You’ve read one of your four complementary articles for this month.

You can read four articles for free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please SUBSCRIBE!


Print Print

Email Email

Email Discuss

Facebook Twitter Reddit Google+
StumbleUpon Pinterest Delicious Digg

Does the Philosophy of Art Have a Mind/Body Problem?

Christopher Perricone says that the short answer is “Yes” and the long answer is this article.

Many books about art and the philosophy of art include discussions of artistic materials. By artistic materials I mean the stuff from which the work of art emerges. Stuff such as limestone, marble, water or oil based pigments, words, tones or bodily movements. Discussing artistic materials for the sake of understanding and appreciating works of art has a long history. Here are a few famous examples:

1. In The Theory of Literature by Welleck and Warren, there is a section entitled ‘The Intrinsic Study of Literature.’ There the authors write: “... it is necessary to distinguish between words in themselves, aesthetically indifferent, and the manner in which individual words make up units of sound and meaning, aesthetically effective. It would be better to rechristen all the aesthetically indifferent elements ‘materials’, while the manner in which they acquire aesthetic efficacy may be called ‘structure’. This distinction is by no means a simple renaming of the old pair, content and form. It cuts right across the old bounda ry lines. ‘Materials’ include elements formerly considered part of the content, and parts formerly considered formal. ‘Structure’ is a concept including both content and form so far as they are organized for aesthetic purposes. The work of art is, then, considered as a whole system of signs, or structure of signs, serving a specific aesthetic purpose.” Welleck and Warren go on to discuss works of literature as systems of signs serving aesthetic purposes, touching upon topics such as rhythm, meter, imagery, and so on.

2. In The Story of Art, E.H.Gombrich writes: “To carry out his intention of holding up the mirror to reality in all its details, Van Eyck had to improve the technique of painting. He was the inventor of oil painting.... [He found that] if he used oil instead of egg, he could work much more slowly and accurately,… which astonished his contemporaries and soon led to a general acceptance of oil-painting as the most suitable medium.” Gombrich then goes on to extol the aesthetic qualities of ‘The Betrothal of the Arnolfini,’ a work both ‘magical’ and ‘revolutionary.’

3. In Aesthetics, Monroe Beardsley writes: “Duration, intensity, timbre and pitch are the basic qualities of tone, but tones also have dependent qualities: they differ in dullness and lightness, as a thud differs from a squeak, in location in phenomenal space – the low tones seem to come from lower down – and in volume, for they may be described as thin, thick, heavy, confused, as taking up more or less of phenomenal space.” Beardsley goes on to discuss rhythm and tonality, all of which is a set up for the later discussion: ‘The Meaning of Music.’

These examples all illustrate the classic distinction between art materials and art experience. However, it is crucial to my argument that it is not constrained by any art/critical theory whether it be classical, modern, or post-modern. Nor is any art/critical theory immune to my critique. The reason is that whenever, wherever or however art occurs, you have an ‘artist,’ someone who goes through a process of making or performing, working with materials of some kind, and you have an ‘audience,’ i.e. someone who goes through a process of appreciating or experiencing that object or event. It doesn’t matter to my argument whether you adhere to any of the people mentioned or whether you adhere to the theories of Aristotle or of Luce Irigaray. Given the relationship of artist and audience, discussions of artistic materials seem to be both preliminary and crucial to understanding issues such as the ontological status of the work of art, its uniqueness, its relationship with other art forms, its representational character, its expressiveness. Implicit in discussions of artistic materials is that they are both the elements and the causes of higherlevel aesthetic features, such as the characters of the literature one loves, the balance of color on canvas, or the sweet and plaintive airs which suggest better times long ago and far away. Thus, many believe that understanding the nature of artistic materials, and perhaps a bit of artistic technique, is a necessary condition for a full art experience – and again, that is regardless of what aesthetic theory you buy.

