Cognitive Theories of Art

Nick Gaskill and I have been reading some classic works of aesthetic theory, including Nelson Goodman’s 1976 Languages of Art (Hackett Publishers) and Suzanne Langer’s 1942 Philosophy in a New Key (Harvard UP).  Both Goodman and Langer are committed to a cognitive account of art. By cognition is meant our apprehension of the world.  Art, for them, is a mode of apprehension.  But, from there, it gets fuzzy, complicated, and increasingly implausible very quickly.

The stakes are clear—and I am 60% sympathetic with the cause that Langer and Goodman struggle to advance.  Basically, we are on familiar turf: the defensive insistence on art’s value in a world that seems to find its claims on our attention negligible.  Langer quite explicitly accepts the reigning logical positivist accounts of truth, knowledge, and propositional logic of her day.  But then insists that there is another way of knowing that art embodies and that logical positivism misses.  “Now, I do not believe that ‘there is a world which is not physical, or not in space-time,’ [quote from Bertrand Russell], but I do believe that in this physical, space-time world of our experience there are things which do not fit the grammatical scheme of expression.  But they are not necessarily blind, inconceivable, mystical affairs; they are simply matters which require to be conceived through some symbolistic schema other that discursive language.  And to demonstrate the possibility of such a non-discursive pattern one needs only to review the logical requirements for any symbolic structure whatever. Language is by no means our only articulate product” (88-89).

Langer is committed to 1) an assertion that we can “conceive” of matters relevant to (derived from) experience in non-discursive forms, and 2) that art deals in such non-discursive forms and 3) thus offers us a way to apprehend things that the discursive misses. Hence art is valuable because it is another way of knowing–and one that provides access to information we cannot gain in any other way. (Trouble is, as I am going to discuss, it is not clear that art, even by her account, is distinctive in that way.)

There are “different types of symbolic mediation” (97).  She offers us two basic types: the discursive and the presentational.  “In the non-discursive mode that speaks directly to sense . . . there is no intrinsic generality.  It is first and foremost a direct presentation of an individual object.  A picture has to be schematized if it is to be capable of various meanings.  In itself it represents just one object—real or imaginary, but still a unique object.  The definition of a triangle fits triangles in general, but a drawing always presents a triangle of some specific kind and size.  We have to abstract from the conveyed meaning in order to conceive triangularity in general.  Without the help of words this generalization, if possible at all, is certainly incommunicable” (96, Langer’s italics).

There is a puzzle here—and I can’t decide if it is a deep one or a trivial one.  Presumably, we have direct sensual experience.  So it seems that leaves us with two alternatives when it comes to Langer’s notion of presentational symbols (and of what art does).  Either 1) art is just another instance of direct sensual perception (the artist just creates a new thing for her audience to perceive) or 2) the audience’s perceptual experience of the art object is a different kind of experience than ordinary perception.  The answer to this puzzle must lie in the word “symbol.”  Are everyday perceptions symbolic—or is it only the perceptions that art offers that are symbolic?

It is clear what is at stake for Langer in arguing for presentational symbolism: the widening of the scope of rationality and cognition beyond the strictures of logical positivism.  “The recognition of presentational symbolism as a normal and prevalent vehicle of meaning widens our conception of rationality far beyond the traditional boundaries, yet never breaks faith with logic in the strictest sense.  Wherever a symbol operates, there is a meaning; and conversely, different classes of experience—say, reason, intuition, appreciation—correspond to different types of symbolic mediation.  No symbol is exempt from the office of logical formulation, of conceptualizing what it conveys; however simple its import, or however great, this import is a meaning, and therefore an element for understanding.  Such reflection invites one to tackle anew, and with entirely different expectations, the whole problem of the limits of reason, the much-disputed life of feeling, and the great controversial topics of fact and truth, knowledge and wisdom, science and art.  It brings within the compass of reason much that has been traditionally relegated to ‘emotion,’ or to that crepuscular depth of mind where ‘intuitions’ are supposed to be born, without any midwifery of symbols, without due process of thought, to fills the gaps in the edifice of discursive, or ‘rational,’ judgment” (97-98, Langer’s italics).

