AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone


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PSYCH STUDY PROVES KANT RIGHT (AND WRONG) ABOUT BEAUTY

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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AARON MESKIN REMEMBERS PETER KIVY


Peter Kivy, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Rutgers University and an incredibly influential contemporary philosopher of art, passed away last week. See other announcements here, along with a statement from the Rutgers Philosophy Department. What follows is a guest post by Aaron Meskin, a former student of Peter Kivy’s.

Please feel free to share any stories, comments, or reflections below.

Differences: Remembering Peter Kivy

I met Peter in the early 1990s when I started my PhD at Rutgers. I didn’t really know about philosophical aesthetics before I moved to New Brunswick, and I certainly didn’t see it as a live career option. Peter’s seminars, and those wonderful aesthetics reading groups in the basement of Davidson Hall, introduced me to a field that would come to be the focus of my intellectual life. (Peter’s tutorial-style method of teaching, which required us to regularly read out short writing assignments, was incredibly helpful. He told us that when we were in the profession we would occasionally find that we had to produce a decent piece of writing at very short notice and that his class would be good practice. He was right, and it was.)  If it hadn’t been for Peter’s generosity, and the example he provided, I would have likely left the profession after an ill-fated attempt to work in another area. He was always supportive.

There were some limitations to our academic relationship, of course. I remember sometime during my time at Rutgers seeing an advertisement for a conference focused on faculty/student collaboration. Jokingly, I asked Peter whether we might collaborate. He was not keen. “I’ve never collaborated with anyone on anything up until this point, and I’m not going to start now.” Strictly speaking that wasn’t true. His first published article, “Stimulus Context and Satiation,” in the Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, was co-authored with two others. But that was published while Peter was still an undergraduate at Michigan. And as far as I know he never again co-authored a paper in 60 years. I suppose the world is not really worse for lacking a paper on absolute music and wordless comics.

“Peter was loyal to his students,
and he inspired loyalty in us.”

In any case, our relationship continued after I defended my PhD. Peter was loyal to his students, and he inspired loyalty in us. We met pretty regularly—he’d come and give another great talk in Lubbock or Leeds, or we’d see each other at an ASA meeting where he regularly arranged dinners with his former students. Or we’d get together, with his wife Joan of course, in New York or Santa Fe or London. He always had new work and a bit of advice.

I know that it’s tempting to focus on Peter’s contribution to the philosophy of music. His research shaped the field. (I found Music Alone especially memorable, but I know that Peter was particularly proud of his book on opera, Osmin’s Rage.)  His scholarly work on the history of aesthetics was also groundbreaking. Where would our understanding of the development of aesthetics be without The Seventh Sense and the rest of Peter’s work on Hutcheson, Hume, Reid and others? Not very far along, I venture. And his recent publications in the philosophy of literature have reinvigorated debates about literature’s cognitive value, reading, and form/content unity. I love teaching that work—and the responses to it—in my philosophy of literature courses. If you haven’t taught Peter’s work, I strongly recommend doing so. The clarity of his arguments and his lucid style make it ideal for introductory classes in aesthetics.

But it was Peter’s emphasis on the importance of paying philosophical attention to the differences between various art forms, as he discussed in his 50th Anniversary Presidential Address to the American Society of Aesthetics, and his 1997 CUP monograph, Philosophies of Arts, that made the biggest impact on me. As he put it in his address:

But I do urge, and indeed predict that progress in the philosophy of art in the immediate future is to be made not by theorizing in the grand manner, but by careful and imaginative philosophical scrutiny of the individual arts and their individual problems, seen as somewhat unique, individual problems and not necessarily as instances of common problems of some monolithic thing called “ART.”

