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Beauty Under the Microscope

Kate Travers

ed. Greg Currie, Matthew Kieran, Aaron Meskin & Jon Robson
Aesthetics and the Sciences of Mind
Oxford University Press, 2014
£40 (hardback)
272 pages
ISBN: 9780199669639

Something big is happening in literary studies; something big and, for many people, something scary. The presence of so-called “cog-neuro” approaches, that is, the use of critical apparatus derived from the fields of cognitive science and neurology, is becoming increasingly ubiquitous. This adoption of methodologies borrowed from the sciences threatens to fan a still smouldering flame of resentment between the arts and the sciences. Why should literature be given over to the razors of reductionism? Why do we need to justify the arts in terms of measurable, recordable, normalised responses and outcomes that can be easily and succinctly plotted on a bell curve? Neurologists and cognitive scientists are not the only ones who have set themselves the task of unravelling the workings of the human mind, of course. Philosophers are also at the forefront of research into how our minds respond to aesthetic stimuli, including literature, and current research on this topic fuses analytic philosophy with elements of cognitive science, neurology, and evolutionary biology.

This volume, edited by several of the most prominent names in the field, explores how we respond to both visual and literary art by amalgamating these approaches in a collection of essays which summarises some of the most pressing issues in philosophy of aesthetics. On the face of it, the philosophy of aesthetics might not appear to be something that affects most people in the course of their daily lives. However, although not addressed to the general reader, this collection deals with questions which arise from relatable, day to day experiences: How can we explain that instantaneous feeling of knowing that something is beautiful? Why do we respond emotionally to the situations of characters we know to be fictional? What makes graffiti “art”? For anyone who has ever stopped to ask themselves what exactly it means to be enjoying a Rothko in a gallery, or rooting for Frodo Baggins and the other members of the Fellowship, this book will contain something of interest.

The perennial question “but is it art?”—which rears its head once a year, around the time of the Turner Prize—often leaves both critics and the general public at a loss, with nothing more than a casual shrug of the shoulders by way of an answer. One common response to this problem is: “it’s art because I say so”. Christy Mag Uidhir and Cameron Buckner show, in their ‘Portrait of the Artist as an Aesthetic Expert’, why this might not be such a dismissive response as might first appear.

Mag Uidhir and Buckner place the question of intentionality at the centre of their notion of the aesthetic; instead of the aesthetic object holding any intrinsically aesthetic quality in itself, the object attains the status of art by virtue of its creation by an artist, who holds in her mind an “aesthetic concept”. They also argue that the notion of inspired artistic genius is a myth, maintaining that artists with training are more likely to attain the status of “aesthetic expert” and have a better grasp of aesthetic concepts. However, building an ontology of art on the foundation of the artist’s intention is by no means a fool-proof resolution to the problem of what constitutes art. Many would argue that intention does not regulate the reading and reception of a work.

“Aesthetic concept theory” provides a method by which the object can be elevated to the status of art. Bence Nanay, on the contrary, argues that this tendency to present art and aesthetics as mutually dependent might be where the problem lies for the discipline. In ‘Philosophy of Perception as a Guide to Aesthetics’, Nanay turns the philosophy of aesthetics on its head. Nanay suggests that, in fact, many of the perennial problems faced by the philosophy of aesthetics can be solved by treating aesthetics as another branch of the philosophy of perception (“aesthetics”, of course, comes from the Greek verb aisthánomai, meaning “to perceive”). Nanay, first of all, takes care to distinguish philosophy of art from philosophy of aesthetics. Art provokes more than simply aesthetic response; it raises questions of a political, ethical and epistemological nature, which philosophers of art must also seek to address. For Nanay, art and the aesthetic should be considered philosophically separate entities. So why does philosophy of perception provide a more productive framework for investigating questions of aesthetic experience? Perception encompasses far more than simply receiving sensory impressions of an object; Nanay parses the process of perception to reveal its ‘non-sensory’ aspects, such as “categorisation”, “conceptualisation” and “mental imagery”. As aesthetic experience involves these same elements of cognitive processing, Nanay arrives at the conclusion that philosophy of aesthetics and philosophy of perception share more common territory than is widely acknowledged.

The disciplinary specificity of some of the material in the collection, however, seems likely to limit the ability of that work to immediately “travel” beyond the boundaries of philosophy. Jonathan M. Weinberg’s essay, ‘All Your Desires in One Box’, is a rigorously argued, meticulous mapping of the concept he calls “desire-like imaginings”. This notion deals with the kind of double-think involved with viewing works of art, particularly tragedy, that entail us seemingly wanting a “good” character to flourish and live happily until the end of their days, when in fact we know, because we are dealing with a tragedy, that we also want to see that character perish. Weinberg’s argument is delineated via the medium of box diagrams, hence the title. This style of notation is succinct and aptly encapsulates a complex argument such as this, but it does impose disciplinary limitations on work which has a great many applications in numerous fields.

The authors and editor of the collection are aware of the wide-ranging impact that this volume and others like it are having. The potential application of concepts drawn from aesthetics to literary studies is foregrounded on several occasions, including Stacie Friend’s essay ‘Believing in Stories’. Friend combines both experimental data and the premise of a Gettier problem (a paradigm used to explain how we can make a judgement that is factually correct, but based on faulty evidence) to evaluate the degree of trust placed in information presented in fictional texts.

If this collection makes one crucial methodological point, however, it is this: there is no one way to fuse philosophy and the sciences of mind. For example, in ‘The Arts, Emotion, and Evolution’, Noël Carroll uses evolutionary biology to explain, in unexpected ways, why making art might be evolutionarily advantageous. There is also no way to uniformly evaluate the faith that philosophy as a field places in empirical methods. Kathleen Stock, in ‘Psychology and The Paradox of Fiction’, argues that “the whole point of appealing to science is to bring some sort of speculation-free authority to a set of empirical claims.” On the other hand, in ‘”This is Your Brain on Art”: What Can Philosophy of Art Learn from Neuroscience’, David Davies explores the role of mirror neurons in creating affective responses to fictional texts, but tempers his enthusiasm for experimental data by stating that “most of the significant philosophical issues cannot be resolved by appeal to this work.” Aesthetics and the Sciences of Mind vividly renders the heated debate surrounding the status of experimental methodology within the field.

In brief, this collection is not simply a summary of the most respected current interdisciplinary research into aesthetic perception designed for philosophers; it also provides a valuable insight into the debates surrounding cog-neuro approaches to the arts and aesthetics, as they appear in the discipline of philosophy. It is a reminder for those in literary studies that the questions posed by this most recent collision of the humanities and the sciences cannot simply be reduced to a case of scholars of culture battling against men and women in white coats. Philosophers are also dealing with the dilemmas created by incorporating various sciences of mind into their field. The range of opinions presented in this volume is illustrative of the breadth of this often polarised debate and makes it evident that, while empirical data can be tremendously useful, it doesn’t hold all the answers.

In terms of impact within its field, this collection is emblematic of the fact that Greg Currie et al. have, over the years, created a dynamic new branch of their discipline which continues to gain respect and attract attention. Perhaps the interdisciplinary approaches presented in this volume could be thought of as one that mirrors philosophy’s former position as a natural science; this position implies that philosophy, as one of humankind’s greatest tools for understanding the world, should enter into a dialogue with empirical methods, in order to increase understanding. After all, that’s what philosophy has always, historically, sought to do: help us understand the world and ourselves as subjects within it.

Kate Travers [1] is reading for a PhD in Italian literature at New York University. She also reviews music and books for The Line of Best Fit and the Oxonian Review.