What a tangle!  In the first passage I quoted, art offers us a “direct presentation” of something.  Langer appears to desire an unmediated, immediate realm of apprehension that she calls “presentation”—and which is contrasted to the mediated and abstracted conceptualizations that discourse (with its inevitable reliance on generalizing terms) offers.  But then presentations are also to be understood as “symbols,” which ties them as well to conceptualization (and to logic).  With conceptualization comes “meaning” with its corollary “an element for understanding.”  Presumably, understanding is tied to cognition.  In the second passage quoted, the argument leads to “judgment” as the mental capacity exercised in the encounter with the presentational symbol. 

The very next paragraph (I have not skipped anything here) gives us a better sense of what Langer thinks judgment is/does—and ties to judgment to knowledge.

“The symbolic materials given to our senses, the Gestalten or fundamental perceptual forms which invite us to construe the pandemonium of sheer impressions into a world of things and occasions, belong to the ‘presentational’ order.  They furnish the elementary abstractions in terms of which ordinary sense-experience is understood.  This kind of understanding is directly reflected in the pattern of physical reaction, impulse and instinct.  May not the order of perceptual forms, then, be a possible principle for symbolization, and hence the conception, expression, and apprehension, of impulsive, instinctive, and sentient life?  May not a non-discursive symbolism of light and color, or of tone, be formulative of that life?  And is it not possible that the sort of ‘intuitive’ knowledge which Bergson extols above all rational knowledge because it is supposedly not mediated by any formulating (and hence deforming) symbol is itself perfectly rational, but not to be conceived through language—a product of the presentational symbolism which the mind reads in a flash, and preserves in a disposition or an attitude?” (98, Langer’s emphasis).

Judgment for Langer, apparently, is what makes sense of “the pandemonium of sheer impressions.”  We need to do some basic abstracting, some sorting of our sense impressions into kinds or into analogies with other impressions, to attain any understanding.  I think (relying on this and other passages in her book) that she, in Kantian fashion, builds this abstracting, this “formulization,” into the very act of perception. For example: “Our merest sense-experience is a process of formulation. . . . [T]he world of pure sensation is so complex, so fluid and full, that sheer sensitivity to stimuli would only encounter what William James has called . . . ‘a blooming, buzzing confusion.’ Out of this bedlam our sense-organs must select certain predominant forms, if they are to make report of things and not of mere dissolving sensa. . . . An object is not a datum, but a form constructed by the sensitive and intelligent organ, a form which is at once an experienced individual thing and a symbol for the concept of it, for this sort of thing”(89, Langer’s italics).

Thus, it is not clear that she actually allows for any distinction between “ordinary sense experience” and its symbolization (abstraction).  The two occur simultaneously; the “fundamental perceptual forms” are always already there.  Intuitive knowledge happens in a flash; there is no discernible gap between perception and the act of judgment that gives that perception “form.”  And it symbolization has always already occurred, there is no “direct perception” of the unique object; that object has always been apprehended through the lens of an abstraction that sees it as one of a larger kind (the “sort of thing it is”). 

Nick and I have also been reading Brian Massumi (and I will get to him in posts to come)—and he is committed to the quest for certain forms of immediacy.  Certainly, much art since 1890 has tried to by-pass mediation in an effort for an innocent perception, a perception out from under received cultural forms and meanings and categories.  Langer isn’t quite there; she builds mediation (symbolization) into presentation.  She does so because she believes that “symbols” are “vehicles for the conceptions of objects” (60-61)—and an object that has not been conceptualized is, quite fully and literally, meaningless.  You might say that we have “to know” what we are perceiving.  Otherwise, we are lost in “the pandemonium of sheer impressions.,” William James’ bedlam. A symbol, after all, is not the thing itself.  But perception of the thing itself without the “vehicle” of the symbol cannot register cognitively.  Such pure perception would be the sheer nonsense that is the bugbear of logical positivism. 