Of course this sort of approach was just how Peter had worked throughout his career. He did do some work that might be characterized as ‘theorizing in the grand manner’, especially early on in his career. His first monograph was about aesthetic concepts, and there are two great articles on aesthetic emotivism. There is the award-winning 2015 monograph, De Gustibus: Arguing about Taste and Why We Do It? But most of his non-historical work involved careful and imaginative scrutiny of the individual arts of music and literature and the distinctive problems they raise. And he made a hell of a lot of progress over the course of a couple dozen books and many dozen articles. The work was original and, for many of us, exemplary.

“The work was original
and, for many of us, exemplary.”

I think Peter’s prediction has largely been proven to be correct. Significant progress in the philosophy of art has in recent years been made by careful scrutiny of the individual problems raised by film, poetry, dance, music, street art, comics, and videogames (among other things). Yes, even comics and videogames. Peter didn’t entirely approve, but he didn’t entirely disapprove either.

In fact, I’d go a bit further than Peter.  The differences between the arts are not the only differences to which philosophical aesthetics should attend. Thankfully, we are beginning to attend to those differences. But, of course, Peter did not think that philosophers of art should only pursue differences. He warns, in the epilogue to Philosophies of Arts, that it would be a serious mistake if the pursuit of differences ‘should become the monolith that the pursuit of sameness has been since the Enlightenment’. He’s right, and thankfully it hasn’t.  Work on sameness—most notably the definition of art—has been reinvigorated over the last few years.

We were very different. The oboe is not really my thing, and I don’t care so much for Manhattans. I prefer rap music to the western classical tradition. (Thankfully, he never heard me say that.)  I’ll probably never be able to tell a joke like him, and I’m certain that I’ll never write that many great books. Who will? But despite our differences, there were important areas of sameness. We shared a love of the philosophy of art, of the community of philosophical aesthetics and of the arts. I’ll miss being able to talk about those things with him. I’ll miss finding out about his new work.  I’ll miss his advice and his sense of humor. I’ll miss him.

Note on the contributor:

Aaron Meskin is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Leeds. He works on many issues in aesthetics, including experimental aesthetics, food, comics, as well as on the psychology and epistemology of aesthetics.


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PEPE IS DEAD! LONG LIVE PEPE? (BY ANTHONY CROSS)

What follows is a guest post by Anthony Cross, following new developments in the Pepe meme story: Pepe’s death!

Faithful readers of AFB will be familiar with the saga of the internet meme Pepe the Frog. (For those of you who missed it, my guest post on Pepe and the nature and value of internet memes is here.) The latest update: Pepe’s death! But first, a bit of background:

The meme started with a character created in a comic strip by the artist Matt Furie; the cartoon frog was then appropriated by users in online communities, where it developed over time into an enormously rich internet meme. In the last year or two, the meme has come to be associated with the alt-right and white supremacy; last fall, the Anti-Defamation League added it to their catalog of hate speech.

Until pretty recently, Furie had largely stayed out of making public pronouncements about Pepe’s racist associations. In a September 2016 interview, he told The Atlantic:

My feelings are pretty neutral, this isn’t the first time that Pepe has been used in a negative, weird context. I think it’s just a reflection of the world at large. The internet is basically encompassing some kind of mass consciousness, and Pepe, with his face, he’s got these large, expressive eyes with puffy eyelids and big rounded lips, I just think that people reinvent him in all these different ways, it’s kind of a blank slate. It’s just out of my control, what people are doing with it, and my thoughts on it, are more of amusement.

However, as the meme began drawing greater public attention, Furie decided to get involved. He began a “Save Pepe” campaign, the goal of which was to create and share “nice” images of Pepe. I suggested that Furie’s move implicitly recognized his lack of control over the meme. The only way to save Pepe, I argued, was not through authorial pronouncement, but rather practically; users would have to roll up their sleeves and get involved in the business of making and sharing Pepes.  By creating and propagating nice Pepes, they could gradually shift the standards of what counts as a Pepe, and move the meme’s meaning away from its current association with the alt-right.

