Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

Neuroscience & Appreciation: Very Funny Indeed…

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What follows is a guest post by William P. Seeley. William is a Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of New Hampshire. He will be teaching seminar in Aesthetic & Cognitive Science at Yale University in the fall of 2015 and a seminar in autonomous robotics and embodied cognition at Bates College in the spring of 2016. He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from CUNY-The Graduate Center, an M.F.A. in sculpture from Columbia University, and a B.A. in philosophy from Columbia University. His research interests lie at the intersection of philosophy of art, cognitive science, and embodied cognition. His welded steel constructions have been exhibited in New York City and at a number of colleges and university galleries.

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Big Wheel, Small Spring, Slightly Bent (2002) by William Seeley

Philosophers often say that the dimensions of art that matter will remain forever opaque to cognitive science. Neuroscience and psychology may help us understand how we perceptually engage with artworks, how we parse some aspects of their formal-compositional structure, recover their expressive properties, etc. They may provide some traction in understanding how we recover the melodic structure of musical works, the depictive content of images, or the mental and emotional lives of characters in narrative fictions. But, and here the philosophical folk tend to be emphatic, this explanatory strategy won’t help us with a range of questions associated with the normative dimension of appreciation. It won’t help us recognize or understand the artistically salient features of a work. It won’t help us understand why they are artistically valuable. And it won’t give us any traction in understanding the evaluative judgments that surround them. This latter point is really the crux of the matter. Buried in this rhetoric is an intuition that there is an evaluative dimension that is inseparable from our judgments about art and forever beyond the reach of psychology and neuroscience. 

The short version of this concern is that cognitive science traffics in causal-psychological explanations that are ill fit to the explanatory goals of philosophy of art. Appreciative judgments in art are judgments of fit between works and the range of evaluative conventions appropriate for their particular category of art. But the same neuropsychological mechanisms support our perception and understanding of both exemplary and atrocious artworks. These kinds of explanations don’t enable us to discriminate between works that are done well and works that are done poorly. As a result, they fail to reveal anything interesting about the appreciative conventions that define our concept of art in different contexts. They are equal opportunity explanations that exhibit a degree of generality good for psychology, but bad for philosophical aesthetics. 

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Road Runner Basking in the Sun (2002)

The contemporary grounds for this view can be traced back to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s posthumously published lectures on aesthetics (1967) and George Dickie’s (1962) paper, “Is Psychology Relevant to Aesthetics?” (see Carroll, Moore, & Seeley, 2102). Dickie asks us to imagine adjective matching and preference ordering experiments common in empirical aesthetics. In these cases, psychologists poll large samples of average (non-expert) consumers in order to tease out important facts about the nature of art. For instance, one might ask participants to match paintings to the kinds of descriptive adjectives experts use to describe them in art critical contexts. Or one might ask participants to sort a set of musical passages relative to their subjective preferences. We might find a significant correlation between the experts and average consumers in each of these cases. But, the interesting case is where we don’t. What do we do then? Dickie points out that deferring to the average consumer would be like polling toddlers about grammar rules. What matters in either case isn’t the agreement among the sample of participants. Rather, it is the prior reflective judgments of the experts used to set the scale —  the judgments of individuals familiar with the conventions governing practice in those contexts. No investigation of the psychological mechanisms underwriting the grammatical judgments of toddlers (or the appreciative judgments of average viewers) will reveal the appropriate conventions.

The following, often quoted, passages from Wittgenstein’s lectures on aesthetics are likewise explicit in their criticism of empirical aesthetics:

7. People still have the idea that psychology is one day going to explain all of our aesthetic judgments, and they mean experimental psychology. This is very funny – very funny indeed. There doesn’t seem to be any connection between what psychologists do and any judgment about a work of art… (Wittgenstein, 1967, p. 19).

8. Suppose it was found that all of our judgments proceeded from our brains. We discovered particular kinds of mechanisms in the brain, formulated general laws, etc…The question is whether this is the sort of explanation we would like to have when we are puzzled by aesthetic impressions… (Wittgenstein, 1967, p. 20).

Wittgenstein’s point is that we aren’t so much interested in the appreciative responses of consumers, in the immediate judgments they make, but in the reasons they give, the way they choose, the standards they use to make these judgments. For instance, the naïve viewer and the expert might equally appraise the gesture of a brushstroke. But one might see in it the exuberant energy of finger painting and an illustration of the inexhaustible hope of childhood. The other might see in it a trace of the history of expressive drawing, a thread to sort and organize a critical history, a way of understanding the salience of that noteworthy expressive gesture against a history of artistic practice. There are, as Wittgenstein asserts, “an extraordinary number of different cases of appreciation.” Both appreciate the work. But only one appreciates it as an artwork, only one associates the artifact with the set of conventions associated with artistic practices, with the language games of art. Think analogously of someone who says that they’ve seen Robert Morriss’ Rope Piece (1964) in the school gym.