In trying, then, to rescue a non-discursive presentational mode from logical positivism’s narrow understanding of reason and knowledge, Langer goes too far.  How so?  Because if she builds symbolization into perception itself, then it is unclear what distinctive role is left for art.  Even if we grant that art (at least the arts apart from literature) are non-discursive and thus an avenue for meanings and understandings not accessible in discursive, propositional modes, there seems to be nothing that distinguishes art from ordinary perception.  What do we do differently in art from the spontaneous symbolization that accompanies apprehending things in the world?

[An aside: Langer uses the terms “meaning,” “understanding,” “judgment,” “reason,” and “knowledge” very loosely—as if they were synonyms.  All of them, quite clearly, belong firmly in the realm of cognition on her view.  But I still need to sort out for myself if I think that “to know the meaning of a sentence” is distinct—and how—from “knowing that my car is not running because it ran out of gas.”  In other words, are “meanings” a distinct quality of things as contrasted to “causal explanations” or acquaintance (“I know him”).  We can stand, it seems to me, in multiple different relations to things—relations that ordinary language characterizes as “knowledge” of those things—and “meaning” is only one of those multiple possible relations.  Jumbling them all up under the general rubric of “knowledge” or “reason” is not helpful.  From which it follows (as Langer presumably agrees) that there are also different modes of “cognition” (coming to “know” something)—and art might name one of those modes.  That’s what a cognitive theory of art aims to establish.]

Langer digs the hole she is trying to escape even a bit deeper. Not only does she have to show that art’s presentational symbols do something that ordinary perception does not, but she also insists that we need to have a way to distinguish good art from bad art.  (See 207-208.)  Langer’s solution to this double problem is to extol “perfection of form” (208).  Art is distinguished from ordinary perception by its abstraction away from the sensible (sensuous) particular things.  “’Artistic meaning’ belongs to the sensuous construct as such” (208).  That is, art is sensuous, but in a way that calls our attention to “the construct” not to the thing (or things) the art object offers to perception.  “It exhibits pure form not as an embellishment, but as its very essence. . . . [T]he meaning of art belongs to the sensuous percept itself apart from what it ostensibly represents” (209).

If this is the case, then what is the cognitive content art is delivering?  What does the apprehension of form enable us to know?  What meanings does it convey—or allow us to grasp?  Langer takes music as her primary art form because it is most fully distanced from representation, from “content.”  Langer’s position is that music is “about” feelings, but it is not a representation of feelings.  “If music has any significance, it is semantic, not symptomatic.  Its ‘meaning’ is evidently not that of a stimulus to evoke emotions, nor that of a signal to announce them; if it has an emotional content, it ‘has’ it in the same sense that language ‘has’ its conceptual content—symbolically.  It is not usually derived from affects nor intended for them; but we may say, with certain reservations, that it is about them.  Music is not the cause or the cure of feelings, but their logical expression; though even in this capacity it has special ways of functioning that make it incommensurable with language” (218).

The basic idea is that music abstracts from particular emotions to reveal the fundamental form  (particularly its rhythms, duration, unfolding, and entwined relations among various elements) of an emotion.  Music has “genuine conceptual content” (219).  “[M]usic is not self-expression, but formulation and representation of emotions, moods, mental tensions, and resolutions—a ‘logical picture’ of sentient, responsive life, a source of insight, not a plea for sympathy.  Feelings revealed in music are essentially not ‘the passion, love or longing of such-and-such an individual,’ inviting us to put ourselves in that individual’s place, but are presented directly to our understanding, that we may grasp, realize, comprehend these feelings, without pretending to have them or imputing them to anyone else” (222).  The cognitive pay-off is made clear here. 

And Langer fully understands that it requires what she calls “psychical distance,” a term she borrows from Edward Bullough.  Here is the traditional idea that knowledge requires “reflection,” and a distance between the knower and the thing known.  Immersion is dangerous, messy, inchoate, and over involved.  This commitment to distance (as Bourdieu outlines in Distinction) goes hand-in-hand with the elevation of form over content, and with the disparagement of popular art as offering cheap thrills in place of more subtle contemplative pleasures.