So how successful was this campaign? Not very. Pepe remains the symbol of the alt-right, and the effort to save Pepe never really caught on. It’s hard to know exactly why. Perhaps it wasn’t well-publicized. Alternatively, the top-down nature of the campaign might have rubbed users the wrong way.

Regardless of its cause, this failure frustrated Furie. As a result, the artist recently “killed” Pepe; he released a comic strip featuring Pepe, dead in a casket, surrounded by his friends:

What should we make of this? Furie’s killing of Pepe doesn’t mean much for the future of the meme itself. As I argued previously, Furie doesn’t own the meme or have authorial control over it — even if he is responsible for the cartoon character who initiated it. The meme itself is a set of norms implicit in community practice, and the meme is therefore the property of the community responsible for its instances.

I think that, instead, we should view Furie’s act as expressive of his giving up on the meme; he is symbolically removing himself from the community of individuals creating and propagating instances of the meme. Pepe isn’t truly dead as a meme — but the meme is, for now, dead to Furie.

Furie’s action raises larger questions about the value of participation in particular internet memes: When is it worth it to stick with a meme and to try to save it from trolls who’ve taken it over? With most memes, the natural response would be to give up and shift one’s attention to new memes; generally, memes are evanescent things, with a half-life of weeks if not days. Pepe strikes me as different: given Pepe’s rich history and broad impact, it might seem worth fighting to reclaim the meme as part of our internet culture. (I suspect that similar questions arise in determining which artworks and cultural objects to preserve or restore against the ravages of time.)

Furie seems to recognize this, and even goes so far as to claim that the fight for Pepe may not be over for him. In a recent interview with the CBC, Furie pleaded for Pepe’s future and held out the possibility of his returning to the meme:

If you’re listening to this and you’re interested in the story — and especially if you have some kind of political sway or anything like that — like, step in and, you now, just tell your friends, neighbours, teachers, whoever else that Pepe is a chill, loving frog. Every moment is an opportunity to change people’s opinion, so I’m not gonna give up yet, but I’m gonna take a break, because it is some heavy stuff.

Notes on the contributor:

Anthony Cross is a Lecturer in Philosophy at Texas State University. His research in the philosophy of art focuses on the ethical significance of our relationships with artworks and other cultural objects. He has further research interests in ethics and the history of philosophy, and he also spends way too much time on the internet.


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JAAC x AFB DISCUSSION: HOLLIDAY ON THE PUZZLE OF FACTUAL PRAISE

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Why do we care about certain facts but not others when we evaluate fiction? Why do some things need to be accurate, but others not? Today we’ll be discussing these issues in “The Puzzle of Factual Praise” by John Holliday available in JAAC’s Spring 2017 volume, 75 (2), online here.

And big thanks to Christopher Bartel for providing the critical précis (below the fold). John offers a brief response, and they will both be available to discuss your questions and thoughts in the comments.

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INTRODUCING NEW WING COMMANDER: C. THI NGUYEN!

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We’d like to welcome to the AFB team our newest Wing Commander (“Assistant Editor” in AFB lingo): C. Thi Nguyen!

Here are some fun facts about Thi, so you can get to know him:

Current position: Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Utah Valley University

Background: Once I was a food writer and a restaurant critic for the LA Times. This nearly derailed my graduate school career. Then I had to choose between that and academia. Still unsure if I chose properly.

Philosophical interests: Trained as an epistemologist. Currently writing about game aesthetics and food aesthetics and even weirder aesthetics. Also, the epistemology stuff is still alive in a project on understanding how echo chambers work. Also: I swear all these interests are related.

Most recent publication: “The Uses of Aesthetic Testimony”, about all the weird kinds of trust relationships our aesthetic lives involve, towards our reviewers, teachers, curators.

Other hats: Chair of the ASA Diversity committee. A founding editor at the very-soon-to-be-actually-emerge Journal of the Philosophy of Games. Occasional interviewer [ed.: a power we are sure to harness Thi for here!]. New parent.