Mind and Body

The model of the relationship between artistic materials and art experience shares some essential similarities with the scientific model of the relationship between the body and the mind. The body is analogous to artistic materials and mind is analogous to art experience. I don’t want to say that this analogy is perfect. However, I think it is illuminating. It reveals that the relationship between artistic materials and art experience faces some of the same serious problems faced by the mind/body problem. Just as some philosophers have suggested re-thinking the mind/body relationship, perhaps it is time to re-think the artistic materials/art experience relationship as well. Let’s take a look at some of John Searle’s ideas to see how the philosophy of art might have a mind/body problem. Searle, who is one of today’s best-known philosophers of mind, says that he and his colleagues in that field face the following problem. How do we square our commonsense picture of ourselves as conscious, free agents with our scientific conception of the world as entirely material and mindless? Or, as he puts it in his 1984 book Minds Brains and Science, “How can an essentially meaningless world contain meanings?” The problem for the philosophy of art is similar. Although the work of art is obviously not conscious, aesthetically one wants to say it is something more than the materials of which it was made. We want to say that it was formed by a conscious, free agent, that it is sometimes representative of that agent’s world, and that it is expressive of the agent and his world. Like the mind/body problem the artistic materials/art experience problem is: How can an essentially meaningless world contain meanings?

Searle says in order to account for the relationship between apparently different kinds of things, we need to hold onto the “intrinsically mental character of mental phenomena” and the intrinsically corporeal character of corporeal phenomena, and then show how to put them together into one. Essentially what Searle wants to do is what philosophers of art want to do. Like Searle, the latter want to talk about the intrinsically nuts-and-bolts characters of words, pigments and tones, then talk about the intrinsically aesthetic qualities of them, and then, if not show, strongly suggest that there must be a relationship between them.

Searle demonstrates the relationship between the body and mind by appealing to how the natural sciences explain the relationship between the micro and macro worlds. “Just as the liquidity of the water is caused by the behaviour of elements at the micro-level, and yet at the same time is a feature realised in the system of micro-elements, so in exactly that sense of ‘caused by’ and ‘realised in’ mental phenomena are caused by processes going on in the brain at the neuronal or modular level, and at the same time they are realised in the very system that consists of neurons…” In short, notwithstanding property differences, just as a glass of water is fully understood by seeing that liquidity is caused by and is a higher feature of the behavior of H2O molecules, so is a person fully understood by seeing that mental phenomena are caused by and are higher level features of brain physiological phenomena. I should emphasize, the same is true, according to many, of the work of art, for to understand fully the work of art one must see that its aesthetic features are caused by and are higher features of its material elements and ground.

Searle thinks he resolves the mind/body problem by understanding the processes. All understanding is in the details. However, has Searle provided us with all the details? Although these are problems I cannot fully examine here, surely one wants to know how we get step by step from the micro to the macro world; how do we get step by step from axons and dendrites to intentionality and self-consciousness? It is not even clear to scientists how we get from H2O molecules, which are not wet, to systems of H2O molecules which are. No doubt one has an animal faith that the macro world is caused by and is a higher feature of the micro world. But that puts us back to square one.

The scientist Sir Arthur Eddington (1882-1944) would have disagreed with Searle. Like Searle, Eddington spoke of the micro and macro worlds. Unlike Searle, Eddington was not convinced that the micro and macro worlds were merely two ways of talking about the one ‘real’ world. He asked: “Are they (the micro and macro worlds) not really two aspects… of one and the same world? Yes, no doubt they are ultimately to be identified after some fashion. But the process by which the external world of physics is transformed into a world of familiar acquaintance in human consciousness is outside the scope of physics. And so the world studied according to the methods of physics remains detached from the world familiar to consciousness…” (from Eddington’s book The Nature of the Physical World) Searle thought that modeling the solution to the mind/body problem on how science solves its problems would be a way of demonstrating the relationship of the mind and body. Eddington suggests that the problem is beyond “the scope of physics,” that the appeal to science here does not work.

If there is any analogy between artistic materials and art experience on the one hand and the body and the mind on the other, one wants to know: So what exactly is the relationship between discussions about “words in themselves, aesthetically indifferent,” and discussions about the higher aesthetic features and experiences of literary form, representation, and expression? What exactly is the relationship between discussions of water colors and oil, and discussions about the higher aesthetic features and experiences of visual form, representation and expression? Can it be explained at what point the artistic materials of any of the arts emerge into aesthetic qualities and then into the art experience which I live? Is there an intractable dualism in philosophy of art?