Of course Wittgenstein takes things even a step further. He argues that “what belongs to a language game is a whole culture.” This suggests that the reasons given, that the the standards by which one chooses, the norms that constrain our evaluative judgments about art, cannot be explicitly given in isolation, cannot be given as atomistic causes, as individual cogs in an internalist, causal-psychological explanation. Rather, they can only be understood as emergent in the totality of the shared practices of a community. Likewise Dickie borrows a metaphor from Philosophical Investigations to describe the standards governing practice of artistic appreciations, “Appreciating works of art is an ancient and encrusted activity of men: it is…part of the old city in which the streets are narrow and crooked but nevertheless we know them well, although we often get confused if asked to describe them for someone or draw a map (Dickie, 1962, p. 300).

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Spring Loaded (2006)

The crux of the matter, to return to the present, is that evaluative judgments about artworks are modeled as post-perceptual judgments about the fit between what has already been seen or heard in a work on the one hand, and the normative conventions that define the appropriate category of art on the other. What differentiates the novice from the art expert is that art critical knowledge of these conventions enables the latter to differentially focus his or her attention, to select features of a prior, common perceptual experience of a work that match to the productive and evaluative conventions that determine its artistic value. The skeptics claim here is twofold. First, these cognitive processes are not appropriately modeled by the causal-psychological mechanisms that support our our perceptual engagement with the work. Second, what matters is the conventions, the prior standards against which we evaluate what we perceive in a work, not how we perceive it per se.

These are quite reasonable worries. However, I think a short discussion of current research in affective perception may forestall these concerns. Affective perception has traditionally been modelled as a direct affair, an unmediated psychological response to a special class of stimuli that naturally broadcast their behavioral significance or biological value (LeDoux, 1996; Pessoa & Adolphs, 2010). This model has been challenged in recent years. Lisa Feldman Barrett and her colleagues (2011) report a broad range of contextual effects in affective perception. Descriptions of a scene or social situation influence how perceivers identify, or categorize, emotional expressions, e.g. a scowl can be categorized as an angry or disgusted facial expression, how information is sampled from facial expressions in eye tracking studies , and even how we perceive expressive faces, e.g. situation descriptions can be shown to influence the way dynamic facial expressions are encoded in the early visual cortex. These effects generalize to individual differences in knowledge about perceived emotions, and extend to cultural differences in the general conception of the nature and significance of emotions and related behaviors. 

Luiz Pessoa and his colleagues (2002) have shown further that affective responses to emotionally charged stimuli depend on the availability of attentional resources. The amygdala is ordinarily used as an indicator of affective responsiveness to stimuli.  Covertly attending to the orientation of rectangular bars in a same/different orientation task eliminated amygdala responses to fearful and happy facial expressions, even though the participants in their study were fixating on the center of the faces.  

These data suggest that affective perception is not only influenced by, but may even be dependent on the availability of cognitive resources.

What explains cognitive effects in affective perception? Barrett and Moshe Bar (2009) suggest that the outputs of an affective processing system are integrated into unimodal perceptual processes via top-down projections form orbito-frontal cortex. The net result is a crossmodally integrated multisensory perceptual network. Their claim, consistent with a biased competition theory of attention (Desimone and Duncan, 1996; Kastner, 2004), is that a fast forward sweep of perceptual processing, at or about 180 milliseconds, is sufficient for a gist level categorization of a scene, object, event, action, or other agent (Greene and Oliva, 2009). This, in turn, drives a quick categorically appropriate affective response to stimuli that primes the body for action – approach or withdrawal. Top-down projections from prefrontal areas and orbitofrontal cortex then collect this bodily encoded  affective information and feed it back to sensory cortices, biasing perceptual processing, enhancing the perception of expected, behaviorally relevant targets and inhibiting the perception of potential distractors. These processes can be used to model attentional, contextual, semantic, and cultural effects in affective perception, and in perception more generally. 

The integration of an affective dimension into perceptually processing is a cognitive shortcut, a way of quickly encoding the biological value of a perceived object, event, agent, or action. How might this work? There is no such thing as a disembodied experience. Consequently, our knowledge of the world comes naturally paired with an affective dimension that encodes the biological significance, the affective value, of objects, events, agents, and actions. Barrett and Bar argue that affect is integrated into perceptual processing as a means to unpack and utilize this knowledge in object recognition and action selection. 

How would these processes contribute to our engagement with artworks? We can easily imagine how the integration of perceptual and affective processes might explain how we recognize and experience the expressive properties of artworks. One would expect, for instance, that depictions of figures and natural scenes would call on the same range of cognitive-affective processes as the stimuli employed in the experiments referred to above. Some gerrymandering might be needed to show how abstract works call on these same concepts and categories. But we can imagine that the expressionist qualities of abstract art ride piggyback on the same sets of categories and image features that drive perception in natural contexts, e.g. research in the psychology of music demonstrates a perceived relationship between the expressive qualities of biological movements and the expressive qualities of pure music that is underwritten by a shared set of psychological resources (Krumhansl, 1995; Chapados and Levitin, 2008; Vines et al, 2006). In other cases, following Barrett and Wittgenstein, we can imagine that our affective responses to artworks are artifacts of cultural context, of culturally bound standards, conventions, or associations governing behavior…just as is the case in garden variety affective perception.