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Thi playing Thorny Games’ Sign RPG

Aesthetic passions: Completely boring and bog-standard literary, musical, and museum-type canon. But also: Tea. Rap. Weird perfumes that smell like rain drops on cold twigs in march.

Aesthetic passions that other people might deny are aesthetic: Rock climbing. Indie role playing games, like one where you have invent a sign language in total silence.

Biggest aesthetic failure: Trying for six years to become a jazz guitarist and failing utterly.

Welcome aboard, Thi!


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UPCOMING JAAC x AFB DISCUSSION: HOLLIDAY ON THE PUZZLE OF FACTUAL PRAISE

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Why do we care about certain facts but not others when we evaluate fiction? Why do some things need to be accurate, but others not? If you’re curious, come back in *one week* when we’ll be looking at “The Puzzle of Factual Praise” by John Holliday available in JAAC’s Spring 2017 volume, 75 (2), online here.

And big thanks to Christopher Bartel for providing the critical précis. John will provide a response to this, and they will both be available to discuss your questions and thoughts in the comments.

Mark it in your calendars, and we look forward to seeing you then!

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IS ALEX JONES REALLY A PERFORMANCE ARTIST? WHO CARES.

Performance art has always inhabited an ambiguous space between everyday behavior and marked-off ‘art’ behavior.

And now ultra-conservative Infowars’ Alex Jones says that his vitriolic on-air personality is performance art. He refers to a recent incident as “clearly tongue-in-cheek and basically art performance, as I do in my rants, which I admit I do, as a form of art.”

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screenshot from this video on Jones’ YouTube channel

Now everyone is talking about whether or not he’s a performance artist.

My first reaction is: Hell no. Performance art does not justify fake news or the awful stuff he says. (And really, “clearly tongue-in-cheek”? Is that the conspiracy theory stuff that’s tongue-in-cheek? Or is that the threat-laden, insult-ridden veneer that’s tongue-in-cheek? In either case it seems doubtful, given the clearly not tongue-in-cheek followers he’s amassed.)

But that’s actually not the direction of this inquiry. He’s engaged in a custody battle. He’s claiming that his aggressive Infowars persona doesn’t make him an unfit to parent his children.

So, wait, why does it matter if it’s performance art or not?

Attorney Randall Wilhite told state District Judge Orlinda Naranjo that using his client Alex Jones’ on-air Infowars persona to evaluate Alex Jones as a father would be like judging Jack Nicholson in a custody dispute based on his performance as the Joker in “Batman.” (link)

As far as I can tell the argument goes like this: If it’s performance art, then it’s all a show and deep down he doesn’t actually harbor these violent tendencies, so probably he doesn’t treat his kids the way he treats people on his show and stuff. But if it isn’t performance art, then he is awful and probably does threaten to break his kids’ necks and whatever.

Let’s all take a deep breath and do a little philosophy here.

Thesis: It doesn’t matter if it’s performance art.

Suppose it is performance art. That still doesn’t answer any of the questions one cares about. Maybe Marina Abramovic does stare in uncomfortable silence at people sitting across the table from her, even when she’s not in museums! So it’s still an open question whether, even if performance art, his behavior is any evidence of his personality outside his “art”.

But we can also raise the same questions even if the job in question isn’t some sort of performance art. Compare:

  • Someone who works at a slaughterhouse. Should we be concerned that they go home and slaughter their pets?
  • Someone who works as a social worker or therapist. Should we think they go home and constantly listen to their partner’s or children’s problems?

Does working at a slaughterhouse/being a therapist make these respective behaviors more likely? Maybe; maybe not. (I’m going to say not, at least in the former case…)

The point is: We don’t have to talk about performance art at all to think through those questions.

Is Jones’ Infowars persona evidence that he is a bad parent? This is where the real debate should be. And invoking performance art will simply not resolve that debate either way.