“[T]he hall-mark of every artistic ‘projection’ of experience . . . does not make the emotive contents typical, general, impersonal, or ‘static’; but it makes them conceivable, so that we can envisage and understand them without verbal helps, and without the scaffolding of an occasion wherein they figure (as all self-expression implies an occasion, a cause—true or imaginary—for the subject’s temporary feelings).  A composer not only indicates, but articulates subtle complexes of feeling that language cannot even name, let alone set forth.  He knows the forms of emotion and can handle them, ‘compose’ them” (222).

I am sympathetic to an “articulation” understanding of the arts—and that is why I am attracted to cognitive theories.  We “know” something better after an artist articulates it for us.  That “something” may be contents (feelings, beliefs, commitments, values, intuitions) that were fairly inchoate before our encounter with the clarifying work of art.  And I am happy to say that articulation can come in non-discursive modes when the art is question is music or painting or other varieties that use non-linguistic media.  I can even get on board with saying that such knowledge as the arts import has it uses.  Perhaps it allows us to better grasp our own commitments; perhaps it lets us see meaningful connections or patterns that hadn’t previously occurred to us.  In some cases it might even change our understanding of some thing (here we get to more rhetorical understandings of art, a topic I’d like to consider).

But where I get stuck is Langer’s elevation of form over content (notice how the word “form” gets snuck into the last sentence of the passage I just quoted).  How is making certain emotional experiences “conceivable” a matter of form, not content?  And why does it preclude my being marched through those emotions as part of the experience of the art work?  I am inclined to a more Stanley Fish-type “surprised by sin” approach.  The art work sees me submitting to an emotional process that it also provides me the resources to (eventually) reflect upon.  It is this doubleness that distinguishes art works—and that doubleness has less to do with form than with the “fictional” nature of art.  If there is a “psychical distance,” then that distance is provided by our knowing in some part of ourselves that this experience isn’t “real.”  We have these emotions (you’ll laugh with him, cry with him), but they are “make believe.”  And like the experiment in the lab, which is also “controlled” and distinct from actual life processes, the art work can tell us something about the “real world.”  But I don’t see how that something it tells us is only and purely “formal.” 

It all comes down to what is meant by form.  I think form is simply the way various elements are arranged.  A skillful artist will arrange her materials in a way that maximizes their impact.  The recent  movie version (2019) of Little Women offers an interesting example.  From any straight-forward story-telling point of view (not to mention how the source novel tells its story), the film was overly complex.  Its arrangement of its various incidents jumps around wildly in time and is potentially disorienting.  Any viewer unfamiliar with story would be very confused.  But that was Greta Gerwig’s (the writer and director) salvation.  Her arrangement is parasitic on the assumption that the story was familiar to her audience.  Thus she did not have to prioritize that audience’s ability to follow the plot line—and could achieve a variety of other effects through her formal tricks.  But it seems crazy to me to then claim that those formal tricks are the sole focus of the true art appreciator, or the sole criterion for judging the film’s success or failure.  The formal tricks were clearly adopted in service of various meanings, emotions, values that Gerwig wanted to convey.  The content that she desired to deliver is what gives the formal tricks their point.  Otherwise it is just an empty exercise in cleverness.

Now Langer clearly thinks that knowing “the forms of emotion” (222) has its benefits.  But without a much more specific statement about what those forms are, I am at a loss.  To say, for example, that the emotion of grief has its rhythms and its stages—and that music can gives us a feel for them—is not nothing.  But such a statement (or such a presentation in a work of music) abstracted from the content of grief is close to senseless.  Which, Bourdieu would say, is the point: to get as far away from the sense as possible into a world of pure intellect.  That isn’t exactly where Langer heads.  Instead, she wants to make sure the sensuous is “conceptualized.”  Only then can it become something we can cognize, something that can be invested with meaning, and become an object of knowledge.

I’ll get to Goodman and Massumi is future posts.

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