a direct, intimate experience, for which there can be no substitute.

So is it even conceivable that we could account for – and so ‘explain’ – the arts in terms of measurable responses, and outcomes that can be summarised in charts and graphs? And can the impact of a work of art be reducible to its components?

St Georges Major At Dusk
St Georges Major At Dusk by Claude Monet, 1908

The Authors’ Artistic Experiences

The contributors to this wide-ranging book bring various points of view to the central issues.

Dominic McIver Lopes sees social psychology as supporting the idea that reason plays no part in aesthetic judgement, and further, that post hoc rationalisations cause ‘distortion’ in that judgement. He implies (correctly) that it is not reasoning that provides aesthetic satisfaction, but he seems muddled as to whether critics can successfully rationalise their own experience of artistic works. If aesthetic appreciation is at least partly a matter of sufficient correct perception, then a psychologist must determine both when correct perception has occurred, and that it is in fact sufficient to comprehend the piece. Few great works of art necessarily make their effect on first encounter, but over a period of exposure and reflection. Conversation between two viewers of, say, the same painting, can result in a deeper perception of aspects of the work for both, without there being any resort to rationalising explanation. This is despite Lopes’ assertion that appreciation of a Monet painting involves ‘being aware’ of the features that ‘make it beautiful’. This is almost to replace, say, a feeling of (aesthetic) happiness with an assessment of the reasons for being happy.

In ‘Is Aesthetic Experience Possible?’, Sherri Irvin asks “what if it turns out that we don’t have introspective access to the processes by which our aesthetic responses are produced?” (p.37). Here again commentary on aesthetics is seen only at the level of post hoc rationalisation, as a scientific evaluation of artistic experience. But experiments on how consumers evaluate the quality of, say, soft drinks, hardly compare with experimentally analysing exposure to works of human creative achievement in painting, architecture or music. And one aspect of aesthetic analysis that is not evaluated in experiments is the transformative nature of the experience. How does it change us? A distinction is made between aesthetic experience and aesthetic appreciation, and a further distinction between mere appreciation and deep appreciation, involving, in the latter case, non-aesthetic components: “Deep aesthetic appreciation involves understanding of how the artwork achieves its effects.” This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of aesthetic experience, for which no rational explanatory components are directly contributory. It also undermines Irvin’s strong appeal to mindfulness as relevant to responding to “aesthetically relevant features” (p49).

David Davies’ ‘“This is Your Brain on Art”: What Can Philosophy of Art Learn from Neuroscience?’ repeats the old question of whether there is an aesthetic difference between a work of art and a forgery, and queries our responses to literary fiction, and the aesthetic significance of hearing old music performed on contemporary instruments. And can the intentions of an artist, a writer or a composer be frustrated by the unprepared reception of a work? Preparation, by for example, reading up about a painting or a piece of music before experiencing it, only facilitates the essential aesthetic process or event: it does not contribute to the aesthetic experience itself. So far as aesthetic response occurs or develops over time, rather than immediately and completely on initial exposure, any means of focusing attention on the artistic experience will be helpful; but this supplementary assistance is not ‘of one substance with’ the aesthetic experience itself.

A fundamental difference between the aesthetic and the scientific is that aesthetic phenomena should only be seen holistically – we cannot reductively analyse a work of art – whereas science breaks phenomena up into elements that have significance in themselves. This means that what science is looking for is quite different from what the art appreciator is looking for. So, whilst Davies explores the role of mirror neurons in response to fiction, he moderates his enthusiasm for experimental data by stating that “most of the significant philosophical issues cannot be resolved by appeal to this” (p.74).

Rembrandt self-portrait, 1660

In ‘The Limits of Aesthetic Empiricism’, Fabian Dorsch refers to two kinds of aesthetic principle: conceptual principles, such as balance; and what he calls default principles, such as elegance always being beautiful. But such aspects of beauty are not ‘components’ of art. Aesthetics is not atomistic. He’s mostly right that “empirical evidence cannot provide any non-inferential justification for aesthetic judgements”, but wrong about there being a parallel between an aesthetic response and, say, estimating the size of a crowd.

In ‘Portrait of the Artist as an Aesthetic Expert’, Christy Mag Uidhir and Cameron Buckner try to reframe the aesthetic theory of art (which refers to aesthetic features of an artwork) by claiming that instead of the piece of art holding any aesthetic quality in itself, it attains the status of art by virtue of its creation by an artist, who holds in mind an ‘aesthetic concept’. So we have a new pairing, not between “artworks and their aesthetic features but instead between artists and their aesthetic concepts” (p.125). They also argue that artists with training are more likely to attain the status of ‘aesthetic experts’ and have a better grasp of aesthetic concepts. The outlook is naïve: “What kinds of training or practice have expert artists received, and what role do aesthetic concepts play in their distinctive perceptual, motor, and conceptual abilities?” (p.130). Their conclusion puts the cart before the horse in demoting ‘aesthetic features’ of a work below a consideration of its production.

Perhaps the most stimulating contribution is ‘Seeing with Feeling’, where Jesse Prinz approvingly quotes C.I. Lewis’s idea that “the beauty of the rose is its form and colour.” This is a phenomenological viewpoint on beauty: beauty is not conceptual, but it can be seen. He considers such objections as the ‘Puzzle of Manifest Beauty’, whereby we do not (can not) register complexity phenomenologically. His conclusion is that “Beauty is not there to be seen, but there in the seeing” (p.156).

Other contributors to this book address relatively peripheral issues. So I would say that although there is no doubting the commitment and intellectual engagement exhibited throughout this book, the lack of secure critical foundations leads rather quickly to confusion and a deepening uncertainty, where explanations become too reductive, and what is important about the aesthetic experience gets explained away.

The Way Forward?

We can say that philosophy is concerned with ideas about ideas; science with ideas about things in the world and their relations; and aesthetics (along with ethics) with experienced emergent values.

We need a procedure to record, classify and associate agreement in matters aesthetic: the ‘greatness’ of art, the ‘beauty’ of a landscape, the ‘power’ of a musical composition. These may be given quantifiable values through established procedures of opinion polling and sampling. I propose that we refer to any consensus achieved in this process as ‘collective subjectivity’. Though more extreme forms of art must remain closed off to more people, I suggest, nevertheless, that a collective subjective evaluation can be used (with various degrees of confidence) to make quantifiable value judgements that are more than simply ephemeral matters of taste.

Might we now begin to answer Baumgarten’s concerns?

© John Greenbank 2017

John Greenbank graduated in Natural Sciences and English from Clare College, Cambridge, and in Mathematics from the Open University, and is a trained concert singer.

Aesthetics & the Sciences of Mind, eds Greg Currie, Matthew Kieran, Aaron Meskin, Jon Robson, OUP, 2014, 272 pages, £48 hb, ISBN: 0199669635

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