AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

PSYCH STUDY PROVES KANT RIGHT (AND WRONG) ABOUT BEAUTY

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There’s a discussion over at Daily Nous about a psychology study in which the authors:

confirm Kant’s claim that only the pleasure associated with feeling beauty requires thought and disprove his claim that sensuous pleasures cannot be beautiful.

So, they try to prove Kant right about beauty involving cognitive functions, but prove him wrong about sensuous pleasures. They also found in general that beautiful things yielded higher pleasure than purely sensual stimuli.

Pleasure amplitude increases linearly with the feeling of beauty.

(Well, it still reads better than Kant.)

So here’s the basic methodology.

Neither wishing to encumber our participants with philosophical baggage nor wishing to spoil the test by revealing our hypothesis, we left “beauty” undefined and simply asked the participant at the end of each trial: “During this trial, did you get the feeling of beauty from the object?” We used various stimuli: seeing a plain or beautiful image, sucking a candy, or a touching a teddy bear.

Some of the interesting results:

Roughly one-third of participants “definitely” experienced beauty from non-visual stimuli in trials without added task [designed to deplete executive functions], i.e., from sucking a candy or touching a teddy bear.

Turns out, sucking on a Jolly Rancher can be beautiful. They discuss these results in the section “The Beauty of Sucking Candy: Kant Disproved”. (I just wanted to call attention to that delightful section header.)

Reports of beauty for IKEA furniture were very rare.

😥

The final words of the study:

We thus demonstrate that psychological experiments can test philosophical theories and that mathematical models can describe aesthetic experiences.

If only Kant had been the type to enjoy a good hard candy now and then, or squeeze a teddy bear.

In all seriousness, though, what do you think? For most people working in art and aesthetics, it isn’t surprising that sensuous experiences can be beautiful. Lots of people work on this stuff now and lots of artists are exploring non-standard media and sense modalities.

But should we believe it to be true on the basis of this sort of research? What should we think about empirical aesthetics and neuroaesthetics? Does it trivialize the richness of aesthetic experience? Does it poorly operationalize our concepts? Or does it liberate us from our ivory tower? (If you’re curious about others’ thoughts, pop over to the discussion at Daily Nous.)

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