Closed Minds

Things only get worse. Colin McGinn argues in a paper in Mind (‘Can We Solve the Mind-Body Problem?” 1989) that in fact the mind/body problem cannot be solved, in principle. Like Searle, McGinn wonders: “How can technicolour phenomenology arise from soggy grey matter?” Unlike Searle, McGinn doesn’t think “we can ever specify what it is about the brain that is responsible for consciousness.” I wonder whether we can ever specify how artistic materials are responsible for aesthetic qualities and art experience. What underlies McGinn’s claim is ‘cognitive closure.’ “A type of mind M is cognitively closed with respect to a property P (or theory T) if and only if the concept-forming procedures at M’s disposal cannot extend to a grasp of P (or an understanding of T).” This means, in English, that given minds are biological products of evolution, they come in different shapes and sizes with different powers and limitations. As McGinn says in English: “What is closed to the mind of the rat may be open to the mind of a monkey, and what is open to us may be closed to the monkey.” Put simply, we can do algebra and write history and monkeys can’t. McGinn cautions, however: “... such closure does not reflect adversely on the reality of the properties that lie outside the representational capacities in question; a property is no less real for not being reachable from a certain kind of perceiving or conceiving mind.” In other words, just because I can’t think it doesn’t necessarily mean it doesn’t exist.

McGinn has an animal faith that the relationship between mind and body is natural; he just thinks we are cognitively closed to demonstrating it: “We are biased away from arriving at the correct explanatory theory of the psychophysical nexus.” To solve the mind/body problem, assuming that the mind has a natural and material basis, we would need to discover some “property P, instantiated by the brain, in virtue of which the brain is the basis of consciousness.” Furthermore there would have to exist “some theory T, referring to P, which fully explains the dependence of conscious states on brain states. If we knew T, then we would have a constructive solution to the mind/body problem.”

There are two possible ways in which to solve the mind/body problem. One is by introspection and the other is by study of the brain. Neither way seems adequate to McGinn. As far as introspection goes: “We have direct cognitive access to one term of the mind-brain relation, but we do not have such access to the nature of the link. Introspection does not present conscious states as depending upon the brain in some intelligible way.” As for studying the brain, the problem is: “the property of consciousness itself (or specific conscious states) is not an observable or perceptible property of the brain.” Hence “no form of inference from what is perceived can lead us to P.” Hence the psychophysical nexus we seek is also cognitively closed.

Art Materials and Experiences

Just as one cannot, in principle, identify the psychophysical nexus of the mind/body problem, one cannot identify the ‘psychophysical nexus’ of artistic materials and art experience. To paraphrase McGinn: so, what is that property possessed by the artistic materials in virtue of which they are the basis of aesthetic qualities and experiences? And if one cannot identify that property, perhaps it is because one is cognitively closed to it. Like the mind/body case, we don’t seem to have access to ‘psychophysical nexus’ of artistic materials and art experience. Again, to paraphrase McGinn: art experience itself could not be introduced simply on the basis of what we observe about the artistic materials and their material effects. As in the mind/body case, we know that artistic materials are the de facto causal basis of art experience. We just have no understanding of how. Just as we have an animal faith that axons and dendrites are causally related to the experiences of thirst and of making choices, so we believe that the material elements of a Shakespeare sonnet or a Rembrandt self portrait are the causal basis of the aesthetic qualities we experience in those works. However, when we try to nail down the ‘psychophysical nexus’ of artistic materials and art experience, we seem to be swinging from the same dilemma faced by McGinn.

If one studies the characteristics of artistic materials and techniques, one will understand the various ‘engineering’ problems artists have faced. It is an illusion, however, to think that one is then in a better position to interpret and criticize works of art, in short, to appreciate works of art to the fullest extent. There is no reason to believe that you will have understood better what the work of art does to you, the transformations you might undergo. Aesthetic qualities are mental qualities, hence the appreciation of works of art is contemplative, as so many philosophers of art have argued. If so, it seems preposterous to introduce into any talk about essentially philosophy of art issues, i.e. issues of form, representation and expression, any talk about artistic materials, since such talk seems irrelevant to the phenomenology of art. The phenomenology of art is not about physical stuff. It is about our thoughts and feelings, our fantasies and imaginative play, our responses to our natural and cultural milieux. The art experience is my soliloquy, my chance to think and to feel more clearly about myself, my relationship to others, and my place in the world. Interpretation, criticism, all the aspects of aesthetic judgment and appreciation are about the inner us that is only accessible through introspection. Perhaps it might matter in some pragmatic sense what changes in brain physiology produce what changes in consciousness. But what does it matter to art experience, even in a pragmatic sense, whether or not that experience is produced by words, wood, or stone? No doubt one has an animal faith that different artistic materials produce different effects, just as one has an animal faith that chemical changes in the brain produce different phenomenological effects. However, in neither case does knowledge of the material side of the equation help in understanding the intrinsic character of the phenomenological side, or the connection between the two sides. At best, only other experiences will help. And, of course, in the case of art, the experience is the thing.