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Abstract Forms in Motion (falling off the wall #7) (1990)

The normative dimension of appreciation is not far behind. Artworks are communicative devices, artifacts designed to elicit a response in viewers or  to convey some content. The trick is that there are no ideal target procedures for artistic expression in a medium. Rather, artists develop a myriad of productive strategies, formal vocabularies, and style through trial and error. What are the constraints on this process? Communicative success. The communicative expectations of the artist and ever-evolving, shared aesthetic conventions of his or her artistic community. These expectations and conventions , in turn, function as normative constraints on artistic appreciation. But more importantly, they determine the sets of productive practices, formal-compositional conventions, and evaluative conventions that define different categories of art. Categories of art emerge from the shared practices of artists and consumers. Knowledge of these sets of conventions, art critical knowledge of the normative conventions governing artistic appreciation for the relevant category of art, plays just the same role in object recognition as does knowledge of the structure and function of objects or events in any ordinary perceptual context – they drive our attention into, perception, and understanding of artworks.

What’s the rub for philosophy of art? Art critical knowledge shapes our perception of artworks just as knowledge of the structure and function of objects and events shapes perception in ordinary contexts. Likewise, the normative dimension of artistic appreciation is integrated into our perceptual engagement with art just as the affective value of any object or event is integrated into ordinary perception. Of course there is more to say…and even more to do. This is an empirical hypothesis. What I have sketched here is a schematic model whose detail and scope remains to be fleshed out. 

I close with a caveat. I can imagine someone might argue that this all misses the point. What I have detailed is the how, but not the why of the story. I have provided a mechanism for how the work of normative conventions might be implemented in our engagement with artworks. But I haven’t provided even a glimmer of a story for why these conventions bear their normative force. I think this criticism would be a mistake. Appreciative conventions in the arts bear normative force because they emerge from the shared practices within which they are embedded. They are part and parcel of the implicit negotiations of social behavior within a community. But I don’t have much more of a story to tell about that here. What I will say is that the how of all of this is far from trivial. Empirical models are concrete tools used in the natural and social sciences to generate predictions and test theories, a means to generate normative constraints on the acceptability of theories. They can likewise be used to generate normative constraints governing practice within philosophy of art. Here my suggestion that, if the model I have proposed is sound, we will have to reconsider yet another of the boundaries that have separated the practice of philosophy of art and psychology.


Barrett, Lisa F. and Bar, Moshe (2009). See It with Feeling: Affective Predictions during Object Perception. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Series B 364: 1325-1334.

Barrett, Lisa F., Mesquita, Batja, and Gendron, Maria (2011). Context in Emotion Perception. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20(5): 286-290.

Carroll, Noël, Moore, Margaret, and Seeley, W. P. (2012). The Philosophy of Art and Aesthetics, Psychology, and Neuroscience: Studies in Literature, Music, and Visual Arts. In eds. A. P. Shimamura and S. E. Palmer, Aesthetic Science: Connecting Minds, Brains, and Experience. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 31-62.

Chapados, Catherine, and Levitin, Daniel J. (2008). Crossmodal Interactions in the Experience of Musical Performances. Cognition 108: 639-651.

Desimone, Robert and Duncan, John (1995). Neural mechanisms of Selective Visual Attention. Annual Review of Neuroscience 18: 193-222. 

Dickey, George(1962). Is Psychology Relevant to Aesthetics? The Philosophical Review, 71(3): 285-302.

Green, Michelle R. and Oliva, Aude (2009). Recognition of Natural Scenes from Global properties: Seeing the Forest Without Representing the Trees. Cognitive Psychology 58: 137-176.

Kastner, Sabine (2004). Attentional response modulation in the human visual system. In Michael I. Posner, Cognitive neuroscience of attention (pp. 144-156). New York: Guilford Press.

Krumhansl, Carol L. 2002). Music: A Link between Cognition and Emotion. Current Directions in Psychological Sciences, 11(2): 45-50.

LeDoux, Joseph (1996). The Emotional Brain. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Pessoa, Luiz and Adolphs, Ralph (2010). Emotion processing and the amygdala: from a ‘low road’ to ‘many roads’ of evaluating biological significance. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 11: 773-782.

Pessoa, Luiz, Kastner, Sabine, and Ungerleider, Leslie G. (2002). Attentional control of the processing of neutral and emotional stimuli. Cognitive Brain Research 15: 31-45.

Vines, Bradley, Krumhansl, Carol L., Wanderly, Marcelo M., and Levitin, Daniel J. (2006). Crossmodal Interactions in the Perception of Musical Performance. Cognition 101: 80-113.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1958). Philosophical Investigations. New York: MacMillan Publishing Co.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1967). Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology, and Religious Belief. Berkeley, CA:  University of California Press.

One Comment

  1. Great article, Bill–thanks! You are leading the way for the rest of us, as usual.

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