Conclusion: Maybe he is awful to his kids; maybe he isn’t. But the issue of performance art is neither here nor there, and is a ludicrous defense. But then again I’m no lawyer, just a philosopher. And maybe a performance artist, although I doubt it.

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GUEST POST: MARY-BETH WILLARD REVISITS FEARLESS GIRL STATUE

Mary-Beth Willard is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Weber State University. She works in metaphysics and aesthetics, and writes about street art, including an objectively absurd amount of time spent on the story of this little statue.

When I last wrote about Fearless Girl, I observed that the meaning of the little Bull-challenging statue will lie in its interaction with the public, who for the moment has claimed it as an icon of feminism, capturing the vivacity of little girls at that tender age where they still dare to dream.

fearless

Fearless Girl reportedly now has a permit through 2018, and this has angered none other than the creator of Charging Bull, Arturo di Modica, who has asked for Fearless Girl to be relocated, because it’s making his Bull into a villain.

Here’s a quick version of an argument on behalf of di Modica. Fearless Girl might have been intended by the artist and firm who commissioned her (It? She. Has to be “she.”) as a stunt aimed at promoting the hiring and retention of women in the financial industry, but that’s not how people reacted. She opposes the bull – she’s not riding it, after all – and the public has decided that they’re on her side. If she represents the power of girls, then the bull is now a beast that tramples them.  This substantially changes the meaning of Charging Bull, and the artist, who supports gender equality, does not want that. Given that both pieces are works of public art, he cannot simply declare that Charging Bull is not anti-feminist, because his declaration will mean nothing to the swarms of visitors who see the tableau. Thus, to preserve the meaning of Charging Bull, the Fearless Girl must stand down.

The ethos of street art, according to one influential account, commits artists implicitly to accept its ephemerality; once in the street, the artist should expect to have no say over what happens to it, because historically many works of street art were illicit, and would be removed.  The relevant contrast is supposed to be with sanctioned public art, which by way of having sought official approval, is historically afforded a degree of civic protection. Charging Bull has permission, and in the past has been protected from the threat of physical damage by civic authorities, so one question raised by this case is whether the implicit expectation of civic protection extends to the meaning of the work.

There’s also an ethical discussion occurring between the artworks, which arguably affects how we should view di Modica’s request. Curiously, both Charging Bull and Fearless Girl were presented as if they were street art: installed at night, under the cover of darkness. Charging Bull was even hauled off by the authorities before being rehomed two blocks south; there’s a case for it to be properly considered as street art that owes its permanence to its unexpected welcome reception. (Fearless Girl, the result of an ad campaign, had a permit.) In both cases, the intended meaning of the works were overwritten by the reaction of the public. The street decided that Charging Bull was a symbol of the financial district, and that Fearless Girl symbolized everything opposed to it.

In asking for the city to remove Fearless Girl, however, di Modica is saying that in this case, the street does not get to decide the meaning of his artwork. But can he succeed?  There is a limit to what an artist’s intention can establish – there’s no way to preserve Charging Bull as long as Fearless Girl stares it down. He might sue.

(So far, the mayor is telling di Modica to pound salt.)

But if Fearless Girl is so threatening that she must be removed, might she already have won the battle over the meaning of Charging Bull? Imagine the stories: The Charging Bull is so thoroughly identified with capitalism that the power of the state is called in to save it from a tiny ponytailed girl. We were here first, little lady. It was fine when we did it. Don’t you go trying to change the way things are done around here. Don’t take up space.

Will the bull become a bully?


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THE METAPHYSICS AND LINGUISTICS OF EMOJI

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screenshot from the comic “Want A New Emoji?” by Andy Warner

Some Philosophical Questions about Emoji

First, let’s be clear about what we’re talking about. “Emoji(s)” are things like this: [😀🤔], not emoticons like : ) or (T_T) or ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ or ㅇㅅㅇ. (Note: in this post, emoji will be flagged by square brackets so that if you can’t see them, you’ll at least know roughly what you’re missing.)

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Thank you, Wikipedia

A Brief History of Emoji:

  • introduced in 1995 by Japanese telecom company Docomo
  • first emoji: ❤
  • then, another 175 followed
  • 2011: Apple introduced them…
  • soon after, everyone else did too

See the awesome comic “Want a New Emoji?” by Andy Warner and this Vice video for more.

Now, some philosophical questions about emoji and my unsupported hot take on the answers.

Metaphysics

Are the different Apple-Google-Samsung emoji different emoji instances or genuinely different emoji? What is an emoji?

I guess the different emoji in the first image are probably just instances of one emoji, since emoji are individuated by their Unicode numbers and coarse-grained descriptions (like “Smiling Cat Face with Heart-Shaped Eyes” or [😻]). But then, the emoji isn’t itself just the number or just the description. Emoji are pictographs and Unicode numbers are not pictographs, nor are descriptions. So emoji need a particular pictographic manifestation.

Maybe it’s a type-token relationship or a determinable-determinate relationship. I bet it’s like whatever we call the relationship between a piece of music and its score. … Maybe. I have no idea; I don’t really do metaphysics.

Whatever we say, this seems pretty important:

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from “Investigating the Potential for Miscommunication Using Emoji“, a computer science and engineering study by Hannah Miller

Also, is : – ) the same as : ) ? Are these the same as (^_^)? And are these the same as ☺ and [😊]?

Yes, no, no. Or maybe: yes, yes, yes. But definitely not: no, yes, yes.

Language

Do emoji have semantic content? Can a string of (only) emoji be propositional? Are emoji words? Do they constitute a bona fide language?

Yep, I’m going to say they definitely have semantic content, although they are also used as a kind of prosody (e.g., to indicate sarcasm or other emotional punctuation). And sure, a string can be propositional. Here are two easy one-emoji string examples: [👍] or [🤝] = Sounds good, Okay, Deal. That said, it’s probably underdetermined in most cases, and most strings are, like all emoji, going to be highly subject to context, as well as idiolect or dialect variation.

Emoji can function as nouns (I want [🍕]) or verbs (I [❤] you) or interjections ([😲])… etc. Are they words? Well, I don’t know really what a word is, but Oxford Dictionaries* seems to think so, so let’s say yes.

The poverty of dedicated – or even roughly standardized syntax (e.g., I bet word order emoji order varies between SVO and SOV languages) is going to make calling it a language – at least a standalone one – pretty difficult, though. And can a system be a language if it has to be parasitic on another, standalone language? I would have thought no, but I don’t know. Maybe this is a counterexample?

*[😂], “Face with Tears of Joy”, was named Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year in 2015.

Now what?

Philosophers: really, NO results??

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We need to get on this. I guess that, for now, I will have to content myself with Language Log archives and other random amusing things online. [😂😂😂]

– Alex


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ARTISTIC REPRESENTATIONS OF PHILOSOPHICAL THOUGHT

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There’s a post over at the general interest philosophy blog Daily Nous that might be of interest to our readers. Susanna Berger, assistant professor of art history at the University of Southern California, has posted an excerpt adapted from her book, The Art of Philosophy: Visual Thinking in Europe from the Late Renaissance to the Early Enlightenment (Princeton University Press, 2017).

From Berger:

I show how their inventive iconography inspired new visualizations of thought in a range of drawn and printed sources, including student lecture notebooks, printed books, and alba amicorum (friendship albums). The book culminates with a new study of the celebrated frontispiece to Hobbes’s Leviathan. I argue that previous accounts of the print have failed to capture the full complexity of this etching and offer a new, if complex, account of this famous image—one which emphasizes the process of the state’s generation. Artists and philosophers invested significant amounts of time and money in the creation of philosophical visual representations and we must take these contributions to their thought seriously if we wish to understand their ideas in all their complexity and richness.

Check it out!

Image credit: 15th c. Italian engraving “Geometria XXIIII” from MET Collection