What Is To Be Done?

If there is an intractable mind/body problem in the philosophy of art, so what and what then? First, you should give up thinking that understanding anything about artistic materials, techniques, and their respective histories is a necessary condition for a better understanding and appreciation of works of art. Reading Vitruvius on architecture, Alberti on painting, Tovey on music, Lessing on the scope and limitations of artistic media, D.W. Prall on aesthetic analysis... or the legion of others who talk their quasi-techno talk will in no way be instructive for predicting what might be the character or quality of art experience. This is not to say that such knowledge is without value. Just as no one would argue that studying the brain is without merit, no one would argue that studying artistic materials, artistic techniques, and their histories are without merit in their own right. What I am arguing is that no amount of such knowledge will tell you anything significant about the nature of art experience. Second, it might be wise to simply give up studying the history of art. This may sound excessive. However, since so much of the history of art is a discussion of origins: how one artist learns from another, how one artist either accepts or rejects the burdens of his or her tradition, one has to ask on what side of the equation does history of art land: on the material or the art experience side? It seems that much of the history of art is concerned with artistic materials, techniques, influences, what in the broad sense I call ‘engineering’ problems. And even though the overall intent of these discussions is to provide the reader with information which will prepare him for the art experience, it seems that the art historian does little to examine and to judge the intrinsic character of art experience. After reading a lot of art history, I’ll have a fund of information at my fingertips, more or less. Besides names and dates, I’ll know how to identify styles and trends and how they evolve; I’ll know about the social, political, religious, and financial powers which bankrolled the great periods of artistic output; I’ll know something about the joys and the sufferings of the artists themselves. However, it doesn’t seem plausible that after merely stocking up on art history information, I will have any deep feel for art or be better able to appreciate a masterpiece. And I am not alone here. For reasons other than the philosophy of art’s mind/body problem, Roger Fry and Clive Bell on the visual arts, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate and R.P. Blackmur on literature, and other ‘purists’ in the history of aesthetics and criticism are also skeptical about the place of art history in respect to art experience. (See especially Art, by Clive Bell, Capricorn, 1958) Of course, notwithstanding my agreement, in principle with ‘purists,’ my claim is: given the mind/body problem in the philosophy of art, even if art historians possess the most noble intent, that intent will inevitably misfire.

Finally, maybe to understand and to appreciate art experience better we ought to return to Descartes; not to Descartes the dualist, but to the meditative Descartes. Thus without giving up an animal faith in the natural ground of art experience, we may examine that experience undistracted by extra aesthetical concerns. We should examine the poem qua poem and what it does to us. We should consider the work of art as self sufficient and autonomous, focusing on, rather than diverting our attention away from, the experience of it, how it speaks to us through its ‘mental phenomena’, its themes and symbols, its ambiguities and tensions, its ironies and paradoxes. We should seek to develop the introspective and meditative skills which will sharpen our powers of perception, interpretation, and criticism, those same introspective and meditative skills which will refine and deepen our thoughts and feelings, as well as enhance our expressions of them. To discover the significance and complexity of our responses, to express their peculiarity and concreteness, that is the ideal, as it were the song of our experience. By shifting the focus away from art materials, techniques and history, one is aiming beyond the snags and mudslinging of metaphysics and of politics, at the making of art experience itself, of recreating art, and thus keeping art alive.


Christopher Perricone is a Professor at Iona College in New Rochelle, NY, and an Adjunct Professor at Baruch College, City University of New York.


This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy.